Software designed to help improve the poor English and maths of some employees in small and medium-sized firms could be tested in a pilot project next year. The Basic Skills Agency is negotiating with the Department for Education and Employment and the computer firms IBM and ICL to get funding to produce software that could be used by staff to learn in the workplace.
The agency hopes to stop smaller firms being held back by their employees' lack of skills; one in six people over 16 have serious problems reading, writing and using basic maths. It would like to see the scheme operate as a partnership between the public and private sectors.
The initiative could also play an important role in plugging the training gap under which employees in firms with fewer than 200 people find it difficult to go on training courses. The agency hopes that technology will help smaller firms overcome the problems they have in releasing small groups of staff when they make up a significant part of the workforce.
The proportion of those with poor basic skills is higher in small and medium-sized firms, which are an expanding sector of the market. By using computers at work the project should, incidentally, be able to raise computer literacy and avoid employees being intimidated by the prospect of taking an evening class.
The software could be delivered through an existing computer network, with telephone helplines for employees who need extra help. It is should start with assessment of workers' literacy and numeracy and include a program of continuous monitoring. Similar software has already been developed and officials believe it could be modified relatively easily.
The idea fits into plans for a University for Industry, which are being tried out in the North-east in a scheme organised by the left-of-centre think tank, the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR). The university aims to make education and training accessible to more people with schemes offering courses in accessible locations, such as those at Middlesbrough Football Club's stadium or the Metro Shopping Centre in Gateshead. The institute is also keen to encourage flexible learning in the workplace through new technology.
The skills agency will need about Pounds 250,000 to run the trials next year in the West Midlands and Wales. It is trying to persuade the DFEE to commit the resources and is applying for European Union funding. Charlotte Pearson, the agency's strategy officer, says: "If you are learning for work and the software includes spelling or basic maths, you are less likely to feel you cannot spell or do arithmetic."