Skills to create a brighter future

The recent report from the chief inspector of the Adult Learning Inspectorate highlighted the need to improve adult basic skills. We accept that some providers have been struggling to meet the new enhanced standards and we know we have to make sure that these are met. But we also know that so much has been achieved and it's worth recognising how far we have come.

When we launched the Skills for Life strategy in 2001, our aim was to help create a society where adults have the basic skills they need to find, and keep, work and participate fully in society. The provision for adult basic skills was at best patchy, and at worst non-existent in some areas. There were no national standards, curricula or qualifications for the teaching workforce. At the time, Lord Moser's 1999 report on skills estimated that 7 million adults had poor literacy and numeracy skills, and even that figure we now know underestimated the scale of the problem.

We set ourselves some ambitious targets - to improve the skills of 2.25 million adults by 2010, with an interim target of 1.5 million by 2007. So far, 3.7 million adults have taken up 7.8 million literacy, language and numeracy courses. More than 1 million of these learners have gone on to achieve a first qualification, and we are on course to meet our 2010 target. These figures are a testament to the success of the strategy, and to the hard work of the thousands of brilliant tutors and trainers in our further education colleges.

The FE sector has proven that they are capable of first-class work and by embracing the Skills for Life strategy, they have given millions of adults a second chance in life. This is making a huge difference to people in all walks of life. It is reaching out to those who thought that learning was not for them, those who never imagined overcoming their skills needs and making the most of life and work.

The Skills for Life strategy has put this framework in place and the benefits to the learner are clear. The Skills for Life sector has seen massive expansion since 2001 (for example, a 300 per cent increase in ESOL provision). The diverse workforce has increased rapidly and is benefiting from increased training and professionalisation.

Increasing the quality of provision is already a clear priority for government, for Skills for Life and for wider provision in the sector. The ALI report highlights issues that we are tackling through a coherent Quality Initiative which includes teacher training, workforce development and initiatives which will increase the quality of teaching and learning.

This will form part of the strategy led by the new Quality Improvement Agency.

Previous ALI and Ofsted reports have already highlighted improvements in quality e.g. improved diagnostic assessment and better use of teaching and learning materials. The number of unsatisfactory or weak inspections in further education colleges was halved in the last year. Two colleges have now been awarded beacon status for Skills for Life.

The Skills for Life strategy has always been an inclusive one. It gives all adults aged 16 and over, the right and opportunity to improve their literacy, language and numeracy skills. To transform adult skills in this country our drive has to be aimed at young people as well as adults aged 19 and over. It is right that 16 to 18-year-olds who, for whatever reason, have not yet gained a firm grasp in the basics, are included. We must prevent such a legacy of underachievement from happening a second time round.

At the same time, we are doing more to ensure that when young adults leave school, they are equipped with the basics they need to succeed in life, work and the community. The 14-19 and skills reforms announced earlier this year, will ensure that all young people are equipped in the basic English, maths and ICT skills.

Our strategy targets those who are most disadvantaged. The programme does much to engage offenders, job seekers and low-skilled people in employment.

For example, in 2004, 100,000 parents were involved in family learning.

This is a strategy that galvanises partners. The TUC and the CBI have worked together on this initiative and large employers are now on board.

The inspection regime we have is helping to drive up the chances for each and every learner. Lifelong learning is the route to economic success and personal fulfilment. That's why we invested so heavily in it and that's why we will continue to work as hard as we can on getting the quality right for learners and employers.

We will work with the inspectorates to deliver our skills agenda effectively. The money is not only well spent but essential in giving all adults and young people a chance to improve the skills they need for their work and lives.

Phil Hope is minister for skills

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