Employers get back to basics

Staff experiences at a car plant suggest that the Learning and Skills Council is on the right track. Martin Whittaker reports

When company boss Graham Speechley asked his employees to write down how they thought they could improve their jobs, he was shocked by the poor literacy of some of his workforce.

"I couldn't relate some of the things I saw written down with the clearly very bright, well-motivated people who were producing it," he says.

The company, Benteler Automotive, opened its first plant in the UK four years ago, in Corby, Northamptonshire, and took on 150 people to manufacture parts for a new range of Vauxhall cars. When the firm's suggestion scheme highlighted basic skills needs among some of the workforce, the managing director set about trying to address them.

"It's a very sensitive subject for people," he says. "I'm very aware of that. If we put an advert on the noticeboard inviting people to reading lessons, they wouldn't come."

Now the company has incorporated basic skills tutoring into its shop floor training. Staff have taken an adult basic skills training course and can offer employees tuition and support.

Mr Speechley believes these measures have been good for the company and its workforce - but not in ways that can be easily assessed or show immediate improvements in the balance sheet. "If you asked me how many levels they have gone up, and what the value added is, it is a very difficult one to measure. I think by its nature, it has to be informal. In terms of the literacy and numeracy learning that has taken place here, you can see it.

"We don't have exams in these things so we don't have numbers, but certainly it has had an impact, and it has had a strong motivational effect."

Getting employers on board is at the heart of the Learning and Skills Council's new delivery plan for improving adult basic skills - the strategy that aims to fulfil the Government's target of raising the literacy, numeracy and language skills of 1.5 million by 2007.

The plan says work-based learning is critical. "We have little chance of delivering this plan by relying entirely on off-the-job training providers and, for many working adults, the workplace is a natural location for learning - they may not have the time, inclination or opportunity to travel elsewhere to study," it says.

Similarly, the Adult Basic Skills Strategy Unit has now turned its attention to the workplace, developing an employer strategy with various initiatives to try and attract firms and help them tackle basic skills issues. Rob Wye, the Learning and Skills Council's interim director of learning programmes, holds up a company like Benteler as a beacon of good practice. But he acknowledges that getting employers on board in the Government's 'basic skills revolution' remains a big challenge.

"It will take time and effort to do that," he said. "Persuading employers that investment in training is valuable is difficult enough. But I think the more you can get employers to talk to other employers - to look at some of the projects where employers have invested in basic skills in the workforce, and those that have paid off, getting those employers to talk to their compatriots. That's going to be much better in terms of persuasion than us doing it."

The LSC's delivery plan also cites the importance of further education colleges, as the largest providers of basic skills courses. One area of concern has been poor pay and morale among basic skills staff, and a shortage of adequately trained people.

The LSC concedes that there is a need to develop expertise in basic skills among its own staff. "We recognise that is a problem," says Rob Wye. "One of the areas we need to focus on is enhancing the skills of the tutors and the number of tutors. There are new tutor qualifications coming in this autumn which will enhance the status of basic skills tuition. The new qualifications will be set at level 3 and level 4, making it much more of a profession.

"We're also finding an additional pound;15 million in the current financial year - that's going out to the local LSCs for investing in improving the local infrastructure. A lot of that investment will be in the training of tutors and mentors, both for those operating in colleges and in the workplace."

Another central partner the LSC cites in its plan is the voluntary and community sector, acknowledged as vital if the Government's aim to reach those in the most deprived areas is to be realised. Phil Street, chief executive of the Community Education Development Centre, agrees that there is a key role for the voluntary and community sector as a partner in reaching the hard-to-reach.

But he adds: "I think insufficient capacity has been built into the voluntary sector in the sense that the resources, the policy emphasis and the training has all been directed at colleges and statutory organisations. And I think the relationship with the voluntary sector is fragile."

Rob Wye of the LSC disagrees. He says local LSCs are working hard to encourage partnerships between colleges and the voluntary sector. "I think they're really vital to delivery. I welcome that engagement, and I think it will be a big part of how we make that agenda a reality."

The new 1.5 million basic skills target extends the curtrent target of 750,000 adults by 2004. Mr Wye believes the targets are reachable: "I think it is reachable - we are on track at the moment. We've got more than 100,000 learners who already have their qualifications, we've delivered a million learning opportunities between April and December 2001.

"We need to carry that forward, double that number of opportunities. But I do think that is feasible. We will see over the next couple of years how we deliver on that. But no doubt we will be set an even more challenging target by the Government in the next round of public service agreement targets for 2007."

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