Northern Ireland diverts funding to key skills in move to counter poor literacy and numeracy. Steve Hook reports
A new focus on basic skills is to be introduced in Northern Ireland as the province tries to tackle poor literacy and numeracy - a problem affecting nearly a quarter of its adult population, according to international figures.
The Department for Education and Skills is said to be watching developments as Ulster's Department for Education and Learning dismantles the long-established approach of running basic skills and key skills alongside each other up to Level 2 - the equivalent of GCSE grades A to C.
Basic skills - or essential skills as they are known in Northern Ireland - concentrate on literacy and numeracy, although the province is adding computer skills to this list.
The six key skills qualifications, at Level 1 to 4 (GCSE to degree-equivalent), are communication, application of number, information technology, and the "soft" key skills of working with others, improving own learning and performance, and problem-solving.
The DEL has decided that, at Levels 1 and 2, there will be no funding for key skills in the province from next year. The only option will be basic skills.
The need for a sharper focus is urgent, if figures from the international Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development are to be believed.
The OECD says 24 per cent of over-16s in the province lack basic literacy and numeracy skills.
Trevor Carson, chief executive of the Learning and Skills Development Agency in Belfast, which advises DEL, said the experiment is being looked at with interest by the Adult Basic Skills Strategy Unit at the DfES. The Basic Skills Agency in England also thinks key skills should be scrapped at the lowest levels.
Mr Carson is keen to see further reform, and says the LSDA would be happy to "inform the debate" about a single qualification which goes from Level 1 to Level 4.
Belfast LSDA's essential skills conference in the city last week heard from Noyona Chanda, from London South Bank University, who illustrated the link between basic skills and progress in the workplace.
Her researchers have found that sending tutors into the shop-floor environment to work alongside staff, in much the same way as consultants work alongside managers, can have a more immediate impact on the learner.
In one workplace, her team found the only barrier to promotion was poor numeracy, a problem that was easier to fix in the context of the work environment.
Such experiments serve to highlight the shortage of basic skills tutors - a problem throughout the UK. Ms Chanda told the conference: "If literacy and numeracy are so essential, the provision in this area should be the best.
The learners in most need are getting the poorest resources.
"Offering ICT is seen as an alternative to teaching and learning, if we can just get them to sit in front of a computer."
This point is not lost on the Belfast LSDA, which has been working with the lecturer training agency Protocol Skills to increase the competency of more than 600 workplace basic skills tutors in the province.
Research has shown that while people with basic skills problems often claim their productivity is unaffected, employers take a dimmer view.
The Confederation of British Industry and the Learning and Skills Council in England have warned of a more demanding employment environment in which unskilled jobs will be hard to find.
An estimated 20 per cent of the working population of the province have basic skills deficiencies. Could they face unemployment?
Privately, even those at the DEL think this prediction is an exaggeration but, equally, there is a determination to be a step ahead of England in basic skills, in a province that wants to keep its economic renaissance on track.
As the barricades come down, poor literacy and numeracy threaten to create new barriers - between the skills-rich and the skills-poor.
As Denis McBrinn, of Protocol in Ulster, told the conference: "We see essential skills as an important building block in our society."
Alan Wells, director of the Basic Skills Agency, says England should follow Northern Ireland's lead and scrap the overlap between basic and essential skills at the lower levels. He says the Government should go further and fund basic skills up to Level 1 and no higher - focusing resources on those in greatest need.
He said: "If you are saying people need help with basic skills up to Level 2, that's saying you are looking at 83 per cent of adults. If that's the case, we've got real problems.
"I agree with what they're (in Northern Ireland) doing but I'd say we should move it down to Level 1 as the cut-off point."