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Basic skills at heart of Labour's future

Blunkett to set in motion radical plans to improve basic skills. Ngaio Crequer reports

A BASIC skills revolution will be at the heart of Labour's education policy if it wins a second term.

Next month Education Secretary David Blunkett is to set in place a strategy for attacking the poor levels of literacy and numeracy which have bedevilled the education system for at least the last twenty years.

Even if - as is widely predicted - he leaves his post at the education and employment department after the election and departs for the Home Office, he wants to have set in train robust reforms which his successors will not be able to ignore. Prime Minister Tony Blair is putting his full authority behind the programme to make clear that it is one of the key priorities for Labour if re-elected.

In December, Mr Blunkett's consultation paper, Skills for Life, invited comments on the best way to help the seven million adults of who cannot read or write as well as an average 11-year-old. Next month, Susan Pember, director of the Adult Basic Skills Strategy Unit, will unveil the Government's proposals for tackling the problem. The Government has set itself a target of having 750,000 fewer adults suffering literacy and numeracy difficulties by 2004.

"We will make it. It is an achievable target," Ms Pember told FE Focus. "There are around 500,000 in learning at the moment and we must ensure their progression."

The Government's approach will be more carrot than stick. All jobseekers will be given an extra pound;10-a-week allowance if they agree to sign up for a basic skills course.

There will be a range of "MOT-style test centres" where adults will be able to take the national literacy and nmeracy tests. Each will take about one hour and learning programmes will be arranged for those who fail.

Staff have been trained to teach in whichever learning environment the adult prefers - the pub or the supermarket as much as the college. From April 1 there will be some 120 pathfinder projects helping the Government find out what works best on the ground. These will be partnerships of people and institutions who have "declared an interest" in getting the new policies to work. They will test ways of encouraging adults to improve their basic skills and monitor the effectiveness of new core curriculums for literacy and numeracy. They will oversee family literacy programmes, and learning in the community, in the workplace, and in sport. They will map and audit what is available in their area, and ensure that their work "cascades" into other areas. Every project will have its own staffing plan to ensure that teachers are trained to teach basic skills.

Employers will be signed up to allow their premises to be used for teaching. "These seven million people are all at a different level. There are as many different strategies as there are learners," said Ms Pember.

Another pilot will involve those on jobseeker allowances "to be more than asked - told - they have to take up literacy and numeracy training to make themselves employable."

One scheme to be tested will be replacement funding for employers who allow staff to take off one day a week for 13 weeks to undertake literacy and numeracy training.

"It will be difficult to persuade people to go back to something they found difficulty with at school. But it is the most important task facing the Government," said Ms Pember.

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