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Smart Moves: Companies encourage people to read and write

The Boots Company is sending volunteers into the city of Nottingham to teach literacy skills to the kids on the estates. Ford of Dagenham is bringing mums, dads and children into the workplace to enjoy reading together as a family. And Sainsbury's is sponsoring a pounds 6m campaign to give away more than a million volumes so that within a year every nine- month-old baby will own two books.

What's got into the UK's leading companies all of a sudden? Such a rush of altruism, though not unprecedented, is unusual, certainly on this scale.

But to entertain any notion that business has developed a social conscience overnight would be overstating the case. Rather, economic thinking over the past two decades, even among the gurus of the right, has pointed to the need more than ever before for an educated workforce. Interest groups of what might loosely be called the new right have presented literacy as an economic imperative.

The policy response in advanced capitalist countries has been to promote lifelong learning in the form of skills for work. Thus, "performance workplaces" and "the learning organisation" have become common buzz phrases for many companies.

On top of this economic analysis come the shocking findings of recent research into literacy levels in Britain. In this National Year of Reading, statistics show that 7 million adults have reading and writing difficulties. And only half of adults with poor literacy skills have a job. The UK comes near the bottom of the literacy list among European countries.

For these two very different reasons any self-respecting company, large or small, now wants to be seen to be taking the literacy problem seriously. Boots, for example, has its individual tutoring scheme, and in January the company hosted the National Year of Reading Employers' Conference. Ever mindful of the potential workforce such initiatives put it in touch with, it also has a linked programme of recruitment and training firmly in place.

"It is in Boots' interest as a local employer to help expand the pool of skilled labour available to us," said Pat Dexter, community relations manager at the company. "We have also found that involvement of our staff as volunteer literacy tutors in local schools has contributed significantly to their own personal development."

The trend throughout the 1980s was for employees who needed to improve writing and reading skills to attend a special off-site class, probably under the auspices of a local charity or educational group. One of the disadvantages of this was that staff felt uncomfortable admitting their deficiencies away from their own workplace.

For that reason, Ford's "learning and reading together" scheme is on- site. Run by Off-Line, a provider of basic skills in the workplace, it is open to Ford employees, their partners and children aged between seven and 11. Employees use the allotted time to improve their literacy skills, which the company sees as being essential for improved team working and quality in the production process. "I feel more comfortable here than I do going to my children's school," said one worker.

Ford also plans to set up a workplace library in conjunction with LaunchPad, an offshoot of the Library Association. A visiting librarian will regularly bring boxes of books on to the shop floor. "By encouraging reading we have not only helped to raise the literacy levels of the children and adults involved, but we have contributed to parents' understanding of their children's needs," said Sue Southwood of Off-Line.

"In a rapidly changing environment, Ford supports the concept of lifelong learning. Basic skills are integral to the company training strategy. Educated employees can learn how to train themselves."

Sainsbury's opted to target the very young after research showed that children who had been introduced to books at an early age were at an advantage when starting school - and, by implication, at work too. "By giving every baby a book we are providing a lasting legacy which will benefit the whole community," said Kevin McCarten, Sainsbury's marketing director. "We are proud to make such an effective contribution to the communities of the future."

Literacy experts too are convinced of the need for companies to be involved. "In order to stimulate competitiveness and develop a more successful society, business relies on a network of well-informed workers," said Liz Attenborough, project director of the National Year of Reading. "There are many benefits for business in getting involved in reading initiatives, including the opportunity to provide people with skills appropriate to the business world. A company's involvement in helping with literacy skills aids the wider community but also impacts on the company's future workforce.

"Lifelong learning is vital," she said. "People have to top up their skills to keep pace with the changing international marketplace, but employers can ensure that their workforces keep abreast of progress by encouraging work-based learning."