Following Gillian Shephard's call for a campaign on basic skills, Neil Merrick visits one college whose pioneering assessment scheme could become a national model.
When James Skinner enrolled at West Herts College for advanced studies in retail and distribution he was told his maths skills were not up to scratch.
Like all other full-time, and many part-time, students at West Herts, Mr Skinner, who had registered for the advanced general national vocational qualification, took a one-hour test to assess his numeracy and literacy skills during the first few weeks of his course.
Following the assessment in September 1995, he agreed to undertake a programme of one-to-one tuition with a learning support teacher to help him to brush up on the maths he had forgotten since leaving school.
Mr Skinner said he had become too reliant on calculators and had forgotten how to solve fractions. "I could not do things in my head," he said. "I just had to learn the basics again."
Twelve months later, he is certain the one-to-one support has helped him, even though pressure from other assignments meant he did not continue the extra tuition throughout last year. This year he is hoping to receive further maths tuition, possibly as part of a workshop group.
As a prospective manager, he realises the need for maths to calculate sales figures. He praised his course tutor for treating him as an adult: "He asked me what I thought I needed to do."
About 7,500 West Herts students are assessed as part of their induction programme each year. One in five is normally found to have some form of skills needs, although in most cases one-to-one tuition normally only lasts for a few weeks. After that they may continue to attend workshops or call in to a learning centre on one of the college's four campuses in Watford and Hemel Hempstead.
More than four-fifths of colleges have introduced basic skills assessment programmes, increasingly linked to schools and training and enterprise council initiatives.
At the North of England education conference in Sheffield last week, the Education and Employment Secretary, Gillian Shephard, called for a national campaign to co-ordinate the agencies.
Judith Norrington, curriculum director for the Association of Colleges, insists "this is already happening to keep students on course". If by a national campaign, Mrs Shephard meant additional new funding to help all agencies work to the same agenda then this would be welcome. "It is much needed," Ms Norrington added.
The colleges welcome news that plans for an AS-level in basic skills are being scrapped. All six associations representing school heads and college principals issued a recent joint statement opposing it. "Such a qualification would only exaggerate the academic-vocational divide," said Ms Norrington. "We need a single qualification to bridge it."
The West Herts scheme is seen as a likely model. Assessments are geared to the type of writing or maths a student is likely to need on a course. Later, their assessment is compared with a vocational skills checklist prepared by course tutors.
The college decides a student has a skills deficiency if his or her numeracy or literacy is more than one level below that of their new course. A student on an NVQ level three course would, therefore, be expected to at least have skills at level two.
When West Herts was asked by the Further Education Funding Council two years ago how many of its new enrolments had learning difficulties, it said about 400 - the number of students who continue to receive one-to-one skills tuition throughout most of the academic year.
Figures such as these helped the Tomlinson inquiry to conclude that about 131,000 of FE students (5 per cent of the national student population) have some form of learning difficulty. But if all students receiving some skills support at colleges such as West Herts were taken into account, the numbers would be far higher.
Jill Tattle, director of learning support at West Herts, said definitions such as "special needs" and "learning difficulty" had to be reassessed in FE. "If people come here wearing the labels they were given at school, it's unreal. In FE we have to be concerned about how someone is going to manage the learning so they successfully complete the course."
A survey of 300 students receiving extra help with numeracy and literacy last year found nine out of 10 did not think they would have completed their course without the additional support.
Mrs Tattle welcomed the Tomlinson report's recommendations on improving opportunities for students with learning difficulties and disabilities. She is, in particular, a firm supporter of inclusive learning - where colleges strive to meet the requirements of the learner - and thinks that West Herts is already part of the way towards achieving such a goal. Her team of 60 learning support tutors and assistants work in partnership with course tutors throughout the college.
Tutors spend 12 hours per week in the hotel and catering department, which also has two learning support assistants and a teacher for dyslexic students. Paul Jarman, head of hotel services, said students were not ashamed to ask for learning support. "Somebody is there to help them achieve. There is no stigma attached."
The Tomlinson report stresses that students with learning difficulties require a mixture of integrated and discrete tuition. The progress of students receiving learning support at West Herts is reviewed every six weeks with comments regularly submitted by course tutors.
There is no learning support unit as tutors prefer their services to be seen as part of the overall curriculum. "Discrete learning may provide a starting point but you should have as many doors open as possible," said Mrs Tattle. "Why set limits on what certain people can achieve?" Last year, the college opened a new assessment centre where educational psychologists interview students with specific learning difficulties who may be eligible for special allowances or exam concessions. About 160 students, some of whom will be referred by their tutors, are expected to be assessed at the centre this year.
The centre is also used to run courses for teachers from both inside and outside the college who work with students with learning difficulties. The centre's manager, Sara Lavender, who previously worked as a secondary school special needs co-ordinator, said colleges were looking at issues that had been addressed by schools five years ago.
"Parents of younger students expect more because of the equality that's provided in schools, particularly if a student has had a statement in the past," she said. "We don't categorise, but we treat everyone as individuals. It's refreshing from that point of view."