literacy and numeracy do not attend evening classes. But new tests could soon spur them to work at home to improve, report Ngaio Crequer and Nicolas Barnard.
A pound;16 MILLION programme to kickstart the development of national tests for adults in numeracy and literacy has been announced by the Government.
The money will also be used to develop a training and qualifications framework for new teachers of basic skills.
More than seven million adults have difficulty in reading and writing but only 250,000 are currently enrolled on courses to help them improve.
Baroness Blackstone, the further and higher education minister, told a London conference: "I am determined to reduce the number of adults who have poor basic skills in literacy and numeracy. This is just the start. We will be unveiling a full strategy next year: we intend to make conquering poor literacy and numeracy a national crusade.
"We must reform the way basic skills education is provided. We must make sure the capacity is there to deliver a step-change in the number of learners. And we must drive up demand among the seven million adults who have difficulty reading the instructions on a medicine bottle."
She said the Government would treat the mission with the same urgency and passion as getting the basics right in schools. "'Education, education, education' is for adults too," she added.
At a separate conference, Sir Claus Moser, chairman of the Basic Skills Agency, called for greater business involvement in adult literacy work. Many firms refused to employ people with literacy problems, he said, yet failed to do anything to help them.
Sir Claus said: "Getting firms involved has not been a national success story. It's high time that the industrial and business world in this country took basic skills as seriously as they take key skills. It's one of the things that shocked me." He hoped the University for Industry would make a big difference.
He also accused the last Conservative government of neglecting adult literacy and numeracy. It had taken the new government to raise it to the top of the agenda. He pledged that the agency would be closely involved in the forthcoming National Year of Maths.
Sir Claus said that, although innumeracy was damaging to the economy and crippling to individual lives, it was not viewed as seriously as illiteracy.
"Many people feel a shame and stigma about poor literacy but there is almost a sense of pride in saying you cannot do interest rates or fractions."
The new national tests are expected to be introduced from January 2001, but some senior basic skills advisers privately believe they should come in sooner. "It can't be too difficult to design a test. Every day wasted is a day wasted of somebody's life," said one. The BSA would like to see the tests used universally to avoid any sense of stigma.
Alan Wells, the agency's chief executive, said there was no chance of getting all the people who needed help with literacy into evening classes or similar programmes.
But many would be attracted by the idea of working on their reading or writing at home - perhaps helped by other family members and supported by programes on cable TV - and then taking the test when they were ready.
"It would be like a driving test - the examiner doesn't care whether you've had 28 lessons or been taught by your brother."