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Out of the shadows

Let learning give everyone the confidence to shape their own lives, says Alan Tuckett

A student of the great Brazilian educator Paolo Freire argued, 'I want to read and write to stop being the shadow of other people.' His interest was in reading the world as well as reading words. There is no doubt that confidence and skill in speaking the language, managing numbers and writing and reading really make a difference to the day-to- day experience and quality of life.

The Skills for Life strategy is now entering its second phase. The first national targets have been met. Thousands of tutors have been trained.

National standards that command confidence are in place, and a good deal of high quality learning material has been generated.

But we have still some way to go to give learners a larger role in shaping their studies - not least when they want to strengthen literacy, numeracy and language while studying for another goal. Embedding basic skills - so that the vocational curriculum and the literacy, language and numeracy skills are developed with equal confidence - is more of a challenge than meets the eye. But many learners do expect us to do better in designing programmes that work for them (perhaps this is what personalisation means?) and we would do well to engage them more in shaping the offer.

The second phase of the Skills for Life strategy is likely to be even more challenging. Some of the easiest-to-recruit learners have been reached.

There is a need to make sure that numeracy moves centre stage - not least as an anti-poverty measure. English for speakers of other languages (Esol) was excluded from the Moser Report in 1999, and when information and communications technology was added to the suite of basic skills, the official press release called it "the third basic skill" - so invisible was language. Esol needs sustained investment to build a tutor cohort large enough to meet the thousands ready now to learn, and to reach out to all the UK's linguistic minorities.

There is no doubt that skill and confidence in using the new technologies makes a difference to life chances, too. Niace's annual participation survey, reported this week in FE Focus and on page 7 of this special report, highlights how the digital divide reinforces the learning divide that bedevils British education and society. But we are waiting for the development of a sustained programme of work to give life to the aim to make ICT a basic skill everyone has a right to.

Reading the world better is what all the dimensions of a wider definition of basic skills share in common. Making sense of the way stories are constructed in the media; understanding better our relations with other family members; dealing with bereavement and the torrent of financial choices that flood through our letterboxes - all point to the need for a confident population skilled in making sense of what is going on, and in how to deal with it. That surely is our common task.

Alan Tuckett is director of the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education

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