Literacy and numeracy: the vocational challenge

Patrick Dunn, Project and Partnership Manager at Ufi, discusses the current challenges around poor numeracy and literary skills in the UK and how technology can help us to improve the skills system to make sure no one is left behind.

With more than 35 years' experience working with digital technology and learning, Patrick draws critical insights from his own knowledge and reflects on some of the Ufi-supported projects who are tackling literacy and numeracy skills challenges with vocational technology.


An economy in rapid transition needs a workforce equipped with the right skills. And these skills can only be cultivated in a system that, from top to bottom, is built to identify, respond to, and deliver what’s needed in an ever-changing environment. As outlined in our recent Green Paper, without a responsive system, much of the workforce, and indeed the economy as a whole, could be left behind as new, unpredicted requirements emerge.

But even in this period of constant change, it is clear that the need for certain fundamental skills – specifically numeracy and literacy – remains constant. What is changing is how they are learned, and how they are applied.

So what’s the current situation in the UK? A research report by Pro Bono Economics states that what they call the “numeracy crisis” could be costing the UK up to £25 billion a year.

According to Andy Haldane, Chief Executive of the RSA:

“The UK faces a numeracy crisis, plain and simple. The cost comes in widening regional disparities, since numeracy skills are weakest in regions whose incomes are lowest.”

The situation with literacy is no better. The National Literacy Trust’s research shows that just under three quarters of those with poor literacy skills have never been promoted. And the human scale of the problem? Estimates vary – but according to Learning and Work Institute, roughly 1 in 6 adults in the UK struggle with reading and writing, and around 1 in 4 adults find Maths difficult.

Clearly, we do not currently have a system that cultivates fundamental skills for all who need them, nor one that supports those who have had a poor experience of mainstream education and training.

A complex problem

We know that once a person has problems with literacy and numeracy at school, or opts out completely, this greatly increases the likelihood that these problems will persist throughout their life. Confidence then becomes a significant barrier, as low levels of these skills is widely perceived as an indicator of educational failure, and a barrier to career progression. There is a useful encapsulation of the issues faced by such adults in the RSA and Ufi’s joint report Rebalancing Adult Learning where one of the personas identified is the “Foundational Learner”. These learners, who have typically had poor experiences of mainstream education, can be badly affected by issues relating to mindset and belief in their own ability.

A further challenge is that, having missed out on developing these skills, adult learners tend to need very specific help. Because learning Maths and English is largely linear – skills are built progressively - each individual needs a solution that deals exactly with where they are in this linear process. An incorrect starting point for each individual is likely to be distracting at best, and possibly a severe hindrance. But establishing specific starting points for individuals in any but the smallest group sessions can be very challenging.

Is technology a magic wand?

So is technology a magic wand? No, it isn’t. Nor is it a replacement for successful existing methods. Its role is to build on what is already working well and to help address areas in conventional teaching that need support. And it’s not about cool new technology. It’s about applying the right technology in the right context, to solve clearly identified problems.

Although numeracy and literacy are founded on different skills - and use the brain in very different ways – it can be useful to identify common themes in the way that technology tackles the key challenges. We can look at solutions in three broad categories: customisation, confidence and context.


Technology is highly effective in identifying specific needs for each individual learner, to a degree that is not possible using conventional methods. This is particularly important for adults building their literacy and numeracy skills because of the linear nature of the learning task, so it is critical to establish each person’s starting point. Ufi's project with Maths Kitchen uses a short adaptive assessment to ensure learners start their journey with a sense of success. This highly personalised, chunked approach, is extremely difficult to achieve in a classroom setting.

CENTURY’s "Supercharging Learner Motivation” project uses AI to assess learner needs, customising questions as each learner answers them. But customisation doesn’t always need to use complex technology. Readable supports learners by combining stories at the learners’ correct level with a word memorisation tool tailored to that level.


To build confidence, adults must be treated as adults. They need learning resources that respect their experience, interests and concerns, and that draw them in. These resources need to demonstrate to the learner the value of what they are doing, and clearly distinguish the learning experience they are going through from their previous experiences, particularly if these have been negative or inadequate.

Citizen Literacy uses stories from the real world of adult life and work, supported by interactive gameplay, as well as handwriting and voice recognition so that the learner can interact and learn in a way that suits them. Readable uses narratives – sometimes quite challenging ones – presented as chat fiction (a format of web fiction written in the form of text-message or instant messaging conversations). It also supports the learner by providing resources such as instant translation and text to speech, so that they are never lost or undermined.

The approach taken by Learning Labs, designed to build confidence in using English where it is not their first language, is to provide a choice of many methods - lessons, games, flashcards, tutor videos, and object translations - so that learners can develop their confidence in ways they are most comfortable with. The project also aims to relieve the teaching burden on tutors so that they have more time to support learners, which in turn bolsters their confidence. National Numeracy’s Numeracy Champions in the Workplace, aims to address confidence barriers to improving basic Maths skills, by working with partners to develop a network of local numeracy champions.

One critical aspect of the confidence issue is confidentiality, particularly for those adults who have been furthest from learning and who need a safe space in which they can practice and improve their skills without being judged. Technology can provide such confidentiality, and this is one of the key reflections in Ufi’s report on what we learned in the first year of the VocTech Challenge: Levelling up learning.


The well-established 70-20-10 model of learning and development proposes that most learning - the 70% - occurs through job-related experiences. So the context of learning is critical, particularly for fundamental skills such as Maths and English. Being tied to a specific location such as a classroom, studio or workshop, away from a genuine work context, may limit the ability of a learner to learn from experience. Technology is ideal for overcoming this limitation.

City of Glasgow College's Passport to Employment allows non-native English speakers to develop healthcare skills anywhere, including on the job. It creates a user journey for each learner which is highly relevant to the real working environment using a range of short, tailored resources to present situations that cannot be simulated in the classroom. York College’s Maths project for the hair and beauty industry is constructed as a catalogue of resources, across Levels 1-4, that provide opportunities to apply Maths skills in realistic situations, using short media clips, animations and scenarios. And because in both of these projects, technology can target individuals with exactly what they need, it is possible to get the right content, in the right context, at the right time, while working.

It’s worth finishing with a comment about learning technology solutions in general: it is very unlikely that a single solution, approach or technology will be most effective. What we have learned is that well balanced and carefully planned suites of technologies and methods, combining technology and non-technology strategies, are most likely to be effective. This is particularly important in order to engage those who have been furthest away from learning and who need to be part of a wider supportive network, which is a key part of Ufi’s mission.

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