Museums and libraries have vast potential to do more for disadvantaged adult learners. Simon Midgley reports
England's museums, archives and libraries could do far more to help ill-educated adults improve their basic literacy and numeracy skills, according to a new report.
Mapping the territory: the links between museums, archives and libraries and adult basic skills, published by the National Literacy Trust, says there is "a vast untapped potential'' to work with hard-to-reach social groups, such as the unemployed, lone parents and ethnic minorities.
The report, commissioned and funded by the Council for Museums, Archives and Libraries - known as re:source - adds that many of those it represents are not willing to participate in the Government's basic skills programme.
"Some take the view that work on improving adult basic skills is outside their remit," the report says. "Others take the view that they cannot support adult learning of basic skills other than incidentally as part of their normal provision.
"A significant number of museums, archives and libraries comment that more resources are needed in order for them to undertake support of adult basic skills learning at all, let alone adequately."
The National Literacy Trust was asked to research the extent to which museums, archives and libraries are contributing towards educating the illiterate and innumerate, and whether they would be willing to do more.
On March 1, 2001, the Government launched Skills for life: the national strategy for improving adult literacy and numeracy skills and pledged to spend pound;3 billion over three years to tackle the problem.
The Government defined the groups most likely to need help as the low skilled, prisoners, job seekers, lone parents and members of disadvantaged communities such as gypsies.
It estimates that around 7 million people have literacy, numeracy and language skills needs. It aims to help 750,000 people improve their basic skills by 2004. Its second target is to help 1.5m by 2007.
While a significant minority of those surveyed were unwilling to take part in the Government's programme, most museums, archives and libraries were happy to contribute. Some archives felt very strongly that they would be unable to contribute to either formal or informal adult learning programmes.
Surveys were completed by 252 museums, archives and libraries. The report's findings included:
* 84 per cent of museums, archives and libraries work with adults with basic skills needs;
* 75 per cent of respondents believe that museums, archives and libraries should support adult basic skills;
* 68 per cent of responding museums, archives and library organisations are engaged in partnerships to improve adult basic skills;
* 78 per cent use technology to improve access for adults with basic skill needs; lTwo-thirds open at lunchtimes and weekends which makes them more accessible to adults with basic skills needs;
* A third have staff who have been formally trained to support adult basic skills training;
* What training there is tends to be informal rather than formal;
* Just 20 per cent of those organisations surveyed have core funding earmarked to support adult basic skills work.
Sue Wilkinson, director of Learning and Access at re:source, said: "Mapping the territory shows clearly that our sector as a whole has an enormous contribution to make in supporting adult basic skills.
"We already had evidence of the importance of libraries in this area, but this new report shows for the first time that museums and archives have an important role to play.
"Adult basic skills training will only succeed if people feel that they need it, want it and can access it in ways that suit them.
"This report contains case studies which show how museums, archives and libraries stimulate and motivate people to re-engage with learning and how they work in a variety of ways with many different partners to support people's basic skills needs."
Julia Strong, deputy director of the National Literacy Trust, said: "It really is encouraging to find that museums, archives and libraries are aware of their potential to support adults with basic skills needs, but there is clearly much to do to turn this into reality.
"We will be taking this forward in libraries through the Vital Link adult literacy programme, which is being funded through re:source as part of the Framework for the Future strategy for public libraries."
One librarian, Josie Watson, taking part in Essex Library Service's Quick Read programme (see below), aimed at encouraging semi-literate adults to read for pleasure, said: "I don't know who I was expecting to meet when I went into the classes - but it certainly was not myself in a parallel world.
"I had the feeling over and over again that one chance decision during our childhoods had sent us off on to different paths through life - and in educational terms I'd got the better deal.
"The students were all ages and from many different backgrounds, but the disconcerting thing was, very often it was the same background as me. Many of the students were people who had simply suffered from the way their schooling had been delivered to them."