BEING able to communicate should be a basic human right, but in reality it is not for at least one in five adults in this country. If you can't read and write or speak fluently the language of the country, effectively you are excluded. Access to wide-ranging opportunities, employment and the rights of citizenship are undermined.
These problems have largely been ignored. Adult literacy and language programmes hang on the edge of mainstream education everywhere and the UK is no different. Despite 20 years of work by a national body (the Basic Skills Agency) we lack a co-ordinated and determined response to an unacceptable problem.
So what is needed? First we have to find the people we are talking about. People with poor basic skills are not banging on the door of education authorities and colleges demanding literacy and ESOL (English as a second language) programmes. They have to be discovered.
Potential students have to be encouraged to overcome personal fears and practical difficulties before they are willing to participate. They go to great lengths to hide their difficulties and develop extraordinary strategies to cope with their world. As providers we need to match their ingenuity and develop our capacity to make sure that they do not fail again.
We require funding to pay outreach workers to find and persuade these potential students to take up learning. All professionals working with adults (for example, doctors, social workers, teachers and employers) can help by being on the look-out for basic skills problems.
We need to confront how to persuade people to participate and persevere in intensive courses of study. Research in the United States shows that concentrated study produced better results than part-time attendance of a few hours a week. Given the competing priorities this often hard-pressed group of people face, it is a considerable challenge.
There is little point luring people into learning unless we are sure it is of a high standard and fit for its purpose. Currently there is concern that standards of teaching and learning are not good enough. However, over the past 20 years there has been precious little investment in developing and sharing knowledge on how adults, as against children, learn and what teaching methods and materials work for these learners.
Adult literacy courses are unique; they are exclusively for those who have failed in the past. They need to help the learner confront the emotional challenge of overcoming failure by demonstrating that this time learning will be different. And while everyone wants to find a quick fix to illiteracy, a succession of failed government schemes illustrates just how hard it is to find one. We require serious research, building on the experience of other countries. We know that matching teaching to the learner's context is critical to success, as is the necessity of making the skills taught more diverse and interesting. One obvious opportunity for curriculum development is the application of new technology.
But in some parts of the country potential students may not even be able to find a class, never mind one well-equipped with the latest technology. We need more accessible and user-friendly provision everywhere; at work, through schools, in colleges and community venues.
Even where these courses exist, fewer than one in 10 teachers is employed full-time and teacher training has virtually vanished. Basic skills subjects are some of the hardest to teach yet "I can read and write and speak English, therefore I can teach" is not an unusual attitude. To crack the problem of millions of potential students we need many more full and part-time teachers to be supported, trained and equipped with the appropriate skills. This will make an enormous difference in raising standards in teaching and learning.
If we are to get to grips with standards in basic skills and ESOL it will be essential to have a national accreditation framework. One that moves the learner forward in incremental steps while providing teachers with national standards against which to benchmark progress.
The debate over assessment and the credibility of qualifications is a distraction from the central problem of motivating learners. The focus of our effort must be on progression into mainstream education, training and jobs rather than on achieving qualifications as an end in themselves.
Right now the prospects for adult basic skills and ESOL look better than ever before. The Government appears prepared to invest, the funding council has prioritised this programme area and the Moser report will be published next week. Maybe the time for adult basic education has come. It won't be a moment too soon for millions of excluded people across the UK. These learners deserve the very best.
The author is principal of Tower Hamlets College in East London