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On the literacy front line

Chichester college is encouraging soldiers with poor basic skills to take a brave step into the classroom. Shekhar Bhatia reports

A West Sussex college is leading the battle to improve the basic literacy and numeracy of army personnel.

Chichester college staff are working alongside military trainers to provide tuition to more than 100 service people aged 18 to 49 at the Royal Military Police barracks on the South coast.

The project is the brainchild of Janis Gadd, the college's skills for life curriculum team manager.

A recent Adult Learning Inspectorate report on the armed services claims Pounds 30 million a year is being wasted because recruits are dropping out of the forces before completing training due to illiteracy and poor training.

FE Focus highlighted the case of a bomb disposal expert in Iraq who admitted that he had problems with reading.

Ms Gadd said: "I was not shocked by that case because I know there are adults right across the country who can hold down very responsible positions and still have really basic literacy and numeracy. It takes a lot of courage for somebody to admit that they can't read."

Each of the students first had an assessment of their needs, designed by Lis Bates, Chichester's curriculum development director. This revealed many had developed strategies for disguising their problems, including getting colleagues to complete paperwork.

The army's trainers have helped the college pinpoint specific weaknesses in individuals. Each person gets a "diagnostic print-out" of their skills levels so they are clear about what gaps will need to be filled.

The exercise revealed basic skills problems were not restricted to soldiers with poor educational records but also with good GCSE grades. This anomaly might be well-known to FE tutors, but proved to be a wake-up call for some of those being assessed.

Ms Gadd said: "We have some students who come in here with a grade A GCSE in English but when they do the basic skills test as an initial assessment they come out at a much lower level.

"We had a lot of staff at first saying our initial assessment were rubbish because they had grade-A students coming out at very low levels.

"When you do the GCSE, punctuation, spelling, grammar become about 10 per cent of the total mark. But, in our initial assessments, that's all we are assessing. So that 10 per cent becomes a 100 per cent and that is where the discrepancy comes."

The aim, she says, is to get them to function in society generally as well as equipping them better for the demands of army life.

Every effort is make to keep the students interested.

"One of our exercises is to show a five-minute clip of a mugging and ask recruits to write what they have seen," said Mrs Gadd.

"We then discuss what was emotive, what was dispassionate, what was accurate. We look at things such as observation of colours, issues of clarity and handwriting and proof-reading skills.

"It is always focused on areas that are relevant and that would be useful in their chosen profession. This is about improving an area that needs developing."

Since the courses started in September last year, more than 20 students have gained adult literacy certificates.

Last week, 14 RMP recruits successfully took the national adult literacy certificate level 2.

The Army declined to comment on its basic skills shortcomings, except to describe the college's work as "excellent."

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