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Friday, November 5, 1999 Published at 03:05 GMT


What adults are supposed to know

Booking tickets should hold no fears

Can you take part in an online chat session? Write an e-mail to a colleague? Tackle a pushy doorstep trader?

Congratulations - you have at least reached Level 1 in the proposed basic skills standards for adults in England.

The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) has drawn up a proposed set of skills that people should have as they move from being illiterate and innumerate into managing words and numbers well enough to get by in society.

The work was undertaken following the publication of the Fresh Start report by Sir Claus Moser, which caused widespread alarm by revealing that a fifth of adults in England had severe problems with basic literacy and numeracy.

The report, published by the Basic Skills Agency, called for a "national crusade" to tackle the problem.

Skills levels

One of the problems it identified was the lack of regulation in the various courses that are already on offer, and it recommended "a new national skills curriculum for adults" - a problem the QCA was asked to address.

[ image: Confused?  You should not be]
Confused? You should not be
What it has come up with is a framework of skills from Entry Level - sub-divided into three tiers - through Level 1 to Level 2.

For example, people at the very simplest level should be able to "speak with appropriate loudness and clarity", understand signs in supermarkets and symbols on household products - the example given is "poison".

They should be able to write a shopping list, press the right button on a lift, and - no mean feat, some would say, select the number of copies and paper size on a photocopier.

At Level 1, they are expected to be able to read bus and train timetables, check household bills and read a gas meter.

Mobile phones

At this level, the experts have put two things which many might regard as being in the realm of rocket science: compare rates on mobile phones, and set the timer on a video recorder.

[ image: Video recorder?  Child's play]
Video recorder? Child's play
Literacy skills include "discussing an issue with a local politician", "writing an e-mail to a colleague" and "engaging in a virtual chat room or one-to-one chat with a friend".

By Level 2, people are expected to have no trouble writing to their MP, using the web to find information and composing information "for a club or family website" or describing an event on an insurance claim.

Their numeracy skills should be sufficient to use scales on a road map - which might make holiday travel a little less stressful - to work out the cost of items when prices are quoted excluding VAT, to hang wallpaper and to follow diagrams for self-assembly furniture.

Poverty and unemployment

The director of the Basic Skills Agency, Alan Wells, said at its annual meeting on Thursday that he saw no reason why the new basic skills tests should not be sat by all adults - in much the same way as a driving test.

[ image: Map reading is a basic skill]
Map reading is a basic skill
Making them universal would remove the stigma that they were "remedial", he said.

More than 20% of adults in Britain had what were considered to be inadequate literacy and numeracy, compared to 17% in Canada, 14% in Germany and 7% in Sweden, he said.

This was spread across the age groups. The consequences were an increased likelihood of poverty and unemployment.

"People are still living lives wasted and blighted by a record we should not be proud of in this country," he said. "The aim must be to change this within a lifetime."

Mr Wells recalled going to the speech day of a school in east London, where he gave prizes to 16-year-olds.

He started by asking every fourth student - mostly white working class children - what they were going to do next.

Low aspirations

"They were all leaving school, saying they already had a job and didn't want anything more to do with education," he said.

"Then I changed tack and started asking all the children from ethnic minorities the same question. They were all staying on and wanted to go to college.

"I felt like grabbing these white working class kids, who seemed to think their future was OK, and telling them: 'Don't you believe it.'

"Their first job might be there, but it won't be for the long term. Unless they get themselves well educated, they won't have a lifetime of security and employment," he told the meeting.

The government announced on Friday a £16m programme to support the basic skills programme.

The QCA's proposals have been sent to 3,500 people working in the area of adult basic skills, for consultation. The aim is to publish national standards, which will form the basis for national tests, by next March.

It says similar consultations are taking place in Wales and Northern Ireland.

The Education Department of the Scottish Executive says it is already establishing learning centres in such places as football clubs and community centres, where people can take courses in various skills including basic literacy and numeracy.

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