The UK launch of the European Year of Lifelong Learning takes place in Edinburgh next week. Ian Nash reports on the international drive to improve literacy levels. Clare Jenkins looks at two acclaimed schemes
Eighteen months ago Mick and Carol Stevens were wondering if they would ever get back into work.
Today, after three years' unemployment, both are in jobs and they own their own home. Carol works at a dental surgery and Mick, who had been made redundant from a brickyard at the age of 41, for a tool hire firm.
They attended a 12-week link-into-training course at one of 19 Link into Learning centres in the South-west offering adults a chance to improve their English, maths, study skills, reading and spelling.
Their course at the St Austell Centre aims to bridge the gap between unemployment and work.
Mick said: "It's been brilliant. It helped us no end. We wouldn't have got what we have today if we hadn't been there. It opened doors for us."
Students pay Pounds 10 a week to attend classes for a minimum of 15 hours and a maximum 30 hours.
Mick and Carol did exams in Pitman's English and arithmetic as well as word processing and computing.
"We wanted to keep our minds active, find work and boost our self-confidence. After being unemployed so long, you get very low and feel worthless," said Carol.
Mick added: "You think you're no good because people tell you that you're too old. At the centre they help you build your self-esteem back up."
Link into Learning centres span Cornwall and Plymouth and aim to improve literacy skills through boosting self-esteem.
The system has been imported from Australia by Dr Denis Lawrence, a pioneer of self-esteem tutoring.
He used the techniques in Australia to encourage poor readers in schools. When he moved to Cornwall, where it is estimated 75,000 people have problems with basic skills, he decided to try the same methods with adults.
Two years ago, tutors from the St Austell Centre attended his workshops on self-esteem and its relationship to learning. They encouraged their students to do the same.
They looked at the link between self-esteem, achievement and communication skills. For the students, many of them unemployed, the result has been a "truly amazing" improvement in reading and spelling - as well as in confidence.
Janet Anderson, principal of the St Austell Centre, said: "We were aware of how important self-esteem was, but were surprised to find growth in all areas.
Many of the students are initially either illiterate, or not sufficiently literate to obtain work or help their children with school work. "These are people who in their eyes have totally failed at school," said Ms Anderson. "They are people generally with a history of failure. We accept that they've had the courage to do something about it. That's often the hardest thing in the world. And we build into the learning programme small enough steps so they do realise they can learn. We help them learn how to learn."
The centres are financed by the Further Education Funding Council, county councils and training and enterprise councils and are based in disused secondary schools, community halls and libraries. Many of the tutors are volunteers.
Dr Lawrence said: "In many ways these centres are the Cinderellas of adult education, lacking the glamour as well as the resources of the relatively more affluent colleges. They're very successful, powerhouses of learning, but they're operating on a shoestring."
They also recognise students have skills - such as coping and to date, four out of 10 find a job or continue studying.
"They're successful in a whole range of terms, " said Ms Anderson. "We help students look at their individual goals. A lot of the education system is geared around qualifications. The reality is that a whole host of people are not initially concerned about qualifications but about improving their own skills.
"The whole funding mechanism of the FEFC and TECs is increasingly dependent on outcomes which in their terms are qualifications or getting a job. But there's very often a stage before that which is vital to move people forwards before they are ready to look at qualifications or jobs."
Alan Tuckett, director of the National Institute or Adult Continuing Education, believes people "move like crabs in pursuit of learning" rather than in a straight line, so he'd like to see more Link into Learning centre-type schemes.
"At the moment, there are not enough starting points in uncertificated provision. One third of us leave school without qualifications and never do any formal training in our lives. The advantage of Link into Learning is they help overcome that problem. We need much more of that."