There is no doubt that lack of basic skills is a signigicant barrier for a large number of those seeking work. Currently it is estimated that roughly a third of unemployed people in England have literacy, language and/or numeracy needs that prevent them from finding and keeping secure work. From April 2001 the Employment Service has been screening clients for basic skills needs. Following the screening, those who may have a basic skills need are offered the opportunity of an independent assessment. Following that, those who need it may be referred for basic employability training or basic skills provision.
Initiatives such as 'New Deal' are part of current government strategy to get people back to work, including training and job preparation. The emphasis here is very much on work or education activity. New Deal offers either a subsidised job, work and training with a voluntary or environmental group, or studying full time for a qualification, thereby enhancing employability skills. Programmes such as Sure Start seek to support children and their families and can act as a bridge for parents into education, training and employment and often work in socially deprived areas.
In particular they promote the employability of parents, defining employability as "the capacity to gain and keep a job, to cope with changes at work and in the wider economy, and the ability to get a new job if necessary"(Improving the Employability of Parents in Sure Start Local Programmes, 2004). Sure Start state employment has a direct impact on incomes, thereby lifting families out of poverty and research suggest this can have significant effects on children's mental health, behaviour and social integration.
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There is also evidence to show that children with employed parents do better at school and therefore improve their own learning potential. The Government's 'Learning to Succeed White Paper' (2000) highlighted the need to develop the skills of Britain's workforce. More recently the government acknowledged the vital role skills play in an individual's chances of success: ".. A skilled workforce is also important for the wider health of the economy and for UK employers - improving productivity and increasing prosperity.
Adults in the workforce with low skills must be supported to develop their potential if we are to increase productivity and tackle social exclusion". (Developing skills in the UK workforce, 2002) Indeed besides literacy and numeracy there are other basic skills that are now considered to be equally as important in the workplace. These 'key' skills are sometimes referred to as 'workplace basic skills' and include communication skills, competence in basic IT and 'soft' skills such as teamwork, customer care, attitude and adaptability.
It is estimated that around 8 million members of the workforce have 'low' skills, that is, skills below the level 2 standard. This means the UK has a record worse than any other European country. Across Europe around 10% of the population falls into the low skills category; in Britain the figure is over 20% and while over 30 per cent of those in employment in the UK have low skills, this compares to only 17 per cent of workers in Germany (Institute of Education, 2003). Those with higher levels of skill receive significantly more training than those at lower levels.
According to the National Skills Taskforce, when surveyed, 19 per cent of employees qualified to level 4 (degree equivalent) had received training in the last four weeks compared to 8 per cent of those qualified below level 2. People employed in small firms also receive less training than those employed in large firms (Developing Skills in the UK Workforce, 2002). Consequently then, low skilled workers are more likely to receive less training than their more highly skilled colleagues.
A report by the Adult Learning Inspectorate suggests that although work-based training has improved, those with the fewest skills to start with are getting a "uniformly raw deal" and that provision for the 5 million adult learners was "inadequate". David Sherlock, Chief Inspector of Adult Learning, expressed concern over findings that the lowest-skilled members of society are the most likely to receive a bad learning experience and that this "routinely fails them to achieve their goal of economic independence" (BBC News, 2004).
Learning to Succeed also (2000) pointed out that everyone needs access to education and training and skills development opportunities and emphasised the need for a "commitment to mainstreaming equal opportunities throughout policy making, implementation and service delivery". Employers have not historically seen basic skills as their responsibility, despite the fact that basic skills problems cost UK employers an estimated i?? 4. 8 billion each year and that in improving their skills, employees can have the best possible chances at work.
The Workplace Basic Skills Network has been at the forefront of developments in basic skills and states that the central and overriding principle that emerges from its reasearch and analysis of several hundred case studies is the importance of delivering basic skills workplace learning holistically, that is when literacy and numeracy are seen as part of an organisation's overall development initiatives, not as a kind of 'remedial' training for poorly performing staff.
Historically, they claim in the UK, basic skills have been offered as a 'bolt-on' provision, separate from other training but focusing on worker's shortcomings can reinforce a culture of individual blame and responsibility when really the responsiblity is a shared one. A survey by the Association of Colleges found the assumption "that the acquisition of skills has to happen in schools and colleges" is still prevalent. The LSC is reponsible for all post-16 education and training outside universities, including further educaiton colleges, work-based learning and adult education.
A recent survey by the LSC found that a lack of motivation and their own failure to train staff were reported by almost a third of bosses. A total of 2. 4 million workers were classed by their employers as not being fully proficient in their current job - equivalent to 11% of the total workforce (BBC News, 2004). This has not gone unnoticed. In December 2004 Gordon Brown announced a shake-up of work based training as part of a package designed to improve adults' poor basic skills, which he complained were Britain's "achilles' heel"(Guardian, 2004).
He told MPs: "Today 30% of employees have very low skills or no skills at all... for decades, low skills have been our achilles' heel as a modern economy.... ". He pointed to a new "brokerage" service to enable employers assess employee training needs to run alongside the government's core offer of giving employees who lack basic skills paid time to train for a first level two qualification. In my own practice we have spent a considerable amount of time and effort working closely with local businesses and local government in providing skills for life courses.
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