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Basic skills are way off course

Literacy and numeracy classes are sub-standard, say inspectors. Steve Hook reports

The Government's national basic skills strategy has spawned large numbers of sub-standard courses in literacy and numeracy, according to inspectors.

Courses in these two areas are the worst that colleges have to offer, despite the drive by ministers and the Learning and Skills Council to improve literacy and numeracy since Sir Claus Moser's damning report on the state of adult basic skills in 1999. The same criticism was also applied to ESOL courses - English for speakers of other languages - in a report by the Office for Standards in Education, published today.

Ofsted's wide-ranging criticism applies to further education and sixth-form colleges, adult education institutes, local community providers, work-based training, prisons and young offenders' institutions. It said: "Inspections of colleges show that the proportion of good provision is much lower in literacy, numeracy and ESOL than it is in any other area of learning."

While students are being signed up in increasing numbers, few colleges are properly monitoring retention and achievement rates, say the inspectors.

There are weaknesses in the initial assessment of students, and individual learning plans are of poor quality.

In many cases there is a shortage of teaching staff and, says the report, "many of the learners with the greatest need are with providers with the least-qualified staff, the fewest resources and the lowest budget for staff training".

Ofsted says the Government's policy of dispersing asylum-seekers around the country disrupts the progress of a high proportion of ESOL students.

The standard of tutors is heavily criticised in the report. Many are unable to start their training because of delays in introducing the new teaching qualifications. The report recommends some lecturers' own levels of literacy and numeracy need to be addressed in staff training programmes.

The Government's Skills for Life Agenda has removed many basic skills lecturers from the classroom as they are promoted into management positions.

The report says: "Coupled with the growth in provision, this has meant that there is a shortage of experienced and qualified classroom teachers in some areas. In some provision, none of the staff teaching foundation programmes have been trained to teach."

There is also a shortage of appropriate training courses for work-based learning and Jobcentre Plus tutors. And, despite the connection made by ministers between basic skills and employability, this message is not always getting home to the students.

The report says: "Too few learners understand how developing key skills can assist them in their career or their life in general."

Most teachers of ESOL "pay insufficient attention to developing learners'

listening, comprehension and speaking skills".

Quality-assurance arrangements in colleges are poor and, in most work-based learning courses, non-existent, with nobody being given management responsibility for basic skills.

The Association of Colleges has known about the weaknesses in literacy, numeracy and ESOL for some time and is concerned that targets are often unrealistic, preventing tutors from concentrating on the basic needs of students.

Many courses are part-time and there is anecdotal evidence that this makes retention harder, with students having to combine study with other commitments.

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