Colleges throughout England, Scotland and Wales are reporting an upsurge in demand for help with literacy and numeracy, particularly from school-leavers, and are rapidly expanding provision to meet increased need.
The trend is especially marked among colleges offering programmes attracting higher numbers of non-traditional students, with one principal reporting as many as nine out of 10 of those on foundation-level general national vocational qualification courses require additional basic skills support.
All colleges reported increased demand, over half reported a doubling of uptake over one to two years.
The trend is revealed in a survey by The TES of 35 FE, sixth-form and specialist colleges, representative of the sector. The pattern is not confined to students who have struggled at school. Even those arriving at college with a reasonable record of exam success often need help with communication skills and basic essay-writing techniques, according to one principal.
Growth in demand is highest south of the border where Scottish colleges seem to have the most sophisticated ways of checking school-leavers' literacy and numeracy.
But England and Wales are rapidly catching up. Pembrokeshire College, which received a grade 1 for support services in its recent inspection report, has a drop-in learning support service for all students, with one-to-one tutoring. Patrick Grove of customer services said: "We have people from A-level courses with poor spelling."
The results of the survey come amid new reports of alleged falling basic skills standards in Britain. The annual conference of the British Association for the Advancement of Science heard this month that students entering university are worse at maths than their predecessors 10 years ago.
Meanwhile, a report published by the Basic Skills Agency and based on a study of 1,650 children over 21 years, found teachers failed to spot literacy problems in two out of three adults.
The agency called for effective early assessment and extra support, predicting serious problems unless young people were equipped for a modern economy.
Colleges targeted in The TES survey reported increases over the past year or two in the take-up of basic skills help, but principals are reluctant to blame falling classroom standards.
Most attribute it to a greater range of students entering further education, combined with an expansion as colleges have used new funding possibilities from the Further Education Funding Council and others to boost services.
At Gateshead College, where the demand for basic skills help among school-leavers has increased "significantly" in the past two years, deputy principal Nancy Cookson says: "It is not so much standards getting worse - I think it is just different students who perhaps in the past dropped out at 16."
Pat Kirby, in charge of learning support at Manchester College of Arts and Technology, says her department cannot cope with demand from students requiring literacy and numeracy support.
Adults and school-leavers alike are queuing for the courses. Numbers vary between departments - a course such as professional studies may include as few as one or two students requiring basic skills help, compared with 90 per cent on a GNVQ foundation course.
Peter Newcome, principal of Franklin Sixth Form College in Grimsby, says: "I have come across very, very big problems in literacy, numeracy and communications skills, not just with low-achieving students but also among those with quite significant exam results."
Accrington and Rossendale College began assessing all students on courses below A-level standard last year using standard basic skills tests, and immediately recognised its former system of self or tutor-referral had brought only a fraction of the real demand to light.
Many colleges with strongly academic traditions, particularly sixth-form colleges in the south of England, found the real need was hard to assess. One principal says: "It's a middle class ethos, they choose to muddle through on their own."