Four years ago, Kenneth Clarke, the then Education Secretary, told the Basic Skills Agency that his ultimate goal was to do it out of a job. Ministers are fond of saying this, says the agency's director, Alan Wells - it makes an arresting opening for a speech and neatly underlines minister's ministerial commitments to bolstering the basics. But haven't they got a point? Isn't the existence of a remedial agency for basic skills a sad comment on schools' failure to provide even a minimal education for some pupils?
Alan Wells takes a kinder view. Bad teaching is only one thread in a knot of reasons for poor literacy and numeracy, he says, and there is a continuing, if not increasing need for basic skills projects because the standard of literacy demanded for even the humblest of jobs is rising all the time. While very few people are illiterate in the absolute sense, the BSA estimates that one in six people has some trouble with reading, writing or basic maths. Twenty years ago, they would still have found work, but the technological revolution is making them unemployable.
"The days when you could leave school with no qualifications and get a manual job, probably for life, are long gone. Ninety per cent of jobs now require good communication skills," says Mr Wells.
As someone who left school with just two low-grade O-levels, returning to education and eventually, teaching, later in life, Alan Wells has retained a strong sense of mission, even after 20 years in the basic skills field.
"I still have a burning desire to see the education system work more fairly. It should not be like a health service that only works well for the healthy. Unless you're passionate about it, you just become a bureaucrat."
When he first started with the agency in its previous incarnation as the Adult Learning and Basic Skills Unit, teachers did, apparently, feel insulted by its existence.
"They were very defensive, but that's all gone - people are more realistic about the complexity of education at the end of the 20th century." Before the agency's role was reviewed last year, it's work was confined to promoting remedial work with adults in colleges or the workplace; now its remit includes schools: "We've been consulting with about 300 secondary heads and there has been no defensiveness and no attempt to blame the whole problem on resources or the Government."
This might have something to do with the success of the Family Literacy Project, an idea imported from America whose effect here is being assessed by the National Foundation for Educational Research. "All the early indications are that it does make a difference - by helping the whole family, you break up the cycle of failure."
Compared to countries with a similar economic profile, Britain does not score particularly badly on basic skills, but, as some of the statistics quoted at last week's annual BSA conference reveal, we do have a problem. Around 16 per cent, or 6 million, adults have poor basic skills, at an estimated cost to the economy of Pounds 4.8 billion.
Spelling is deteriorating in the 16-24 age group - one in seven cannot spell "writing"; one in five cannot spell "immediately" or "necessary". Another BSA survey found that almost one in 10 could not read maps, almost one in three could not answer a question about hypothermia after reading a first aid leaflet, and one in seven could not calculate the change from Pounds 20 if they had spent Pounds 17.89.
Alan Wells was anxious not to provoke a moral panic over the spelling results "I think you'd really need to test people on a wider range of words - everybody has words they find difficult. Older groups can always spell 'receive', for instance, because they learnt the rule." On the other hand, he notes that employers frequently use poor spelling as a quick way of weeding out applicants.
Nicholas Tate, chief executive of the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority, was a speaker at the BSA's annual conference last week. Analysing last year's GCSE results, he said that one in five of the population was leaving school without reaching the standard expected of an average 10-11 year old (or a grade G pass at GCSE), and drew attention to the widening gender gap at GCSE (12 per cent of girls failed English GCSE, 17 per cent of boys). SCAA, he announced, has set up an advisory group to address the problem, and meets for the first time this week.
The BSA has told Sir Ron Dearing, who is reviewing the 16-19 curriculum, that all qualifications should include mandatory core skills in communication and number, and that there should be a lower-level, core skills award linked to the qualifications framework. This, says Alan Wells, would restore employers' faith in qualifications and bring basic skills to the workplace through vocational training. "Producing semi-literate bricklayers through NVQ seems daft," he said.
The Basic Skills Agency publishes reading books designed not to patronise older learners, and simple biographies of Asian film stars for those learning English as a second language.Tel: 0171 405 4017