"IT all started in this room, about 18 months ago," said Alan Gwyer, development manager at Basingstoke College of Technology. "It was one of those meetings - the kind that goes on a bit. I wasn't paying much attention. Then someone said that 20 per cent of the population of Basingstoke was illiterate. I said, if that's the case, we must do something about it."
And this was the beginning of the Context Programme, providing workplace training in essential skills, which has won this year's TESAoC Beacon Award for widening participation.
Mr Gwyer is insistent that they are essential skills, not basic skills. "We have never used the word 'basic'," he said. "There is a stigma attached to the word."
In any case, the training provided goes far beyond elementary literacy and numeracy, to include ICT, English for Speakers of Other Languages, and help for people with dyslexia.
Unemployment in north Hampshire is currently just 1 per cent. Demand for local labour is high. A "key workers" survey found that 65 per cent of companies had had recent problems finding staff. Firms accepted that they had to upgrade staff skills to stay in business.
The 20 per cent illiteracy figure was an exaggeration, but there was a clear need for a programme that provided skills for life, as well as a means of coping with new job demands.
Now, nearly 300 people have finished their initial 20 to 30-hour courses, and another 76 have been initially assessed and are about to start their training. The training takes place at work, because it is practical and many employees find an educational context threatening. It can take place at any time of the day or night - many people are shift workers - in small groups or one-to-one. Equipment for IT training is taken along to the workplace.
The programme is 75 per cent funded by the South East England Development Agency (SEEDA), with the remainder made up by the college and 11 business partners.
Lisa Wedge works as a coil finisher at Albright International, an engineering company that is one of the partners. She has just finished the course of one hour a week.
"I needed to improve my reading and spelling," she said. "I enjoyed school but I found it hard. Now I am able to fill out forms better and my reading and writing has improved. It has made a big difference to my life, now I can pass things on to my children."
Alan Gilvear, human resources manager at Albright, said staff would have found it difficult to get to college, because of the time, the costs and the transport. "So, when they said they'd come to us, it was a godsend. Two or three supervisors in the early days were dubious about releasing people in work time. But they were won over very quickly when they saw the enthusiasm of people when they came back, or saw what they could do."
Making sure staff can read is vital for any company, covered as walls are in quality control procedures, and health and safety rules. Job changes require new skills. People who once used to drive forklift trucks now need to know how to use a computer, and to send emails. In one company there was motivational literature on the walls. "But it was gobbledegook to many people," said Jane Mossman, project director.
There are exit procedures at the end of the course to encourage people to transfer to another programme. Many do. Some are even emboldened to walk through the college doors. It is not just widening participation, but a deepening of participation, the college believes.