Sitting literacy and numeracy tests at a computer does not seem to intimiddate workers who have bad memories of school. Simon Midgeley reports
If you want people who have failed at school to become more qualified, the first thing you have to overcome is their fear of sitting exams. Which is why online tests are proving so popular with learndirect students. Such tests are possible at some 70 centres up and down the country but this is soon to expand to 300.
The hour-long tests, which encompass levels 1 and 2 (GCSE equivalent) in both literacy and numeracy, come under learndirect's Skills for Life programme.
One place where the online testing was piloted is the Ards Open Learning Centre in Northern Ireland. "Overall, the online testing project has been a hit for our learners," says Olwyn Morrow, the manager there.
"Learners who have traditionally been reluctant to sit exams see this form of testing as something less daunting. The fact that they can sit their exam at a computer in an environment where they feel comfortable and relaxed boosts their chances of success and, therefore, progress."
It is a reaction confirmed by reports from the other 12 pilot centres.
Students are overwhelmingly positive about online, rather than paper-based, tests, says Jane Horton, who is in charge of Skills for Life.
"The online pass rate was higher than that for paper-based tests," she says. "The supposition is that learners are more motivated to do the test online because it is more like doing a quiz.
"There's no doubt many more people today are familiar with using computers to answer questions because of TV programmes such as Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?"
Sue Densley, manager of Skills for Life, says: "Research shows that the sort of people we want to reach are initially wary of learning but once they start they soon get the bug and want to get certificates to show that they have learnt new skills.
"The new online tests are ideal for these people. They can take them in the learndirect centre on a computer - an environment and style of working they know and are comfortable with - nothing like those stark big school halls they remember from their past."
Before they sit the tests, students get a boost to their confidence through Preparing for Testing, a programme designed especially for them. However, public awareness of the new way of testing is still a problem, says Ms Horton.
Such tests are a key weapon in the Government's battle to improve the skills of workers in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Susan Pember, director of the Adult Basic Skills Strategy Unit at the Department for Education and Skills, sees learndirect as a crucial element in the campaign to bring learning to the workplace, improve literacy and numeracy and boost productivity.
The two-hour tests were developed by her unit and the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority. Since April this year her unit has focused on the private sector, encouraging companies to improve the literacy, language and numeracy skills of their workers. Local Learning and Skills Council advisers help employers find the best training courses.
They can offer a free assessment of employees' literacy and numeracy needs, free training to suit employers and employees, a free "employer's toolkit" to help them determine what a company's training needs are, and high-quality and relevant skills teaching. Such teaching can be free or paid for by the employer.
"The ball is moving very fast," says Ms Pember. "It is exciting. Where before we would have been the lone voice, basic literacy and numeracy skills training is getting embedded quickly into the mainstream of people's activities - and that is what we want."
Learndirect provides learning online via ICT and at its learning centres - more than 200 of which are based in companies. Since 2001, she adds, learndirect has had a crucial role developing high quality learning materials that students can study in user-friendly surroundings. Some materials have been adapted for use in different industries.
"Research shows productivity gains, staff morale goes up, employees are more confident, people feel empowered and there is a better feeling in the workplace - all good things for the employer and the employee. Learndirect is so important to us because it is taking learning into new places."
To date, more than 300,000 people have acquired national literacy and numeracy awards and since 2001 more than 1 million have been involved in the learning programmes. By 2004, it is hoped that 750,000 will have achieved an award, and that by 2007 1.5m will have done so.
Ford Engineering in Tyne and Wear reported a 30 per cent reduction in rejects and a 15 per cent increase in output as a result of literacy and numeracy skills support for production workers.
At Thurrock in Essex, the council's direct works services department raised targets to meet national quality standards from 60 per cent to 65 per cent following literacy and numeracy skills support for its workers. "It has been a very good initiative - every provider in the land has joined in and now employers have taken on the crusade as well," says Ms Pember.
A learndirect helpline has been set up for employers: 0800 100 900.
Advisers can help with basic-skills training needs