The scale of the technology skills gap among adults is far greater than that of basic literacy and numeracy. An estimated 24 million people, many of them socially or economically disadvantaged, are unable to use the internet, compared with 7 million people who have poor reading and writing skills. These people risk being increasingly excluded as we accelerate towards a society in which computer skills are fundamental to the way we live, says new research.
Alan Clarke and Lisa Englebright in a paper* for Niace, the adult education body, say there is a large group who do not regard information and communication technology (ICT) as relevant to their lives. "The concept of a society where a large proportion of the population is further disadvantaged by a lack of ICT skills cannot be accepted and must be addressed," Mr Clarke and Ms Englebright conclude.
Technology has had a huge impact, particularly on the workplace. The study says that three-quarters of the workforce now use computers as part of their job. By 2010, 90 per cent of all jobs will need computer skills. Yet the latest research from e-skills UK, the relevant sector skills council for information technology, shows that just over half of employers believe their staff need additional computer skills. The Government recognises this. In its skills strategy white paper it announced that ICT would be offered as a third area of adult basic skill, alongside literacy and numeracy.
As part of this drive to improve computer literacy, the exam board OCR has revamped its computer literacy qualifications to keep pace with changing needs and technology. Clait (computer literacy and information technology) has become the UK's most popular ICT qualification, catering to people of all ages. More than two million certificates have been issued since it started more than two decades ago. In 2001, it became the first IT qualification to be accredited in the national qualifications framework.
"The reason for the success of Clait is that it was devised around the useful things that business would gain from the use of IT," says Simon Banks, manager of vocationally-related qualifications at OCR. "This meant that when new assessment techniques and software were devised Clait could easily incorporate them."
New qualifications - Clait Plus at level 2 (GCSE-equivalent) and Clait Advanced at level 3 (A-level) - have been added, which include specialist units in Microsoft Office programs. Alastair Clark, a one-time adult education manager in Derbyshire and now development officer for ICT with Niace, believes the new Clait qualifications can bridge the skills gap. "It is increasingly aligned to what people actually need and offers people the right kind of flexibility," he says. "We think that making learning relevant to people and putting it in context is really key."
He talks about the broader issue: social inclusion. "ICT is a basic skill,, but by giving it a profile, it's very important that the other basic skills, literacy and numeracy and English for non-native speakers, are not lost."
Technology instruction in schools varies from authority to authority and from school to school. But in Essex, primary schoolchildren are learning computer skills that could eventually give them a head start in the workplace.
The authority is running Microsoft Office User Specialist training courses in 24 primary and secondary schools, with a further 42 schools waiting in the wings. The distance-learning courses were originally aimed at employees. They give training in software such as Word, Excel and PowerPoint. But an initial pilot scheme has proved a huge success with pupils, says the authority.
"We had 11-year-olds passing the expert level, which is mapped on to the national qualification framework as a level 3 qualification," said Richard Cole, head of professional development in ICT for the Essex advisory service.
"That's pretty good going for primary school-children. That encouraged us and we thought there must be a way of getting this out into schools so that more kids can benefit."
Some schools are paying for the training by charging parents to come into class and do the course in adult education classes. In some cases, children and parents have been learning together.
Essex is also offering the Microsoft courses as part of its computer training for teachers. This follows on from New Opportunities Fund (NOF) training programme for all teachers nationally which ended earlier this year. "The message from NOF was that the Government under-estimated the starting point," says Richard Cole. "A lot of teachers had no basic skills in those sorts of products."
Last year, Ofsted, the schools inspection service, questioned the quality of NOF training: it said that in around six out of ten secondary schools and half of primaries the training failed to tackle issues about the quality of ICT on offer. And e-skills UK says schools struggle to teach the subject because teachers cannot keep up with the changing pace of technology.
Despite many school initiatives, the subject isn't applied enough to the world of work said Terry Watts, e-skills UK's chief operating officer. He cites the example of teachers getting children to enter their own weight and height into a spreadsheet to learn about databases.
"Many of our employers have said 'We have a lot of data that we'd be happy to give you so you can talk about real-life applications'.
"Not everybody sees that as being relevant and it's not always easy to get it rolled out to so many schools. And I think there's a difficulty for people who write national curriculum type activities to keep the engagement of kids up to date."
ICT - The New Basic Skill by Alan Clarke and Lisa Englebright is available from Niace at pound;8.95. Tel: 0116 2044 216. Or from the website, www.niace.org.ukpublicationsFor further information on the new professional qualifications, see www.ocr.org.uk