Executive summary

England (United Kingdom) has faced a slowdown in labour productivity growth in recent years and has a relatively high level of income inequality. Moreover, the COVID-19 crisis hit vulnerable groups more strongly, exacerbating pre-existing inequalities. England has long recognised that a skilled workforce is essential to overcome its economic challenges. In particular, ensuring workers possess strong basic skills (see Chapter 1 for the definitions of basic skills) can lay the foundation for them to develop more advanced and vocational skills, increase their job quality and effectively respond to changes in the labour market. Recognising this, England has implemented an impressive set of measures aimed at helping workers upskill: the National Skills Fund which is integrating the National Retraining Scheme (and Career Learning Pilots and the Flexible Learning Fund, to inform the design of future skills provision), the reformed Functional Skills and new essential digital skills qualifications and basic skills entitlements, to name a few.

This report explores how England could raise the basic skills of workers. Currently, many low-skilled adults and their employers lack motivation to engage in learning. This report analyses the reasons for this, lays out England’s key initiatives to address these factors, and provides England with good practice examples and recommendations to help overcome these obstacles. The analysis is based on an assessment of workers’ skills and learning patterns according to the 2012 OECD Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC) and national data, evidence about basic skills policies across OECD countries, responses from the English Department for Education to an OECD questionnaire, bilateral interviews with various stakeholders and an expert workshop in England (see Annex B for details).

According to PIAAC data, an estimated 9 million adults in England have low basic skills; 5 million of whom are in work. Low-skilled workers are not homogenous, but with some patterns. Adults with low levels of education, with low-educated parents or from migrant backgrounds are likely to be low-skilled. The wholesale and retail, health and social work, and manufacturing sectors have the largest numbers of low-skilled workers. While not large in absolute terms, the transportation and storage sector has the highest concentration of low-skilled workers. Despite these patterns, identifying low-skilled adults remains challenging. For example, only one in five low-skilled workers has at most a primary education qualification – most have mid-level education and a quarter have higher education.

Relatively few low-skilled adults participate in education and training overall, and a declining number participates in basic skills programmes. For now, most employers of low-skilled adults do not provide basic skills training. The reasons for this are many, varied and complex. According to available evidence and insights provided by experts in England consulted during this project, many workers and employers lack time and resources due to other responsibilities; but also, they are not convinced of the need for or benefits of training. Improving awareness about, access to and the effectiveness and relevance of basic skills development will be necessary for raising the skills of low-skilled workers in England.

To be motivated to engage in learning, low-skilled workers (and their employers) must be aware of their skills gaps, the costs and consequences of these gaps, and the potential benefits of (and opportunities for) addressing these gaps through learning. Over the years, England has achieved many success stories and built up relatively rich evidence on the benefits of basic skills. Yet many low-skilled workers and employers in England appear to remain unconvinced of the need for or value of investing in basic skills. Furthermore, they are unaware of the programmes and public support available to them. Several factors explain this. England used to have a clear and shared vision for raising basic skills, establishing this as a national priority – this needs to be revived. The currently used tools and services for identifying and understanding the needs and learning goals of low-skilled workers (and their employers) could be improved. High-quality, targeted guidance and information to low-skilled workers (and their employers) could be made more readily available.

This report recommends that England:

  • Set and promote the vision for raising basic skills of low-skilled workers.

  • Identify and understand the needs of low-skilled workers, with improved analytics and assessment tools.

  • Provide targeted guidance and information to low-skilled workers and their employers.

To benefit from learning opportunities, even motivated workers need to overcome sizeable barriers. These barriers are mostly time- and cost-related. Despite the government’s commitment to removing cost-related barriers by increasing funding and providing basic skills entitlements, participation in basic skills continues to decline, as time-related barriers remain. Currently, relatively little basic skills training occurs inside England’s workplaces – in the context and at the time that low-skilled workers can best access them. Offering basic skills programmes flexibly in terms of delivery and design can reduce time-related barriers. Training leave can also help in reducing the barriers, but SMEs – where most low-skilled adults work – are currently not covered by the legal right to training leave. Neither workers nor employers have access to financial support for taking training leave.

This report recommends that England:

  • Expand the basic skills provision within workplaces.

  • Expand the supply of flexible basic skills programmes.

  • Extend training leave entitlements to low-skilled workers in SMEs, while compensating SMEs.

Basic skills training relevant to and impactful on jobs will be more attractive. Low-skilled workers report that job and career benefits are the main reason they engage in learning, according to PIAAC. Overall, the evidence on the relevance of basic skills programmes in England is limited and mixed. OECD analysis of the 2017 and 2019 Employer Skills Surveys, Ofsted reports and relevant data suggests that publicly funded basic skills programmes have faced quality problems. Workers’ and employers’ perceptions, and data on learners’ post-training outcomes provide a mixed picture about the relevance and effectiveness of basic skills programmes. Finally, low-skilled workers’ skills are not being used effectively in workplaces or consistently leading to career improvements.

This report recommends that England:

  • Tailor basic skills content and programmes to vocational contexts.

  • Strengthen the capacity of further education teachers to deliver flexible and tailored basic skills.

  • Use and reward basic skills more effectively in workplaces.

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