Poverty drivers: low literacy, numeracy and digital skills – what are your views?

Published by Kate Gallant on

Do you have good practice experience of working with people with low literacy and numeracy skills who need support with their digital skills?

Some recent research I’ve done in this area has highlighted that there is very little published about how lack of literacy and numeracy skills impacts on the ability of a learner to gain digital skills.

People are likely to experience low skills in all three areas, and that lack of skills will impact together. For instance if your literacy skills are poor then your ability to access information online, or even to send emails, will be restricted. Low numeracy could impact on problem solving and specifically on coding skills.

How can projects work to support learners with reduced digital/ literacy/ numeracy skills?

What I haven’t seen is much evidence of how people are supported to overcome these barriers and how we advise Digital Champions to support learners. Some have the view that this is a specialist area, others that there are basics that can be incorporated into digital skills training.

What does research and data tell us?

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation – who have done so much to help us all understand poverty, its causes and impacts – advised in 2018 that 5.5 million adults in working households are in poverty. They also report 5 million people in the UK as lacking literacy and numeracy skills.

The National Literacy Trust reports on UK-wide literacy levels:

Image: Image showing statistics of literacy skills for each of the four UK countries

The 2011 Skills for Life Survey highlights that 15% of the population in England are below Entry Level 3 (the level expected to be achieved at the end of primary school) in literacy.
24% are below Entry Level 3 in numeracy. Numeracy skills have seen a small drop in performance since the previous survey in 2003.

In Scotland 74% of the population have literacy skills at Level 3 or above. Of the 26% who experience challenges – 3.6% face serious challenges. Adult Literacies in Scotland 2020

The State of the Nation report (2018-19) highlights that 49% of the poorest adults have received no training since leaving school, helping us to understand just how essential in-work literacy, numeracy and digital skills training could be.

The growing importance of these skills is highlighted by an OECD blog post on What digital skills are needed for tomorrow’s digital world. They suggest that ‘Workers will need a broader set of skills, complementary to ICT, to thrive in the digital economy. While working with the new technologies, workers will have to be able to take on complex, less automatable, tasks such as problem solving in novel situations. This requires solid literacy, numeracy and problem-solving skills, but also autonomy, co-ordination and collaborative skills which complement ICT skills’.

People in low income work are more likely to have poor skills in all three areas, as their job roles don’t require them to gain and develop skills in the workplace. This same group is also at risk of losing employment from further technological changes including AI.

Demographic and personal characteristics linked to low literacy/ numeracy/ digital skills:

Deprivation (measured through the Index of Multiple Deprivation) is strongly linked to low skills in all areas

English is not first language

Having a self-assessed learning disability

Neither parent in education beyond the age of 16

Working in certain industries, being in non-professional or managerial occupations

No educational qualifications – strong correlations

Gender – women score more highly for literacy & lower for numeracy

Age is not a factor for literacy, numeracy levels for 16-24 year olds and oldest age groups are lowest

Digital skills decrease with each generation

Health is linked to abilities in literacy, numeracy and digital skills with performance declining in line with falling ratings of health

This factor is linked to age (with older age more likely to mean poorer health)

People in rural areas have higher skills levels, the differential was still significant even when controlled for rural areas having fewer people with English not the first language

Regional variations – areas with lower scores in all three skills are the North East of England and London. Slightly higher literacy and numeracy skills are found amongst people living in the Central belt of Scotland.

Internet access – people who did not have internet access were outperformed in all three areas by people who had a home internet connection

Infrequent or zero computer use appears to predict weak literacy and numeracy skills beyond what might be expected suggesting that computer use may have a reinforcing quality – promoting good literacy and numeracy

From the Good Things Foundation analysis of Ofcom data: Those who left education at or under 16 years are 2.8 times more likely to be non-users saying ‘it’s not for me’ than those who left education after 21. Those who left education at or under 16 years are 4 times more likely to be non-users than those who left education after 21. Those who are not “very” confident about their literacy are 2.4 times more likely to be nonusers saying ‘it’s not for me’
Digital Motivation: Exploring the reasons people are offline

How could Digital Champion projects respond?

Much of the work being carried out in adult learning to support improved literacy and numeracy has the same approach as is used to develop basic digital skills – it is likely to be person-centred and learner-led. Practice-based learning, so using the skills, is also much more likely to be successful.

The Scottish Adult Literacies Curriculum Framework provides some really useful information on the principles of practice, and features that are likely to make practice more successful.

Many Digital Champion projects will not feel confident to directly support literacy and numeracy learning, but an understanding of the key principles and the inter-linkages of skills could be beneficial. This could be covered in induction sessions for new Digital Champions. Encouraging them to look out for low literacy and numeracy skills in those who they are supporting with digital skills. Often this is a hidden barrier with people more likely to disclose low ability in numeracy, but to hide low literacy skills because of embarrassment.

Signposting to local adult learning provision for literacy and numeracy skills will be an option for many. Local library services will usually signpost to available courses. The National Literacy Trust hubs which have been established in some areas provide a local resource also.

There are online sites available such as the National Numeracy Challenge which helps to develop everyday maths skills.

The BBC provides Learning English which has a range of different level learning materials designed for direct use by learners.

Community of Practice call for information

I’d be interested to hear from projects how they work with learners with low literacy and numeracy skills. What resources do you use? Which partners do you signpost to? What advice do you give to your Digital Champions?

You can email me at kate.gallant@scvo.org.uk or tweet us @OneDigitalProg