It's standing room only in an education centre at one of Britain's busiest railway stations, where staff are buying a ticket to a better future. David Newnham reports
Such is the welter of human activity on the main concourse at London's Euston station that you are unlikely to notice the anonymous glass doors opposite the entrance to platform 12. But pass through them, follow the steps into the basement, and you are in a different world.
A wide, subterranean thoroughfare lined with Victorian glazed bricks leads off into the distance. A train of baggage wagons creeps towards you. Then you are in some sort of mess room, with people eating and playing pool.
Go to the far wall, and, as you pass through another door, notice the change of ambience. Blue carpet covers the floor and framed, modern prints hang on orange walls. The Formica tables have given way to wood-veneered desks, on each of which sits a computer terminal. Have you stumbled on some secret communications centre buried in the old foundations?
Actually, it's an IT suite. But the people at the terminals are here in their own time. Nor are most of them white-collar workers. Dressed in the red livery of Virgin Trains, they are drivers and station workers - people you may have met in the upper world, waving trains away, selling tickets and serving coffee. They are here on their break, or passing the "dead hours" between one train arriving and another departing. And quietly, at their own pace, they are learning, just as surely as if they were in a school classroom or lecture theatre.
Welcome to the Virgin Trains staff learning centre. With a full-time manager using Learndirect material in collaboration with Sandwell College in the West Midlands, it's typical of the sort of facility hundreds of companies of all sizes now make room for in Britain's workplaces. You might find one tucked away in your local supermarket, department store or factory. And they fulfil many functions.
Virgin Trains employs around 5,500 staff. Of these, 1,100 use the Euston learning centre or one of half a dozen satellite facilities (all in England, although Virgin staff can access courses from anywhere with a computer). Most are learning the basic IT skills now required by most jobs, while a few are learning for sheer pleasure. And for some - around 6 per cent of staff at Virgin Trains, although the proportion varies between industries - the centre provides an opportunity to acquire basic skills. For while it was once possible to get by in a job without too much in the way of literacy or numeracy, today it is virtually impossible.
Alan Robinson, a former member of the general station staff who jumped at the chance of running the learning centre when it opened in December 2000, explains: "Years ago, you had a chief in charge of 10 people, and the jobs they did would not change. Now we're asking them to go to the passenger lounge, give out information and sell tickets.
"There's a good variety of jobs for people to do now, but they need the skills to do them - particularly if the work is safety-critical and there are a lot of rules and regulations. Down here, we try to build on people's skills to get them to do more involved jobs. They won't necessarily need the new skills to work on the platforms, but they may need them to progress." Sometimes, a manager or a union learning rep ("our eyes and ears", says Mr Robinson) identifies an employee with literacy or numeracy difficulties, and such cases have to be dealt with sensitively, often in confidence.
"Some people maybe slipped through the back door, and can't read or write as we'd like them to be able to," says Mr Robinson. "We fast-track them, and pay for them to go to college on day-release. You can see improvements from day one, especially in their self-confidence." In March, Tony Blair urged employers to screen their staff for literacy and numeracy problems after research revealed that 3.5 million employees had difficulties. Poor communication arising from such deficiencies could be costing the economy as much as pound;10 million a year, and the Government has reaffirmed its commitment to spending pound;1.5 billion on improving basic skills.
But Fiona Frank, executive director of the Workplace Basic Skills Network, an organisation set up in 1999 to promote training in the workplace, is anxious to put these figures in perspective. "You're not talking about people who can't read and write," she says. "You're talking about people who left school at 15 and who haven't needed to do anything with reading and writing since.
"But because of changes in the workplace, such as new health and safety requirements and new ways of working that mean that people have to be responsible for customer satisfaction all the way down the line, you need better communication. In the rail industry it's apparent, because people will come and talk to anybody wearing a uniform. But it's happening everywhere. It's not doing the job, but doing the stuff around the job; it's a case of brushing up."
But although Ms Frank says the Government is wrong to talk in terms of a "problem" or "crisis" in basic skills ("it's just carrying on as it always was"), she is pleased that extra resources are being poured into workplace training and delighted that more colleges ("it's more than just Learndirect") are being encouraged to go into companies and help integrate basic skills into training programmes.
"We've got hundreds of colleges going into companies and working with them to do programmes linked to the company's business objective, but which give something to the learner as well," she explains. "For example, people might end up better able to help their kids with their homework, even though the content is about being able to write a report.
"If you are stuck in a low-paid job, you can't go to college and can't get any learning, so it's brilliant that somebody is being encouraged to come in from outside and do mid-range basic-skills literacy and numeracy." And while a year ago companies had to pay for the training themselves, they can now ask local learning and skills councils to pay the course fees.
Surprisingly, given that most jobs now require some familiarity with computers, the Government does not class IT as a basic skill. "They are terrified they would have to provide IT free to millions of people and that it would cost too much," says Ms Frank.
But using IT to deliver other subjects, is, in effect, teaching it anyway. And there is an additional benefit. "Sometimes there is a stigma attached to doing literacy and numeracy. But IT is a fantastic motivator. Everybody can use the internet for something, and there is no stigma attached to learning about computers." Anyone who has any doubts about that should ask one of the students now arriving at platform 12.
For more information on Learndirect go to www.learndirect.co.uk