Put L-plates on your hard drive

People without basic computer skills will soon be as handicapped as those who can't read or write. Most people already use computers at work, and the number of applications is growing. They are also used at home, to write letters, e-mail family and friends, research and write homework, and order goods and services.

Until now there has been no standard of computer literacy. Some can do no more than switch on and load games, others are highly competent in particular applications, but not those needed by employers. Some may have taken a course, but there are many Information Technology (IT) qualifications, each covering a different syllabus.

The idea of testing computercompetence the way car driving skills are tested was developed by the Finnish Computer Society in the late 1980s. This led to the concept of the "driving test" for PCs.

The concept was adopted by The Council for European Professional Informatics Societies which developed it into the European Computer Driving Licence (ECDL). This is gaining ground across Europe, with Scandinavia taking the lead, closely followed by Ireland. The Swedes have been particularly enthusiastic with more than 180,000 people taking the qualification.

Those who want to take the "driving test" are issued with a "passport". Candidates are tested in seven areas: the basic concepts of IT; using a computer and managing files; word processing; spreadsheets; databases and filing systems; presentation and drawing; and information network services. The 45-minute tests may be sat in any order at an accredited centre over a period of three years. The licence is awarded once all seven have been passed.

The ECDL, administered in the UK by the British Computer Society, was launched in Britain a year ago with little publicity. "We tried to keep a low profile because we needed to set up the accredited test centres," said Pete Bayley, the society's project manager for ECDL. "We've now got 25 to 30 higher education institutions, 80 to 90 further education colleges, 60 or so private training companies and about a dozen employers who are doing it in-house. A number of local authorities have also done so to develop their own staff."

Several universities also use it both for staff and students. It now forms part of the first-year degree programme at Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen.

"One of the benefits is that it is one of the first of the European standard examinations following a similar syllabus throughout Europe. It is also a broad qualification at approximately NVQ level 2, so it is appropriate for measuring the skill base of a large number or staff who need to operate at this level with computers," said Mr Bayley.

"It's all very well saying you've got IT skills, but companies need to know the IT capabilities of their staff to make sure that they are going to use the IT around them in a competent manner." A popular saying in the commercial community is "you have to prove it before you can use IT". Although designed for Europe, the scheme has aroused interest round the world. It is now being licensed as the International Computer Driving Licence for use outside the EU.

One pioneering ECDL initiative has just been launched in Scotland. To ensure that people interested in careers in IT have the basic skills needed, Ross and Cromarty Enterprise, the equivalent of a TEC in England, has established a number of programmes under the title of Computers and Lifelong Learning.

The ECDL has been welcomed by employers making growing use of IT, and the Ross and Cromarty initiatives seem to be a good model for extending computer literacy throughout the UK.