Literacy of college students criticised

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FOUR out of 10 students at further education colleges need help with basic reading, writing and maths, according to a report published yesterday, writes Diana Hinds.

The survey by the Adult Literacy and Basic Skills Unit tested more than 10,000 students, the majority aged 16 to 19, in 12 colleges in England and Wales. It found that more than a third had reading skills below those of an average 14-year-old.

John Patten, Secretary of State for Education, said yesterday that the findings were 'totally unacceptable'. But he was quick to seize on the survey as justification for the controversial English tests for 14-year-olds.

'Had these students been tested at 14 perhaps their problems could have been better identified and dealt with. The English tests are intended to prevent such personal problems affecting children after they leave school.'

One in seven students, the report said, had 'serious difficulties' with basic maths. One in 20 had such poor reading and writing skills that they had little chance of gaining a qualification without 'considerable help'. A further one in three needed some help with reading and writing if they were to pass their courses.

The Government is committed to meeting national education training targets for 1997 requiring 80 per cent of all young people to achieve a national vocational qualification level two, or its academic equivalent of four GCSE grades A-C. According to the report, however, 40 per cent of further education students need more help to reach this target.

Mr Patten said: 'This report shows that there is clearly much still to do . . . I hope that colleges which are not yet doing so will take steps to assess the needs of their students in this area.'

The students tested were studying courses covering engineering, business, design, hairdressing and catering. They sat a 20- minute written test in basic literacy and numeracy. Jim Pateman, of the literacy unit, said 'significant numbers' had failed to spell correctly words like such (sich, suche, sutch) and from (frome, form, fom).

Alan Wells, the unit's director, said: 'These people are not illiterate . . . but their skills are just not good enough.'