Wells's way with words

7th January 2005 at 00:00
Warwick Mansell talks to Alan Wells, headline-grabbing director of the Basic Skills Agency.

Alan Wells appears to be that rarest of creatures: the head of a government-funded body who is unafraid to go off-message.

The pound;99,000-a-year director of the Basic Skills Agency acknowledges Labour's record since 1997 on its buildings and technology programmes for schools.

But Mr Wells can be scathing when he feels the need to speak out, and government, parents and businesses have felt the force of his anger.

In an interview with The TES, he criticised league tables, saying most parents wanted a good local school, not to be able to compare pupils'

results with those in schools hundreds of miles away.

He said there was "a lot of sense" behind the Tomlinsonrecommendations for a newsecondary qualifications system, but the report's proposed diploma was confusing.

And when the National Audit Office, the public spending watchdog, said last month that nearly eight out of 10 adults would fail to get a good pass in GCSE maths, Mr Wells was again characteristically blunt.

"If four out of five adults have inadequate literacy and numeracy skills, thousands of teachers must have failed their pupils," he said. "Why has no government spotted this? Because it is not the case." Mr Wells believes official estimates that 7 million people in Britain struggle with basic skills exaggerate the problem and distract the Government from those with the most serious difficulties.

To those who know him, this outspokenness is anything but surprising.

Mr Wells, 57, has led the agency and its predecessor bodies since 1978 and is known for his ability to grab headlines.

Two years ago, he said that the language skills of five-year-olds had worsened because theircommunication with parents amounted to a "daily grunt". Within months, the Government announced that pupils were to be given lessons in the art of commu-nication.

This plain-speaking rubs some people up the wrong way. One experienced observer said some people felt that after so long in the field, Mr Wells should take more responsibility for any failings in basic skills, rather than criticise people outside his agency.

Others view his freedom of thought as refreshing and necessary. Alan Tuckett, director of the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education, said: "He is trenchant, witty, sharp and passionate. I do not always agree with him, but I would not want the field to be without him."

Mr Wells undoubtedly brings charisma to the field, backed by a personal history that illustrates the life-enhancing power of education.

He is the son of a plasterer and went to a secondary modern in London's East End, leaving at 16 with three O-levels below grade C.

At one stage, Mr Wells said, he seemed destined to go into plastering, but he wanted to stretch himself. He went to adult education college in his own time and eventually enrolled on a teacher-training course.

While teaching English and history at a tough school in Walthamstow, north-east London, he became convinced that literacy skills were the key to young people's progress.

After three years' teaching, he became, he said, Britain's first full-time adult literacy organiser, working in Birmingham in 1973. By the mid-1970s, he was a leading national campaigner.

With five daughters and eight grandchildren, his interests outside work include learning rock guitar and following Arsenal football club, in his opinion "the world's greatest football team".

But his job is also a passion. Mr Tuckett said: "He must take a share of the credit for literacy and numeracy being on the national agenda as it is."

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