This time it looks as if there is to be a serious drive to tackle illiteracy and innumeracy among adults. Francis Beckett reports.
The setting up of the Adult Basic Skills Strategy Unit is a real landmark. There are still suspicions that the Government may not take the issue seriously enough, put in sufficient resources, or be willing to think the unthinkable, but it is the first time in 25 years that campaigners for comprehensive basic skills training for adults feel they a getting somewhere. The adult learners' organisation Niace and the Basic Skills Agency (BSA) have spearheaded the campaign, targeting adult literacy in particular. The Government was always sympathetic, but this has never yet translated into effective action. Under the Conservatives it was narrowed to a skills agenda; meanwhile, illiterate people and dyslexics were - as Alan Tuckett, director of Niace, puts it - serving a life sentence.
Those with poor numeracy are even worse off because poor numeracy has the highest correlation with poverty. More than two-thirds of prisoners have poor numeracy - the rate of poor literacy is slightly lower. Those who can't plan their money are the people that loan sharks thrive on.
A strategy for beating crime has to address the question of basic skills. Jobs for those with poor basic skills are disappearing, while the definition of basic skills is changing, with information technology fast becoming one of these.
What made the final push possible was the publication of the Moser report 18 months ago, which found that one in five adults has basic literacy problems. And the link with crime was too obvious for even the most vehement hang-em-and-flog-em brigade to ignore. Illiteracy in streetwise young men, perhaps just out of prison, made an explosive cocktail. So David Blunkett pledged 20 million of taxpayers' money to tackle basic skills.
It had an immediate structural effect. The leadership of the battle to bring literacy to all had until then been with the agency, which is an independent charity, though it has strong links with the Government and is used to distribute government money (as with the recent Adult and Community Learning Fund.) Now the Government was taking over the lead - with the agency's blessing, for it had been convinced for a long time that a large-scale assault on basic skills shortages had to come from the centre. Whitehall connections were needed to link what the Department for Education and Employment was doing with Home Office initiatives. It was not merely a matter of harnessing the state's resources, but also of ensuring "joined up government".
It was not a job for the private sector. Employers see basic skills as something the state should guarantee. There was talk of a national test - akin to the driving test - that would reassure employers they were recruiting competent people. But the idea quickly died a death. After all, who would boast to a prospective employer that they had just passed a literacy test.
Efforts by the state to make sure everyone had basic skills would prove a huge and very costly task. The UK has a higher proportion of people with poor basic skills (23 per cent) than any other European country except Poland (39 per cent). Thelowest number is in Sweden (7 per cent), yet the Swedes thought the problem so severe that the government decreed a learning year out for those with poor basic skills, paid for by the state - a stark contrast with Britain. In the 1980s, the Manpower Services Commission began ran 36-week courses that were cut to 13 weeks - not enough for those with serious problems. "They confused throughput with output" as one observer puts it.
So will it all be different this time? Yes, says Steve Broomfield, chief executive of Warrington Council and a former FE college principal, who sat on the Moser committee and advised on the setting up of the strategy unit. This time government and the 47 local learning and skills councils will "work coherently and cohesively and target resources", he insists.
There's money in the Government's comprehensive spending review (to be decided next month) and willingness by those who work with prisoners, those who employ people and those in education, to work together. "The strategy unit will make sure there is a coherent response across government" he says.
Susan Pember, appointed to head the strategy unit, is also optimistic. "Having a national strategy will make government intentions clear" she says. She will be based in the Department for Education and Employment where she will have a staff of fewer than 20 because "we want to make sure resources go to the learners," she says.
"We need to find ways to encourage the learner with difficulties to do something about it. We need to share good practice.
The new councils will have targets for participation in basic skills, while the Basic Skills Agency has drawn up a curriculum. If learners move from one provider to another they need to feel at home because the learning materials are the same.
"We need to increase training of teachers and make sure all teachers are covered. I'd like to see new training being accredited by a university so that the newly trained teacher is getting something out of it as well. If we've done all that, I'll have succeeded."
But not everyone would count that as success. Paul Mackney, general secretary of the lecturers union Natfhe thinks the problem won't be truly solved until all adult learners have a right to paid study leave.
Alan Wells, director of the Basic Skills Agency, wonders why, 18 months after the Moser report, we see not action but a strategy unit to design action. He wonders if anyone has realised what radical thinking is needed. Moser, he says, was radical - but have we lost the radical impetus?
"The danger is thinking that more of the same will work" he says. "They might think: 'Get more people into colleges, put on more courses in further education.' There's no evidence at all that that will work.
"We have to look at incentives and self-help because while there's a lot of need, there's not much demand. The idea that seven million people who need basic skills help are queuing up to get it is just not the real world."
Meanwhile at Niace, Alan Tuckett wonders if there will be enough money. "To overcome poor basic skills in Britain requires more money over a longer time than governments have had the political will to find up to now" he says.