Another way

2nd June 2006 at 01:00
My Italian mother had her university career cut short by Mussolini and Hitler. When she came to Britain as a war-bride, she was determined to get that degree, and, 30 years later, thanks to the Open University, she did.

What was so extraordinary, so exciting about that experience was not only the satisfaction she gained, but the way it enriched the lives of her family. We children saw that there was indeed another way to learn, light years away from dusty school books and boredom. Television - still a luxury in the early 1970s - brought the beauty and drama of her humanities course into the front room. It fired us all up to learn.

Another 30 years later, and Ufilearndirect is following its big sister's example. Where television was the agent for change, now it is the computer, as Donald Clark says on page 6. It is only fair that what started life six years ago as the University for Industry has become better known by the title of its computer-based learning courses - learndirect - because these have enticed many of its 2 million customers back into learning. A recurring theme in this special report is the satisfaction felt by people who got nothing from school when they discover that they can learn and achieve on their own terms.

But there is a more urgent economic imperative at play here. As the Leitch review has already warned, Britain needs to "skill-up" - and fast - if it is to keep pace with global economic competition. Ufi will be in the frontline of organisations tackling this problem, and will need to persuade employers that they cannot afford to do without the workforce training it offers.

The scale of the task - almost 60 per cent of our workers are considered low-skilled - is daunting. But, as the chief executive Sarah Jones (right) says, learndirect has already made a start. And ultimately, when you read about the effect learndirect has had on the lives of prisoners (page 14) or ethnic communities who want to integrate into British society but have found conventional education inaccessible (page 4), you realise that there are many different ways of increasing the skills that individuals bring to a society.

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