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Skills for Life 2021 to 2031

Research , Maths , ESOL , English , Digital Skills
Skills for Life Strategy 2021-2031

A new strategy for English, Maths, ESOL and digital: Learning from the past to improve the future – recommendations for Government, employers, funding agencies, the FE Sector and teachers.

This reflection and action plan has been written by a collective of practitioners and sector leaders who were either part of the original Skills for Life team and/or are contributing to the agenda now. They are proud of their contribution in helping adults to improve their life chances and were motivated to reflect on what worked in the past, in the hope the next generation of activists can take the agenda on.

Key recommendations

What can be done to turn the tide and increase adult participation and achievement?

Building on the success of Skills for Life and drawing on existing best practice, the Government, providers and intermediaries should revitalise their approach and embrace:

Collective leadership

Government, funding agencies, intermediaries, colleges, Adult Community Education and other providers, together with teachers, should commit to raise participation in adult English, ESOL and maths in a way which enthuses and grabs attention, just like it did 20 years ago.

New strategy

Following through on its commitment to funding the basic skills entitlements in the 2021 White Paper ‘Skills for Jobs’, the DfE should create a new Skills for Life strategy for English, maths, digital and ESOL provision. This should sit alongside Skills for Jobs and be recognised as vital element in improving productivity, creating a dynamic economy and ensuring individual life chances.

Underpinning delivery plan

The DfE, with its delivery partners, should co-develop and co-own a new delivery plan that ensures adult basic skills is prioritised in the new skills development plans.

Whole-government approach to delivery

As part of the implementation plan, DfE should take the lead and bring together the main government departments who either commission adult skills, such as the Department for Work and Pensions, or would benefit from the nation’s skills being improved, such as the Department of Health.

Regional and national infrastructure should fund and promote basic skills

As spending is being devolved, so is the responsibility for ensuring that adults are aware of their entitlements. Government and the Mayoral Combined Authorities should work together to manage national and local campaigns, including national advertising, so that they build and feed off each other with consistent messaging.

Enhanced workplace and unemployment offer

Before Covid -19 many of the adults needing to improve their skills are typically in the workplace. The workplace should become a learning environment with more providers delivering in employers’ premises. The impact of Covid-19 has been greater on those with poor skills, and the national recovery plan should prioritise learning basic skills as part of a recovery training offer including basic skills of English, maths, digital and ESOL in the workplace.

Rebalancing the post-18 funding envelope

In response to the post-18 funding review, Government should rebalance the post-18 spend so that adults who were failed by the schools system have a second chance to acquire the basic skills they need for life. DfE should resource and renew its efforts to persuade the Treasury of the importance of sustained investment in preparing people for life and work.

Establish a realistic funding level

ESFA should take immediate action to rebase the funding levels for English, maths and ESOL. The present rates have remained static for over 10 years and do not reflect the complex needs of learners and apprentices, or the expected quality requirements.

Revise and clarify the ‘stepping stone’ concept of funding

To ensure that colleges, ACE and other providers can continue to meet local basic skills needs, they need to maintain the flexibilities of entry points. The current approved qualifications in the funding system for ‘legal entitlement’ should be revised to either include non-regulated learning or recognition that the ‘stepping stones’ qualifications for English and maths enable learners to pick up learning as needed.

A quality offer

Colleges, ACE and other providers, if funded properly, are capable of doing the right thing. All provision, including the newly

development online offer, should include:

  • pre-course assessment
  • diagnostic assessment
  • individual learning plans
  • delivery though different/appropriate sets of learning options, including the use of digital
  • good relevant learning resources
  • good practice embedded in vocational learning settings
  • regular feedback and assessment leading to recognised qualifications including GCSE
  • clear progression routes, and
  • be underpinned by trained, qualified teachers and support staff.

Supporting the front line

Although colleges and providers in general are delivering good or outstanding provision, many say that the learning materials for adult basic skills are dated and need to be revised. The Skills for Life and other resources are still available on the ETF website and are well used. The new delivery plan should make provision for updating or developing new materials for teachers and learners.

Clear signposting to courses

Prospective learners are often unclear where to go to find a programme that meets their needs. There should be a central point of contact via the National Careers Service website and providers should be supported to give point of entry advice and guidance. The new skills development plans should provide clear pathways for adults wishing to pursue courses in English, maths, ESOL and digital.

Use of the media

To stimulate increased participation, the new strategy should include a media campaign using television and other media outlets. The Skills for Life television adverts were controversial at the time, but they did the trick and nudged many reluctant adults into learning. There is a desperate need for something similar that lets prospective learners know they are entitled to free provision.

Universal roll-out of family learning

Enhance funding for family learning and start a universal roll-out which would better prepare families for any future disruption to the flow of learning.

Review the role of GCSEs

Going forward we need to stop the flow of young people reaching adulthood with poor basic skills. We therefore need proper, open review of the role of GCSEs in English and maths. We need to find better ways to help every young person build strong literacy, numeracy, digital and wider citizenship skills through their statutory education – enabling them to enter adulthood confidently and able to carry on learning throughout life.


Teachers and managers are working hard to do their best for adult learners, but the infrastructure that supports them is disintegrating. If further investment and changes are not made, participation and achievement will continue to decrease, productivity will continue to be lower than that of our competitors, and the social consequences and dependencies on the state will continue to rise. It is time for Government and the Mayoral Combined Authorities to take the reins and invest in those adults who need education the most.

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