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Attacking the skill shortage at the roots

A shortage of basic skills among its workforce has prompted one of Britain's best-known companies to switch its attention from adult training to funding schools literacy projects. Tate and Lyle, one of the biggest employers in Newham, east London, is spending Pounds 100,000 each year for five years to support a literacy project among 10 local primary schools. And the company is sponsoring the National Literacy Trust by an equal amount, funding a new national initiative, Reading is Fundamental.

David Tate, director of the sugar refiners, explained: "We want to recruit locally but, unless you can attract trainees who are literate and numerate, you cannot develop your business. Virtually all our employees are doing NVQs (national vocational qualifications) because our production processes are becoming increasingly technical and if you cannot read, you cannot operate a computer. "

The company's funding pays for a literacy co-ordinator and supply cover so that two teachers from each school can be released for in-service training. Tate and Lyle is also sponsoring a study module in literacy at the London University Institute of Education that could help Newham teachers to accumulate credits for post-graduate qualifications. The company has donated Pounds 2,000 for each school to spend on new books.

Tate and Lyle's involvement supplements government funding for the deprived area to help pay for improved facilities in schools. The total package also helped Newham win Pounds 1 million of funding from the Government for a literacy programme that started this autumn. The extra resources are sorely needed, as David Lister, head of Newham's inspection and advisory service, explained: "We have somewhere in the region of 30 per cent of children mainly of Pakistani and Bangladeshi origin who do not have English as a first language. And this is coupled with high levels of social deprivation."

Nationally, Tate and Lyle is funding a three-year pilot for Reading is Fundamental. The sugar company's money will fund free books for deprived children and events run by schools and local youth organisations aimed to show that reading is fun.

Sixty per cent of Reading is Fundamental events, involving parent volunteers and teachers, will be held in schools, but many of its activities are better suited to the workplace where the charity is hoping to involve employers in encouraging staff - particularly men - to take books home for their children and read with them.

Neil McClelland, director of the National Literacy Trust, said: "Lack of basic skills post 16 is too big a problem for the Training and Enterprise Councils and Education Business Partnerships to tackle. Tate and Lyle is an enlightened company which is putting its resources into early intervention."

In Newham, Tate and Lyle schools' literacy co-ordinator, Yvonne Collyer, is spending an afternoon a week with each of the 10 schools demonstrating best practice and developing strategies with local children. She explained: "Literacy involves a range of skills - not just reading, but speaking, listening, finding information on a computer and drama. Our approach is to become more effective in reaching more people and to make reading more enjoyable. If there is no enjoyment in an activity, there is no learning taking place."

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