COLLEGES dismiss at their peril the opportunities public libraries offer for getting adults who struggle with literacy and numeracy back into education, the Government has warned.
A successful study of partnerships between libraries and colleges has been seized on by ministers and educational strategists behind the Government's drive to improve adult literacy and numeracy.
They have warned colleges that the "Skills for Life" strategy could fail and targets be missed unless colleges work with local libraries.
Baroness Blackstone, arts minister, and Susan Pember, director of the adult skills strategy unit, were among those stressing the pivotal role of libraries in reaching people with basic skills problems.
They were speaking at the launch of the Vital Link pilot project - a reader development and adult basic skills initiative run by the Reading Agency, the National Literacy Trust and the National Reading Campaign.
The Government has set itself a target of having 750,000 adults in training by 2004 and 1.5 million gaining literacy and numeracy qualifications by 2007. Since April 2001, around 250,000 have obtained these.
An estimated 7 million adults in England have problems with functional literacy - the level expected of an average 11-year-old. Nine library authorities worked with their local colleges to develop new ways of catering for existing learners and increasing the number of people taking advantage of basic skills training.
Partnerships resulted in new reading and literacy opportunities in settings such as prisons and through youth offending teams. Training for librarians to become outreach workers was offered, with some receiving basic skills teaching.
Baroness Blackstone said libraries could act as a stepping stone to education for adults with basic skills needs.
"The neutrality of our public libraries can be an important plus, drawing people that may be put off by the idea of going to a formal institution such as a college. Some of these can be very intimidating to people with basic skills needs," said the minister.
Susan Pember praised the role libraries had played so far in the Skills for Life strategy. "Finding those who are hard to reach is incredibly important and we are working with you to see how we can do it and embed it into the work you do," she said. "I know that without people like yourselves we will not reach that 2007 target."
Kathy Ennis, post-16 learning adviser for the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals, said: "There's evidence of people coming into a reading group or a demonstration at a library and being inspired to go into something formal at college.
"Libraries remove the fear factor. You cannot underestimate how scary it is for some people to actually walk into an FE college."