Whether you are helping people to get a job, supporting them to maintain their employment or develop their careers, maths and English are essential foundation skills for success. This article sets out to identify some of the key issues you may wish to consider when helping learners to develop these skills in the workplace.

Employers, educators, and trade unions all agree that English, Mathematics and ICT are the underpinning skills for employability. So whether you are helping people get into work, keep their jobs or develop a career maths and English are essential foundation skills needed to build on to develop further technical skills.

You may be aware that when talking about these skills in the workplace, especially when working with adults, mathematics is often called "numeracy" and English is often called "language and communication". Whatever you call them when you are thinking about a particular workplace these terms often refer to skills particular to that place, so for example communication will involve speaking and listening but may also include working in a team.

As a tutor developing skills in the workplace it is always useful for you to:

  • clarify exactly what skills need to be developed
  • recognise how these skills link to your learners’ lives and work
  • identify the underpinning English and Maths skills needed to do those jobs successfully

Developing skills for work
At work and in life, we need a range of personal skills for success. These include the ability to manage and organise ourselves, to think and solve problems, to work together in teams, to communicate with others through speaking and writing as well as understanding the special technical skills of any business we are involved in.

All of these are underpinned by the skills of maths, English and information technology. You may know that these skills are now often referred to as Functional Skills and are seen as ‘those core elements of English, mathematics and ICT that provide individuals with the skills and abilities they need to operate confidently, effectively and independently in life, their communities and work.’ They are also “designed to help you build the practical skills to get the most out of work, education and everyday life”.

However when working with adults the mathematics and English skills are also referred to as Skills for Life or Language, Literacy and Numeracy (LLN) skills. This recognises that the context for learning is not only school based and may require different approaches to teaching and learning. LLN skills also have a separate curriculum called the Skills for Life curriculum and resources to support the development of LLN skills that underpin employability skills in a wide variety of contexts.

Working with learners
When building relationships with learners at work it is often motivating for them and useful for you to start with what they know or are interested in, their work and the skills they use regularly in their jobs. For you as a tutor this is as important as considering what topic and level of the curriculum needs to be covered.

One way to link English and maths skills development with the workplace is to carry out a job task analysis. You can do this by working with learners to recognise the different tasks involved in their jobs and then identifying the underpinning Maths or English skills needed for those different tasks to be successfully carried out. Here are a few examples:

Task: Organising  appointment schedules
Skill: 12 and 24 hour clock, addition and subtraction in minutes and hours

Task: Check bills and invoices
Skill: Addition and subtraction of money, percentage calculations to check VAT

Task: Check money change or plan spending   
Skill: Estimating skills

When you are working with learners in the workplace, starting with a work based problem and then identifying the underpinning maths and English requirements can be a useful way of pinpointing the relevance of these more specific skills.  For example, you can read a range of emails to explore which are the best ways of writing to your boss, your colleague or a customer. This can be a very relevant way for you to discuss spelling, grammar, tone etc.

Working with employers
You may come across employers who think that after many years spent at school their workforce should have the basics in maths and English already. For many reasons this may not always be the case so you may need to convince employers that it is in their own interest to develop the skills of the workforce.

For example, if you link developing English skills to policies such as Health & Safety this will be of great interest to employers as it can help them to cover their legal responsibilities to all employees. The Health and Safety regulations are often written at quite a high level of English, so using this text can help employers especially if the workforce has English as a second language.

Working with unions

Where you find good trade union/management relationships exist in the workplace there is often a  joint responsibility to developing skills in the workforce. If you can find a union learning representative (ULR) in the workplace they can help encourage workers to identify the skills they need to develop, find people like you to help develop these skills and play a supportive role in encouraging reluctant employers to take some responsibility for skills development. Unions have developed a lot of support for developing skills in the workplace. However, it remains the case that developing skills in the workplace works well when everyone recognises some benefits to them.

Employment Skills Project. Review of Evidence on Best practice in teaching and Assessing Employability Skills (June 2008) published by UK Commission for Employment and Skills

The skills toolkit for employers. Skills for Business Network Employability guide (2008) Produced by Asset skills as part of the employability project

Paving the way from Key Skills to Functional Skills: Functional skills and Employability (2007) Key Skills support programme, Blackmore Ltd.

What are functional skills?

Functional skills on Directgov

Skills for Life core curriculum and employability skills resources

Working on the three Rs Employers’ priorities for Functional Skills in Maths and English (August 2006) CBI / DfES [Online] 

TUC Union Learn policies and research on Skills for Life

Embedded teaching and learning DfES/The National Research and Development Centre. (2004) DfES (reprinted in NIACE Briefing Sheet –64 Literacy Language and Numeracy August 2005, Leicester)

LSIS Literature review: Skills for Life on-line core curricula and employability skills development, (2010) unpublished

Opening PDF files
For more information on how to open PDF files, read the BBC Webwise guide to Adobe Reader.