End of the wilderness years for literacy campaign

The Learning and Skills Council's new plan for raising the reading and writing skills of adults has been welcomed by basic skills providers after what they see as years spent in the wilderness. For the first time the plan brings together all providers - including colleges, employers, adult education services, voluntary groups - with national agencies like the Adult Basic Skills Strategy Unit, the Basic Skills Agency, and the adult learners' organisation NIACE, as part of a coherent national strategy.

But what does this new strategy mean for colleges? Further education colleges are by far the biggest providers of literacy, numeracy and language courses for adults, and currently deliver to 400,000 learners.

Local learning and skills councils will set their own targets for participation and achievement in adult basic skills and the plan says: "It is expected that these targets will be challenging and set to produce measurable increases over time."

FE colleges will be encouraged to increase their basic skills provision by embedding it in vocational courses. "It doesn't make a dramatic difference to colleges," says Rob Wye, the LSC's interim director of learning programmes. But it does raise the stakes on the importance of basic skills targets.

"So for those colleges which deliver basic skills, we would expect to see it within their agendas, that it will be reflected in their strategic plans, in their investment in new staff and promotional activity."

Tower Hamlets College in east London has been part of one of the Government's pathfinder projects, along with Hackney Community College, Newham College and City amp; Islington College. Among other initiatives, the college has piloted new training and national tests for basic skills tutors.

Annette Zera, principal of Tower Hamlets college, and a member of the Moser committee that first highlighted poor literacy and numeracy levels in adults, welcomes the strategy. "I think the thing that's most significant here is the teacher training work. None of this is going to work, and the Government is not going to hit its targets without a great many more trained and qualified teachers. And that's primarily where we've focused our energy."

The Association of Colleges has been running the LSC-funded Basic Skills Quality Initiative to help colleges raise standards of basic skills tuition. Judith Norrington, the association's director of curriculum and quality, says there is a new, more upbeat mood in colleges about adult basic skills.

"When you go into an institution now, nobody's saying basic skills, what's that? A few years ago it was more neglected and didn't feature in the echelons of the senior management team. "That's not the case now. They will make sure there's a route between the basic skills co-ordinator and the senior management team."

The AOC has welcomed the new strategy, but Ms Norrington warns that the thinking is not as "joined up" as it might be, and that the whole strategy is too tied in with meeting national targets. "We have to put the learner first and meet their needs. Sometimes those needs will also lead to the gaining of targets. In some cases their need will be about being able to read to their grandchildren, and they may not want a qualification."

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