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Illiterate adults turned away

Shortage of trained staff means that life-changing classes are being scrapped or postponed, reports Sue Jones

Thousands of adults are being turned away from basic skills courses or put on long waiting lists because of staff shortages, a TES-backed survey reveals.

Half the 100 colleges and 60 independent training providers in the national annual staffing survey said they had cut back basic skills programmes because of a lack of trained staff.

Nearly a third had to postpone or cancel classes and a quarter had put learners on a waiting list, according to research by The TES and the National Institute of Continuing Adult Education (NIACE). The survey was carried out to coincide with Adult Learners' Week, which begins tomorrow.

Basic skills teachers say they are struggling to get the training they need because there are not enough courses and funding is in short supply.

Managers and lecturers responding to the survey said teacher training courses were often not available in their area or were full and had long waiting lists, especially at levels 3 and 4 (A-level and higher education-equivalent). Even when funding is available, colleges struggle to find cover for those who do it.

Alan Tuckett, director of NIACE, warned that people who had plucked up the courage to ask for help with literacy and numeracy might not return if turned away. "Even if only 10 per cent of colleges are turning people away, they may never come back," he said.

The Department for Education and Skills is aware of the problem, admitting progress is "patchy" around the country.

Barry Brookes, head of the DfES Skills for Life unit, said the South-west in particular was "really challenging" because of its large rural areas and lack of universities. But he insisted the Learning and Skills Council was getting to grips with the problem. Since 2001, new subject-specific teaching qualifications in basic skills have been established. There is also a new national curriculum for basic skills and ESOL (English for speakers of other languages), and new materials.

He said: "A year or two ago, you would be talking about people saying there are no courses, but now we have people being trained and more on the waiting list."

The TESNIACE survey shows colleges are being creative about dealing with staff shortages. Three-quarters of respondents use staff development programmes to recruit and retain basic skills teachers, as well as improve the skills of existing staff. The same proportion offer full-timers time off for training, although this falls to half of respondents for fractional staff and a quarter for hourly-paid staff. A quarter offer payment for attendance at training sessions.

Many are using funding from government initiatives to support training.

Half are using the Basic Skills Quality Initiative, launched in 2003. This helps college management teams to tackle tasks such as staff development.

Some respondents are being helped by a NIACE project that aims to raise the number of basic skills teachers in the West Midlands, East of England and North-east. In some areas, colleges have called on the Neighbourhood Renewal Fund, run by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister.

Some respondents have gone into partnerships with other organisations, including colleges, universities, local learning centres and adult education services, to share and build training and recruit staff. Some offer training places to PGCE students and employ them when they qualify, while others use existing staff to seek out new recruits.

Full-timers account for just a quarter of the basic skills workforce but get the lion's share of training. The biggest losers are agency staff who rarely get any.

Work-based learning providers say they are treated less- favourably than colleges by the Learning and Skills Council when it comes to funding for basic skills.

Further coverage in our 16-page adult learners' special report with this week's TES


31 per cent had to cancel or postpone classes due to a lack of staff

27 per cent have a waiting list of learners because of staffing difficulties

52 per cent had to tailor or limit courses to fit the skills and qualifications of available staff

20 per cent have used incentives such as pay and accommodation to attract new members of staff

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