Basic skills vital for the home and community as well as the workplace, researchers say

18 June 2014

Current coalition government policies that are designed to improve adults’ literacy and numeracy skills are overly focused on the world of work, according to two leading researchers in this field.

Although the government is rightly concerned about the employability and efficiency of adults with poor literacy and numeracy, it must not overlook the role of basic skills in family and community life, say Professor John Bynner and Dr Sam Parsons, of the Institute of Education, University of London.

“Basic skills are especially important for effective parenting as they enable adults to support their children during their pre-school and primary years,” they said. “We found that the vocabulary scores of three-year-olds with parents who had very low skills levels were 20 per cent below those of three-year-olds with parents educated to GCSE A* to C level. There was also a substantial gap between these two groups in reading and spelling at age six and seven.”

The researchers, who had a significant impact on the basic skills policies of the previous government, added that there was an unmet demand for literacy and numeracy classes specifically aimed at parents.

“That’s regrettable because this is one of the best ways of motivating adults to attend basic skills classes,” they said. “Almost all parents want to help their children do well at school so such classes can create a virtuous circle of learning achievement for both parents and children.”

Bynner and Parsons spent 18 years investigating adult literacy and numeracy with the aid of data gathered by the National Child Development Study and the British Cohort Study. The first study is tracking the lives of British adults born in one week in 1958 while the second study is following adults born in one week in 1970. Both studies are managed by the IOE’s Centre for Longitudinal Studies.

One of the researchers’ conclusions is that poor basic skills can make even “everyday functioning” — shopping and dealing with tradesmen, for example – extremely difficult. Inadequate literacy and numeracy levels also inhibit adults’ community involvement, they say, as people with low skills are less likely to join social groups or vote.

“The government should therefore bear in mind that its ‘Big Society’ and ‘One Nation’ aspirations, and other core elements of social inclusion and cohesion, would benefit from basic skills investment,” Bynner and Parsons said, in a statement timed to coincide with Adult Learners’ Week.

The researchers, however, believe that the coalition government is right to see digital skills as the essential contemporary counterpart to literacy and numeracy. “Our comparative research on adult basic skills in the US and UK showed that improving IT skills actually has a more substantial effect on literacy skills and employability than the other way round,” they pointed out.

Read the full case study

Research impact case study: The impact of adult literacy and numeracy research based on the 1970 British Cohort Study (PDF)

Appendix: Further examples of impact of Bynner and Parson’s research (PDF)

Further information

David Budge
078 8141 5362

Notes for editors

  1. Adult Learners’ Week is a national celebration of lifelong learning which includes a large number of ‘have a go’ taster events. The Week, which is now in its 23rd year, runs from June 14 to 20. It is organised by the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education and is backed by hundreds of supporters and partners, including the European Social Fund, the BBC, the Edge Foundation and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.
  2. The Centre for Longitudinal Studies (CLS) is responsible for running three of Britain’s major birth cohort studies: the 1958 National Child Development Study, the 1970 British Cohort Study and the Millennium Cohort Study, as well as the Longitudinal Study of Young People in England (now renamed ‘Next Steps’). CLS is a resource centre funded by the Economic and Social Research Council. Further information at
  3. The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) funds research into the big social and economic questions facing us today. It also develops and trains the UK’s future social scientists. Its research informs public policies and helps make businesses, voluntary bodies and other organisations more effective. Most importantly, it makes a real difference to all our lives. The ESRC is an independent organisation, established by Royal Charter in 1965, and funded mainly by the Government.
  4. The Institute of Education is a world-leading university specialising in education and the social sciences. Founded in 1902, the Institute currently has more than 7,000 students and 800 staff. In January 2014, the Institute was recognised by Ofsted for its ‘outstanding’ initial teacher training across primary, secondary and further education. In the 2014 QS World University Rankings, the Institute was ranked number one for education worldwide. In the most recent Research Assessment Exercise two-thirds of the publications that the IOE submitted were judged to be internationally significant and over a third were judged to be ‘world leading’. The Institute is part of the University of London.

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