'Change this low-status culture'

14th May 2004 at 01:00
It's time we demanded the best for adult learners, says Ivan Lewis.

He explains his ideas to Ian Nash

Ivan Lewis is calling for every college, workplace and community centre in England to seek out and nurture maths talent and encourage them to become basic skills tutors. "Numeracy must be at the heart of everything we do," the adult skills minister told The TES in an interview for the launch of Adult Learners' Week. But he acknowledges that the fight to raise the level of maths skills among the general population is a long haul.

"The primary numeracy strategy in schools will make a massive difference, but the young people benefiting have not yet fed into the labour market.

However, there are millions of people in the market and on the edge of it who lack numeracy skills. We need to reach them."

The Government recognises the need to improve the skills of tutors and is putting money into initiatives, he says (see below). "We have to offer quality training to all people who need it but we are starting from a very low base. Adult basic skills have had low status for too long."

Evidence from the Government's Skills for Life Survey and other research demonstrates the need to tackle the problem with imagination. Recent research from the National Research and Development Centre (see pages 14-15) has revealed the need for imaginative new approaches.

"What your (TES) survey (below) exposes is that there's a cultural issue to be addressed, and as part of the skills strategy the Government accepts its responsibility to work with partners. We are not in denial about the nature of the problem," he says. "Probably the greatest challenge for workforce development is to make sure we have people on the front line - not just teaching numeracy but teaching it effectively."

This requires a concerted effort, he says, which manifests itself in initiatives such as government funding of trade union reps in the workplace, encouragement of voluntary and community initiatives, and greater employer involvement in training. "This is now happening through the Skills for Life strategy but we cannot realistically claim that we have trained enough staff."

Ivan Lewis acknowledges the difficulties of tracking staff numbers in such a diverse market. "Every college should do an audit of its staff to see which of them has these skills. It may be that there are quite a number of people who could go into this work. Are they securing volume without any clear idea of the quality?

"The local learning and skills councils and providers should get together to consider their needs and be pro-active in growing the workforce to meet the needs of their locality. It is not easy because, as I say, it is a cultural problem - one that Susan Pember (director) of our basic skills strategy unit is working on."

One of the imperatives is to turn more people on to teaching he says, but he recognises that this is a tough task. "The people we attract in to learn later in life and who progress to further courses may well be the best kind of people from which to grow the profession. Then there are those in the tenant and community groups who may have developed the skills to become tutors.

At the heart of his thinking is far greater emphasis on recruitment from the voluntary and community sectors - a plank of Labour's third term if they are re-elected next year.

"But this does not mean training on the cheap. We must not accept second best for these learners. We need people of high professional calibre and that means training them.

"There must be lots of people with good numeracy skills who could become teachers but it would not enter their radar screen. Even if you decide to teach, you don't think immediately of becoming an adult basic skills tutor.

The idea has to be put to them."

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