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National Numeracy CEO Sam Sims speaks at Learning and Work Institute panel

5 Nov 2020

On 4th November 2020 the Learning and Work Institute hosted the 'Adult basic skills: building back better' panel, as part of the English, maths and ESOL Conference 2020. Among the speakers was CEO of National Numeracy, Sam Sims.

The conference’s aim was to highlight how a focus on adult basic skills can enhance the employment and skills policy response to the coronavirus pandemic, as currently around nine million adults in the UK are held back by low basic skills. It also considered what the ‘new normal’ means for adult learners, in terms of quality and accessibility, as providers experiment with new ways of engaging learners and offering provision online, and identify what more needs to be done.

Sam spoke about why we should focus on adult basic skills, how that focus would augment the employment and skills policy response, and how we fix the broken skills pipeline. Key points from his remarks are explored below.

Sam Sims

Why should we focus on adult basic skills?

It goes without saying that all jobs require basic skills – so when any change affects the economy and the job market, basic skills are something we need to look at. We know that a high proportion of those millions of adults with low basic skills, are in low-paid, insecure roles, which are unsurprisingly most affected by the Covid-19 crisis.

Yet basic skills are the foundation for ‘career resilience’ and, in enabling people to adapt, access training and move between jobs, they are the gateway to transferability.

So basic skills have an enormous role to play, not just at such times of acute crisis, but also towards this concept of ‘build back better’.

So, can a greater focus on adult basic skills enhance the employment and skills policy response to the pandemic?

Yes, absolutely. I welcome the raft of initiatives the government has announced that address some of the fundamental barriers and will make a massive difference to thousands of people. However, we need to go further.

Our education system, particularly around basic skills such as maths, is norm-referenced. This means that around a third of all adults have to emerge from the system having failed to achieve a grade 4 pass.

Many within this ‘forgotten third’ emerge some distance from being able to access many of the opportunities available and having had, in maths for example, up to 13 years of what are essentially negative experiences.

This creates huge barriers to engagement and has led to a broken skills pipeline.

We therefore know that for those held back by low basic skills, simply saying ‘retrain’, ‘take a course’, or ‘switch careers’, is unlikely to succeed. This is a massive challenge for the millions of people in low-paid or vulnerable jobs, who are yet to develop the confidence and basic skills required to take their next step.

If we are to fix this broken skills pipeline, we must focus much more on helping those with low basic skills take their first step.

So, how do we do this?

What we at National Numeracy have learned is that when it comes to developing the basic numeracy you need for any job, the biggest barrier is confidence – either confidence to use existing skills, or confidence to improve skills.

We have learned that many people have better skills than they think, yet avoid applying for roles, taking courses, or pursuing the ‘gateway’ qualifications they need, due to fear of ‘getting it wrong’.

What we need are easy-to-access, bitesize solutions that help people take their first step towards developing basic skills, by providing stepping stones to progression that focus as much on building confidence as they do in building skills.


For resources and information on building confidence with numbers visit the Number Confidence Week page.