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Notes from the broom cupboard

Susan Pember, the admirable director of the Adult Basic Skills Strategy Unit, says that if teaching grown-ups how to read and write is the Cinderella of the education service then ESOL (English for speakers of other languages) is in the broom cupboard. Years of neglect have left us all with quite a task, so it is important that we get our priorities for development right.

Sitting through the 28 meetings of the Moser Committee on Basic Skills, I was sure we were getting them wrong. Discussion was dominated by a heated row over the introduction of national tests. In one corner Sir Richard Layard, professor of economics at the LSE, government policy adviser. In the other myself, ex-ESOL teacher and college principal. Not an even match and no surprise when policy (national tests) won over practice (standards and assessment).

Two years on and a national qualification system for adult basic skills and ESOL is being rolled out. Thousands of students must sit pilot tests and the results must be monitored. The enormous investment could be better used elsewhere.

The argument most frequently used for the introduction of national tests on the Moser committee was that employers want these new qualifications. I just don't think this is true. Employers are already at sea when it comes to qualifications for young people, never mind adults.

Incidentally, so are the authors of the recent 14-19 Green Paper. They failed to include foundation and entry level qualifications in the matriculation diploma. So, while the Government is bent on introducing qualifications for adults who don't need them, the 15 per cent of young people who do have been forgotten.

A sub-GCSE qualification is essential for young people because they need the motivation to stay in education and make progress up the qualifications ladder. The same argument does not hold true for adults, the majority of whom are looking for jobs or improving their worklife situation.

And has anyone asked ESOL and basic skills students what they want? Although some have expressed satisfaction at being tested, many feel that the limited scope of the tests (they test only reading skills, not writing, listening or speaking) don't allow them to do justice to their knowledge.

So here we have a test that is only a proxy for the achievement of literacy skills but will undoubtedly become the measure of success for providers - how many can you get through the test to secure your funding? Of course students need and appreciate regular tests and certificates that record their progress. The national curriculum gives the framework and individual teachers can create accreditation that motivates students. This is very different indeed from a national qualification.

Evidence from one of the few available research sources in this area suggests that such qualifications do not reflect what people know and have learnt.

Tom Stricht's study of a single test system in Chicago among adult literacy students, shows them to be a poor reflector of knowledge and skills. The critical factor, as he told the Moser committee, is how interested adult students are in what is going on in the classroom. If lessons relate to their interests and build confidence then they are likely to learn.

But far from making lessons more interesting, national tests are likely to make them more boring. Teachers governed by an examination system teach for the test.

At a time when we need to put all our effort and energy into sharing best practice and creating exciting new materials is it sensible for hard pressed teachers to be focused on implementing a qualification no one will value?

The work of the Adult Basic Skills Strategy Unit and the Basic Skills Agency is tremendous. The publication of the basic skills and ESOL national core curriculum, the creation of a national research centre, the support for the nine Pathfinders, all of these initiatives will make a real difference. A national qualification system is a distraction. Let's look at the evidence and think again.

Annette Zera is principal of Tower Hamlets College

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