This article originally appeared in the Yorkshire Post on 5 June 2021.

By Lord Gus O’Donnell, Chair of Pro Bono Economics

Yorkshire’s people have always been one of its greatest strengths. From William Wilberforce spearheading the abolition of the slave trade through to Helen Sharman leading Britain into space, the region has produced pioneers in countless fields. Fast forward to today, you only have to look to communities in Bradford bidding for the UK’s City of Culture or to the first female Metro Mayor newly installed in West Yorkshire to see how the region’s people are leading the way.

But assets require investment to fulfil all their potential. And there’s troubling evidence to suggest that much of the population in Yorkshire and the Humber have missed out on proper investment in a number of basic skills. Recent research by Pro Bono Economics suggests that as many as 2.1 million people in Yorkshire and the Humber have low numeracy skills. That means that approximately 62% of adults in the region struggle to use the numbers they’re faced with in everyday life. Meanwhile, National Literacy Trust estimates suggest that Middlesbrough and Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough both feature in the top five constituencies with the lowest literacy levels in the country.

In a world in which most of us carry a calculator in our pocket and typos are autocorrected before we even notice them, it can be tempting to ask why low literacy and numeracy skills matter. That feeling has almost undoubtedly grown over the last year, as technological adoption has accelerated and home-schooling parents have battled explaining long division and fractals to their children. But literacy is just as essential now as it was to Wilberforce’s ability to draft the first parliamentary bill to abolish the slave trade, and numeracy just as key to daily life in the 2020s as it was to calculating Sharman’s journey off Earth.

A basic grasp of numbers helps individuals navigate countless facets of life - from train times and shop discounts to taxes and payslips. They’re associated with higher health outcomes, as people with stronger numeracy skills are better positioned to handle nutritional information, medication dosages and weight measurements.

Literacy skills, meanwhile, are vital for strong communication. They aren’t just about being able to read and write well. They’re about being able to communicate effectively using all the modern tools at our fingertips, from texts to tweets. Being able to distinguish and convey the right tone while we type matters just as our body language does.

Both numeracy and literacy, of course, are also tied to our own economic fortunes. That, perhaps more than any other metric, makes clear that these basic skills are still enormously relevant. PBE estimates that Yorkshire is around £2.2billion poorer because of low numeracy skills. At an individual level, that is an average wage gap of around £1,600 for workers with low numeracy skills.

Turning this situation around will require two things. The first of those is investment.

Many are now making the case that the scope of the government’s levelling up agenda urgently needs to be expanded. To date, £163billion of the £172billion that has been earmarked for levelling up is intended to pay for roads, railways, housing and broadband. A boost to this kind of infrastructure outside London and the South East is well overdue, but the inevitable truth is that building byways and bringing train stations back into use will not be enough to improve people’s living standards and wellbeing.

If levelling up is to mean anything then it must mean something to people. That means diversifying the agenda, to invest in individuals and not just infrastructure.  Addressing the adult skills crisis in the UK is an essential part of that.

The second requirement is collaboration across sectors. The adult skills challenge cannot be solved by any part of the economy alone. Government – both national and local – can provide the leadership and the cash. Companies have a role to play in investing in their employees, which is in their own interests as well as in the individuals’. Charities and community groups have much to add in reaching out to those who lack confidence, as well as providing an enormous resource in the form of volunteer tutors and mentors to support adults with their literacy and numeracy needs. Add in the further education sector’s expertise, and you have a winning formula.

At the heart of it all, there must be people working together to improve lives in our communities in concrete ways. If levelling up looks like this, utilising the region’s greatest strength to give all people the skills they need, then it might just make a real difference.

12 June 2021