City Council employees

At Walkers crisp factory we opened a Skills for Life centre which later became a Learn Direct centre. Learning then involved employees’ families, the local community and schools who could use the centre to draw people into the learning culture. Learners could access additional support from tutors and it is now an accredited test centre. It uses innovative ways to attract learners such as using digital cameras or shopping on the Internet – these involve using skills such as estimating image sizes, calculating money and filling in online forms.

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Many benefits have been seen by the company – 2003 saw their lowest ever absence rate of 4.1%. We also run the ‘Push Ahead project’ for Durham City Council employees. The project began by targeting the Environmental Services Department – all employees were given a questionnaire to survey their learning needs. Union Learning Reps delivered and collected the questionnaires and offered help in completing them. Due to this level of help, the return rate was over 95%, much greater than we expected. The questionnaires were analysed to ascertain which course had been most requested and those requiring basic skills were interviewed. Dyslexia screening was also offered to those who felt they needed it.

A series of 4 hour tasters was provided – with topics such as Understanding your Payslip, Budgeting and Report Writing. A 10 week Brush up your English and similar maths course then ran. We now run various IT courses and as word has spread, the take-up rate has increased significantly. Courses often take place between 4-6pm, sometimes starting with a coffee break as workers arrive straight from shift and the council pays 1-hour overtime per 2-hour course and offers transport home to those who need it. The crucial thing about this project was that Union Learning Reps were instrumental in breaking down barriers and offering 1-1 support.

They offered a direct connection between us, Community Education as a provider, and the workers who initially perceived us as something of a threat. The Learning Reps set an example to the workers by doing the courses themselves and on one of the courses I taught, stayed on after their own course ended to offer assistance and support to new workers coming in. Conclusion Low levels of basic skill are strongly associated with low levels of educational attainment, routine, low paid occupations and higher levels of social deprivation.

Basic skills are the foundation for other forms of learning relevant to the workplace and the labour market more generally. There is no doubt that lack of basic skills significantly contribute to worklessness. More generally they can lead to social exclusion. Those who lack basic skills are also more likely to lack key skills which employers regard as relevant to the workplace, skills such as communication, basic IT, attitude and adaptability. Lack of basic and key skills can undermine personal motivation and confidence, and thus further limit the employability of individuals.

The priority is to improve the skills of those groups where literacy and numeracy needs are greatest and where they can make the most impact including the unemployed and benefit claimants, low skilled people in the workforce and other excluded groups. Up to half of the estimated 7 million adults with literacy and numeracy needs will be in jobs, coping well because of the knowledge of the job and the experience they have built up over the years. A further difficulty comes with the changes that people are increasingly expected to face at work.

With the introduction of new working practices and new technologies, the level of skill required is becoming greater and people with poor basic skills can find it more difficult to adapt. Many organisations have an ’embedded’ approach where the course on offer is, for example, ICT but all the time the basic skills of the learner are being observed. Those who need it can be offered help as appropriate. Schemes aimed at improving basic skills for the least qualified staff are far more likely to succeed where the course is advertised as vocational training rather than labelled as basic skills.

Therefore, basic skills are inherently linked to employability but employability is not restricted to the unemployed, it is essential for those who are employed continue to develop their skills to maintain their employability in the 21st century. Interagency co-operation is essential in dealing with the problem. Organisations such as Jobcentre Plus, the prison service, employers, trade unions and community initiatives can identify individuals with lack of basic or key skills and encourage them to take action.


Anon (2004) One in 10 workers incompetent. BBC News,