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It could be your test date;Opinion

An estimated seven million people in Britain lack basic skills. Alan Wells believes the easy availability of a simple proficiency test could encourage many defeated by the education system.

THE PROPOSAL for new national literacy and numeracy tests in Sir Claus Moser's report on basic skills, published earlier this year,was one of its most contentious issues.

Eventually everyone "signed up" to a proposal to introduce these new tests, but also to retain the existing accreditation for adults improving their basic skills. So existing credentials based on continuous assessment and a portfolio will continue to be on offer, although in future all will have to be based on a common core curriculum.

There are many arguments about whether tests deter people who have failed, or whether some adults not motivated to join a course or go to a class might be keen to take a simple, widely accessible test. The evidence is not very clear because we know so little about the 95 per cent of the estimated 7 million adults with poor basic skills who never join a course or attend a class.

What we do know is that they are not a single homogeneous group. It's true that some suffer from considerable disadvantages and are socially excluded.

At the other end of the spectrum are those with relatively marginal difficulties, the people who with a little help and advice could get themselves out of the 7 million quickly. What we tend to do is lump these -- and lots of other sub-groups - together and consider their needs as though they are all the same.

Of course we need to identify what have been called the "segments" of the target audience more clearly. But even with the limited information available at present, we know that different people will want different opportunities.

My guess is that a significant proportion of the 7 million will not want to join a course or go to a class, however attractive. Why is this? Leave aside the usual access reasons - lack of childcare, inconvenient time and place, and so on - the evidence is that lots of the 7 million will not join a course or go to a class because their "problem" is not that serious. So they do not think it worth investing lots of their spare time in dealing with it.

Certainly that is the case in other industrialised countries such as the USA and Canada where, despite constant and expensive efforts, fewer than 5 per cent of those with weak basic skills join programmes.

What might motivate this "top end" group is passing a well-recognised test that says: "I may have left school with no qualifications but I can read and write (and deal with basic maths) OK and I've got a certificate to prove it."

This might appeal to older adults, where the search for a better job or the need to provide for a young family are not much of a motivating factor, as well as to young people who constantly face doubts from employers about the worth of their qualifications and about their literacy and numeracy skills.

So accessible national tests, available in "mock" versions in supermarkets, shops, libraries, job centres, (perhaps as available as the National Lottery) would allow people to demonstrate their basic skills without joining a course or going near a class. These mock tests could be diagnostic, so that if people did not pass they would receive feedback and advice about the skills needed to improve.

They might improve these by getting help from a sibling or someone else in their family or by picking up a self-help book from a bookshop or library. There are lots of these on improving spelling, for example.

Those who passed the "mock tests" three times in a row, say, might then take the real national test in a recognised centre - a college, perhaps, or an adult education centre - under examination conditions.

Of course, the test would need to be set at a level which meant that it could act as a guarantee of literacy and numeracy skills, otherwise it would fall into disrepute. It would also have to have a "dollar currency", unlike almost all of the existing basic skills qualifications for adults, which are the equivalent of the Bulgarian lev. So promoting it is essential.

This radical approach has a further benefit. It would allow us to assess whether we're having any impact in reducing the 7 million to less significant proportions. The numbers passing the national test would demonstrate the impact of the national strategy more easily than expensive and unreliable mass surveys of adults' basic skills.

I'm not suggesting that this radical approach would be suitable for everyone. Those adults who have really severe difficulties with basic skills need intensive and skilled teaching.

It makes sense to concentrate these "expensive" resources just where they are required, rather than on those people with really quite marginal basic skills difficulties.

Finally, I thought I would say something about my idea of giving cash incentives for adults to improve their basic skills. I am perfectly serious! But that's another article.

Alan Wells is director of the Basic Skills Agency.

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