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How to avert the slow death of life skills?

A TES survey shows that the bid to raise the nation's literacy and numeracy is being undermined by a shortage of suitably qualified teachers. Ian Nash reports

One in seven colleges and adult training centres depends on hourly-paid staff to run their entire basic literacy, numeracy and language courses, a national survey by The TES and the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education shows.

More than half of all the institutions responding to the survey said hourly-paid staff did at least 40 per cent of the work. The overwhelming majority also depend on part-timers who are often on short contracts and hired through agencies. One in three depends entirely on a mixture of hourly-paid and part-time staff, the first annual staffing survey by The TES and Niace found.

Incentives such as enhanced pay scales, subsidised rents and help with the cost of moving home have had little impact. About three-quarters of senior managers say there is a significant shortage of suitably trained and qualified staff at almost all levels.

A number of managers in colleges, work-based training centres and local authority adult education institutions said they preferred the flexibility agency staff offered. But most who were followed up after the survey said they had no other options.

As a result, it was often impossible to predict from one week to the next whether there would be enough staff to teach basic skills. One college manager said: "It is impossible to say whether we are hitting Skills for Life targets. We just hope we are."Basic numeracy is worst hit by the shortage, but the picture for basic literacy and English for speakers of other languages is only marginally better.

Seven out of 10 managers said shortages led to difficulties in staffing courses and literacy and numeracy classes. Just over half reported similar problems for ESOL lessons. About one in five said there were no problems.

Most tutors for the Government's Skills for Life are inadequately trained or qualified. Some 63 per cent of institutions reported a shortage of numeracy tutors trained to level 2 or 3 (GCSE and A-level equivalent). And while the majority were offering some training, it was available for only one or two specialist tutors. Almost half the managers (46.7 per cent) said they had no one training at present. Only one institution in the survey sample had a college-wide policy.

Similar patterns were found for literacy and ESOL, where 40 per cent and 62 per cent respectively had no tutors on training schemes. Several managers said that a few more staff were being trained as basic literacy tutors, but this was at the expense of numeracy. One said: "The message that has come across is that literacy is the key life skill."

At level 4 (higher education) - where new requirements come in this year to ensure teachers are properly qualified - the picture is even bleaker. More than half the institutions have no tutors trained to degree or HND level in numeracy. One in five has just one qualified tutor. Again, the pattern is similar for literacy and ESOL.

It is at the higher education level that colleges, adult institutions and training centres admit to the biggest shortages in qualified staff. Again, numeracy is worst affected with shortages reported by 76 per cent of managers. Literacy is next at 73 per cent and ESOL best- placed with a shortfall of 59 per cent. About one in five reported no shortfall.

Commenting on the findings, Alan Tuckett, director of Niace, said: "There is no doubt that capacity and staff shortage is the critical issue for literacy, language and numeracy in the institutions we surveyed.

"It has got to be the issue for everyone, particularly when you think of the targets in the next phase of the Skills for Life initiative - the need to reach another 2 million adults and the pressures institutions are under at level 4.

"There is a clear imperative on Government to recognise the need for more support and on institutions to monitor the skills of their workforce and develop them. Everyone needs to recognise that these three skills will be a big part of post-school education for a considerable time to come," he said.

Three things were seen as essential: better progression routes to put full-time staff through training; a clear understanding of the use of part-time staff, and basic skills training in literacy and numeracy for staff from all disciplines.

In praise of adult education Friday magazine , Books 17

Further analysis amp; comment in the 16-page TES special report Adult learning: focus on numeracy

Survey designed by Simon Weaver (NIACE); additional research by Justina Hart and Sue Jones


* 38 per cent of institutions have a large gap in their Skills for Life (literacy, language and numeracy) provision as a direct result of under-qualified staff

* 22 per cent reported large gaps in their ESOL provision

* 29 per cent said they use part timehourly-paid staff for their Skills for Life programmes

* 17 per cent employ staff without the necessary qualifications at levels 2,3 and 4 (GCSE, A-level and degree-equivalent)

* 25 per cent only were actively seeking to get staff on to training at those levels

* 32 per cent said there were not enough training opportunities for staff at these levels

* 13 per cent of staff said training opportunities for ESOL staff were limited or poor.

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