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From a mop to a mouse

Innovative computer technology is helping to improve lives and career prospects, reports Linda Blackburne.

State-of-the-art laptop technology is helping working people to pass national literacy and numeracy tests.

Thanks to the Mercia Partnership, based in Knowsley, adults with few qualifications are sitting tests in the comfort and familiarity of the workplace, using laptop computers with a 3G datacard. And test results are available just one hour later.

Trisha Foster, a cleaner and mother-of-three from Netherton, Merseyside, who is training to become a classroom assistant, said: "You feel relaxed in your own workplace. Once you've left school for a long time, you need to build your confidence - but once you've done that there's no stopping you."

Trisha, 34, sat the literacy test at the Holy Ghost Catholic club, also in Netherton, and says it helped her to be in a place near home that she knows well.

Paula Ikin, 41, is already well-qualified and has an Open University science degree. But in her job as matron of Elm House nursing home, Southport, she felt she needed to brush up on her numeracy. In all, 12 of the staff at Elm House, including proprietor John Berry, sat the national tests in numeracy and literacy using laptops at work.

Ms Ikin said: "The tutors understood the pressures we were working under and worked round them. That was the beauty of the training."

The use of 3G datacard technology has played a big part in Mercia's success. It means tutors with laptops can help adults to sit the tests anywhere, and no telephone connection or mobile phone is needed.

This flexibility is not cheap, though. The datacard costs about pound;200 for low-users, plus a monthly fee of pound;12. High-users pay about pound;130 for the datacard and a monthly fee of pound;50.

Mercia has a policy of taking on local unemployed people, training them to the required standard and then allowing them to train other adults in the workplace.

Managing director Andrew Taylor, a former college lecturer in management training, says: "These people's lack of qualifications is the fault of the school system - if it were their fault, we would not be getting such good results."

A tutor-to-adult ratio of one to eight and the enthusiasm of tutors have also helped. Now the firm, which started with three staff in 1998, is looking at a nationwide expansion. To fulfil its contract with the Learning and Skills Council, it must conduct 1,000 national tests by next summer. So far it has conducted 250.

"We now have 43 staff - and 40 of them were previously unemployed," says Mr Taylor. "We trained them to be trainers - that's why it works. They have changed their own lives and now they are helping other people to change theirs."

The Adult Learning Inspectorate awarded Mercia's basic skills programme a grade one for its outstanding work this year. It is the only provider in the region to achieve the grade. It has also had huge success in attracting girls into engineering. Indeed, half of the intake for the engineering foundation modern apprenticeship were girls.

Thanks to close work with schools, plenty of female role models and the provision of a supportive environment - including a female course manager - the keyboard may prove mightier than the cloth.

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