Extra language help for hairdressers and beauty therapists has given learners more self-confidence and transformed achievement. reports Emma Burns
Hands up anyone who has ever experienced taking a new group and finding many students just cannot do what you expect? It is bad enough when dealing with children, but with adults who have been tempted back into continuing education it can endanger the whole project.
The last thing they need is to feel like failures again then drop out of courses that interest them and might even lead to a job. Yet, for one in five adults in this country having problems with English and at least one in three with maths, it is all too easy for deficiencies in the basics to trip them up and then make them feel like giving up.
So what's the solution?
Increasingly, colleges across the UK are teaching people the stuff they want to know and slipping in extra learning on the way, a bit like Jamie Oliver's hidden vegetables. The concept is called embedded basic skills, and it enables colleges to reach adults who would never go near classes they perceive as remedial.
At the Northern College for Residential Adult Education, near Barnsley, they use technology after they found that about half the students could not cope with the demands of the ordinary course. "Our target group have few or no qualifications and we found a lot of them had difficulties with reading, writing and following instructions on the word-processing courses," says Jill Westerman, the college's director of pathways.
"The documents they were producing were of poor quality and they could make only limited use of the information they obtained from the internet. We realised teaching them word-processing without developing their literacy was like teaching someone how to drive without giving them any road sense.
"We still run straightforward ICT courses for people with good basic skills but we also have word-processing, desktop publishing and using the internet options which develop literacy and a spreadsheets one for numeracy."
Tutors guide new students to the appropriate course - they are all residential and last three days - based on qualifications, application form and a phone conversation with each of them.
If they opt for word-processing, they may find themselves writing acrostic poems (one based on the initial letters of chocolate is a popular choice), continuing a ghost story after being given the opening paragraph, or writing stories based on three objects where it is up to them to establish the connection. They learn how to format their text, lay it out on the page, use different fonts and check what they have written using Microsoft Word's inbuilt systems.
"Some people do find the creative element difficult but linking it in with ICT makes it easier for them," says Neil Mayne, a tutor. "Initially they can blame the computer and, as they see everything the word-processor can do to support them, their confidence grows.
Jill Westerman says there has been a huge difference in the quality of documents that learners produce; their skills' development has been accelerated and individual students have become much more confident. "I think that is because literacy learning is contextualised,"she says, "not happening within a vacuum."
Many students are so enthused that they return for further courses and some have gone on to take national literacy tests (at the same standard as GCSE, although covering only part of the curriculum). Some have found jobs - one woman who had been out of work is now a school secretary, using computers every day.
After years of concentrating on teaching English and maths separately, the move to integrate them into vocational and other courses began in 2001 with Skills for Life, the strategy to equip every adult for the 21st century.
Jan Eldred, senior development officer at Niace, the organisation promoting adult education, points out that the strategy puts demands on tutors: vocational specialists have to master teaching literacy, language and numeracy, and basic skills tutors must grasp the teaching of vocational courses.
"Instead of the plumbing tutor saying 'Why don't you send me students who can do their maths?', perhaps he needs to learn how to teach them maths," she says. "We are still getting to grips with how to do it, and how to measure what people have gained."
Another option is collaborative teaching. It has proved very successful at Tower Hamlets college in east London, where many of the students have English as a second language. Last year, they conducted a successful experiment on applicants for childcare courses whose English was poor. They were taught not only by the childcare expert but also by two tutors of Esol (English for speakers of other languages), one working on their language and the other on how to teach art to children. The three tutors designed the course and planned and reviewed together, reinforcing but not duplicating each other's work.
A questionnaire showed the students were among the happiest in the college: eight moved on to level 1 vocational courses, while the other four chose not to because they decided they preferred a different career or realised they needed to work more on their English.
Karen Dudley, head of Esol at Tower Hamlets, says: "In the past a lot of students either were not successful when they applied for level 1 courses, which are full-time and very demanding, or they found it a real struggle and some dropped out because their English was not strong enough. Our collaborative course had incredible attendance, achievement and progression. We are running three of them this year."
Esol tutors also provide back-up on other vocational courses at Tower Hamlets, such as hairdressing and beauty therapy. They sit in on lessons so they know what extra help the students need and run sessions on, for instance, working as a receptionist in a hair salon before work experience is undertaken.
"One of the really interesting things about embedding is that it does require different ways of working," says Karen Dudley. "You have to be very open and receptive to other people's ideas and prepared to reflect on your own professional practice."
But if the demands are great, so are the rewards. Seeing people succeed who would otherwise have given up has to be one of the best feelings in the world, she says.
Allen Cooke, a student at Northern College, used to think of English as the failure in his life. He says: "Combining the English skills with using the computer meant that I could practise them there and then. It was great to see how it was making a difference to the documents I was creating. I suddenly realised that I could achieve something. I began to believe in myself."