One training firm has found a way to combine vocational qualifications with basic literacy and numeracy skills, reports Susan MacDonald.
A small group of care workers sits round a table in The Limes residential care home in north London. They are not there for a quick coffee break, but to be trained in health and safety by the tutor who stands before them, and to whom they listen attentively.
For some of the staff, this 12-week Chartered Institute of Environmental Health course is tagged on to the end of the working day. For others, it is a matter for the lunchtime break.
The scheme, run by the A4e training company, which works with the public, private, voluntary and community sectors, makes very good sense.
The firm has wrapped two courses into one, embedding a City Guilds literacy and numeracy course into the CIEH basic skills courses.
The Learning and Skills Council says industry loses billions of pounds every year due to poor literacy and numeracy. David Bailey, head of UK college (UKc), the arm of the firm that delivers workforce development for the LSC, says it has had great success in providing literacy and numeracy training alongside industry-recognised awards in areas such as health and safety and food hygiene.
Trainees are assessed to find out whether the literacy or numeracy side will suit them better. Both courses are then taught together, with weekly tests on progress in each. Ultimately, learners sit a final exam for each course.
In this case, it so happens that all seven care workers are foreign nationals - and some are not lacking in formal academic qualifications.
Even so, as English is not their first language, they are pleased with the inclusion of literacy and numeracy. Most are studying numeracy, but a few want to do both - after all, it was their eagerness to learn that brought them to the UK in the first place.
Noora Sidat, who graduated in the mid-1990s at a university in Mauritius and then worked in tourism, says she and her colleagues were happy to come to the UK - because "gaining British qualifications gives you enormous status back home".
Ms Sidat also studies travel and tourism at London's City college of technology. In the future, she wants to return home to set up her own business.
Tania-Luisa Da Silva took her Brazilian university degree in physical education some 20 years ago. She worked as a PE instructor before coming to the UK to get more qualifications and experience. She now works as an activities co-ordinator at The Limes and a couple of other care homes in the area. She says her skills are fine but her poor English lets her down.
Alicia Edoo, a care worker who is also from Mauritius and a beautician, is another who gave up a good lifestyle for the sake of British qualifications.
For her, as with the others, working in the care home is a means to build her work experience and earn money to finance her studies. They are amazed by the opportunity to study in the workplace, and they say they feel enormously empowered by the chance to learn more about working practices.
"Previously, we would have expected the manager to take health and safety decisions, but now we feel able to think for ourselves," says Ms Edoo.
Rita Megchiani, deputy manager at The Limes, explains that new government rules oblige such companies to train in health and safety, but she thinks it is a great idea.
"It has been an eye-opener for staff," she says. "It allows them to spot for themselves risks and dangers around the home."
Their teacher, Ismail Jama, 35, is also a foreign national. For him, work-based training "makes a big difference to regular attendance - and people appreciate what is being done for them".
Mr Jama arrived from Somalia in 1991 at the height of the conflict there.
He started out at Hackney college, in east London, studying business and finance before going on to study at London's South Bank university.
"I always wanted to teach," he says. "I haven't forgotten how hard I found life in Britain at the beginning, so I can sympathise with those I teach."
The staff at the Limes are already well-qualified and articulate, but there are other foreign nationals in unskilled jobs for whom the chance to work and study is a godsend.
Khalikur Raham and Rofi Chowdhury have both achieved the City Guilds adult literacy and numeracy qualification as well as a food hygiene certificate.
They work long hours in an outer-London restaurant and neither has been involved in learning before. Indeed, this has only been made possible now thanks to the flexibility of the course, which allowed them to study at the restaurant while it was closed on Sunday afternoons.
A4e is a private company with 100 offices in Britain. It manages contracts with 500 training providers and offers workforce development and business support in both public and private sectors. In 2004 A4e provided training and support to more than 50,000 people and 65,000 small and medium-sized enterprises.