It's never too late to learn new skills

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The Independent Online

Karen Butts, 30, lives in East Manchester, within one of the 88 most deprived local authority districts in the country. She left school with two O-Levels and she is unable to find a job and claiming benefit for the seventh time in four years. "I have very few occupational skills and don't even know how to use a computer," she says.

Up to seven million people in England don't have the reading, writing and maths skills needed in today's society. According to the Department for Education & Skills (DfES) 98 per cent of jobs are closed to people with basic skills below entry level. Unsurprisingly, many live in the poorest districts. The steep rise in demand for skills among employers over the last decade is intensifying this problem, and prejudice doesn't help. Areas with high unemployment rates often have poor reputations, making it even harder for people who live there to get jobs.

"If you have weak literacy or numeracy skills, you are twice as likely to be out of work and will earn £50,000 less over your working life," says Susan Pember, the Director of the Adult Basic Skills Strategy Unit at the DfES. "You are also less likely to vote and to own your own home, and are more likely to suffer health problems and end up in prison."

It is virtually impossible to escape this vicious circle without intervention. But adult education and tuition is often viewed as intimidating or too difficult. For those living in rural areas it may be impossible to get to a training centre, in urban areas too expensive to use public transport.

The good news is the Government is already addressing this in a big way in the National Strategy for Neighbourhood Renewal. Community-based neighbourhood learning centres will engage residents with education, and develop their skills through exciting and informal tutoring opportunities in familiar and accessible locations.

East Leeds Family Learning Centre is a partnership between local community organisations, further education colleges, the city council, a university and local companies. The centre has successfully recruited many adults onto lifelong learning programmes, provided in a local and familiar setting. Key to its success is that courses include areas such as confidence building and problem solving.

By 2002, 6,000 online centres will be set up nationwide. This will help ensure there is at least one, publicly accessible, community-based facility in every deprived area by April 2002. In addition and where practical, every public library will have internet access by the end of the year.

Dave Smith is just one resident whose life has been changed by a UK online centre. Having spent time in prison, homeless and unemployed, Dave decided to take advantage of the free courses on offer. He was particularly attracted by the less traditional method of online learning. He quickly built up his skills and became a volunteer at the centre, teaching others to use computers. Dave now works full time, repairing computers at the centre and across the community. "My life has changed forever," he says. "Before I had little hope for the future, but now I have everything to look forward to."

Building on such initiatives, the Skills for Life strategy was launched last year. Its overriding objective is to help at least 750,000 people improve their literacy and numeracy skills by 2004. It also hopes to reduce the barriers to learning, increase the standards of provision for learners, and improve training and professional development for adult teachers.

These changes are already making a difference. Unemployment has fallen faster than the national average in 19 of the 20 highest unemployment areas. Between April and August 2001, at least 70,000 learners were helped to acquire literacy and numeracy skills through the Skills for Life strategy.

The long-term outlook is also encouraging, as a spokesperson from the Learning and Skills Council, explains. "By helping adults improve their reading and writing skills close to home with their neighbours, we are empowering individuals to help themselves and fostering a community spirit. It will have a lasting impact on people's earning potential and their confidence, and also contribute actively to the workforce and the economy."

'I'm doing what I always dreamt of'

Julie Kingsberry, an unemployed and single mum, used to push her baby buggy past the offices of Manchester Town Hall and long to work there. Thanks to a community-based computer project, what was once an unattainable goal is now reality. Julie has an administration position in the very offices she once dreamt about.

As a lone parent with a daughter and a disabled son, Julie found job seeking in an area of high unemployment immensely difficult. After five years without work, she realised her office skills were outdated. Julie's self-confidence waned and she became depressed.

Eventually, Julie heard about the Ancoats Access to Opportunities Project, an adult skills initiative aimed at getting people back to work. She was inspired by the progress others had made. "I started a series of free courses, learning all about the latest computer software packages. I was even trained in assertiveness," she says.

Within months, Julie had not only modernised her office skills, but also boosted her self-confidence. "Going to the community project was the best move I could have made," she says. "My life has totally changed; I'm doing what I always dreamt of."