One in ten 16 to 18-year-olds is reckoned to have profound learning problems including what is being called "computer dyslexia". Employers increasingly expect young people to have information technology skills. Those who lack them are struck off many company recruitment lists, according to several college managers interviewed in the survey of one-in-ten FE and sixth-form colleges in England, Scotland and Wales.
A substantial minority of students causing alarm are those who already lack basic numeracy and literacy skills. Colleges under Government pressure for greater efficiency are turning to more computer-assisted learning and larger classes.
The information technology manager of a large college in the North-east said: "Clearly, these will be doubly disadvantaged if they cannot handle the basic tools for their own learning."
Another said it would be a mistake to assume they are literate just because they are games addicts. "They may be whiz-kids with Sega and Nintendo but when it comes to learning with computers, nothing on the keyboard adds up."
A problem group identified in an East Midlands college are the young adult returners who may have spent time on a Government training scheme. They may have what appears to be a reasonable National Vocational Qualification in basic technical or clerical work, building or vehicle maintenance. But with no requirement on them to acquire core skills in literacy, numeracy and IT, their inadequacies are exposed if they return to colleges which rely on computers.
Roger Gochin, principal of North Hertfordshire College, urged caution before dismissing the problem as one afflicting only low-ability under-achievers. With 4,000 full-time-equivalent students, his is one of the 30 largest colleges in the UK and highly IT-focused.
"We are dealing with what might be called computer dyslexics. They are across the full ability range. Research has to be done on this," he said. "Many people who deal with dyslexics will tell you how they invent ways of attempting to overcome their problem without ever divulging it."
Evidence was emerging, even at A-level, to show that if two students were of equal ability then the one with word processing and other computer skills generally did better, he said.