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Sex, drugs and basic skills

We have two counselling services at college: one professional, official and very discreet; the other unofficial, amateur and very public. The latter is generally held in the library.

A group of teenage girls huddled around the computers were expounding knowledgeably about the pros and cons of abortion, the possibility of living with the mum-to-be's parents, the way to get into local authority housing and the welfare benefits available to single mums. I couldn't help overhearing the conversation, and was pretty impressed with the range and depth of their knowledge. Earlier, I had seen one of these girls demonstrating how she could no longer do up the button on her jeans - I feared that she was the main recipient of all this worldly wisdom.

I decided to keep my eye on her, although she had already received enough advice to see her through most options. A month or so later, as they arrived in class, she was moaning and rubbing her stomach. "What's wrong?"

I asked her, as discreetly as I could, whereupon the whole group of friends burst into hysterical laughter, shrieking "Don't slide down the banisters when you've got a stud in your belly button". She pulled up her t-shirt to reveal the true source of her woes.

The phrase "a normal student life" is usually taken to mean that the speaker used a few drugs in his or her misspent youths. I misspent my youth by training as teacher. When I was at college, I was a non-smoker and the nearest I ever came to Class A was on teaching practice.

This lack of personal experience left me rather unprepared for students who indulge now. So as I head for an estate on the edge of town to deliver a course for Sure Start, the Government's under-fives programme, I'm a bit wary. Despite the sylvan image conjured up by street names such Sycamore and Beech, this is no leafy suburb. I've been warned to think of the class more as a Mums-on-Methadone coffee morning, than a family learning group.

When I notice one of the women looking deathly pale and shivering, despite the mild weather, I assume the worst. I don't ask her if she is OK, because I don't want to draw her condition to the attention of other students, but I keep a wary eye open for the onset of a drug-crazed psychotic episode. It doesn't happen, and she remains attentive but quiet.

The following week I learn she had flu.

We've reached the unit on how young children develop early maths skills.

Given the kind of mums we target for these courses, I know I will have to take this gently. The scheme of work requires me to cover ordinal numbers, serial numbers, conservation and correspondence.

Explaining these ideas is a bit like learning to drive a car - easy only after you've mastered all the moves. So I take it slowly, with plenty of opportunities for practice and questions. In the coffee break, the most uncomfortable-looking of my students gently explains she is currently taking a science degree. I rapidly adjust my lesson plan and after break skip straight on to algebra.

Despite initial misgivings, I've enjoyed this course. The mums have been very pleasant to work with and responded well, but I feel I have let them down a bit. I'm well-equipped to teach literacy, and can manage the simpler maths, but basic skills doesn't normally encompass "What can I do about a child who bites?" and "How can I bond with my step-son?"

In such circumstances I fall back on that well-known teaching technique:

"Well, let's find out what everyone here thinks about it." And why not? The residents of this estate are plainly more than they're cracked up to be.

There are many prejudices and misapprehensions about basic skills students.

Some of my non-teaching friends see it as a kind of educational famine relief.

But basic skills is not always an ego-trip amongst grateful or even willing participants. I've supported teenagers in vocational skills who don't want to be seen anywhere near a support worker. I've taught job-seekers who believe the only benefit in attending is a welfare benefit. I've worked in a day centre where learners have only the vaguest idea of who I am, or why they are in my class.

So when an email arrived, offering me an evening class, I was thrilled. No, really. The attraction is this: the class has been requested by three adults who want to go on to higher level literacy! Of course, more students will have to be brought in, but three keen students to start with will be great.

So I turn up full of enthusiasm and they drag themselves in 10 minutes late. I ask them about their reasons for enrolling. One wants to be a romantic novelist, one has come only because their employer sent them, and one couldn't get into media studies. This isn't going to be quite the picnic I had initially imagined.

There's a counselling course along the corridor, so perhaps I could persuade them to switch: there's always a demand for counselling.

Gill Moore is a basic skills lecturer

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