AN INFLUENTIAL committee of inquiry backed by Tony Blair will call later this month for employers to be given huge cash incentives to tackle illiteracy in the workplace.
The urgency with which the Government sees a need for action was underlined this week by Baroness Blackstone, the further and higher education minister: "We have inherited a tragic legacy -one in five adults is unable to use the Yellow Pages directory index to locate the page reference of plumbers," she said.
At a conference in Birmingham to launch Government plans to rescue failing colleges (reported in The TES last week), Lady Blackstone pledged action on basic skills. "We must continue to draw in those whom the education system has failed in the past."
Recommendations from the Government's taskforce, chaired by Sir Claus Moser, have been seen by The TES. They propose a massive media promotion campaign and the setting of statutory requirements on all television companies to give over a percentage of prime viewing time to tackle the problems of eight million adults deemed "functionally illiterate and innumerate".
Ministers are considering using the recommendations to pilot new individual learning accounts -where costs of training are shared by employers, staff and the Government - to entice adults with severe reading and writing problems back to study.
Minimum teacher training requirements will be set out for all tutors of adult basic skills and a new set of literacy and numeracy standards will be recommended in line with the Government's new targets for education and training.
However, demands from Downing Street for stringent basic skills exams, similar in structure to the driving test, were thrown out after fierce opposition from a faction opposed to compulsory examinations for adults.
The committee was divided over which tactics were best for tackling the deep-rooted problems of literacy and numeracy among the unemployed and under-achievers. Minority reports which would have exposed the rift were twice threatened.
The biggest rift was over the question of testing for skills. Professor Richard Layard, a committee member and adviser to Number 10, took the toughest line. His supporters included Nick Tate, chief executive of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, and the man who would be responsible for implementing any assessment scheme.
They called for a series of rigorous measures, including three half-hour externally-assessed tests to prevent cheating. This was tried in Australia with the imposition of a failed "no literacy certificate - no dole" policy.
A much softer set of recommendations will feature in the report, due to be published within the next three weeks. It will propose "a national literacy standard" for adults to pursue through qualifications or a portfolio of evidence, similar to a record of achievement. A "funding stream" to support employers, including possible ILA pilots, will be suggested.
However, there are fears within the committee that the Government, while accepting the recommendations, will pursue its own agenda and impose a harder line.
One source told The TES this week: "The worry is that at the heart of Government is the view that qualifications are not just a proxy for quality but 'the' proxy.
"Those who know about adult education are concerned that the teenagers who dominate Blair's policy unit fail to understand that you cannot impose school-style assessments on adults."
Another source said: "There are real tensions between the need to widen participation and the qualifications debate. If you want more people of a wider ability range studying, then you need to have more assessment routes to your qualification targets.
"The problem with taking a literacy qualification into an employer is that it proclaims very loudly to that employer that you are only just literate."