Sum of basic errors

26th September 2003 at 01:00
Yet again we have a crisis created out of bad target-setting. The latest damning report from the inspectors on literacy and numeracy can be summed-up in one short sentence: Recruitment shoots up and quality goes out of the window.

The Government's national basic skills strategy was well-meant but ill-conceived and poorly planned. Like the equally ill-fated individual learning accounts it was rushed through without due attention to detail.

Sir Claus Moser's damning report on the state of adult literacy in 1999 led to hasty demands from ministers for action. Four years on, courses in literacy and numeracy are among the worst colleges have to offer, says the Office for Standards in Education.

It would be easy to blame the colleges, but ministers must take much of the blame. Look at how the initiative was handled. Badly-conceived assessment akin to the driving test was created and colleges were told get the punters in. Recruit all the basic skills tutors you need, they were told. From where?

The adult literacy push started with volunteer tutors. Well-intentioned but low status, this dedicated band soon saw how tough the task was. When it came to advertising for paid professionals, colleges could not recruit them for love nor money.

Every national conference of the unions and Association of Colleges heard the same cry: something must be done to rescue the strategy. One reason for this was that prospective staff felt put upon. Once the strategy was in place, it was expected to deal with everything from basic illiteracy to the education of asylum seekers.

From a government that had pledged "joined-up thinking", this seemed anything but. The basic skills strategy was created by David Blunkett as Education Secretary then abused by him as Home Secretary when seeking places for asylum seekers. As the Ofsted report shows, dispersing asylum seekers around the country has caused serious disruption to other students with English as a second language.

Every agency seems to be failing for lack of adequate resources or expertise, from the private providers and colleges to Jobcentre Plus which cannot provide appropriate training courses.

The Government's response to the Ofsted report must be to accept a fair share of responsibility and refocus its resources on one of the most pressing education issues of the decade.

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