Penny Robson, chief education officer of the Home Office prison service, made a challenging and impressive presentation to the all-party parliamentary committee on adult education last week.
All prisoners now receive basic skills screening, and she reported that 60 percent of inmates have literacy skills no better than level 1 - the lowest. Three-quarters have similarly poor numeracy skills.
The Basic Skills Agency's research in the workplace suggests that only four jobs in 100 are accessible to people with such low levels of skill, and there is evidence of a strong correlation between poor numeracy and poverty.
Education in prisons is now part of the management regime, funding is under the control of governors and the curriculum addresses prisoners' offending behaviour. There are impressive moves to integrate basic skills work into workplace training inside. There is a clear sense of increased confidence in the work of the service. And yet, prisoners average four-and-a-half hours of learning activity overall in a week - including physical education.
Everyone who has worked with literacy students knows learners who have joined classes and made significant improvement, yet have still left without becoming independent readers and writers. American research suggests that people with the lowest levels of literacy skills need 660 hours of tutorial support to reach a threshold level where skills gain is retained, and where learners achieve independence.
However well prisons use their resources, the amounts are inadequate to the challenge. If your literacy and numeracy skills exclude you from 96 in 100 jobs, your options will be limited. With the best will in the world, and the most dedicated staff, few will learn enough in two or three hours a week to make a real difference. Surely what is needed is a serious, systematic investment of time to overcome the problem.
In the mid-1970s, TOPS (Training Opportunities) preparatory courses offered unemployed adults up to a year, full-time, to learn basic skills. The results were spectacular. Just as access courses offer a life-transforming experience to people preparing for entry to higher education, TOPS courses gave people the independence and confidence to learn, as well as real gains in basic skills.
However, the common confusion between throughput and output gradually diminished their effectiveness, as students were limited to ever-shorter lengths of time. It must have seemed efficient to the bureaucrats. Squeezing more people through for the same investment looks like improved productivity. But tutors were obliged to limit intake to students likely to benefit from a quick sprint, and those with the biggest need were inevitably excluded.
Widening participation involves asking how much support is needed, as well as how many people need support. I do hope Sir Claus Moser and his colleagues on the basic skills task force will address this issue. Doubling the numbers of people getting basic skills help is a salutary target of Government policy, as long as those recruited really get the chance to learn. It would also help if Andrew Smith and his colleagues could ask the same question about the adult New Deal.
The Gateway programme is a welcome and properly celebrated element of the young people's New Deal. Surely it is needed even more by adults who have been out of the workforce for more than a year? From all I can gather, it is questions of finance rather than the merits of the case that have led the Government to introduce adult pilots without a Gateway. That seems short-sighted to me.
Too little investment condemns participants to an unending round of initiatives, none of which does the trick. Taken together, they must be more expensive than getting it right first time.
Of course, it is not only a question of how much. It is also important to ask how good the provision is. The FEFC Inspectorate report, Basic Education, scarcely makes encouraging reading for providers, particularly for students with learning difficulties and or disabilities.
One comment in it is that "basic education is one of the most demanding and difficult areas in further education, yet it rarely receives adequate support and attention from college managers".
Yet the FEFC itself began life without a programme area covering this work, and the report covers a miscellany of curriculum areas, and its survey cannot offer the sharp discrimination necessary to inform the different needs of literacy, numeracy, ESOL and provision for students with learning difficulties andor disabilities.
Given the importance of the work, and the level of investment the FEFC makes in inspection, it would be a help if lessons for the field could be organised to have maximum impact. No one I know thinks of themselves as a "programme area 10" specialist - and there is a danger that lumping together all the bits that don't fit in elsewhere weakens the important messages the report contains.
But then, it is a danger of all great bureaucracies that they come to believe in their own categories.
This has a double negative effect. First, it fails to give due account to the different specialisms - for example in teaching advocacy and citizenship to people with learning difficulties seeking to live independently, or to the strategies for developing adult sensitive numeracy work.
At the same time, it risks failing to get over clearly the issues common to providing high quality support for all adults. As Professor John Tomlinson,the chair of FEFC inquiry into students with learning difficulties and disabilities recognised, the trick is to secure the benefits of joined-up thinking, and provision, and the appropriate separation of function to meet specific needs. The mix will be different for different people. If only adult learning was a tidier business!
Alan Tuckett is the director of the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education