2. Raising awareness about workers’ basic skills in England, United Kingdom

To be motivated to engage in learning, low-skilled workers (and their employers) must be aware of the nature and extent of their skills gaps, the costs and consequences of these gaps, and the potential benefits of (and opportunities for) addressing these gaps through learning.

Individuals can have both intrinsic motives to engage in learning (e.g. learning for its own sake or socialising) and extrinsic motives (e.g. economic benefits, obliged by law or employer, professional, personal). Evidence suggests that low-skilled learners in particular tend to be motivated to engage in learning more by extrinsic motivators (e.g. career progression or better pay) than by intrinsic motivators (e.g. personal aspirations for learning) (Windisch, 2015[1]). Internationally comparative data such as the OECD Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC) and the European Union (EU) Adult Education Survey also show that the biggest motivation of participating in training is the improvement of job and career prospects (OECD, 2019[2]). Raising awareness about these extrinsic benefits is essential for motivating low-skilled workers to learn.

Employers may be motivated by the need to address skills shortages; retain talented workers; improve productivity, creativity, innovation and profitability; or meet legislative requirements. To be convinced of its value and be willing to invest in training despite its cost and the time off required, employers will want to know the impact of basic skills provision in terms of productivity, staff turnover, and staff understanding of health and safety information. Employers want to see concrete results after employees complete basic skills courses, such as improved communications, higher levels of understanding of safety and health guidance, and ultimately higher levels of productivity. They also want to know how long it will take to recoup investment in basic skills training (Reder, 2015[3]).

Employers also require reassurances about other concerns. For example, returns to basic skills training may not be clear to workers or employers, compared with either training for high-skilled workers or technical skills training. Although the returns to literacy and numeracy proficiency of low-educated workers in England are relatively high, their returns are still lower than those of the highly educated. The wage increase associated with a unit increase in skills among the highly educated is 6 percentage points higher than among the low educated, and this gap is higher than the average gap of the 22 countries in the survey (OECD, 2016[4]; OECD, 2013[5]). Additionally, employers may be concerned about the poaching of trained workers. Here, the evidence suggests that such concerns may be unwarranted – for individuals, workplace training is associated with longer job tenure and reduced probabilities of quitting the firm, and with lower labour turnover for the company as a whole (Ananiadou, Jenkins and Wolf, 2003[6]).

Individuals’ and employers’ perceptions of the potential benefits of engaging in basic skills learning depend on many factors. England’s own research found that adults go through four stages of decision-making with respect to learning – pre-contemplation, contemplation, determination, and maintenance – and face 12 main influences on whether and how they engage with and stay in learning, to varying degrees over these stages (Kantar Public and Learning and Work Institute, 2018[7]). These include their perceptions about their learning needs and future skills needs, as well as the availability, quality, relevance and cost of training. Policy makers have an important role in assuring the accessibility and relevance of basic skills learning (see Chapters 3 and 4). In addition, public authorities, social partners, learning providers and career guidance professionals must actively raise awareness of the importance and benefits of, and opportunities for improving the skills of low-skilled workers.

Various policies can be effective in raising the awareness and motivation of low-skilled workers to participate in education and training. These include raising awareness about the benefits of adult learning, engaging social partners to promote learning, and providing targeted guidance to adults about learning opportunities (European Commission/EACEA/Eurydice, 2015[8]). Convening key stakeholders to develop a vision and strategy for skills development can also be a powerful tool for raising the profile of the skills agenda, and building a shared understanding about a country’s key skills challenges and opportunities.

As in other OECD countries, responsibility and initiatives for raising awareness about workers’ basic skills in England are not clearly defined and are shared across different departments, levels of government and social partners.

  • The Department for Education (DfE) is responsible for teaching, learning and training for adults in apprenticeships, traineeships and further education. It develops and promotes strategic and operation policy for developing adults’ skills. One of DfE’s priorities in the area of “Post-16 and skills” is to improve the quality of careers advice and guidance, including for adults, so that they are aware of the breadth of opportunities available to them. The DfE is supported by numerous agencies, public bodies and non-ministerial departments, and works closely with local authorities as well as professionals in further education and skills institutions (Department for Education, n.d.[9]).

  • The ESFA brings together the former responsibilities of the Education Funding Agency (EFA) and Skills Funding Agency (SFA) to create a single agency accountable for funding education and skills for children, young people and adults. The ESFA is accountable for funding for the education and training sector and operates key services in the education and skills sector, such as the National Careers Service, the National Apprenticeship Service and the Learning Records Service.

  • The National Careers Service offers free and impartial information, advice and guidance to help residents of England with decisions about careers, courses and work. Its online career tools include: over 800 job descriptions covering average pay, relevant courses and skills for the job and where the job can lead; two online skills assessments for users to learn more about their career skills, strengths and motivations; and a “Find a course” database for learning and training opportunities offered by providers contracted with the Education and Skills Funding Agency. This includes college courses, apprenticeships and GCSEs (General Certificate of Secondary Education), among others. Moreover, users can contact qualified career advisers to receive support and have their question answered via phone, webchat or face to face.

  • The National Apprenticeship Service provides support and funding for apprenticeships including a portal for learners to find apprenticeships, register and submit an application, but also for employers to find detailed information and guidance on offering apprenticeships (UK Government, n.d.[10]).

  • The Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS) is responsible for business and industrial strategy. It develops and promotes strategic and operation policy for developing adults’ skills. As part of its objective to deliver an ambitious industrial strategy, the BEIS seeks to ensure that the UK workforce meets the skills needs of the economy by working with the Department for Education (DfE) to establish a world-class technical education system.

  • The Department for Work & Pensions (DWP) is responsible for welfare policy in England. Among their priorities, they provide mentoring and coaching to individuals to find employment and achieve financial independence. This translates into services to find, prepare for and apply to jobs, such as the Find a Job service which replaced Universal Jobmatch. Jobcentre Plus (JCP) helps those who need support and refers to active labour market policy measures and administers the benefit system.

  • Unionlearn is the learning and skills organisation of the Trades Union Congress (TUC), assisting unions in the delivery of learning opportunities for their members (Unionlearn, n.d.[11]). Unionlearn provides information on different aspects of job-related practices, like apprenticeships, and barriers to learning. Moreover, it provides information on how to support learners in strengthening their basic English, maths, information and communications technology (ICT), and functional skills.

The available data suggest that relatively few low-skilled workers and employers in England are convinced of the need and value of investing in basic skills. Furthermore, they are often unaware of the programmes and public support available to them.

The UK Employers Skills Survey is one of the largest employer surveys in the world, providing information on workforce profile, employer training provision, employer perception on skills and training. Other surveys – such as the Employer Perspective Survey, Education and Skills Surveys, Skills and Employment Survey – also provide valuable information on how employers perceive and react to skill needs. In addition, England has one of the most extensive databases on adult learners among OECD countries. For example, Individualised Learner Record (ILR) and Longitudinal Education Outcomes (LEO) data provide policy makers with useful insights into aspects of adult learning, including basic skills. ILR is the primary data collection requested from learning providers for further education and work-based learning. It allows the government to monitor policy implementation and the performance of the adult learning sector. It is also used by organisations that allocate funding for further education. Using administrative data, the LEO dataset provides information on the labour market outcomes of UK graduates over time, including employment and earning; these data were first published in 2016. There are also a number of government-commissioned studies, including those conducted by the Behavioural Insights Team that develop and test behavioural interventions to improve participation and completion of mathematics and English courses (Hume et al., 2018[12]; Booth, 2017[13]),1 and broader studies to understand adults’ experiences of and decisions about learning (Kantar Public and Learning and Work Institute, 2018[7]).

As noted earlier (Chapter 1), many low-skilled workers in England lack motivation to learn. About 51% of low-skilled workers in United Kingdom in the 2017 Skills and Employment Survey stated that they neither participated, nor wanted to participate in learning. Furthermore, few low-educated workers in the survey consider literacy and numeracy important to their jobs (Figure 2.1). Low-educated workers across the United Kingdom consider numeracy and literacy to be “essential” or “very important” in only about 15% to 20% of jobs. In contrast, workers consider self-planning to be the most important general skill, while the importance of computer use is growing steadily.

Relatively few low-educated workers search for information on learning possibilities. According to the 2016 Adult Education Survey, only about 21% of low-educated adults (with less than an upper secondary education) in the United Kingdom searched for information on formal and non-formal education and training in 2016 while twice as many (42%) highly-educated adults (with a tertiary qualification) searched for such information. Many submissions received during England’s Business, Innovation and Skills Committee inquiry into Adult Literacy and Numeracy also highlighted that too few adults know that there is free provision for English and maths training, up to and including GCSE level (House of Commons, 2014[14]).

Many employers see no need for training. While not specific to basic skills training, about 40% of England’s employers with a low-educated workforce did not fund or arrange training for staff over the past 12 months, according to the 2017 Employer Skills Survey (Winterbotham et al., 2018[16]). By far the main reason employers gave for this was “All our staff are fully proficient / no need for training” (68% of employers). While this could reflect a good fit between workers’ skills and job requirements, it may also reflect that employers are simply unaware of workers’ basic skills gaps and/or see no economic benefits to investing in them.

Very few employers perceive that workers lack the basic skills needed in the job, in contrast to PIAAC evidence and, to some extent, employee’s own perceptions. As noted in Chapter 1, the importance of basic skills in England’s labour market is growing, while according to PIAAC, one in five working adults have low levels of skills. PIAAC analysis estimates that about 7% of workers in England lacked the numeracy skills required for their job, above the OECD average of 4% (OECD, 2016[4]). In contrast, only 3% to 5% (20 000-30 000) of employing establishments in England with a low educated workforce (where less than 20% of staff have a Level 4 qualification or above) report that workers need to improve their basic skills (Figure 2.2). Furthermore, almost half of enterprises do not value a certified English and maths GCSE A*-C when assessing potential new recruits (Shury et al., 2017[17]), and this rate is higher in lower-skilled sectors.

Most employers are unaware of key public support available for upskilling low-skilled workers. According to England’s Employer Perspectives Survey (EPS) 2016, about 60% of employers in England are not aware of any of the following services – Union Learning Fund, National Skills Academy, Growth Accelerator or the Right of employees to request time to train. Even fewer employers in low-skilled sectors are aware of these services (Institute for Employment Studies, 2017[18]). It is unsurprising, therefore, that only 3% of employers in England had used any of these services.

Employers may be disengaged from developing the basic skills of their employees for multiple reasons (Booth, 2017[13]; Windisch, 2015[1]). Workers and employers may have limited understanding of the amount of basic skills required to perform at work, or to secure other employment (Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, 2016[19]).

Employers consider basic skills to be less important than technical skills (Winterbotham et al., 2018[16]; Winterbotham et al., 2020[20]). Basic skills may be seen as important but not in isolation of vocational skills (Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, 2016[19]). Employers may not feel responsible for workers’ basic skills, if they believe that basic skills should have been taught and learned in initial education. Employers have often used ‘work arounds’ to avoiding dealing with employees with low basic skills rather than identifying the issue and seeking a solution (Booth, 2017[13]).

At best, this puts employees in the situation of having to improve their basic skills without formal support from employers, and at worst it discourages them entirely. In the context of decreasing employer-provided training and employee time spent in training in England (GLA Economics, 2018[21]; Winterbotham et al., 2018[16]; Winterbotham et al., 2020[20]), basic skills could become even more neglected.

Against this backdrop, raising low-skilled workers’ and employers’ awareness about the nature and extent of their skills gaps, the costs and consequences of these gaps, and the potential benefits of (and opportunities for) addressing them, is essential for England.

According to available data and evidence on awareness about workers’ basic skills in England, as well as the insights provided by experts in England consulted during this project, a range of factors likely inhibit awareness about the importance of, and opportunities for raising the skills of low-skilled workers in England. England lacks a clear and shared vision for raising the skills of low-skilled workers, to help make the issue a priority for government, social partners and workers. Tools and services for identifying and understanding the needs and learning goals of low-skilled workers (and their employers) have some limitations. The availability of high-quality, targeted guidance and information to low-skilled workers (and their employers) is limited.

England has opportunities to raise awareness about workers’ basic skills by:

  1. 1. Setting and promoting the vision for raising the skills of low-skilled workers in England.

  2. 2. Identifying and understanding the needs of low-skilled workers.

  3. 3. Providing targeted guidance and information to low-skilled workers and their employers.

Governments can use skills strategies and broad information campaigns to help raise awareness of the importance of skills development and use, including for workers’ basic skills. Policy makers and social partners in England require a shared understanding of the importance and goals of raising the skills of low-skilled workers, which could be fostered by a clear vision and strategy for skills.

Governments can use skills strategies to help raise awareness of the importance of skills development and use, including for workers’ basic skills. By involving key stakeholders in the strategy development and implementation, governments can articulate and raise awareness of skills challenges and opportunities; the goals, priority groups and targets for intervention; and roles and responsibilities for achieving those targets. Strategies of this sort can also help co-ordinate the efforts of different government departments, levels of government and social partners, leading to more coherent and effective skills development policies.

Stakeholders interviewed during the OECD review visits noted that there has been a lack of commitment from government to an explicit long-term strategy to address basic skills issues. This is in line with the findings from OECD (2019[22]) regarding the adult learning strategy in England. While the country has introduced various initiatives that directly or indirectly aim at enhancing basic skills as seen above, many recent policies and reforms have become more focused on developing occupational skills without giving much necessary recognition to the importance or contribution of basic skills to occupational skills and labour productivity.

England has raised the profile of the importance of workers’ basic skills through past strategies. Skills for Life 2001 was England’s national strategy for improving adult literacy and numeracy skills (Box 2.1). Skills for Sustainable Growth in 2010 was a market-driven and demand-led strategy. It emphasised employer ownership of skills through industrial partnerships with trade unions and others. While basic skills for the most disadvantaged groups (e.g. young people and the unemployed) are publicly funded through the Adult Skills Budget, emphasis was placed on the responsibility of employers and learners to ensure that their own skills needs are met by sharing the costs of training. At the forefront of the strategy has been expansion and improvements in the numbers of apprenticeships. The strategy increased the expectations for English and mathematics within apprenticeships, with a requirement that from 2014/15 all intermediate apprentices should work towards achieving a Level 2 in English and mathematics (Department for Business Innovation & Skills, 2010[23]).

The strategy also led to the establishment of employer-led networks. In relation to funding, emphasis has been on use of public money to leverage private money. For example, in 2011 Employer Ownership Pilots were launched through which public investment is provided directly to businesses alongside businesses’ own private investment; this ran counter to the mainstream public funding model where funding is channelled through further education (FE) colleges and training providers. To strengthen the teaching workforce, bursaries of GBP 20 000 were provided to mathematics graduates to encourage them to teach in further education colleges, and GBP 9 000 was offered to graduates teaching English (Department for Business Innovation & Skills, 2010[23]).

Several major reviews have promoted the importance of getting adults’ skills right in England. The Leitch Review of Skills (Leitch, 2006[24]) recognised the importance of enhancing low basic skills and the risks of not doing so, and set targets for basic skills by 2020 (see Table 1.2).

The 2020 objectives mentioned in the review serve as a salutary reminder. Between 2005 and 2012 or 2017, there has been unsatisfactory progress in terms of adult basic skills compared with high-level skills. The Taylor Review of Modern Working Practices (Taylor et al., 2017[25]) – has important implications for developing adult basic skills in the workplace. It pointed out the declining level of training and investment for workers2 and those outside work. It highlighted the changes of work towards more precarious jobs (e.g. platform-based work, dependent contractors) and the importance of providing additional protections for this group and stronger incentives for firms to treat them fairly. Finally, the Augar review of Post-18 Education and Funding examined the effectiveness and efficiency of public financial support available to the further education and skills and higher education sector. It concluded that, unlike higher education, the further education and skills sector is underfunded. Teachers in FE colleges are paid on average less than their counterparts in schools, funding levels are inadequate to cover essential maintenance or to provide modern facilities, and funding flows are complex to navigate (Augar et al., 2019[26]).

England has introduced various initiatives that directly or indirectly aim at enhancing basic skills. These include the basic skills entitlements, reform of Functional Skills Qualifications in English and maths, reform of basic digital skills qualifications, and extension of compulsory participation in learning. Furthermore, Apprenticeship Levy reforms are helping to put adult skills more generally in the limelight. However, the OECD heard during consultations for this project that recent major reforms have become more focused on developing occupational skills, giving little recognition to the importance and contribution of basic skills to occupational skills. As such, England does not have a clear and comprehensive strategy to help raise awareness about workers’ basic skills. In fact, the United Kingdom is among a minority of OECD countries in which adult learning is part of a wider strategy (Table 2.1), and raising the basic skills of low-skilled workers is not an explicit priority.

The government could better develop strategic policies for skills in close partnership with sub-national levels of government and social partners, which can help raise awareness in regions and economic sectors. Along with policies such as devolution of the Adult Education Budget and T Levels, it will be necessary to set a clear and shared vision for basic skills policies. As in many other countries, this could be done as part of a broader national skills strategy.

England could build on the experience of recent strategies to set and promote the vision for raising the skills of low-skilled workers in England. Skills for Life 2001 was England’s national strategy for improving adult literacy and numeracy skills. The Greater London Authority’s adult education strategy stressed basic skills (including ESOL) as a priority within a broader upskilling agenda (GLA Economics, 2018[21]; Greater London Authority, 2018[28]) (Box 2.1).

Norway and Ireland have developed skills strategies that have helped raise awareness of the importance of skills development and use, including for workers’ basic skills (Box 2.2). They highlight for England the importance of skills strategies that involve stakeholders from the outset, clear roles and responsibilities for implementation, and continuous refinement based on ongoing monitoring.

Recommendation for establishing England’s vision for improving workers’ basic skills:

  • The government and stakeholders should collaborate to establish England’s vision and strategy for improving workers’ basic skills. This could be part of a broader national skills strategy (e.g. as a standalone priority), or comprise a targeted strategy for basic skills. Drawing upon lessons from its own 2001 Skills for Life strategy, and recent strategies in countries like Norway and Ireland, the government should convene key stakeholders to develop a shared vision and comprehensive strategy that: sets priorities and targets for basic skills development and other forms and types of adult education and training; establishes the importance of using adults’ skills in workplaces; clarifies the main roles and responsibilities of each sector in adult learning; and establishes performance indicators and, where public funding is involved, accountability for implementation.

Having established a shared vision and strategy for raising the skills of low-skilled workers, it will be essential to communicate and promote this vision across the country. Awareness campaigns may promote the benefits of raising basic skills, advertise specific programmes for adult learning or reach out to under-represented groups (OECD, 2019[37]). The effectiveness of awareness-raising campaigns or outreach activities on the participation of adult education is in general rarely evaluated (Ceneric, Looney and de Greef, 2014[38]), and in particular in relation to those with low basic skills. Research based on in depth case studies suggests that raising awareness of the benefits of adult learning can increase participation, and increase earnings for workers (European Commission, 2015[39]). Public awareness raising campaigns come in many forms in other OECD countries (Table 2.2).

The communications strategies accompanying existing strategic policies for skills appear to be limited in their aspirations and reach. However, England has had relatively successful awareness-raising campaigns in the past (Melrose, 2014[40]). For example, the 2001 Skills for Life strategy in England (Box 2.3) set up a high-profile media campaign, funded in part by the European Social Fund. However, since Skills for Life such nation-wide campaigns have been absent in terms of addressing the importance of basic skills and encouraging participation in adult learning.

England’s Business, Innovation and Skills Committee report on Adult Literacy and Numeracy (2014-15) concluded that:

“The Government has pledged funding for free training and tuition for any adult who wants to study English and maths up to and including GCSE level, but it needs to get the message across to adults with limited English and maths skills that this help is available. To make sure that this message reaches the right people, we recommend that the Government carry out a high-profile national campaign to promote robustly this initiative. This must be treated as a priority. The Government must publish a timetable of how and when the national campaign will be launched. Coupled with this national campaign, the Government should develop clear signposting routes, helping adults to find the most appropriate and nearest help (either voluntary schemes or more formal classes). The Government should report back in its response on the methods it will use to develop this initiative.”

England could draw on the experience of its 2001 Get on Campaign and the more recent Apprenticeship Campaign 'Fire It Up', as it seeks to raise workers’ and employers’ awareness of the importance of basic skills (Box 2.3).

Other OECD countries have implemented awareness raising initiatives, often connected to skills-related strategies. Portugal launched its adult learning programme Qualifica in 2016/17 with a largescale public awareness campaign titled “More Qualification, Better Jobs” (Box 2.4). The Institute for Adult Education in Slovenia, for example, has been organising an annual lifelong learning week since 1996, connected with its Adult Education Master Plan (ReNPIO). Today the initiative includes more than 1 500 events implemented in co-operation with partner organisations throughout the country. To reach the widest possible audience, campaigns can be delivered through different media channels, such as TV, radio, print, online and social media, as well as include outreach work through events, existing networks or direct mail. In Argentina, for example, the Hacemos Futuro programme reaches out to community leaders via Whatsapp, who in turn inform their target group about upcoming training offers (OECD, 2019[37]).

Portugal and Ireland have implemented awareness raising campaigns, the former for a new adult education system and the latter focused on Adult Literacy and Numeracy (Box 2.4). They highlight for England the potential impact of such campaigns, and the importance of promoting the relevance of basic skills training in targeted ways to different groups of adults using a variety of channels.

Recommendation for promoting England’s vision for raising workers’ basic skills:

  • The government and stakeholders should actively promote England’s vision and strategy for improving workers’ basic skills. This could be part of a broader awareness raising campaign about skills, or more focused on workers’ basic skills specifically. It should draw on the lessons of England’s 2001 Get On campaign and 'Fire It Up' Apprenticeship Campaign, as well as international experience from countries like Portugal and Ireland. The government, subnational authorities and social partners should be involved in designing, implementing and evaluating a multimedia campaign to raise awareness, which promotes the concepts, importance and benefits of lifelong and life-wide learning (including for basic skills); available learning programmes and recognition of prior learning opportunities; and career guidance services and funding support (including the Adult Education Budget). It could include a national award scheme that publicises stories of low-skilled workers and their employers successfully engaging in skills development.

Effectively identifying and understanding the learning needs of low-skilled workers complements broader awareness-raising efforts (policy option 2.1), and enables policy makers and service providers to better target outreach, guidance and information to low-skilled workers (policy option 2.3).

England could more effectively and efficiently identify which workers are low-skilled, and what their learning needs and goals are, in order to raise their awareness of and motivation for learning. Given that many low-skilled workers are unlikely to identify themselves – they may not be aware of their lack of basic skills or may not wish this to be visible – more systematic mechanisms are likely to be necessary. England currently does not have a systematic and comprehensive mechanism for identifying low-skilled workers, or their learning needs and goals.

Identifying and reaching adults with poor basic skills is challenging, in part because they often do not self-identify as having poor basic skills due to social or economic pressures. Effectively helping low-skilled workers to upskill is also complex, because adult learners are very diverse (Windisch, 2015[1]). Some are highly dependent on teachers for structure and guidance, while others prefer to manage their own learning (Knowles, 1980[47]). Some may be motivated to learn because of some specific objective like helping their children with homework, others may want to learn out of curiosity (Merriam, 2011[48]). These adults may also have diverse backgrounds that create particular challenges, including adults whose initial experiences with education were largely negative, migrants with weak language skills, individuals with learning difficulties, individuals who have found themselves in and out of work, and those with challenging family responsibilities. At the same time, prospective learners come with diverse sets of positive motivations which can be multi-dimensional and subject to change depending on life circumstances.

Data-driven approaches like probability modelling, segmentation techniques and assessment tools can be useful for identifying and understanding the needs and motivations of low-skilled workers, in order to target outreach and awareness raising and skills assessment tools effectively.

England has among the richest data and evidence bases on adult skills and learning among OECD countries. In addition to participating in the 2012 OECD Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC) (Kuczera, Field and Windisch, 2016[49]), the national Skills for Life 2011 Survey also measured adults’ skills (Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, 2012[30]). England has detailed and longitudinal data on adult skills and learning in the Individual Learning Records (ILR) and Longitudinal Education Outcomes (LEO). These databases play an important role in understanding the reasons for participation or non-participation and the ingredients of achievements (and possibly the impact of the achievements). England also has an impressive array of surveys on workers’ and employers’ skills challenges and training patterns, including the Employer Skills Survey, Employer Perspectives Survey, the Skills and Employment Survey, the Adult Participation in Learning Survey, and various other surveys implemented by social partners and researchers. However, apart from these two skills assessments in 2011/12, England has no ongoing, updated data on which or how many workers have low levels of literacy and/or numeracy.

England could make more use of probability modelling to identify which workers and employers are most likely to lack basic skills. As noted in Chapter 1, low-skilled adults are concentrated in certain economic sectors and occupations. According to the OECD Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC), (see Annex A), over 50% of England’s low-skilled workers are employed in four economic sectors (Wholesale and retail trade; Human health and social work; Manufacturing; and Transportation and storage). In terms of occupations, over 50% of England’s low-skilled workers are employed in two occupation groups (Service workers and shop and market sales workers; and Elementary occupations). Furthermore, OECD quantitative analysis of PIAAC data showed that certain, more observable characteristics are predictive of adults having low-levels of skills (Box 2.6).

Policy makers and providers in England could potentially use market segmentation techniques to target outreach and services based on the motivations, barriers and preferences of different groups of workers’ and employers. Market segmentation is a well-established approach to dividing potential markets into distinct and separate clusters of ‘consumers’ with shared characteristics, needs and values (Shiffman, Kanuk and Hansen, 2008[50]). In the higher education sector, there is evidence of widespread use of market segmentation by providers. Market segmentation is typically based on four key variables: geographic, demographic, behavioural and psychographic (Hemsley-Brown, 2017[51]). England is already applying segmentation analysis to understand different types of firms. Research by the UK Commission for Employment and Skills (Brown, 2014[52]) segmented small businesses, the results of which have been used to understand how to best target behavioural ‘nudges’ to increase workers’ basic skills development (Box 2.5) and target behavioural interventions accordingly (Box 2.5). While not specific to low-skilled workers or basic skills, a recent study for England has already created an “attitudinal typology” of adult learners based on the most prominent reasons for learning and the influence of key factors on them at any given point (Kantar Public and Learning and Work Institute, 2018[7]). It highlighted potentially effective interventions for each group at each stage of their learning decision-making or learning “journey”. Tailored advice, messages, open days, and advertising about career opportunities and associated learning options were identified as critical for adults lacking a strong and clear purpose for learning (see policy option 2.3).

The OECD’s analysis of PIAAC data highlights the potential for quantitative techniques to help identify those groups of adults (and enterprises) who are most likely to have low levels of basic skills (Box 2.6). England could make greater use of these, and other analytical techniques.

Recommendation for improving data analytics to identify and target the low-skilled:

  • Policy makers should improve data analytics to better identify and target workers and employers who are most likely to lack basic skills. In order to target skills assessment tools and awareness raising efforts, policy makers should make better use of national and international data through diverse analytical approaches. This could involve use of probability modelling to identify which workers and employers are most likely to lack basic skills as in the case of OECD PIAAC analysis, and segmentation techniques to target outreach and services based on the motivations, barriers and preferences of different groups of workers’ and employers, building on England’s experience with firm segmentation and adult learner typologies.

Understanding workers’ basic skills gaps, motivations and barriers to learning, and most appropriate learning opportunity – workplace based, community learning (non-formal), functional skills, GCSE or apprenticeship (formal) – is critical to motivating them to develop their basic skills.

While England’s rich data and information base support its capacity to identify groups of workers and employers most likely to lack basic skills, it needs better tools to assess the skills of individual workers. A best practice guidebook developed under the 2001 Skills for Life Strategy advised service providers to undertake a detailed diagnostic assessment for potential learners, comprising a short series of tasks to establish literacy, language or numeracy needs. Given that many of those with low basic skills, are unaware of the problems that they face in numeracy, literacy and digital skills or are hesitant to self-identify, a new mechanism to facilitate assessment of basic skills levels in workplaces may be warranted.

The National Career’s Services’ online skills assessment tool does not assess basic skills levels or refer users to learning. The “Discover your skills and careers” tool is a 5 to 10 minute assessment to find out what job categories, and which particular job roles, might suit the user. The “Skills health check” has individual assessment to allow users to explore how they make judgements using numbers or written information. However, it is designed to help users understand how they work with information and solve problems, in order to help them write a CV, look for work, apply for jobs or go to an interview. It is not designed to rigorously assess users’ basic skills levels, and does not connect them to basic skills programmes, services or support in light of their results (National Careers Service, n.d.[54]).

Some non-government actors have tools for assessing workers’ basic skills (Box 2.7). Unionlearn provides a skill assessment tool called SkillCheck covering English, Maths, ICT, Apprenticeships and Everyday Finances (Unionlearn, 2017[55]). National Numeracy provides accessible and scalable numeracy assessment tools to identify and address poor numeracy (National Numeracy, 2017[56]). Building confidence can also be one way to facilitate adult learning participation among adults with low basic skills. National Numeracy uses the National Numeracy Challenge to help people identify their confidence levels in numeracy. This can help engage adults in activities that aim to enhance their numeracy skills and it is a tool that can be embedded into existing programmes such as recruitment, induction and workplace development. With a similar approach, digital capabilities3 are identified in addition to digital skills (Ipsos MORI, 2018[57]).

At the international level, the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competences (PIAAC) is currently the most ambitious assessment of the skills used by adults in their work, home and communities. OECD Education & Skills Online is an assessment tool designed to provide individual-level results that are linked to the PIAAC measures of literacy, numeracy, problem solving in technology-rich environments, and reading components (basic reading skills) measures that can be used to compare the test taker’s results with the those of others both within the test taker’s country and internationally (OECD, n.d.[58]). The assessment includes a background questionnaire to collect information on the test taker’s age, gender, education level, employment status and native country and language. The tool also includes non-cognitive assessments that measure skill utilisation, workforce readiness, career interests, and health indicators. It can be used as a diagnostic tool of skills and learning needs both for individuals in and out of work.

As important as developing a systematic tool for assessing worker’s basic skills, needs and goals is finding the appropriate actor(s) to implement the tool. Assessment and screening often goes hand in hand with direct outreach to adults with low basic skills by career counsellors and guides, and other actors. This is discussed in the next section (policy option 2.3).

Employers could play a role in identifying low-skilled adults, and England might consider introducing assessments of employees’ basic skills and upskilling needs by firms as part of regular career reviews. For example, France has made it mandatory for employers to have career development interviews with their employees every two years so that they can regularly check to see if their skill levels are adequate and if not, facilitating their access to appropriate training opportunities (entretien professionnel). These regular career reviews by employers can serve as a first step identification of basic skill needs, as well as retraining and upskilling needs for career progression more comprehensively. Individuals identified through these reviews as potentially having basic skills deficiencies could be advised to participate in an in-depth basic skills assessment, such as the one underlying the CléA certificate (Box 2.8). Such mechanisms could target low-skilled sectors and occupations as an industrial strategy, to anticipate skill needs and industrial and sectoral changes while providing upskilling and reskilling opportunities. However, sensitive screening and initial assessment are crucial so as not to demoralise potential learners (Windisch, 2015[1]).

Various OECD countries utilise skills assessment for adults. France introduced mandatory skills assessments in workplaces, while Canada developed a voluntary basic skills assessment tool tailored to workplaces and with training in mind (Box 2.8). These two examples provide England with different approaches to achieving the goal of systematic and widespread assessment of workers’ skills. France mandates a standard process, while Canada provides a relatively standard set of tools for assessing skills.

Recommendation for assessing workers’ basic skills needs:

  • The government and stakeholders should support the widespread implementation of tools to assess the skills development needs, motivations and barriers of workers likely to have low basic skills. They could consider Unionlearn’s SkillCheck tool, National Numeracy’s tools, and even the OECD’s Education & Skills Online assessment based on the OECD Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC), while drawing on different but promising practices in countries like France and Canada. Government and stakeholders should target the tool to those most likely lacking basic skills, based on the available data analytics. The government should consider whether mandating some form of skills assessment in low-skilled sectors is necessary.

Targeted outreach, guidance and information for low-skilled workers and employers about basic skills complements broader awareness-raising efforts (policy option 2.1), and can be effectively targeted with reliable information on the profile and needs of low-skilled workers (policy option 2.2).

England’s approach to providing targeted guidance and information to low-skilled workers and their employers is fragmented, and requires more public support. More consistent and effective messages about the benefits of and opportunities for basic skills training are needed. This includes promoting adult apprenticeships and other formal programmes that can both remediate basic skills and improve workers’ technical skills and employability (see policy option 4.1 on improving the basic skills content in formal education).

Undertaking outreach and providing individualised advice and guidance services can encourage more low-skilled workers to participate in learning. Reaching out to workers and recruiting participants is essential because of low-skilled workers’ lower willingness and higher barriers to learn (Windisch, 2015[1]). Outreach activities include not only engaging learners individually but also reaching out to employers to encourage them to support basic skills courses in the workplace.

Guidance and counselling are defined as “a range of activities such as information, assessment, orientation and advice to assist learners, trainers and other staff to make choices relating to education and training programmes or employment opportunities.” (Decision No 1720/2006/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council). These activities can include counselling for personal, career development or educational guidance; assessment of skills and mental health; information on learning and labour market opportunities; consultation with peers, relatives or educators; vocational preparation; and referrals to learning or career specialists (Raschauer and Resch, 2016[64]).

The content of this information and advice is important to get right. To be effective, career guidance takes into account timely labour market information and the outputs of skill assessment and anticipation exercises (OECD, 2019[37]). It should build upon an assessment of adults’ learning needs (policy option 2.2), and promote training programmes and pathways based on evidence about their potential skills and employment benefits for low-skilled workers.

It can be challenging to get tailored information, advice and guidance to low-skilled workers and their employers. Workers typically have less access to such information, advice and guidance than jobseekers, who automatically qualify for publicly-funded services and have more time to actively participate. Employers may lack contact with the providers of such services, and may not be actively looking for them. In most countries, career guidance is delivered through a range of channels, including public employment services, specialised guidance services, career guidance websites, as well as by education providers and social partners (OECD, 2019[37]). However, these providers may not prioritise low-skilled workers.

According to 2016 Employer Perspectives Survey, most employers in England do not seek or receive advice on skill and training related issues. This is even more the case in some low-skilled sectors, such as wholesale and retail. However, for the few employers that do seek or receive advice on skill and training, they are more likely to get it from training providers and collectives and representatives, than from government or other private sources (Figure 2.3).

Non-government actors, such as social partners and training providers, are playing a major role in providing targeted guidance and information about basic skills to low-skilled workers and their employers, and could be better supported.

Further education and skills providers and social partners have an important role in providing guidance. As shown in Figure 2.3, training providers – including further education colleges, community learning providers4 and other private providers – offer not only basic skills courses but also advice or help on skill and training issues. Within the union-led programme Unionlearn, Union Learning Representatives (ULRs) help identify individual learning needs, provide information on accessing funded learning, and on local learning providers, colleges and learning centres (Box 2.9). They also suggest online tools that can also improve IT skills. ULRs can also help people develop confidence, which has the potential to lead to other learning opportunities. ULRs use different means (posters, noticeboards, emails, face-to-face contact, quiz and photos) to reach those in need. Unionlearn publishes guides for ULRs to share engagement ideas (Unionlearn, 2017[55]).

Employers also have a very important role in motivating workers to learn. An analysis of 18 literacy and numeracy courses in 15 companies in New Zealand, (Benseman, 2012[65]) found that the best results of publicising and recruiting potential learners were achieved when managers, supervisors or key people in the office proactively shoulder-tapped potential participants (Windisch, 2015[1]). An interim evaluation of DfE’s adult learner outreach pilots in five of England’s local areas found that learners responded positively to becoming aware of learning opportunities in the workplace. Information from employers meant that training was implicitly endorsed by the employer and motivated participation. The evaluation also confirmed the importance of outreach being perceived by learners as personally relevant, particularly where messages are linked to individuals’ professional development plans and career aspirations (Learning and Work Institute, 2019[66]).

However, non-government actors alone cannot be expected to reach low-skilled workers and their employers effectively with guidance. Despite this, publicly-funded guidance and counselling services for low-skilled workers and their employers are limited.

Indeed across the EU, most countries do not have a structural guidance service that could be used by every adult enquiring about education and training opportunities, rather focusing such guidance on the unemployed (European Commission/EACEA/Eurydice, 2015[8]). However, this is changing, with an increasing number of countries devoting the resources of their public employment services and other agencies to motivate workers to engage in upskilling (OECD, 2019[37]).

Jobcentre Plus (JCP), England’s public employment service (PES), does not currently provide tailored guidance services to low-skilled workers. In 2012, England launched the National Careers Service, replacing and building on the former 'Next Step' service, which provide publicly funded guidance and information services that are available to low-skilled workers and their employers. However, the National Careers Service provides information and guidance on learning, training and work opportunities via its website, by email and over the telephone, rather than through highly targeted or face to face counselling.

The Cost & Outreach Pilots (Learning and Work Institute, 2019[66]), mentioned above, also showed in-depth guidance to be uncommon even in the context of face to face guidance.5 In most cases where information, advice and guidance (IAG) was experienced, this did not take the form of in-depth advice or guidance. Work coaches/careers advisers typically identified and provided information about relevant courses for learners. These interactions did not influence participants’ attitudes and behaviours or inform their decision making to take up learning. Several participants stated that, in retrospect, they would have welcomed more substantive IAG, and the IAG could have been more effective if linked to education and training providers (Learning and Work Institute, 2019[66]).

Greater public investment will likely be needed to ensure low-skilled workers have access to targeted guidance and counselling that motivates learning. This could be directed to expanding the guidance services of Union Learning Representatives (ULRs) and National Careers Service for low-skilled workers. Furthermore, a growing trend in OECD countries is for public employment services to play a greater role in providing services to low-skilled workers, such as in-work training. Following these trends, the JCP’s role could be expanded to provide guidance not only to the unemployed and Universal Credit recipients (OECD, 2017[67]), but also to low-skilled workers.

Guidance counsellors should follow established best practice for reaching low-skilled adults and workers in particular. For example, the Skills for Life Strategy Unit had developed a guidebook based on best practice that advises: i) an initial, informal one-on-one interview to put learners at their ease and to gather background information about them; ii) provision of information about the range of possible programmes; and iii) a detailed diagnostic assessment comprising a short series of tasks to establish literacy, language or numeracy needs. Such guidance should be followed and improved over time.

Denmark and Austria have national guidance and advisory services, which are available to low-skilled workers (Box 2.10). These cases highlight for England the importance of a targeted, user-centred and personalised approach to motivate low skilled adults to learn.

Those providing guidance and information to low-skilled workers and employers should promote the proven benefits of existing programmes that solely or partly target basic skills.

A recent English study evaluated returns to completing English and maths courses for (adults 19+) taken as part of more substantial qualifications in FE colleges. It finds that an average earning premium associated with completing maths and English courses ranges from 4% to 6% if compared to those who did not manage to complete similar courses. Earning premiums are higher for younger adults (aged 19-24) (Buscha et al., 2013[74]). In particular, England could more effectively promote adult apprenticeships as an effective means to basic skills development, in order to motivate more low-skilled workers to learn.

As noted earlier (Chapter 1), apprenticeships can play an important role in raising worker’s basic skills and should be promoted to low-skilled workers. Apprenticeships in England require and support apprentices to achieve Level 2 English and maths (Kuczera and Field, 2018[75]). They are becoming one of the most important forms of learning for low-skilled workers in England. Around 62% of England’s apprentices are incumbent workers (the others are new, typically younger recruits)6 (Thornton et al., 2018[76]). Apprenticeships are concentrated in the three economic sectors with the most low-skilled adults in England – wholesale and retail, health and manufacturing. In all but a few sectors, the majority of starts are in intermediate, Level 2 apprenticeships, corresponding to GCSE level.

Apprenticeships are also a good instrument for small and medium-sized enterprises, given that SMEs – who do not pay the Apprenticeship Levy – now receive full government support for apprenticeships, for example a special payment, training cost exemption and reduced fee for apprenticeships (from 10% to 5% of the training costs).7 However, employers in sectors with more low-skilled workers appear to know less about apprenticeships. For example, 43% of employers in the wholesale and retail sector currently offer, or have a “good” or “very good” knowledge of apprenticeships, compared to almost 50% on average across sectors. Raising awareness of adult apprenticeships could attract more low-skilled workers to learn, and in turn improve their basic skills. Of course, monitoring the effectiveness and relevance of adult apprenticeships for low-skilled workers after recent reforms will also be essential (see Chapter 4).

Recommendation for improving guidance and information for low-skilled workers and their employers:

  • The government should expand publicly funded personal career guidance and information services for low-skilled workers and their employers, in order to motivate basic skills development. Greater public investment could be directed to expanding the guidance services of Union Learning Representatives (ULRs), National Careers Service and/or Jobcentre Plus, for example. It could involve investments in physical centres for guidance targeting low-skilled adults, as in Denmark and Austria. The government should continuously monitor the uptake and impact of face-to-face career guidance and information, to ensure it is effective in raising participation in basic skills development. England should also more actively promote vocational qualifications with basic skills content, such as intermediate level adult apprenticeships, as a promising mode for delivering basic skills to low-skilled adults and their employers.


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[16] Winterbotham, M. et al. (2018), Employer skills survey 2017 Research report, Department for Education (England), https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/746493/ESS_2017_UK_Report_Controlled_v06.00.pdf.

[20] Winterbotham, M. et al. (2020), Employer Skills Survey 2019, https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/925744/Employer_Skills_Survey_2019_research_report.pdf.


← 1. According to the Behavioural Insights Team, in FE colleges, weekly text messages of encouragement to adult learners enrolled in mathematics and English courses improved attendance rates by 22% and achievement rates by 16%. A social support intervention improved achievement rates by 27%. Finally, an intervention that incorporated a short writing exercise, where learners reflect on their personal values and why they are important to them, improved attainment by 25%. However, in a work-based setting, experimental approaches aimed at obtaining similar results did not yield the same results (Hume et al., 2018[12]).

← 2. The number of employees working fewer hours due to attending a training course has declined from 140 000 in 1995 to 20 000 in 2014.

← 3. The Index digital capability measure complements Basic Digital Skills, as it analyses individuals’ actual behavioural data.

← 4. Publicly-subsidised community learning provides a broad range of flexible non-formal learning opportunities, ranging from personal development through to older people’s learning, IT courses, employability skills, family learning, and activities to promote civic engagement and community development. Courses are structured but usually unaccredited. Providers include local authoritiesfurther education colleges, community groups and voluntary (third) sector organisations, such as the University of the Third Age (U3A), an organisation of retired and semi-retired people, learning for pleasure rather than for any qualification.

← 5. From 173 survey responses and 60 semi-structured interviews with learners enrolled on subsidised courses, only 18 had experiences of information, advice and guidance (IAG).

← 6. In 2019/20, under 19 years old account for 32.3% (40 700), 19 to 24-year-olds account for 29.3% (36 800), and those aged 25 and over account for 38.4%% (48 300). Those aged 25 and over have consistently had the highest share of starts each year over the period 2014/15 to 2018/19.

← 7. A special payment of GBP 1 500 per apprentice is made available to smaller employers who have not recruited an apprentice in the last 12 months and want to take an apprentice aged 16-24 (Kuczera and Field, 2018[75]). Non-levy paying employers including SMEs must pay 10% of the training and assessment costs when they take on apprentices but it will be reduced to 5%; small employers are able to train at no cost those aged 19-24 with certain conditions and these employers are not required to contribute the 5% co-investment; instead, the government will pay 100% of the training costs for these individuals.

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