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Opportunity knocks

The Skills for Life strategy breaks down barriers to learning, reports Dorothy Walker

On a sunny summer day at Butlins in Skegness, not all the holidaymakers opt for a relaxing dip in the pool. A growing number head straight for the Skills for Fun centre to learn about computers. And once they have mastered a short course, they may decide to continue learning, using ICT to help brush up on literacy, numeracy or language skills. They might even have encountered skills minister Ivan Lewis who donned a red coat to get the project going.

Butlins is one of many enterprising organisations working under the auspices of the Skills for Life strategy. Launched in 2001, the national strategy set out to improve adult basic skills in literacy and numeracy, and has blazed a pioneering trail with technology. ICT has been employed to create new learning materials, assessment tools and qualifications, and to reach tens of thousands of adults formerly unable - or too shy - to take up opportunities to learn.

Barry Brooks, deputy director of the Adult Basic Skills Strategy Unit at the Department for Education and Skills, says: "Three years ago, most learners were expected to attend a course at their local college or adult centre. There was little opportunity for individual learning programmes, or assessment. But at least these people had the chance to learn. Others with family responsibilities or demanding work schedules, or those who lived in rural areas, had few opportunities. ICT has changed all that."

Thanks to ICT, he says, people can now choose to learn anywhere, at any time. Skills are assessed on screen, and the results used to formulate an individual learning plan, employed by teacher and learner to prepare a programme of study. Test results are available almost immediately and give detailed feedback on performance.

"We have seen dramatic growth in on screen assessment over the last 12 months," says Brooks. "The latest awarding body figures show that around 10,000 people are taking ICT-based literacy and numeracy qualifications every month, and the figure is rising."

He says that ICT is beginning to break down the taboo that prevents many adults admitting they have a problem with basic skills. "It is much easier to tell friends and family that you are improving your computer skills than it is to admit you need help with maths and English. We are seeing a growing number of young men joining up."

The ICT revolution is reaching far beyond colleges and adult education centres. In Derbyshire, the Read On - Write Away! (ROWA) scheme takes two buses equipped with the latest technology on the road to serve families and small businesses in rural areas. Carol Taylor, ROWA director, says: "We know that one of the best ways of getting people engaged in improving basic skills is through their children, and we run courses such as Keeping up with the Kids on Computing, which not only covers ICT, but also explains how parents can support their children at school. A new version, which highllights ICT at key stage 3, has attracted more man than any other course."

Skills for Life assessment tools have been developed with the help of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA), and researchers continue to break new ground. Barry Brooks says: "We are exploring how voice recognition technology can be used to assess speaking and listening skills, and also looking at the interactive assessment of problem-solving and extended writing skills.

"We are only at the beginning of what is possible. For the first time, ICT gives us a real opportunity to provide learning that meets every individual's needs."


Assessing needs

* Screening: Skills for Life gives everyone who comes forward the opportunity to be screened. A range of screening tools helps determine whether there are skills needs

* Initial assessment: Identifies which skills are good and which are weak, mapping skills to national standards levels for adult literacy and numeracy so that learners can be placed on an appropriate learning programme

* Diagnostic assessment: Produces a detailed evaluation of a learner's skills and abilities, pinpointing areas which need to be worked on. The results are used to produce an individual learning plan.

The Skills for Life Learning Infrastructure provides a teaching and learning framework and a growing range of resources. Work currently underway includes initiatives for "lads and dads" in learning centres at football clubs, and the production of a range of learning materials to help adults improve their skills in the context of their work or leisure activities.

Butlins and Boston

The Butlins Skills for Fun centre is run by Boston College in Lincolnshire.

Butlins staff use the centre to take computer qualifications and adult certificates in literacy and numeracy. Courses are also available to the local community, and Butlins hosts off-season residential courses for visitors ranging from families to learners on modern apprenticeship schemes.


* Boston College

* LearnDirect

* Read On - Write Away

* Skills for Life

* TUC Learning Services

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