Eminem and Del Boy flog skills on the market

6th July 2001 at 01:00
I HATE running. I'd rather miss the bus, lose a hat blown off by that sudden gust of wind, or even (horror of horrors) arrive late at the cinema.

We were once offered the "opportunity" to take a staff fitness test. Naturally, I declined. Some colleagues took the same stance; others, notably the fit ones, opted to be subjected to nameless torture by the head of personnel. Despite soothing assurances that this would not go on record, I felt loath to set myself up for failure.

Running is not my culture. I belong to the "running counter culture". I can cite sound reasons for this - it wears out the joints, it's not my biological imperative (I'm a woman; men chase woolly mammoths, I tend the home fires).

But what if this abhorrent activity were to have a deep impact on my life, for instance determining my ability to pay the bills, future job prospects, self-fulfilment? How could I be persuaded to buy into this culture, don the kit, experience humiliation and pain as I publicly pound the pavements? A multiplicity of means and incentives could be invoked. A video of Hollywood actor Dennis Quaid in tight jeans, loping in front of the running machine might help.

A similar task on a far grander scale now faces basic skills practitioners. Sir Claus Moser's 1999 report, A Fresh Start, outlined starkly the results of cumulative neglect of adult literacy and numeracy in bygone years. Seven million adults are estimated to lack these fundamental skills at varying levels.

Some "Shock! Horror!" examples quoted are: inability to "locate the page reference for plumbers in the alphabetical index of the yellow pages", or lacking the skills to "calculate the area of a room that is 21 x 14 feet, even with the aid of a calculator". Shocking indeed. Moreover horrifying.

Following the publication of this report, with attendant recommendations, there was much ado and much... nothing. Basic skills practitioners nationwide lay marooned in the doldrums, watching rhetoric, timelines and proposals bob by in a futile parade to nowhere. Susan Pember's appointment as director of the Adult Basic Skills Strategy Unit and former education minister Malcolm Wicks's shouldering of responsibility for basic skills created the much-required tailwind to push us forward.

Sailing metaphors apart, what happens now? We are charged with delivering basic skills to 750,000 adults by 2004. That's official. It was in the manifesto. The process of recruitment, retention and achievement is multi-layered and complex. So let's just take the initial concept of marketing basic skills to the disengaged, the unwilling conscripts. How do we sell a culture that is alien, threatening, something to avoid at all costs, like reading or maths? Benefits, such as the joys of a good book, improved job prospects, sense of achievement, may prove intangibles that fall on stony ground in the "reading counter culture".

The Basic Skills Agency reported recently: "The media has been effective in helping people realise they are not alone in having poor basic skills." The National Literacy Trust concurs that the role of the media is crucial "in engaging and supporting less confident readers".

So, let's harness the multi-headed media dragon, aim its fire at our targets. A brief list of what sells a product includes: sex, humour, more sex and celebrity. The possibilities are exciting. For instance: Del Boy and Rodders promote numeracy skills for market-traders.

Ali G, stymied mid-seduction when his squeeze insists he read a love poem, concludes that reading is sexy.

Eminem makes the horrible discovery that Philip Larkin was using "fuck" to excellent effect over 20 years ago - without music. Hand on crotch, he exhorts us with every pelvic thrust to read, read, READ.

Britney Spears re-releases the video for Hit Me Baby One More Time; close-ups of GCSE set texts mingle with dance routines.

A leather-clad Keanu Reeves explains how calculus will free us from The Matrix.

Sporting celebrities, oiled and lycra-bound, give us their locker-room wisdom on the efficacy of reading to sort out the glutes from the pecs. To add a touch of whimsy, Chris Eubank recites "Shakethpeare".

Big Brother evacuees model the campaign logo, a Harley-Davidsonesque "Get basic".

Sadly, for the more mature market, Dad's Army's Captain Mainwaring and Pike are no longer an option; much could be made of "you stupid boy" over a spelling mistake. Pike, empowered by a college course, thus becomes "the worm that turned". Would impressionist Alistair McGowan oblige here?

Meanwhile, I await the inevitably more prosaic campaign, with interest. As for running... pass the video then, I'll chase Dennis Quaid round the block. If I get out of breath, I can always cheat and put it on pause.

Lorraine Crossland is basic skills co-ordinator at Canterbury College

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