A cabinet committee has been established, chaired by Education Secretary David Blunkett, to co-
ordinate the basic skills strategy.
Malcolm Wicks, the lifelong learning minister given responsibility for basic skills, said the Government was making the first serious attempt to solve literacy and numeracy problems in adults.
"We in government have to be very good employers," he told FE Focus. "We have people in the army, in the health service, often hidden from us, who cannot read or write.
"We have set very challenging targets and it is dead right that we should be challenged on them. Tony Blair is really interested in this. Basic skills is going to be a major feature of Labour's second term."
He was speaking after Mr Blunkett published a consultation paper, Skills for Life, which proposes early screening for literacy and numeracy for people on jobseekers' allowances or New Deal schemes. Those with problems will be directed towards getting help that suits their needs.
For those refusing help, benefit would not be taken away "for now", said Mr Wicks. But there could be financial incentives for those who stayed the course.
Up to seven million adults have basic skill problems. The Govenment estimates that if the numeracy skills of all adults were raised to the standard expected for 11-year-olds there would be an increase in the gross domestic product of up to pound;40 billion.
Two years ago only around 250,000 people with poor literacy and numeracy skills were trying to do something about it. The Government wants to double this number by 2002. Mr Blunkett said they were well on the way to achieving this with an estimated 390,000 adults on skills courses in 2000-01.
"But it is critical that participation leads to improved skills. We have therefore now set ourselves a target linked to achievement: to reduce by 750,000 the overall number of adults who have difficulty with literacy or numeracy by 2004," he said.
Expenditure to meet the target was pound;241 million in 2001, rising to pound;313m in 2001-02, pound;366m in 2002-03 and at least pound;403m in 2003-04.
Alan Wells, director of the Basic Skills Agency, welcomed the announcement but said many adults would not join formal programmes. "No industrialised country has ever managed to get more than one in 10 adults with poor basic skills on courses. That is why the development of innovative 'self-help' materials for the independent learner, available through supermarkets, high-street stores and football grounds, will be just as important as reform of the existing system." See page 3