The new government-funded programme with potential to be a landmark in adult numeracy. 

By Chris Morgan, WEA 

It is twenty years since a there was a government funded campaign – Skills for Life - to promote adult essential skills. 

Although there have been “entitlements” to ensure that provision in English, maths and digital skills is available, there appears to have been little shift in the worrying levels of low numeracy and literacy, especially in the most disadvantaged areas.  

And so, it’s all the more welcome that a new programme called Multiply has been announced.  

Multiply is as an almost unprecedented funding intervention aimed at the specific challenge of improving the nation’s numeracy.  

It’s difficult to think of another education funding programme for adults aimed so directly at a single skills problem. 

Multiply and levelling up 

It’s especially encouraging that the Multiply programme is part of the wider Levelling Up strategy rather than an exclusively Department for Education approach.  

Linking numeracy to that wider agenda – the interaction between levels of essential skills and the broader socio-economic outcomes - is highly welcome.  

But to be effective, Multiply must be aligned with other Levelling Up funds; especially the UK Shared Prosperity Fund in England and across the rest of the United Kingdom.

Choosing the right funding approaches 

The £270m Multiply budget in England is being devolved to Mayoral Combined Authorities (MCAs) and strategic tier Local Authorities.  

In distributing Multiply funding, local decision makers should do two things.  

Firstly, they should fund tried and tested providers (including Institutes for Adult Learning, local authority providers and colleges). 

And second, they should develop a collaborative rather than a competitive approach, ensuring providers do not waste time, energy and resources in bidding against each other. 

Deploying new strategies to engage adults 

This additional funding for adult numeracy offers providers a chance to try new approaches which existing funding contracts do not allow for.  

Although the Adult Education Budget has long been used to support learners with their numeracy, the scale of the challenge across our communities has outgrown conventional funding channels.  

Multiply offers an opportunity to deploy extra funding to engage with adults in communities that are hardest to reach and to resources more directly and effectively. 

Motivating adults to learn maths 

The WEA has long taken the approach that motivating learners to acquire essential skills is best achieved by embedding the learning in more accessible subjects.  

Few adults will willingly embark on a maths course later in life having had a bad experience of it at school and been nervous of the subject ever since.  

It may be that the need for numeracy in a work context provides the spur to learning but even here the results may not be positive if there is an element of compulsion. 

The best approach is to link numeracy (and literacy and digital skills) to subjects which enthuse learners, and which have a clear end goal.  

That may be a vocational subject where the wider picture of acquiring skills and knowledge for a desired job provides the motivation to try maths as well.  

It may also be a subject taken up for personal interest or to develop other life skills – measuring out ingredients in a cookery course, for example, requires the understanding of numbers.  

Delivering such courses in a community setting – rather than a formal education venue such as a college – removes yet another barrier.  

Our understanding of what motivates – and demotivates – adult learners has been honed through years of practice and research.  

The stigma and palpable discomfort that adults feel if challenged on their level of numeracy seems to outweigh most other subjects. It’s seemingly part of our culture to treat maths in the same way as we treat spiders – something that should be welcomed but actually we’d rather it went down the plughole.  

The more we can draw on Multiply funding to promote maths as part of a more meaningful set of outcomes, the better the results will be.  

The practical benefits of understanding numbers can be felt immediately by those who need maths skills most.  

Adults on welfare benefits may be better able to navigate a complex system with a better understanding of income thresholds or family budgeting.  

Those in insecure work may be able to progress into more stable contracts if they gain essential skills qualifications as a pathway to more technical subjects.  

Older people stretching pensions and savings may gain a better control of their day-to-day finances. 

The underlying social challenges need to be dealt with across the rest of the levelling up strategy – understanding how to budget on a low income is one thing but having the full support and opportunity to escape from a low-income cycle is what is really needed.  

Engaging adults on welfare 

For Multiply to be successful, adults claiming welfare benefits must be able and encouraged to participate in the programme.  

Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) job coaches must allow unemployed and low paid adults claiming Universal Credit to participate inn Multiply without losing benefits.  

We need buy-in from DWP for Multiply to succeed.  

Multiply can be a landmark programme.  

WEA looks forward to working with funding authorities to tackle the nation’s numeracy deficit once and for all.   

By making Multiply a success, we in the adult education sector have a better chance of persuading the Treasury to invest in a complementary programme adult literacy.  

Chris Morgan is Director of Education, Employability & Skills at the WEA