An evaluation of the Scottish Executive's pound;51 million adult literacy and numeracy (ALN) strategy by a team from Glasgow and Edinburgh universities found that more than half (52 per cent) of those interviewed cited fears about the stigma attached to being an ALN learner and their ability to cope as the main concerns.
A further 12 per cent mentioned worries that it might be like school, since many had had an unhappy experience there.
The report states: "These findings generally reflect the literature in that the most significant barriers were related to attitudes and feelings rather than institutional barriers to do with the cost, location, etc of the provision."
Learners said better publicity, giving ALN a positive image, would persuade more people to sign up for programmes. They were particularly appreciative of the "Big Plus" media campaign, which had used real learners talking about their own difficulties.
The study also found that guidance and support for students was weak. This was especially so in relation to their awareness of the individual learning plan which is supposed to be an essential feature of the ALN programme since it charts what learners have to do and tracks progress.
Yet, the report states, 37 per cent said they were unaware of having a plan, a figure that rose to 50 per cent for those in FE. Half of those in FE and 27 per cent who were not attending a college said they never had a review of their learning plan.
This is in line with the report issued by HMIE last June, which noted that there was "scope for individual providers to improve in areas such as initial assessment of learners, the use of learning plans and quality assurance".
The researchers interviewed 613 learners in the first round and followed up by talking to 393 of them again a year later.
This produced the worrying finding that only 50 of the 393 had gained anything in terms of getting a job or further education place and 20 were actually worse off, moving from employment into unemployment or from FE into unemployment.
Of equal concern will be the number of learners who were less happy with their learning experience when they were re-interviewed. The researchers say these negative findings increased only slightly, and that there was a more than 90 per cent satisfaction rating in both interview rounds, but they were statistically significant.
Concerns related to learners who said they were enjoying their FE course less, females who were less likely to find staff encouraging, older students who were dissatisfied with their tutors and younger ones who reported not getting enough feedback.
The researchers point out, however, that these experiences one year on might simply be due to the fact that students' expectations of their learning were greater and they therefore became more critical of shortcomings. Indeed, they add, one of the criteria for success in ALN is that learners should become more critical, "so this may be an outcome of their experience of being encouraged to do so".
Despite some weaknesses in provision, however, the research team noted "evidence of a marked increase in the confidence and self-esteem of the learners between the first and second round of interviews". Learners had become more adept at learning new skills, were undertaking more activities and were socialising more as a result of their tuition.
The tutors themselves, 78 of whom were interviewed for the research, said the strategy had made a positive impact by drawing in students who had not taken part in literacy programmes before, providing better support and training for tutors, and fostering wider awareness of the problem.
The report states: "Tutors were generally as positive as learners about the differences that the ALN strategy had made to who, what and how they taught." But they did express dissatisfaction with staffing levels, pay for part-time staff and the staff development provided for part-time and volunteer staff.
The researchers also urge tutors to become more aware of opportunities for their students to move on to other forms of learning. Tutors were aware that guidance was often a problem.
An estimated 800,000 adults in Scotland require help with literacy and numeracy. The 2001 report, Adult Literacy and Numeracy in Scotland, acknowledged that it would take at least 10 years to turn round the situation.
Evaluation of the Scottish Adult Literacy and Numeracy Strategy is available through our website at www.tes.co.ukscotland.