3. Making basic skills development accessible to workers and employers in England, United Kingdom

Many adults, including low-skilled workers, wanted to participate in (more) learning, but are prevented from doing so by various barriers. According to the OECD Survey of Adult Skills, a product of the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC), across OECD countries 20% to 65% of low-skilled workers (aged 19-65) face barriers to participating in education and training. In England, 31% of low-skilled workers are willing to participate in education and training but could not because of various barriers.

Reducing these barriers to basic skills development, both for workers and employers, is a way to give these willing learners access to opportunities for improving basic skills. Existing barriers can range from complex institutional issues such as inadequate or outdated legal frameworks, to personal issues such as a lack of time. For low-skilled workers, the barriers can typically be divided into two types: time-related and cost-related barriers. Time-related barriers include, among other things, long working hours, difficulty receiving approval to learn during work hours, lack of flexible training opportunities outside of work hours, and the need to care for children and elderly family members. Low-skilled workers are entitled to free formal basic skills programmes in England (GCSE (General Certificate of Secondary Education), FSQs, (Functional Skills Qualifications), etc.), but there are associated cost-related barriers. These include costs to the worker (such as foregone wages for zero-hour contract workers who miss work to attend training) and costs to the employer (such as reduced production or replacing workers who are in training). Minimising these barriers facilitates the participation of low-skilled workers in training generally, and basic skills training in particular.

Responsibility for reducing barriers to learning rests with a variety of actors and stakeholders, including individual government departments, sub-national governments and authorities, and both public and private education and training institutions. Each of these groups has a different and complementary role to play in increasing access, from ensuring legal entitlements are in place and providing funding, to developing or implementing specific programmes and policies.

Several recent reforms and policies may impact the accessibility and flexibility of learning opportunities for low-skilled workers and their employers. This includes making training in Entry Level and Level 1 qualifications free for low-skilled adults to remove cost barriers, and launching funds to support flexible provision of learning - including basic skills.

As in other OECD countries, responsibility and initiatives for reducing barriers to learning rests with a variety of actors and stakeholders.

  • The Department for Education (DfE) is responsible for further education and adult apprenticeships policy. One of the DfE’s 12 strategic goals is to ensure access to quality places where they are needed, including in post-18 education. The DfE governs both the Adult Education Budget (AEB) through the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) and the Union Learning Fund (ULF) through Unionlearn, which are some of major resources for ensuring the accessibility of adult basic skills development.

  • The Department of Work and Pension (DWP) not only helps people move into work but also supports their progression in work, and in this sense it is also their responsibility to make basic skills development more accessible to workers and employers.

  • The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) has a role to play in enhancing basic digital skills among low-skilled workers. In fact, it assesses digital skills challenges and seeks to tackle digital exclusion, including by promoting accessible and flexible digital skills programmes (Department for Digital, 2019[1]).

  • The Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation (Ofqual) is also an important actor in basic skills as it regulates basic skills qualifications, examinations and assessments. In fact, among its statutory objectives there is the one of ensuring that regulated qualifications are provided efficiently. Moreover, Ofqual’s corporate plan devotes particular attention to implementing regulatory requirements for digital skills in the two years to come (Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation, 2019[2]).

  • There are other departments that do not currently have obvious roles to play in improving access to employee basic skills development opportunities but may have value to add. For example, Department of Health and Social Care can help make sure that low-skilled workers in the sector have access to basic skills assessment and development, given that human health and social work activities employ 16% of low-skilled workers (ages 19-65) in England and one-quarter of employees in the sector have low basic skills, according to the OECD Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC). This has been highlighted in previous reports (House of Commons, 2009[3]; Bathmaker, 2007[4]).

England’s Adult Education Budget (AEB) takes the question of affordability “off the table” for low-skilled workers. Since 2016, the AEB, funded by the ESFA, has enabled eligible adult learners to participate in fully funded basic skills qualification courses.1 Eligible learners are individuals aged 19 and over, including those employed, who have not previously attained a GCSE grade A*-C or grade 4, or higher in English or mathematics qualifications, up to and including Level 2. Qualifications included under the legal entitlement include: GCSE English language or mathematics; functional skills in English or mathematics from Entry Level to Level 2; and steppingstone qualifications in English or mathematics approved by the Department for Education and the ESFA.

The AEB also supports delivery of flexible, tailored training provision for adults, including qualifications (and components of these) and/or non-regulated learning, up to Level 2. This provision, called ‘local flexibility’,2 is fully or co-funded depending on the learner’s age, prior attainment and circumstances. Local flexibility provision can be delivered alongside a legal entitlement qualification. The government has additionally announced that an entitlement to free basic digital skills will begin from the 2020-21 academic year.3

Before 2016, DfE’s Adult Skills Budget (ASB) spending (comprising funding for further education, apprenticeships and other workplace training) fell by 32% between 2010-11 and 2015-16, partly in line with decreasing adult learning participation (see Chapter 1).4 Within the ASB, expenditure on adult apprenticeships increased by 58%, while non-apprenticeship ASB spending fell by 54%.5 Non-apprenticeship workplace training saw the largest proportional reduction at 87% in cash terms (Foster, 2018[5]). The newly created AEB in 2016 (comprising the non-apprenticeship part of the ASB plus community learning and discretionary learner support) is set to be held constant in cash terms at GBP 1.5 billion up to 2019-20 (Keen et al., 2018[6]).6 Funding for community learning, which provides resources for further basic skills provision, has remained fairly constant over the period.

In 2018, the UK Government allocated GBP 11.7 million to the Flexible Learning Fund (FLF), to test flexible training delivery methods to better understand which approaches overcome barriers to access (OECD, 2019[9]). It aimed to support adults to take part in new training or courses that would help them progress in current employment or secure a new job (see Box 3.3).

Many low-skilled workers in England face time-related barriers to participating in education and training, contributing to low rates of training. Barriers are highest for workers in low-productivity sectors and SMEs, where employers perceive there to be limited financial incentives, or lack capacity to support training. Relatively few employers explicitly deliver basic skills training in the workplace, a context that is highly accessible and relevant for low-skilled workers. Countries can tackle time-related barriers in varied ways, including by supporting workplace delivery of learning, and more flexible learning outside of the workplace – in terms of delivery (part-time, online) and design (modular, credit-based courses). They can also require and financially support training leave for low-skilled workers and their employers.

Among the barriers preventing low-skilled workers from participating in adult learning in England, time-related barriers are the most prevalent. More than half of low-skilled workers wanted to participate in (more) learning activities, but did not because they were too busy at work (34%), had no time because of child care or family responsibilities (15%), or the training course was offered at an inconvenient time or place (3%) (Figure 3.1).7 As in other countries these time-related barriers were more common among the employed than the unemployed (Figure 3.2). Although in the context of basic skills entitlements, it can be argued that cost-related barriers are already being addressed, time-related barriers often incur their own, sometimes hidden, cost. For example, lack of time to participate due to work commitments could be resolved through paid training leave, while a lack of time due to family responsibilities could be addressed by child or family care support. Other time barriers, such as inconvenient scheduling (e.g. because of shifts at work) or the need to travel to participate in learning, also incur costs.

Cost and Outreach pilots that are testing different approaches to reduce costs in engaging adults in learning have stressed that such practical barriers related to personal circumstances must be addressed in order to engage adults seeking to retrain. When asked about additional costs incurred as a result of their learning, survey respondents highlighted costs associated with travel (50%), reduction in pay due to lost time at work (16%) and additional childcare costs (13%) (Learning and Work Institute, 2019[10]). The results of qualitative research conducted by Kantar Public and Learning and Work Institute (2018[11]) underlined that since the barriers to participation vary based on the attitudes of individual learners towards learning, the fact that those attitudes change over time, and that learners all weigh the costs and benefits of learning differently, there should likewise be a diversity of interventions and options regarding access to learning.

Low-skilled workers in the United Kingdom work longer hours, work more during weekends, and are more likely to have atypical working schedules than peers in European Union (EU) countries. While overtime work has fallen from an average of two hours per week in 1998 to one hour in 2018, basic hours worked have slightly increased according to the Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings (ASHE). According to the survey, 12% of employees work more than fifty hours a week. These work schedules make it much more difficult to find the time for education and training. In other words, this may mean that their employers would be less willing to provide time-off for basic skills training.

In addition to the unpredictability of scheduling in non-standard forms of employment and the need to work multiple jobs (McBride and Smith, 2018[13]), other structural factors may make it more difficult for low-skilled and low-wage workers to engage in regular programmes of learning. For example, according to the Childcare and Early Years Survey of Parents, lower income families – which are more likely to include low-skilled parents – found it more difficult to meet their childcare costs and less likely to have their children enrolled in childcare (Department for Education, 2019[14]). Over two in five (44%) families earning under GBP 10 000 per year found it difficult to meet their childcare costs, compared to a third (33%) of families earning between GBP 10 000 and GBP 45 000, and 22% of those earning GBP 45 000 or more. Lowest income families use child care 22% less than the highest income families (Department for Education, 2019[14]).

Currently, relatively few employers in England organise basic skills training. In 2015, 4.2% of employers in the United Kingdom providing continuing vocational training courses to their workers do so in the area of basic numeracy and/or literacy, according to the EU Continuing Vocational Training Survey. Other surveys undertaken by the Behavioural Insights Team and the Federation of Small Business also provide insight in this regard. The Behavioural Insights Team reported that only about 15% of UK employers provide any form of training in literacy or numeracy (Booth, 2017[15]). The Federation of Small Business found that only 4-6% of small business owners and staff had undertaken basic skills training, whereas almost half of all owners had engaged in training for technical and job-specific skills (FSB, 2017[16]).

The time-related barriers faced by employees mentioned above also incur cost to employers. Providing for the basic skills training needs of employees requires human resource management systems with formalised learning and development management systems in place – SMEs often do not have or afford such systems. They are also more constrained in terms of money and time. SMEs also have fewer financial resources to spend on training and fewer staff to cover for those who are out on external training. They are unable to access the economies of scale that large employers can for training and do not have the resources to set up in-house provision. Many small businesses are focused on immediate issues and on growing the business and have limited ability to focus on the medium or long term (Booth, 2017[15]).

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 barriers exist to low-skilled workers and their employers accessing basic skills education and training. The key issue that emerged is the inability for workers to access education and training due to time constraints. However, while this was partially due to a simple lack of time, it was more fundamentally due to a lack of the availability of these workers during those times when education and training services were likely to be offered.

Workers typically lack the time to participate in basic skills training outside of working hours, as their work often features long hours and work on evenings and weekends. Such workers are also unlikely to have additional financial resources to free up what non-work time they do have through paid childcare, for example.

Currently, there is a lack of flexible basic skills programmes for workers outside of workplaces, and as relatively few employers in England organise basic skills training, this leaves low-skilled workers with limited options. Compounding this issue is the fact that SMEs are not covered by the current right to training leave, and that workers and employers do not receive compensation for lost wages or revenue, to utilise training leave.

These fundamental challenges can be addressed through a series of policy options that can reduce time constraints for learning and related financial constraints, both for workers and employers, and ultimately make basic skills development more accessible to workers and employers. These include:

  1. 1. Expanding the provision of basic skills training within workplaces.

  2. 2. Expanding the supply of flexible basic skills programmes outside of workplaces.

  3. 3. Extending training leave entitlements to low-skilled workers in SMEs, while at the same time compensating SMEs for lost revenue or staff replacement costs.

One way to tackle the time barrier to basic skills training of adults with low basic skills is to bring the training itself into the workplace. While basic skills do not necessarily need to be taught in the workplace, basic skills training in the workplace is more accessible for workers who struggle to find time for basic skills training.

Furthermore, teaching low basis skills training in workplace facilitates the acquisition and retention of these skills. First, learning basic skills in the workplace allows low-skilled adults to learn in a context closely linked with their work tasks. Second, by learning basic skills in the workplace, where they are practically applied, it can help them to understand the relevance of these skills and provide opportunities to practice what they have learned, facilitating their retention. Third, learning and improving basic skills together with their colleagues can reinforce learning benefits. Finally, the provision of training in workplaces can help overcome motivational barriers resulting from previous negative experiences that make further classroom learning unpalatable to low-skilled adults (Windisch, 2015[17]).

Basic skills training in the workplace can be facilitated through compensatory mechanisms for training leave, which is discussed under policy option 3.3. The OECD visit to Sheffield confirmed that there are already employers that allow employees to participate in basic skills training during working hours in the workplace, with the training provided by a local college. This form of basic skills training can be very effective both for employer and employees.

Union-provided learning activities can be effective in helping workers become aware of and embark on basic skills training, and in sustaining their learning pathways and continuous upskilling. If employers often do not have sufficient time or resources (or incentives or awareness) to initiate such courses and assess needs among employees – and employees often do not want employers to find out that they have low basic skills – unions are relatively well-placed to mediate the needs of both and promote basic skills learning.

Unionlearn is a well-recognised actor in the promotion of learning in the workplace, and one of its priorities is to improve basic skills through its Union Learning Fund.8 The success of Unionlearn’s approach is rooted in employee accessibility to training. Unionlearn supports the establishment of workplace learning centres (or union learning centres) to embed learning in the workplace; offers information sessions and proficiency tests9 in the workplace; and provides information on local learning providers and accessing funded learning, through Union Learning Representatives (ULRs)10 (Hume et al., 2018[18]). Co-ordinating with employers, ULRs help workers identify training needs (from basic skills to prerequisites for professional career development) and arrange learning opportunities within the companies (Crews et al., 2018[19]). They can suggest online tools, which may in themselves 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, quizzes and photos) to reach those in need; Unionlearn meanwhile publishes guides for ULRs to share engagement ideas (Unionlearn, 2017[20]). Recent initiatives have focused on providing career guidance through trade unions.11

According to the Union Learning Survey (ULS) (Crews et al., 2018[19]), respondents agreed that union learning resulted in them becoming: more confident in their abilities (68%); more likely to undertake further learning and training (77%); more enthusiastic about learning (74%); and better able to organise, mentor and support other people (58%). Around half of all learners agree or completely agree that union learning has improved their quality of life and well-being (46%). According to the same survey, 70% of respondents felt that they would not have done their learning without the support of their union. Importantly, respondents in many minority or disadvantaged groups attributed a higher level of importance to the support received from their union than other respondents. For example, 79% of those with no qualifications would not have done their learning without the support of their union compared with 62% of those with UK Level 4 qualifications. Moreover, an impact estimation has each GBP 1 invested in the Union Learning Fund generating a total economic return of GBP 12, of which GBP 7 accrues to individuals and a fraction over GBP 5 to employers.

For England, the challenge is how to expand Unionlearn’s successful results, in particular to smaller, non-union workplaces. A large population is out of the reach of Unionlearn initiatives (Table 3.2) and its Union Learning Fund has been largely reduced since 2011 which affected the number of workplaces and learners engaging in basic skills and other types of learning (Figure 3.3).12 In addition, trade union membership levels among employees have fallen recently, although there was a marginal rise between 2016 and 2018 – but the levels in 2018 remain around 579 000 lower than in 2008. There is also a large disparity in the proportion of public sector workers (53%) who are trade union members when compared to private sector workers (13%). Moreover, highly educated employees and employees in larger workplaces are more likely to be union members (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, 2019[21]). From an international perspective, trade union density in England is low: for example, it was about 25% in 2013 – lower compared to Belgium (55%) and Nordic countries (52% for Norway and about 66% for the rest) (OECD, 2013[22]).

In order to engage with workers with low basic skills regardless of the union membership, more proactive outreach is necessary through providing basic skills training in the workplace. Union learning centres are available to employees in a number of non-union workplaces and there are Union Learning Fund projects for non-unionised learners under way, but the outreach could be further expanded. Another challenge for Unionlearn is how to continue its successful practice in the context of the devolution of Adult Education Budget (AEB). For example, training ULRs is an important part of leading the success of Unionlearn practice but there is a risk that devolution may lead to a reduction in such trainings. A large share of ULRs attend college-based training courses that are outside of the geographic catchment of those colleges, which can potentially exclude them from area-based funded programmes in the future (Unionlearn, 2019[25]).

Recommendation for increasing support to the Unionlearn practice in promoting basic skills development participation, practice, and provision in the workplace:

  • The government should improve the sustainability of Unionlearn by building upon its recently implemented multi-year funding model and preventing decreases in funding, with an aim of increasing funding in the future. This would increase Unionlearn’s capacity to expand the provision of basic skills training within workplaces, thereby encouraging low-skilled workers to take advantage of basic skills entitlements. The government should also make sure that the devolution of the Adult Education Budget includes provisions for Union Learning Representatives to continue to attend trade union education college training courses, regardless of geographic catchment area. Employers should actively engage with Unionlearn by entering into learning agreements to support Unionlearn efforts in order to encourage workers to take advantage of their training rights and opportunities.

Where Unionlearn is absent, other organisations – such as Jobcentre Plus (JCP), the country’s public employment service (PES), and training providers – can play a role in facilitating basic skills training in workplaces. JCP was created in 2002 with the merger of the Employment Service and the Benefits Agency, thereby combining active and passive labour market benefits. Currently, JCP is involved only in training the unemployed and benefits recipients but is not able to assist employed people who do not receive benefits. This stands in contrast to practice in other OECD countries where public employment services are beginning to play a greater role in strengthening training for low-skilled workers, in particular under the current COVID-19 crisis where many workers are displaced (OECD, 2020[29]).

For example, in Germany, the Federal Employment Agency (Bundesagentur für Arbeit), the country’s PES, introduced in 2006 WeGebAU programme (Weiterbildung Geringqualifizierter und beschäftigter Älterer in Unternehmen), which was integrated and expanded in the 2019 Law on Qualification Chances (Qualifizierungschancengesetz). This programme provided educational and financial support for older workers without certified vocational qualifications and for those with low skills proficiency to improve their employability (Box 3.2). In Estonia, the Estonian Unemployment Insurance Fund (EUIF), which is managed by the Estonian PES, has recently expanded its services to the employed (Box 3.2). In addition, the Estonian PES, in co-operation with the relevant stakeholders, was able to quickly develop e-learning for care workers, in high demand during the crisis (OECD, 2020[29]).

Reflecting these trends, JCP could be strengthened to support both employer basic skills training provision in workplaces, and job and income progression among low-skilled adults, for example by brokering between employers, training providers and workers and by providing career guidance for people in work (OECD, 2017[30]). JCP is well-placed in this role given that job-seekers and benefit claimants who become employed are often in contact with JCP. The Flexible Support Fund, administered by Job Centres, could be used for this purpose: the Fund is currently used to support receiving unemployment benefits, for example for funding travel to training venues or paying for family care to enable a claimant to undertake training, but despite this promising role, the Fund has been underused and under publicised (House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee, 2017[31]).

Recommendation for expanding the role of relevant actors in facilitating basic skills training delivery:

  • The government should enable JCP to expand its service offerings to employed individuals, and low-skilled workers in particular, to assist them in taking advantage of basic skills entitlements. This expanded mandate could allow employers and training providers to work closely with JCP to identify employees with basic skills needs (see policy option 2.3). Funding for this expansion of JCP’s mandate could be met in part through the Flexible Support Fund. The Fund could also support JCP in covering related costs for promoting basic skills training participation as well as co-ordination costs for facilitating workplace delivery of basic skills training. The Department for Work and Pensions should co-ordinate with the Department for Education with regards to JCP’s expanded role. The Department of Work and Pension should also take steps to promote the Flexible Support Fund for this purpose and monitor the extent of uptake and the purpose for which it is used by individual Jobcentres.

Flexibility in adult learning allows people to initiate and maintain learning even in the face of time-barriers and unexpected disruptions. The provision of basic skills training in a flexible manner – through providing options such as basic skills training in the workplace (policy option 3.1) as well as distance learning and shorter, part-time and modularised course – has the potential to attract more adults who face barriers in upskilling, in particular those in work. To overcome workers’ and employers’ time constraints, policy makers and providers should gain a better understanding of the needs of low-skilled workers (and their employers) and should ensure an adequate supply of flexible basic skills programmes.

England could increase the flexibility of existing formal basic skills training that aims to help learners to obtain formal qualifications and is largely classroom based, in order to make basic skills training more accessible for workers and employers. Given that many low-skilled workers face time-related barriers, more flexible forms of basic skills training are necessary for them to access training. In England, many formal basic skills training courses are often offered by and in the further education colleges, which are limited to fully accommodate the needs of working adults. Moreover, flexible forms of basic skills training are rarely credited while such credits may give or facilitate access to further training including higher-level basic skills training.

More accessible and flexible basic skills courses can encourage participation by low-skilled workers. This can include delivering basic skills training in the workplaces (policy option 3.1), delivering online, hybrid, modular, credit-based, part-time or weekend courses).

In recognition of this need for flexibility and accessibility, England launched the Flexible Learning Fund Pilots (Box 3.3) with the funding going to online and blended learning (OECD, 2019[9]). The Cost and Outreach Pilots (Box 3.3) were also launched to test flexible and accessible learning offerings. For now there is no detailed information on the future of these projects, and evaluation will be necessary to test how effective they have been at encouraging participation.

Yet despite such initiatives, participation in distance or open education in England remains relatively low, regardless of age group. Participation is also relatively low among the low-skilled employed compared to other OECD countries (Figure 3.4), possibly due to the fact that ICT access and usage among the low educated in England is also lower than other OECD countries. Initiatives such as the Online Centres Network (of community organisations) run by the Good Things Foundation13 could help in this regard. This network aims to reach the hardest to reach and provided free or low-cost access to computers and the Internet. Its blended or online courses have shown good progression rates to further learning, such as basic skills courses in further education colleges. Such non-formal online courses can be effectively used to provide low-skilled workers with digital proficiency to access formal basic skills training.

In addition to online learning in general, modular learning and micro-credentials allow for more frequent starting points and more flexible modes of learning. For example, Flanders (Belgium) offers modularised adult education where the subject material is subdivided in a number of certifiable modules and several modules can compose a programme. Providers and learners are free to spread a module over different durations in different timing and to begin the modules at various points in time. The modules in adult education can be organised as different combinations of face-to-face instruction, distance learning or independent learning at home or in an open learning centre. Ireland also offers modular, credit-based online basic skills courses – both independent learners and adults who are assisted by learning centres. The courses use text to speech software to support beginner readers (Box 3.4).

Stakeholders interviewed during the OECD review visits suggested that English courses could award micro-credentials in speaking, reading and comprehension separately, instead of requiring achievement in all these areas in parallel. This would allow adult learners who are relatively skilled in some of these domains to advance more quickly, buying them time and building their confidence to proceed to the areas of English proficiency that they find more difficult.

Recommendation for increasing the flexibility of basic skills training to reduce barriers facing low-skilled workers:

  • The government should support training providers to offer more flexible basic skills training, such as online, hybrid, modular, credit-based, part-time or weekend courses as part of basic skills entitlements. Given that developing or outsourcing online and modularised courses and crediting them as part of basic skills qualification courses at the level of individual providers may be inefficient, the government could consider funding and facilitating the upscaling and dissemination of such initiatives, including projects funded and deemed successful under the Flexible Learning Fund pilots. The Office for Standards in Education, Children's Services and Skills could monitor the quantity and quality of such flexible provision as part of its annual inspection.

While formal adult learning designed to help adults to attain qualifications that are comparable to initial education (i.e. qualification-based approaches) does benefit many learners (Desjardins, 2019[37]), this approach may not be the solution for all. In particular, the majority of the current provision is generally linked to, or often reminds learners of, classroom settings, exams and fear of failure. There may be less flexibility to innovate with curriculum, teaching approaches and assessment developed for formal, regulated basic skills qualifications, compared to flexible non-formal programmes.

England is at one extreme of international practice in its heavy use of formal qualifications in non-advanced education (Wolf and Jenkins, 2014[38]). In England, adult education in general and publicly-funded adult education in particular is focused on providing learners with formal qualifications. Ofsted has acknowledged the drawback of this approach, for example, by expressing concerns about the effectiveness of the government’s policy to require learners who have not achieved a grade 4 in English and/or mathematics to continue studying for a qualification in these subjects. Qualification-based approaches, especially in English and maths, creates the perception that “studying these subjects in further education is a punishment for not getting a grade 4 at an earlier stage of education” (Ofsted, 2018[39]).

For employees wanting to enhance their basic skills, attaining a formal qualification may not be their objective or optimal from a policy perspective. This is especially the case where the worker already holds a medium-/high-level qualification. Low-skilled workers already participate far more in non-formal (non-regulated) learning than formal learning (see Figure A A.6). Thus non-formal learning can be an important means of basic skills development. Although a majority of non-formal learning in England does not lead to a certificate (63%), employer support in non-formal learning is relatively strong. According to the Adult Education Survey 2016 (Department for Education, 2018[40]), 93% of non-formal learning in England is funded by employers or prospective employers (a higher share than formal learning: 75%). Employees report similar benefits for non-formal learning as they do for formal learning – for both forms about 62% of participants report the main outcome as “better performance in present job”.

Despite its advantages, concerted effort is still needed to boost low-skilled adults’ participation in non-formal learning. Adults with no qualifications do participate proportionately more in non-formal learning than formal learning. However, their participation rates in non-formal learning (13.2%) are much lower than for more highly educated adults (Figure 3.5). In England, it is rare for non-formal learning to receive public funding, and even when it does it is a difficult process. For example, Learning Support is available from further education providers to help learners on fully-funded basic skills courses who are facing financial difficulty, but those who are on a Community Learning course cannot claim this type of support (ESFA, 2019[8]).

Other OECD countries have invested in, created and promoted flexible, online basic skills programmes for adults, in particular low-skilled workers, but these are not necessarily linked to formal basic skills qualifications. For example, innovative non-formal basic skills programmes are also offered online in Germany through work-related content and multimedia targeting specific low-skilled occupations, as in-company training during working hours in Switzerland, and through highly modularised micro-lessons and game-based learning programmes in the United States (Box 3.5). In the Netherlands, through the Language at Work (Taal op de werkvloer) initiative, the government provides companies with funding to invest in language skills at the workplace and to provide language courses at or outside the workplace. The government sets the frameworks but leaves the mode and approach to basic skills learning to be defined jointly between the employer and the training providers (Eurydice, 2019[41]).

Recommendation for expanding non-formal basic skills provision to complement formal qualifications:

  • The government should support increased provision of flexible non-formal basic skills programmes, and simplify pathways to formal qualifications. The government should expand public funding for flexible non-formal courses. For example, conditions for learning in non-regulated English and maths programmes to be eligible for funding from the Adult Education Budget could be relaxed, to include high quality non-formal provision. Successful examples of non-formal provision of basic skills under the Flexible Learning Fund could be scaled up and disseminated with support from government. The government should consider how to best assure the quality of non-formal basic skills programmes that receive public funding, building on Ofsted expertise and the Learning and Work Institute’s research into quality assuring non-regulated provision.

Education and training leave, i.e. a regulatory instrument which sets out the conditions under which workers may be granted time away from work for leaning purposes, is a policy tool to ensure that adults – including the low-skilled – have the right to put aside sufficient time for training (OECD, 2019[44]). In light of the significant time barriers preventing adults with low basic skills in work from participating in basic skills training, time off from work such as training leave can be a solution. While training leave should help workers who are less likely to take time off for training, the current statutory training leave scheme in England does not sufficiently serve to enhance the basic skills of employees as it is limited to large organisations and it is unpaid.

Although education and training leave exists in many OECD countries, take-up tends to be low, especially for the low-skilled because of their limited bargaining power vis-à-vis their employer. Employers themselves are generally not obliged to accept the training leave request and may be reluctant to grant education and training leave to the low-skilled, especially for basic, general skills that are transferable to a different job with another employer (OECD, 2019[45]).

Training leave instruments in England are a relatively recent development. The Right to Request Time to Train in England was established in 2009 as part of the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning (ASCL) Act, and became effective in April 2010. Most other European countries introduced training leave instruments much earlier – Poland in 1949, Czechoslovakia and Spain in the 1960s; Belgium, France, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Italy, Portugal and Sweden in the 1970s; and Germany in the 1980s (Cedefop, 2012[46]).

The current statutory training leave scheme in England does not sufficiently serve to enhance the basic skills of employees. It is limited to organisations with more than 250 workers and to those workers who have worked with a large employer for at least 26 weeks of continuous employment. Given that SMEs employ slightly higher shares of low-skilled workers than larger firms,14 the scheme may benefit only a limited proportion of the target group. Also, only one application can be made per employee in any 12-month period. Even if they were willing to do so, these low-skilled workers will not likely be able to improve basic skills through a single, short-term commitment. All these conditions are restrictive compared with other OECD countries (Table 3.3).

Uptake of the current training leave scheme has been limited, especially by low-skilled workers and their employers. Few employers are aware of the current training leave scheme. Only half of the employers in England in the Employer Perspectives Survey had heard of employees’ Right to Request Time to Train (five years after its introduction), and the share was lower in the low-skilled sectors (Institute for Employment Studies, 2017[47]). Moreover, employees lack support from employers to take time off for training. According to a recent Union Learning Survey: 44% of employees experience work pressures that make it hard to take time off for learning, 31% have managers who do not allow them to take time off for learning, and 30% report a lack of interest and support from management (Crews et al., 2018[19]). The interest and support from employer can be expected to be lower for basic skills training for low-skilled adults: on the one hand employers are typically less aware of or convinced by the benefits of basic skills training, vis-à-vis job-specific or vocational training, and on the other hand they may be reluctant to grant education and training leave for basic, general skills that are transferable to a different job with another employer. Some employers may refuse training leave requests as they have the right to do so under the certain conditions. In fact, the training leave is primarily being used for relatively higher levels of training (e.g. qualifications at UK Level 3 or above).

However, there is some evidence to suggest that training leave has facilitated access to basic skills training. In fact, 21.4% of training requested under the scheme was for Skills for Life/ESOL, according to a 2013 Unionlearn survey.15 However, there have been no available data on monitoring or evaluation regarding use of the scheme for participating in basic skills training in recent years – in particular in relation to the entitlement to basic skills training which was introduced in 2016.

The training leave scheme is unavailable to workers in SMEs, including those with low levels of basic skills. In England, more than half of low-skilled workers are in companies with fewer than 50 employees. In addition, employees in large companies have more chances to take time off for training without relying on the training leave scheme, compared with those in smaller companies (Institute for Employment Studies, 2017[47]). Yet, as indicated in Table 3.3, the United Kingdom is unique in that the current scheme is restricted to large organisations. Thus employees working in SMEs who would benefit most from the scheme are not eligible for it. Most schemes in EU and OECD countries do not distinguish between beneficiaries on the basis of company size, but, in contrast, there are examples of preferential treatment towards SME employees: the most common target group of training leave schemes among EU countries that specified was low-skilled employees (Cedefop, 2012[46]). In Korea, training leave for small companies (with fewer than 150 employees) is paid from public resources (KORCHAMHRD, n.d.[48]).

Workers moving regularly from employer to employer will need portable skills such as basic skills, as well as portability of training rights and recognition of their skills. Fixed-term workers in particular may benefit from upskilling or reskilling while enhancing basic skills, if it enables them to access open-ended employment opportunities. As training leave in the United Kingdom is based on the number of employees – and more critically tenure – workers on short contracts are often excluded from these benefits. Even in cases where training might be available, there could be little incentive to take advantage of the opportunity. For example, workers on zero-hour contracts have little scope for career development, which discourages them from investing time, energy or money into training. Employers of fixed-term and temporary workers have a lower likelihood to invest in their employee training (OECD, 2019[9]), and even less when it comes to basic skills. Lack of training has been cited as a problem facing workers in zero-hours arrangements: they are 20% less likely to have been offered training by their employer. When offered, zero-hours workers will more likely have to pay for their training than other workers (Adams and Prassl, 2018[49]; Koumenta and Williams, 2018[50]; CIPD, 2013[51]). There may be less concern regarding basic skills among platform workers, who are estimated to be predominantly highly educated in Europe (Pesole et al., 2018[52]). Similarly, self-employment attracts more highly qualified individuals in England.16

Recommendation for improving training leave entitlements for low-skilled workers and their employers:

  • The government should extend the current statutory training leave to small and medium-sized companies, to support the skills development of low-skilled workers. This could begin with a pilot scheme in a low-skilled sector. The government should better promote and raise awareness of training leave (see Chapter 2). It should then monitor and evaluate the uptake and impact of training leave, in particular its use by low-skilled adults for training partly or fully targeting basic skills. In the long-term, the government should consider extending training leave to low-skilled workers on non-standard forms of work, such as zero-hour contracts.

Closely associated with time-related barriers are cost-related barriers.17 Even though participating in formal, regulated basic skills training is free for low-skilled workers, such participation has other indirect costs which affect participation.

In England, training leave is unpaid and there is no financial compensation for employer cost for basic skills training, i.e. the wage for employees on training. In this context, adults with low basic skills in work are likely unwilling to forfeit earning opportunities. In addition, the costs that companies have to bear for staff absence during the training leave may be relatively higher for smaller companies. So even if the scheme were extended to organisations with fewer than 250 workers, the challenge facing these companies could remain unresolved unless reasonable compensation is given. To free up employee time for training, a company first needs to check availability of cover for absent employees and secure a replacement, as well as manage administrative procedures for the employee to request training, take time off and access training. This is especially problematic for companies in which staff turnover is high. In addition, inability to reorganise work among existing staff or to recruit additional staff is part of the reasons for refusing training leave (Gov.UK, n.d.[57]). As it is, these same challenges face larger companies, the take-up rate of the current training leave is at a low 23% (2014).

While no financial incentive is in place for the current training leave scheme in England, there is qualitative evidence that when combined with local skills funding (the North West), the scheme contributed to an increase in employer interest and investment related to the provision of basic skills training in the workplace; when the funding was withdrawn however, the training demand plateaued (Institute for Employment Studies, 2017[47]). Given this example, the devolved Adult Education Budget – which pays basic skills training – may be used to compensate employer cost to support employee participation in basic skills training through training leave.

Several OECD countries provide financial compensation for employees, employers or both to make training leave effective. Common tools include subsidies for small employers to compensate for administrative costs and the time off required for training, and paid leave for training; both are often funded by national or regional (Flanders) governments to compensate the employer cost for wages. In some cases, sectoral training funds pay for the leave (e.g. in Denmark and the Netherlands) (OECD, 2019[58]). In the case of training leave in France (Congé Individuel de Formation, CIF, recently replaced by the Projet de Transition Professionnelle), the wage and training costs are covered through social partner organisations, with funds collected from employers. During the leave, individuals receive their salary (60-100%, depending on the salary level and training duration) and the training does not have to be related to the current job of the employee (OECD, 2017[59]). Switzerland also provides financial compensation to employers for providing basic skills training.

In addition to compensating the employer costs for training leave, providing mechanisms such as helping to find replacement and covering the replacement cost can encourage the use of training leave. Denmark’s Jobrotation scheme provides public subsidies to help this process. This scheme is in particular helpful for SMEs: the scheme encourages employers to train their workers through solving the problem of staff absence, and employees to participate in the training through reduced risk of losing their job after the training (OECD, 2016[60]).

Recommendation for supporting employers of low-skilled workers on training leave:

  • The government should provide compensation to employers and employees, in particular smaller-sized enterprises where workers utilise training leave for basic skills development. The government should provide means to reasonably compensate employer costs related to employee training leave (e.g. the costs to replacing workers on training leave) – as well as the employee opportunity costs (e.g. foregone income). The government should consider whether this could be funded by surpluses in the Adult Education Budget or Apprenticeship levy. Funding for training leave for low-skilled workers in SMEs to take basic skills courses could be tied to the requirement to collect and provide information on the uptake of the training leave. The Individualised Learner Record could also collect data on learners on training leave more systematically through providers.


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← 1. Set out in the Apprenticeships, Skills and Children’s Learning Act 2009 (as amended by the Education Act 2011).

← 2. Local flexibility provision that ESFA funds is not part of the English and maths, Level 2 or Level 3 legal entitlement offer.

← 3. Plans launched to boost digital skills for adults, Department for Education, 23 April 2019.

← 4. In cash terms, from GBP 3.63 billion to GBP 2.48 billion. In part this is connected to the replacement of grant funding with loan funding for some learners from 2013-14 onwards (Foster, 2018[5]). Spending per learner has remained roughly constant in real terms, at just over GBP 1 000 per learner each year. (Belfield, Farquharson and Sibieta, 2018[63]).

← 5. These figures do not include spending on Advanced Learner Loans, which replaced grant funding for learners aged 24 and over studying at Levels 3 and 4 (e.g. A Levels) from 2013-14.

← 6. The Government subsequently decided that a portion of the AEB would be retained centrally to spend on other Department for Education priorities. As a result, the annual AEB was reduced to GBP 1.34 billion from 2016-17 onwards (Foster, 2018[5]).

← 7. A similar conclusion was also made in Learning and Work Institute’s Adult Participation in Learning Survey 2018 for the surveyed adults in the United Kingdom (Egglestone et al., 2019[64]).

← 8. The ULF is managed and administered by Unionlearn under an agreement with the Department for Education (DfE), which directs the level and type of learning activity that should be supported by the Fund. Unions are invited to apply for the Fund to support their learning projects on an annual basis.

← 9. Unionlearn provides a skill assessment tool called SkillCheck.

← 10. ULRs are entitled to reasonable paid time off for training and for carrying out their duties as learning promoters and supporters. Union members are entitled to unpaid time off to consult their learning representative, as long as they belong to a bargaining unit for which the union is recognised.

← 11. www.unionlearn.org.uk/union-learning-reps-ulrs.

← 12. It was announced that the Department for Education will not be providing Unionlearn with grant funding in the next financial year. Instead, it has been decided to concentrate funding and resources on a number of major investments in further education, including the National Skills Fund.

← 13. The Good Things Foundation is a charity that supports socially excluded individuals to improve their lives through digital. Its online learning platform, Learn My Way, is employed towards the goal of providing thousands of people with a clear path to learn the digital skills they need the most.

← 14. Low-skilled workers – defined as those whose jobs require only compulsory education plus basic on-the-job training or induction – constitute around 15.5% of SME employees (Federation of Small Businesses, 2017[65]) compared to the average of all firms of about 11%, according to the Migration Observatory (Sumption and Fernández-Reino, 2018[66]).

← 15. The number of respondents was 247 with multiple responses.

← 16. The United Kingdom has seen an increase in self-employment, from 12% of total employment in 2001 to 15% in 2017. During those years, this growth in self-employment has been driven mainly by highly educated individuals. The growth has led to an increase in the share of the self-employed holding a degree or equivalent, from 19% in 2001 to 33% in 2016; by contrast the share of those with no qualification has been very low. When considering those self-employed with a degree as a share of total employment (employees and the self-employed), the share of degree holders increases from 2% to 5% over the same period, indicating a higher concentration of relatively highly qualified individuals among the self-employed (Office for National Statistics, 2018[68]) This increase in self-employment can be interpreted as a positive development in terms of growing entrepreneurship. The government provides an effective self-employment subsidy of GBP 5.1 billion, or GBP 1 240 per person per year (UK Parliament, 2017[67]) Evidence has shown that this subsidy aimed at promoting entrepreneurship has also incentivised people to identify as self-employed in order to receive a tax break (OECD, 2019[45]).

← 17. Financial barriers directly related to basic skills training participation are expected to be lower because of the basic skills entitlement for English and mathematics up to Level 2 (see Chapter 1).

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