Laughter is the best tutor
One of the challenges for designers of basic skills learning materials for adults is to make them friendly and accessible without dumbing down. Web and graphic designer Matt Brasnett likes to use humour to relax the students and make maths less intimidating. His picture of Ed's Flaming Fresh Chicken - so fresh it's still an egg - has been melting the ice in numeracy materials used run by Poultec Training Ltd. The training provider, based in Norfolk, specialises in supporting workers in the food industry, and has been running basic skills projects backed by Norfolk learning and skills council and the European Social Fund (ESF).
Matt believes you can bring a "fun element" into many aspects of numeracy, including doing maths on a mobile phone. "It makes it more enjoyable, and when you enjoy things, you remember them," he says.
He developed the materials for Poultec's food industry basic skills initiative. "I was able to go out into areas and sit down with tutors and learners. I got to meet the people and see how they were developing. Then we could come back and develop the materials."
Although Matt researched the numeracy topics using modern school textbooks, his approach has to be more adult or the learners will be embarrassed.
Mathematical problems were based on household bills and work situations, such as the number of boxes of chicken handled during the day.
Presentation was also important. "You're taking it back to the core of things, but trying to make it interesting," he says. "Try to give them more visual imagery, use pictures, colour and different fonts to guide them through."
The resulting 35-page booklet is used by tutors in the workplace. It can be worked through as a programme, or used as individual sheets.
Following Poultec Training's successful bids in November 2002, 450 people have been helped in four ESF-funded projects. But the situation may change after 2006. The ESF supports projects to help people improve their skills to enter the labour market and make progress in their careers. There ispound;4.5 billion available to the UK for the programme period 2000-06 and more than 8,000 projects may be running at any time.
"The European Social Fund plays a key role in supporting lifelong learning initiatives in the UK," says Alan Tuckett, director of NIACE. "Indeed, it has been a mainstay of support for Adult Learners' Week (May 15-21)."
ESF money is matched-funding. Organisations such as training providers put in a bid to a co-financing organisation - in England it is Jobcentre Plus or the LSC - which deals with the ESF bureaucracy. .
The fund has different strategies for getting people into work. Money for Objectives One and Two funding is aimed at regions where economic development is lagging behind or suffering from industrial decline, such as Cornwall, West Wales and the Valleys, the Scottish Highlands and Islands and Northern Ireland.
Objective Three, on the other hand, is targeted at people (anywhere outside Objective One areas) who find it difficult to get work, such as the low-skilled or ethnic minorities. As the largest slice of ESF money, it supports projects promoting literacy, numeracy and ICT skills and technical and vocational skills at intermediate level. According to the recent mid-term review of its performance, Objective Three money helped 320,000 people in England between 2000 and 2002. Eighty-eight per cent completed courses.
The programme ends in 2006. Because of Britain's economic performance, only Cornwall would qualify for regional support in the next round, if the rules continue as they are now.
By that time, more countries - many of them from Eastern Europe where economies are underdeveloped - will be EU members. Although no decisions have yet been made, poorer states are naturally expected to have a stronger claim to support than richer ones.
But in a statement to the House of Commons in December 2003, Patricia Hewitt, the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, promised "the nations and the regions would not lose out", adding that the Government was committed to using increased domestic resources to support regional development.
"The challenge to ministers is to find the cash to keep alive the provision on which so many adults rely," says Alan Tuckett.
More details on the European Social Fund at www.esf.gov.uk