Secret Lecturer: Where’s the incentive for basic skills students?


If we ever do leave the EU – now perhaps anyone’s guess – a career and skills progression ladder for those with basic skills is a must. If the government continues to ignore an urgent need for training in our colleges, we won’t get close to filling the many thousands of low-skilled but essential jobs currently done by semi-skilled European workers across the care, hair and beauty, hospitality and many other industries.  


Colleagues specialising in basic skills were recently incensed by the complete omission in Theresa May’s party conference speech, let alone the rest of the conference, of any reference to basic skills training and the fear of a looming crisis in our workforce. Instead, government talk has stressed the need to open the door for highly skilled workers from other countries. Should that be our priority, given a looming mass exodus of low skilled and semi-skilled EU workers?

Students have nowhere to aim for

What hope of progress is there for basic skills students who have really worked to get registered for a maths level 2 evening course – a natural next step? One in five people have a literacy problem and one in seven have no level 2 qualification, yet evening classes hardly exist anymore; college management says there is no funding for them and so students have nowhere to go. Even college day-time courses are getting scarcer so opportunities for those with a day off during the week are dwindling. 

Ironically, the government still supports free basic skills literacy and numeracy courses, but it does little to publicise this provision. In fact, any adult with a literacy issue can get help free even if they have a well-paid job; 19- to 24-year-olds can do their first level 2 course free; over-24s can take out a loan or co-fund; and anyone in a low-paid job can take part this year in a free, government-run pilot. But this information is not known and because the funding level supplied to the college is not enough to cover costs, managers say they can’t afford to run them.

Lecturers need to use their voice

Even apprenticeships are suffering. Conservative MP Robert Halfon, chair of the Commons Education select committee, published a report earlier this month saying the funding system should do more to help the young and disadvantaged climb the ladder of opportunity. 

Reluctance by many colleges to stay open on weekday evenings or at weekends begs the question: why have they decided they are no longer a community resource? It's probably down to lack of funding and a shortage of lecturers wishing to teach in the evening.

However, as lecturers, we do still have a voice within our college and in the local community to change that approach. If there is no ladder for basic skills students to progress up, we have to build our own and convince our senior managers that, yes, we actually do have students lined up who desperately want to do this or that level 2 course. In turn, it’s the task of middle managers to ask us where we want our students to go next. Only then is it possible to plan a proper progression route for next year? 

Hourly teaching rate is just not enough

We have to encourage colleagues to join us in becoming proactive, setting up meetings with local employers who know our college, like local supermarkets, and asking them if it’s possible to run literacy classes in their buildings.

At the same time, it’s up to us as teachers to explain to government and senior colleagues that the hourly rate to cover the teaching of, say, level 2 literacy that everyone covers, is not enough to make it work for the staff. Not only does it currently cover teaching but also a host of other linked activities such as careers advice, progression, assessments, and so on. Austerity measures have cut so deep that funding falls short, even if you run at maximum financial efficiency.

Future semi-skilled workforce has to be nurtured

We have a population section who did not do well at school; they are our potential semi-skilled workforce of the future. But they are a resource that needs to be nurtured; college staff have to go out and find them, teach them and provide a ladder for them. It’s that or slides backwards as a country.

Will this indigenous cohort take up the jobs slowly being vacated by our fellow Europeans? Not unless the money is attached. Many of these posts are quite skilled. You even need level 2 qualifications to be a cleaning supervisor these days – you need, for instance, to understand the chemicals for safety reasons and be IT-literate to manage stock ordering. 

Let’s not be hoodwinked by optimistic employment stats that show we have so many people in work – sure, the numbers may be right, but for many, it’s part-time and low-skilled work. Yet they are the people who colleges need to find and train up. And the key to all this is making the most of the relatively sound but unpublicised funding initiatives backed by the government. It has to be a no-brainer.

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