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Colleges build on the basics

Colleges are struggling to teach basic skills as they try to fill the construction industry skills gap. Stephen Hoare reports.

A new drive to improve the skills of 380,000 recruits to the building trade over the next five years has been launched in colleges```.

The industry faces a major crisis, with school-leavers lacking the most basic skills and having to cope with increasingly sophisticated demands in the workplace, says the Construction Industry Training Board.

The problems are worsened by the lack of able young adults willing to work in the construction industry. The CITB and big colleges involved in training for the industry blame the buoyant economy and competition from other jobs, combined with low unemployment levels.

Last month, National Construction Week brought schools and colleges together in more than 400 local events, including guest appearances by children's television favourite Bob the Builder, construction trails and skills challenges. The event was designed to close a shortage of 380,000 recruits over the next five years.

Colleges face an uphill struggle to attract young people of the right calibre to train for employment in an industry with an image problem.

They are gambling on being able to bring students up to the required standard by running ambitious remedial programmes alongside craft training. Somerset College of Art and Technology in Taunton, a centre of vocational excellence in construction for the South-west, typifies the scale of the problem.

The college has 800 construction students following a range of courses from BTEC civil engineering and geographic information systems to foundation GNVQ.

Head of department Ian Moore is faced with a crisis. "Normally we'd be looking for students with two to three grade Cs or above at GCSE if they're going to fly. But this doesn't happen. Eighty per cent have less than the minimum grades and it involves us in more work."

To cope with less academic school leavers, Somerset College has set up an integrated learning centre and additional support units funded by the Learning and Skills Council. Moore explains: "The key to it is our initial assessment. Student weaknesses could be dyslexia, poor grasp of IT or maths, and by using our funding wisely we can give the support they need to take them off the ground."

Andrew Brader, head of construction at Barking College, a centre of vocational excellence for east London, blames a buoyant economy and low unemployment for his department's inability to pick and choose the best students.

There are more choices and young people are influenced by parental warnings that construction is an uncertain career prone to boom and bust, casual work and seasonal unemployment. Nevertheless, there are nearly 1,000 craft trainees at Barking. A further 260 are studying for professional exams.

But, says Andrew Brader, it will not be plain sailing. "Three years is not long enough to make someone a competent tradesperson. You're starting with zero hand skills and we have a lot of people with low levels of literacy and numeracy - though to be fair I wouldn't blame it all on secondary teachers: they do a tough job."

Under Curriculum 2000 reforms, key skills modules were introduced to modern apprenticeship level 2 and 3 NVQs in an attempt to boost the academic currency of vocational qualifications.

Phil Eves, a local CITB agent who is working with Hereford, Worcester and Stourbridge colleges on National Construction Week events, blames schools for failing to prepare vocationally orientated pupils.

He says: "College basic skills programmes are making up for two years of lost schooling." Taught within the context of a craft, maths, IT or communication can appeal to young people.

He adds: "Everyone now has to do key skills and if you fail an exam in key skills then you fail your NVQ. We're trying to help colleges recruit candidates who are not at risk of failing."

The falling level of basic skills is not confined to school-leavers. Laing Training Ltd, a private arm of Newham College has trained just over 400 students, mostly unemployed adults under New Deal. Managing director Mark Lunn says: "We find that anything up to half the people who come to us have some basic skills need and unless we put in some intensive remedial work they'll fail.

Funding is a major issue. Job Centre Plus provides funding for up to 26 weeks of basic skills support and the LSC provides top-up funding, but Laing Training's funding is dependent on outcomes and if its remedial classes fail to deliver the goods then the company will be out of pocket.

No one disputes the fact that colleges have to work harder with school-leavers. But the demands of a modern construction industry mean there is no longer a role for unskilled labour.

Principal of Stourbridge College Sadie Walton sums the issue up. "The complexity of the world of work means students must have a much higher level of literacy and numeracy. It's not that we have more students lacking the basic skills, it's the fact that the base line has risen."

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