A shortage of adequately trained tutors and of money to pay them is undermining the government's campaign to get thousands of illiterate adults back to college.
Susan Pember, director of the Government's adult basic skills strategy unit, told the the annual conference of the Association for College Management (ACM) conference that adult literacy co-ordinators lacked status and were often poorly paid.
College managers agreed that there were problems. But they pointed out that the national shortage of well-qualified tutors was so serious that even when decent pay was offered there was little or no response to advertisements.
A Cabinet Office review last month said the basic skills drive that the unit leads had been the most successful of all Government initiatives in hitting its targets. More than 100,000 adults signed up for courses last year. But, Ms Pember said, this was still not enough: thousands of adults had been turned off by staff or failed to continue learning after the first basic course.
A wide-scale retraining programme had had to be introduced at Learndirect, the online and phone advice service. "We had to retrain Learndirect staff to have a different way of speaking to this group. When adults call, they often put the phone down almost immediately. They have to be encouraged to come back," she said.
It was also becoming clear that these adults had far lower self-esteem than anyone had reckoned. "You've seen the TV ad with the gremlins at the back of the adults' heads. Well, these adults are saying far worse things about themselves in their own minds."
Often, adult skills teachers took too gentle an approach and failed to encourage learners on to level 2 (GCSE-level) courses, she said. Adults were also turned off by pure basic skills courses. "It is far better if they are embedded in another course of study that will interest them," Ms Pember said.
Too often, also, colleges and other providers were finding excuses not to do basic skills. First there was a lack of funds, then objections to the national basic skills tests and now too few staff.
"You have to ask whether you are paying enough. If you did, you could be earning around one-third of your income from this work. But when salaries are as low as pound;18,500 are offered to co-ordinate 1,500 students, we are our own worst enemies."
Centres were offering just three hours' work a week rather than 21. "You won't get good staff willing to risk their other jobs for this sort of work," she said. Ms Pember wants every centre "to offer the new national tests on demand for everyone who wants them when they want them, not six weeks later".
Ahmed Choonara, principal of South Nottingham College, said: "We have tried to recruit ... offering reasonable pay. (But) there is not the number of people out there with the skills. Therefore, we are 'growing our own', using teachers' pay initiative money and other funds."