Basic skills training

Basic skills training seeks to help young people develop literacy, numeracy and/or digital skills that are needed for work and learning but are not specific to a particular occupation.

The research suggests that on-the-job training is likely to have a low positive impact on youth employment outcomes, as a component of a youth employment intervention.  However, the research suggests that a combination of basic skills training with off-the-job training and other components could have a high impact on employment outcomes for young people. 



Evidence strength


What is it?

In the research for the Toolkit, ‘basic skills training’ refers to activities that:   

  • are designed to help young people develop skills that are not specific to a particular occupation or field of study but  are generally considered essential for employment or further learning and training. 


  • aim to develop one or more of: literacy (reading, writing, listening, speaking, etc), numeracy, and/or digital skills. 

The following were not considered as ‘basic skills’ training: 

  • Learning that relates specifically to a particular kind of occupation or job. This is defined as on-the-job or off-the-job training. However, basic skills development that is deliberately embedded in work experience, vocational learning or similar activities is included, where this is part of the programme design. 
  • Learning that focusses on enhancing young people’s capabilities in areas such as communication, interpersonal and team-working skills, self-regulation, etc. These are defined as life skills training. Basic skills training can indirectly help young people to improve their life skills. For example, communication and team-working may be enhanced by gains in literacy.   

In this summary we do not include information about basic skills learning that is gained while studying for formal qualifications as part of the universal education system. Basic skills training can relate in different ways to formal qualifications: 

  • It may be entirely separate from qualification frameworks, for example where it is offered to young people primarily to engage or re-engage them in work and learning, and/or help them improve their skills in preparation for employment or further training.  
  • It may be formally separate from qualification frameworks, but associated with advice about how to use newly acquired skills to enter a programme where learners could get a qualification. Some programmes let young people gain credit towards a qualification such as a school leaving certificate.  
  • It may be deliberately designed to lead to a formal qualification such as a school leaving certificate. Young people who have not acquired qualifications during their compulsory education may enter this kind of training as part of a ‘second chance’ programme that helps them to gain both skills and qualifications.  

Basic skills training can support young people to overcome barriers to accessing other education and training as well as employment. It can be offered through bespoke provision within a youth employment intervention, through partnerships with colleges and other learning providers, or online.  

In England, current policy is for young people who do not achieve GCSE English and Mathematics at the first attempt to retake these examinations in post-compulsory settings. Provision for this learning may include a focus on basic skills. Some apprenticeships include a ‘functional skills’ element, especially at the lower levels. Adult learning providers offer a range of ‘functional skills’ qualifications at entry level, Level 1 and Level 2 of the National Qualifications Framework

Anyone aged 19 or over who has not yet achieved a Level 2 qualification in English and/or Mathematics is legally entitled to provision that supports this learning. It is funded through the Adult Education Budget, which in some parts of England is devolved to Combined Authorities. Local Authorities may also offer basic skills provision to young people who are not in employment, education or training (NEET), sometimes in collaboration with colleges or other learning providers. 


The cost rating for basic skills training is moderate.

  • Number of inputs: Moderate, potentially including screening at programme start to identify individual learner needs.  
  • Duration of inputs: Most basic skills training lasts a few weeks, or occupies a small number of hours within a larger programme.  
  • Sources of inputs: Small; most inputs will come from education providers.  
  • Expertise: Specialist tutors and curriculum.  
  • Settings: Basic skills training does not require specialist settings.  
  • Intervention-only inputs: Some inputs are likely to be used only for this training.  


Key findings

The research suggests that basic skills training is likely to have a low positive impact, or no impact, on youth employment outcomes, as a component of a youth employment intervention.  
However, a combination of basic skills training with off-the-job training and other components could have a high positive impact on youth employment outcomes.  

The research suggests that, on average, for every 8 young people who can take part in a programme that combines basic skills training with off-the-job training and another component, one will get a job who wouldn’t have done so without the intervention.

The confidence interval identified for this estimate means that this number could vary between about 5 and 21, depending on a range of factors including how the intervention is implemented.

The impact rating does not reflect the impact of basic skills training on any other outcomes for young people. The section next section includes information about other possible impacts of basic skills training.

About the evidence

You can find details of individual studies of evaluations that include on-the-job training, as well as other systematic reviews of youth employment evaluations, in the Youth Employment Evidence and Gap Map.

The strength of the evidence for the impact of basic skills training on youth employment compared to services as usual  is moderate 

The component network meta-analysis  for the Youth Employment Toolkit includes 22 evaluations of youth employment programmes including basic skills training that are compared with ‘services as usual’ for young people, in high-income countries. Thirteen were conducted in the USA and the others were conducted in Europe, including three in Germany, two in Denmark and one in the UK.  The international nature of the evidence means that the findings may not translate directly to the UK context. 

An assessment using the Campbell Secretariat’s Critical Appraisal Tool suggests low to moderate confidence in the findings. This rating may reflect the way in which the studies are reported, rather than the way they were conducted. The overall rating is moderate because of the relatively high number of studies. The rating for the combination of components is low because the evidence is drawn from only five studies. 

This research highlights the need for further impact evaluations examining the relationship between participation in basic skills training and youth employment outcomes. 

The impact of basic skills training on youth employment outcomes is not widely evaluated. In England, some studies have examined the relationship between employment outcomes and adult attainment in learning ‘below Level 2’ in English education (equivalent to GCSE grades 4-9), where this learning happens in further education or similar settings rather than in a youth employment intervention. These studies suggest that successfully completing a course at this level may have a small impact on employment and related outcomes. For example:  

Basic skills training may have a positive impact on outcomes related to, but distinct from, employment. For example, a report by the Learning and Work Institute notes that learners of all ages who had studied English and Mathematics as part of the Skills for Life programme felt that this had helped them to find work. It had also increased both their confidence at work and their ability to do their job. The same report found that basic skills learning supports progression into other kinds of vocational and academic learning and training. 

How does it work?

Basic skills training helps young people improve their skills in areas such as literacy and numeracy. This makes it easier for them to engage with training or employment that demands a level of fluency in reading, writing, and working with numbers. Employers often require proof of such competence as a condition for employment. They may also find it easier to access support to overcome personal, health or social barriers to gaining work, where finding or accessing this support depends on literacy and numeracy. Having acquired these skills may also increase their self-confidence.

How to implement it well

The following summary draws on information about the programmes that are evaluated in the studies included in the network meta-analysis of evaluation findings, as well as studies in the Youth Futures Evidence and Gap Map, a review by the IES for Youth Futures, and other publications. Please note that for the most part these reflections are not grounded in the kind of rigorous evaluation approach which underpins the quantitative findings in the meta-analysis, but reflect qualitative findings and approaches to delivery. 

Personalised support and identification of basic skills needs 

Some programmes use initial assessments that identify areas where young people need to develop their basic skills. These may focus on areas where skills gaps could make it harder for young people to engage with other learning opportunities. These initial assessments may use formal tools. Assessment findings are then used to formulate learning and training plans that reflect individual needs and goals. Learners may benefit from proactive outreach and offers of support with basic skills development. 

Other approaches include: 

  • Teaching methods that demonstrate to learners how they are making progress, setting small and achievable goals rather than just larger and more ‘remote’ ones.  
  • Flexible delivery, for example through evening, weekend, and part-time courses, that helps learners overcome external barriers and integrate learning into their lives.

Small groups and tailored support 

Some programmes use small group or even one-to-one tuition for basic skills training. This can be offered alongside self-directed independent learning, including digital learning. 

It can be difficult to maintain young people’s engagement in basic skills provision, so programmes use a range of approaches to retain learners and improve retention and motivation. This may include addressing external personal and social barriers, such as practical difficulties in attending classes and physical or mental health issues. 

Avoiding ‘school-like’ experiences 

Young people who enter employment interventions may have had very poor experiences at school. They may be keen to improve their skills for future training and gain formal credentials, but wary of returning to settings that recall those of compulsory education. Some programmes seek to design basic skills training in ways that avoid recalling school. This can include varying the nature of tasks, holding classes in workplaces rather than classrooms, facilitating independent and self-paced work, and fostering respectful and adult relationships between staff and learners.  

Some programmes embed elements of numeracy and literacy development within the activities that young people encounter in on-the-job training or work experience, or in relation to vocational issues and themes. This stresses the links between basic skills and tasks that young people might encounter in the workplace. Basic skills learning can also be linked to life skills and personal development. 

Expert staff and appropriate teaching methods 

Some descriptions of programmes note the value of staff expertise in teaching and learning, especially in adult education, as well as interactive teaching methods and programmes that are designed to meet the needs of specific cohorts of learners. Collaboration with education providers such as colleges can improve access to relevant teaching experience. 


Summary of evidence

  • Findings from an analysis of data on programmes that include a ‘basic skills training’ component suggest that this has a low impact on youth employment outcomes.  
  • However, basic skills training combined with off-the-job training and other components may have a high average impact on youth employment outcomes. 
  • The strength of the evidence for the impact of basic skills training on youth employment outcomes is moderate. 

Date last updated
This page was last updated in June 2023.


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