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Baseline battler

Barry Brooks, director of the Skills for Life strategy, believes adult learners get a better deal today. He explains why to Biddy Passmore

When Barry Brooks is talking to adult educators, he is inclined to tell them about when he learnt to salsa. He is a big man, so let us hope he did not tread on his partner's toes. But the point of his tale is to remind his audience what it feels like to learn something for the first time - and to ask them how long it is since they experienced that feeling.

This practical sympathy is typical of the director of the Government's Skills for Life strategy, which is aimed at boosting literacy and numeracy among adults. Brooks knows how vital it is to get the approach and the teaching right. "I don't talk about second-chance education," he says firmly. "It's the last chance: if people are brave enough to come through that door (to take a course) and we get it wrong, they won't come back."

Since the strategy was launched four years ago, more and more adults have been coming through the door and finding the approach is right: 2.6 million enrolled between April 2001 and July 2004. Of these, 840,000 got at least one qualification in literacy, language or numeracy - busting the target of 750,000.

Crucial to the strategy is the shift towards training in the workplace.

"One of the great things is we've been able to move away from discrete provision - such as a couple of hours a week in the local FE college - and meet learners where their needs are," says Brooks.

Linked to that is the notion of "embedding" basic skills in vocationally relevant courses rather than teaching them in isolation. "There are probably as many ways of coming at it as there are employers. They may not mention skills, but be called 'retailing' or 'communication'. But a rose by any other name... " What are the basic skills an adult needs today? Brooks has been sitting on a European commission of experts on this very subject. Together they have drawn up a package of eight "key competences" needed for "a successful life in a knowledge-based society". (Commission members prefer the term "key competences" rather than "basic skills" because some consider the latter too restrictive and mechanical.) These competences include information and communication technology and "learning to learn", concepts such as time-management, problem-solving and assimilating and applying new skills ("You've got to learn to make notes when someone says something meaningful," remarks Brooks). Interpersonal skills, such as the ability to work in teams, and "cultural awareness" are in there too.

Underpinning them all are those old familiars, literacy and numeracy.

Tackling these most basic of skills is a Herculean task in this country. Of the 23 million adults in the English workforce, it is estimated that about 3 million have poor literacy and 9 million have poor numeracy. Among all adults aged 16 to 65, those figures rise to 5.2 million with poor literacy and a staggering 15 million with poor numeracy skills. Poor means below Level 1 - that is, unable to pass GCSE at level A to C.

Brooks is especially concerned about numeracy. "You can track very clearly the impact on business and personal income of capacity in maths," he says.

He has been impressed by research showing that poor numeracy puts adults at an even greater disadvantage than poor literacy. It is strongly linked with manual occupations, unemployment and lack of participation in politics or the community. The consequences are worse for innumerate women, who tend to be in full-time, caring roles, suffering from poor health and depression.

Now deputy director of the Government's standards unit at the Department for Education and Skills, Barry Brooks is the living embodiment of policy rooted in practice.

A former maths teacher in Kent schools who moved on to adult education, he has taught all ages. And his progression - from teacher to manager to developer of qualifications to policy-maker - has given him a range of experience that no career civil servant could match.

While working in Kent adult and community education, he pioneered work on NVQs and GNVQs in that sector, then moved to the National Council for Vocational Qualifications, where he worked on core and key skills, transferring to the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority when it started in 1997. He was responsible for developing the new national standards for adult literacy and numeracy as well as the new national tests in basic skills.

Some criticise these standards for being too narrow and aiming too low, but Brooks points out that the core curriculum for adults is meant as "a framework and not a straitjacket". The greatest challenge is to get people to realise how rich the standards are, he stresses.

"We've set out to make root and branch change but you don't get a change of attitude overnight," he remarks. "All teachers (in adult education) are very committed but, because of the way provision has grown, a lot is done by volunteers and sessional or part-time staff, with no security of tenure.

It doesn't mean their skills are low but the opportunities for training and upskilling are very limited."

Latest figures from Whitehall show that more than 50,000 people have been trained to teach under the Skills for Life programme. Brooks stresses the importance of offering them the right pay, conditions and career structure.

Not all need to be full-time, he adds, but most should be. It is no accident, he says, that Tower Hamlets, an inner London borough which five years ago decided to employ all adult education staff full-time, has won top grades from inspectors for the quality of its literacy and numeracy work.

He is positive about the way things are going. "We're replacing remediation with ambition," he says, "and that ambition should be as high for adults as for young people - to get everyone to at least level 2 (a good GCSE pass) in the basics."

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