Blair urges employers to screen for literacy

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Tony Blair will urge Britain's employers today to screen all their staff for literacy and numeracy problems after research revealed that 3.5 million employees cannot read, write or add up properly.

The government announcement is the next stage of its £1.5bn assault against Britain's lack of basic skills. John Healey, the minister for Adult Skills, said: "It is a scandal that our system has produced so many adults for so long who lack the basic skills we all need. It is a huge waste of people's potential as well."

Figures to be released today signal the Government is for the first time beginning to make a dent in the overall figure of 7 million adults with poor basic skills. More than 100,000 adults have improved their skills since new tests were introduced last September.

The figures also show the number of adults volunteering for courses in basic skills has shot up by more than half– rising by 221,000 to 611,000.

However, of those left still struggling, the Government estimates that half, 3.5 million, are in work and costing the economy up to £10m a year because of their poor communication skills.

Ministers plan to urge all firms to follow in the footsteps of the armed forces, which now routinely screen all new recruits for basic skills. Mr Healey said the Ministry of Defence acknowledged the drive "is helping us produce better soldiers and better citizens".

An engineering firm that had introduced a similar screening process had found output increased by 15 per cent while the number of rejects was reduced by 30 per cent after courses had been set up.

"Employers are demanding better skills from their workforce," he said. "Those people who may have got by for many years are suddenly finding, if the skills required of them are changing, they can't make it.

"Courses can be arranged discreetly for employees because there is still a reluctance on the part of some people to want to admit they have difficulties with basic skills."

The Government will provide a toolkit to employers to help them to assess staff needs and set up courses. The toolkit will include a video portraying literacy and numeracy problems in the workplace, advice for company directors on how to tackle them, tools for identifying individual problems and information about who to contact for help, advice, funding and support.

Estelle Morris, the Secretary of State for Education and Skills, will tell this morning's launch: "Many UK companies offer no basic skills training at all and two-thirds say this is because they have never really considered the issue."

The project has already received the backing of Sir Richard Branson, the boss of Virgin, who will say: "I'm dyslexic and have always struggled with the words.

"A number of our companies are doing something about it. For instance, Virgin Rail has a staff learning centre at Euston. But others have a long way to go."