For years, the bedrock of adult education has been the dedication of part-time tutors, willing to give a few hours a week to the cause, based on few qualifications but bucketloads of commitment. Yet, the Government's - possibly well-intentioned - attempts to bring the sector into line with other areas of education and insist on formal teaching qualifications, threatens to further drain an already depleted pool of teachers.
By 2010, all post-16 educators should have a teaching qualification. For many, this means getting a Certificate in Education to go with their subject or industry qualifications. But essential skills teachers have entered the classroom with a mosaic of qualifications and by a multiplicity of routes. Many now face the double burden of having to qualify in their subject as well as classroom skills.
Most numeracy tutors, for example, have an O-level or GCSE in maths, but few have an A-level or degree in the subject. Until recently, there were no qualifications specific to numeracy above level 2 (GCSE equivalent), now under the Success for All and Skills for Life strategies, tutors will have to qualify to level 4, or the equivalent of the second year of a degree. So who will train them to this level?
The answer at City of Bristol College is to grow your own. One member of the department went away to be trained and returned to set up a course for her colleagues to get them to levels 3 and 4. Now the college is a lead provider in the area, training 90 essential skills staff from their own and other colleges, local prisons, training providers and learndirect providers. Some of these staff are following the two-year, part-time Integrated Certificate in Education specialising in literacy, numeracy or Esol (English for speakers of other languages), working in association with the University of Plymouth.
But such a brief summary glosses over the practical difficulties. Depending on the type of course, the Learning and Skills Council or the Higher Education Funding Council for England will pay the fees, but this does not cover the expenses of release time, observation and mentoring.
The department had to cover for the first tutor while she did her training, and an A-level maths teacher was brought in to help devise the college's own course. Tutors taking the Cert Ed course must be observed while teaching and need opportunities to observe good practice. Classes being observed are spread across three counties to avoid overloading the practitioners and their students. Tutors in training also require mentors, who must themselves be trained. Such an expansion of activity needed a new management post.
City of Bristol staff in training are allowed two hours a week remission in their timetables, but this does not apply to all of their external students. Some need the three-hour weekly session to be run in the evenings.
Tutors are under great pressure, especially where they are improving their subject skills at the same time as studying for the teaching qualification.
But they are also reaping the benefits the Skills for Life strategy is aiming for. "When tutors went out to observe good practice, they would come back and report and we would build it into our own practice," says Jan Bovill, head of Skills for Life and Languages. "Every time we tackled maths topics for their own skills, we would talk about how to teach it and use each other as an audience to try this out.
"It's all about raising standards of teaching in this area. We have seen the teaching in our faculty improve through the programme. There's far better use of IT, far more interactive learning. We've trained all the staff and got them involved and they say they spend much more time talking about teaching. Although it is hard work, it's close to their hearts."
But if colleges are able to train their staff, the situation in community education is more difficult. With the push to get more adults qualified at level 2, funds for entry level and non-accredited courses are being cut.
Tutors are often hourly paid and their hours are subject to change. Many work for more than one organisation and can slip through the professional development net. Who will take responsibility for their training, asks Jan Eldred, senior development officer at the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education (Niace). Who will pay for it and who will give them the time to do it?
And while younger tutors coming in accept the need to train, older, experienced tutors will find that qualifications deemed sufficient up till now will be judged inadequate. Lifelong Learning UK, the sector skill council responsible for post-16 educators and trainers, is putting together new standards, due out this September. Many tutors are concerned about the value of their existing qualifications and what kinds of top-up modules will be required, and available, to fill the gaps.
What incentives will keep these tutors in community education when their income is insecure and there is no career structure? One programme manager with 30 years experience has often put her tutors through training, only to lose them to further education colleges, or even out of the system altogether to jobs with a more regular income.
Where will the next generation of essential skills teachers come from? Many of the present pool are nearing retirement, but the sources they came from have largely dried up. High unemployment, redundancies and early retirement in the 1980s encouraged many people to try to switch careers or take on volunteering roles, but these conditions no longer apply, says Ms Eldred.
Mothers with young families have traditionally been a source of supply because their hours can often be worked round school, but the need for two full incomes has plugged this source.
"We might now be looking at migrants, who are often highly educated," says Ms Eldred. "It's how the labour market shifts, but building the workforce is not easy."