BUSINESSES are being given free skills audits to tackle low levels of literacy in the work-place.
A nationwide programme is proposed following the success of radical intervention schemes aimed at increasing the take-up of training.
Pilot schemes have been running in west London with funding from the Basic Skills Agency to pay a network of training "brokers" who carry out audits in the work place and are paid for every training relationship they set up. It has now been launched in the north-east of England, following its early success.
"The scheme works well in breaking down barriers between education and business and demonstrates that, given the will on all sides, our adult basic skills problem is a problem that can be solved," said Alan Wells, the agency's director.
The UK has the worst basic skills record of any European country except Poland, with 23 per cent of people of working age having problems with literacy or numeracy.
Early signs are that industry is proving receptive to the approaches being made by training brokers.
"We have had a lot of our recommendations to companies being taken up," said Duncan Lamb, a broker from Harrow in Business, a Middlesex enterprise agency, "but I think we need to have the programme go national with a big marketing campaign to make it really effective.
"Some companies have taken on people who lack basic skills and are embarrassed about admitting it. We need to reassure them that basic skills are a big concer and that these companies are not alone."
In his area, Mr Lamb has found literacy levels to be particularly poor, with a high proportion of workers for whom English is a second language. He has been able to help by matching firms' requirements to specially arranged courses at their premises.
The brokerage scheme includes money to help businesses pay for staff-cover during training. Brokers are paid pound;200 for each relationship they establish between a business and a training provider. Payments are made for the first five partnerships established although, the BSA says, "it is hoped that they will continue making contacts and setting up relationships after this."
The agency hopes to establish 150 such training arrangements in the North-east alone.
Sharon Wells, personnel manager for the French Croissant Company, Park Royal, west London, took up the offer after being contacted by Mr Lamb.
She said: "We have a lot of people who don't speak English as their first language and this can make things difficult, especially when it comes to effective communication with supervisors."
The company will be sending 24 staff to college for two days a week for 10 weeks to improve their English . The courses are free to the company but it says it may consider paying for further training if the experiment proves a success.
It has also arranged for the college to follow up the work with a report assessing the benefit of the training to staff and the company.