Councils in the cold

15th September 2000 at 01:00
Cash blockade as angry minister warns that neglect of literacy and numeracy skills is unacceptable. By David Henderson

LOCAL authorities may be frozen out of the cash bonanza that is heading the way of adult literacy, Henry McLeish, Enterprise and Lifelong Learning Minister, warned last week at a national conference in the capital.

Mr McLeish pledged a "multimillion pound budget" to fund a package of measures to be introduced from next April but said it was "not automatic" that councils would be the main channel for the expansion after coming under sustained criticism for failing to promote basic skills within community education programmes. Many had also failed to highlight literacy in their community learning strategies.

"Can you believe that?" Mr McLeish asked. "I find it difficult and I hope there are no omissions in community learning plans."

A combative Mr McLeish cautioned: "Provision on the ground is still so patchy. Some local authorities in Scotland simply are not doing a great deal about this problem, other authorities are. We cannot tolerate that and we have got to be angry at it.

"I say to every civic leader and politician, we want this issue to be taken seriously. There is no point in resources going to local authorities if some of that money earmarked for what we are doing is not getting to its destination."

A specialist agency, similar to that south of the border, to co-ordinate programmes and distribute "new tranches of money" is one option but Mr McLeish said: "Nothing has been decided."

Meanwhile, Peter Peacock, Deputy Children and Education Minister, this week floated the idea of a specialist national youth agency at a community learning conference in Glasgow and argued that youth work had "slipped down the agenda".

The new agencies would have ramifications for local authorities nd for Community Learning Scotland, the current national agency.

Around one in five Scots is said to lack the basic skills to survive in an increasingly technological world. However, three out of four are probably unaware that they lack essential skills, according to studies. Fresh research is already under way to establish precise figures about the numbers of adults who need support.

Mr McLeish pulled no punches in a warmly received address to the conference on International Literacy Day. He said: "I want to be quite stern about this. We have really no basis for either having a lot of pride in our achievements or any sense of complacency. I am not convinced what we are doing in Scotland is any better than other countries. I am unrepentant about talking up this issue because it seems to me no matter where the scale of the problem lies, it is still a huge problem."

He continued: "The Scottish Executive has inherited a situation where on a national scale literacy and numeracy skills have been largely neglected. That is unacceptable. Our challenge is to turn this around."

The shortfall of 8,000 learning places already identified by the national literacy development project was "scandalous". And needs could be far higher.

Local authorities and further education colleges must review their existing programmes and give greater priority to basic skills work. "If our objective is real lifelong learning opportunities for everyone, what higher priority can there be than bringing those presently excluded from adult, further and higher education to the starting gate of participation.

"In 10 years' time, if a person does not have a particular learning difficulty, every person living in Scotland should be able to have literacy, numeracy and computer skills, so that everyone is included socially and economically."

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