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Watch out for missionaries from Lanarkshire

I WAS at a railway station recently when I was approached by an elderly woman who asked if I could help her to decipher a train timetable. Her exact words were: "Excuse me son, would you mind reading this for me, I've come away without my glasses."

This was immediately obvious to me as anyone who calls me son at my age has an eyesight problem. I provided the assistance she requested and directed her to the appropriate platform, amid much thanks and the immortal line:

"You're from Glasgow aren't you? I can tell by your accent. You're much friendlier than thae Edinburgh folk."

I forbore to tell her I was actually born and raised in Lanarkshire in case she took fright.

On the journey back to Glasgow, I reflected on my good fortune in still possessing reasonable eyesight at my age; on whether there is some kind of aura from west of Scotland folks which manifests itself when they are in Edinburgh and serves as a beacon for those requiring assistance; and on whether the woman who asked for my help actually had a literacy rather than an eyesight problem.

This is not normally what I would have thought about if someone had asked for this type of assistance. But I had been to a meeting on adult literacy a few days previous to my Edinburgh encounter and I learnt about some of the strategies used by those with poor reading skills to cover up their problems.

Government statistics suggest that there are 800,000 people across Scotland with low literacy and numeracy skills. Of those, 520,000 (65 per cent) are in work, 88,000 (11 per cent) are unemployed and 192,000 (24 per cent) are economically inactive. Significantly, the Government figures further suggest that only 25 per cent of those with the poorest skills are dissatisfied with them and that literacy is only an issue for 21 per cent of employers.

Whatever the figures, priority has been given to certain groups - people with limited initial education, particularly young adults, unemployed people and workers facing redundancy, people with English as a second or additional language, people who live in disadvantaged areas, workers in low skilled jobs, people on low incomes and people with health problems or disability affecting learning, speech, sight or hearing. Many of those we in the FE sector would see as our customers.

The problem is that the resources allocated to solve the problem have been distributed to community learning partnerships, which include local government community education represen-tatives, FE colleges, voluntary organisations and various other interested parties. Perhaps most of the unhappiness stems from the expectation that the resources would go to FE colleges.

There are, of course, the normal mutterings about the money going to local government for party political reasons and what do you expect when FE has no friends at court. I am not going to get sucked into a discussion of the politics of this but there is a perception in FE that the sector has not been treated fairly.

I cannot speak for anyone else, but I am glad to say that in North Lanarkshire we have a very effective partnership. No doubt partly as a consequence of this a consortium comprising the three FE colleges and North Lanarkshire Council has been invited to bid for one of the eight pathfinder projects.

Whatever else happens in other parts of the country, I expect that in years to come you will spot Lanarkshire folks in Edinburgh doing missionary work, helping people to read train timetables.

Norman Williamson is principal of Coatbridge College and a member of the Educational Institute of Scotland.

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