Different learners, different needs

Looking back, Claus Moser's report on adult literacy and numeracy needs had a major impact. True, it omitted to look at English for Speakers of other Languages, or the literacy and numeracy needs of adults with learning difficulties. But those issues were picked up and included, with key skills, in the Government's broader Skills for Life strategy.

The Government's strategy set demanding targets: 750,000 to pass the national tests by 2004; 1,500,000 by 2007, and 2,250,000 by 2010. Enough money was pumped into the system to back the target and train teachers.

And, lest we forget, there is nothing inevitable about matching policy with resources, as the Skills Strategy shows. There we have a demanding target, widespread commitment to its achievement, but inadequate public or private investment for there to be a realistic chance of hitting it.

Since this year is the first benchmark of progress on the Skills for Life Target, you would think the time had arrived to celebrate the achievements of learners, teachers, institutions, and the creativity of the planners and funders who kick-started a major change of focus in the system. Time, too, to recognise that on top of the 750,000 and more who passed the tests, another million and a half adults have received help without taking national tests - in many cases, simply because we have yet to develop adequate schemes to measure what they have gained.

Of course, not everything is perfect. We do need a more sophisticated assessment system, as Peter Lavender, Jay Derrick and Barry Brooks discussed in the book Testing, Testing, 1, 2, 3 earlier this year. As always, there is a crisis in the supply of tutors and most notably in ESOL.

We have not yet developed a robust strategy for establishing literacy, language and numeracy work in other studies adults pursue, and the gremlins don't speak to the many thousands who say they have only a bit of a problem with spelling.

Overall I feel that the success of the strategy to date bears witness to the resilience, determination and clear-sightedness of those people who have argued the case for a right to read since the launch of the campaign in the 1970s.

No one has done more than Alan Wells, director of the Basic Skills Agency, so, I was astonished to read his opinion piece here two weeks ago (FE Focus, November 19). Why would we want to distinguish between beginners and those en route to confidence and competence? His distinction read to me like the Victorian separation between the deserving and undeserving poor.

Need is need, and the current strategy's breadth is surely part of its strength.

Down the years, estimates of the size of the population who might benefit have varied, from the million people claimed by the British Association of Settlements in 1974, through the two million the Government identified in the late Seventies, to Moser's seven million, based on the International Adult Literacy Survey. Counting totals is hard, but the evidence of the link between poverty and poor numeracy is powerful, and difficulty with literacy, language and numeracy skills is not limited to those at entry level 1.

It is a long time since I taught literacy and numeracy myself, but my first students illustrate the point. The first was an absolute beginner - eloquent in argument, quick to learn but a new reader and writer. The second was an undergraduate, and then postgraduate at Sussex university, diagnosed as dyslexic and in need of tutorial support with spelling. Both had a technical need, but one would not have been included on any narrow targeting of focus on reading need. This, surely, is the basis of the current UK strategy: the recognition that the platform for confident and effective communication is different for differing contexts and different people.

I do not want to be cared for in hospital by a nurse who cannot manage volume accurately when giving me medicine. I don't want cleaners, or their supervisors, who have difficulties in interpreting instructions on the use of chemicals in confined spaces to be told their need is too sophisticated to count, or to lack a properly supported programme of study. Skills for Life is successful at engaging learners with a broad span of needs - and that is cause for celebration, not for carping.

Alan Tuckett is director of the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education

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