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Don't mention the b-word

People are often too embarrassed to sign up to courses that explicitly offer basic skills. Andrew Mourant reports on how a more discreet approach can pay dividends

Reaching people who need help with basic literacy and numeracy is a delicate matter. The wrong approach can send target groups heading for the hills.

How to best go about it has become a hot topic within colleges and the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education. And what is becoming clear is that some now believe it is better to operate by stealth.

The problem is that not every adult responds to an upfront offer of a basic skills course, even though it can change lives and may be on their doorstep.

Juliette Collier, senior development worker in the community and learning partnership team at Warwickshire College, knows this all too well. In Lillington, a deprived pocket of Leamington Spa, a poster offering basic skills brought a disappointing response. "It stayed up 12 weeks and we had one person come forward," she says.

So it is hardly surprising that tutors feel impelled to think laterally.

Late last year, Warwickshire put on a short course with a seasonal flavour, making Christmas decorations. That, at least, was its ostensible purpose.

But all the time basic skills were being observed and assessed: for instance when writing jokes for Christmas crackers. When it was felt the time was ripe, those in need were offered help.

"Out of all those I identified, only one didn't want it," said Ms Collier.

"I find most people are quite relieved. Not having the basic skills is the bane of their life."

Recently The TES reported on the transformed life of Becky Wigmore, a single mother of two, who had missed much schooling through illness. After the Christmas decorations course, she enrolled on basic IT and English, and is working towards level 3 in both. Warwickshire College hopes the next course in this mould, in nail art, will delivers similar results.

Ms Collier is convinced that the discreet approach works and that mentioning a basic skills element in course literature would be off-putting. "We need to get people through the door," she says.

Sheila Grainger, who manages the team, says tutors are becoming much better at sensing the appropriate moment to broach the issue. "In the beginning tutors would put off talking about basic skills and get to the point when it was almost too late."

But there is a danger this approach can backfire: people may become indignant if they feel literacy and numeracy has been thrust upon them. One group of school cleaners in Lancashire on a workplace-based NVQ course almost walked out on discovering it contained a basic skills element.

"When I ran this kind of project previously, we had a part time project worker, a union representative," said Richard Hallett, Lancashire council's training and development support officer. "People had everything explained before they started. This time I did not have that luxury. When they found out in week two they had a basic skills English assessment, they were ready to put on their coats and go home. It was a close-run thing.

His experience suggests explaining course content upfront- in this case through a union representative - may be preferable. "We took 55 cleaners through NVQ last year and everyone stayed. No one got uptight. That was because we had a union representative with us."

So is it better to be upfront or work more subtly? NIACE has studied the issue. It has been commissioned by the Learning and Skills Council and the Adult Basic Skills Strategy Unit to look at the effectiveness of "embedding" literacy and numeracy in other courses.

NIACE has examined 37 case studies. Project officer Heather Clary suggests it is possible to be upfront about basic skills, if you sell them in a way that makes them relevant to the central course content. "There are ways of telling people. With aromatherapy someone might say 'we will help develop your writing skills because you'll need to put together a folder of evidence'. We can pussyfoot around and not be upfront with people; but that is almost like doing things behind people's backs. One problem is, if people do not even know what the course aims are, they cannot judge their own progress.

But she admits opinion on how subtle colleges should be is divided. "It is quite a contentious thing."

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