Dramatic improvement

A new drama highlighting the problems caused by illiteracy is touring the country. Robert Nurden says companies should heed its lessons
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The Independent Online

Shirl and Pauline, a cleaner and her supervisor, are having a row about the right way to apply bleach. In the end Pauline gives up and bellows: "Just read the instructions," and leaves her to it. The problem is Shirl can't understand the wording on the side of the bottle, ends up using too much, is overcome by chemical fumes and collapses.

Pauline has to fill in an accident report form, which in turn she struggles with and is then reprimanded by Ms Robinson, her manager, who is forced to devote so much time to the incident that she falls foul of her managing director.

The episode sounds realistic enough but is, in fact, the plot of a hard-hitting, 20-minute play that dramatises in a humorous way the taboos surrounding the sensitive issues of literacy and numeracy. For a year No Problem? has been wowing audiences of bosses, unions and teachers throughout the South-west, but increasingly across the whole country, including one performance before Ivan Lewis, the minister for adult learning and skills.

It was written, and is performed by Charlotte Moncrieff and Jacky Bonney, two professional actors from Plymouth. It shows how low basic skills, far from being just a problem for isolated individuals, is an issue for the whole organisation from boardroom to broom cupboard, particularly in the matter of health and safety. Judging by the number of bookings, public and private organisations are finding the drama a suitable vehicle for getting across the thorny subject of adult basic skills.

"Since we started in November last year, we have put on No Problem? about 50 times, and the bookings are growing," said Ms Moncrieff. "Behind the humour, there is nearly always some awkward shuffling in the seats as particular points hit home."

Learning and Skills Councils across the UK tend, naturally, to be cautious with their funding programmes. But on this occasion Plymouth LSC was bold enough to commission the two actors to write the play as part of its "Move On" scheme, which falls under the remit of the Government's "Skills for Life" strategy.

"It has been a great success," said Karen Griffiths of Devon and Cornwall LSC. "We use it as an enticement in getting businesses to sign up for our range of basic skills courses. It is an unusual marketing tool for engaging with employers, but it works."

There can't be many plays that reproduce in their brochure a quote from a piece of research by accountants Ernst and Young. But its message is stark: "Low basic skills cost a typical business with 50 employees £165,000 a year and the UK economy as a whole £10bn a year."

One of the companies to have booked a performance of No Problem? is the Plymouth branch of Toshiba. As part of European Health and Safety week, it hosted the play, which was performed before an audience of staff members in October.

Neil Doe, senior personnel manager, said: "The play highlights for us how a lack of basic skills can lead to problems, both in health and safety and quality performance. We cannot always take it for granted that providing a written instruction to staff is sufficient in itself. We need to check their understanding as well. Improving basic skills can only be good for the company, because it facilitates this."

Susie Sawyer, senior shop steward with Amicus and employee of Toshiba, was inspired to bring the play to the Japanese company after seeing a performance at a conference for adult learning. She felt it would be an effective way of raising awareness of basic skills issues in her own workplace. "We had a fantastic response from people who were interested in watching the play and I think they left with something to think about," she said.

It's all very well going to the theatre in work time, having a laugh and then going back on the production line to carry on exactly as before but unless there are changes in work practice, it could be argued that the play serves very little purpose. "One must never underestimate the reluctance of employers to admit there is a literacy and numeracy problem among their staff," said Ms Griffiths. "It is a taboo subject. The ploys used by workers to get round tricky situations are well documented. 'Oh, I've forgotten my glasses' or 'I'll do that at home later' are frequently heard. There is a lot of hiding going on.

"But by removing the stigma and showing that basic skills are everyone's concern it helps to bring things out into the open. From that point there are usually people who come up afterwards and ask about how they can learn to read and write better."

So as to drive home the message, one scene is always tailor-made for the audience in question. The in-tray on the manager's desk is piled high with that companny's literature, which Ms Robinson systematically bins while reading out extracts from health and safety documents, annual reports and order forms, pouring ridicule on portentous and unclear wording.

The play took its inspiration from two main sources. One was the T&G Union in Plymouth, who provided the writers with the incident of the misunderstood instructions on the bottle of cleaning fluid. On one occasion, an employee had been unable to read the label and was hospitalised after wrongly mixing two chemicals.

The other impetus was Shout it Out, another play devised by the education department of the Theatre Royal Plymouth, and based on the first piece of writing ever done by 38-year-old Sue Torr. All her life she'd been illiterate until she signed up for a literacy course. She then poured out the frustration - and pain - of what it feels like not being able to read or write.

The play, which won a Sony Award and was funded by the Basic Skills' Agency, was performed to businesses in the Plymouth area. "We then wanted to extend the play's very personal message into the public arena, and that's how No Problem? was born," explained Ms Moncrieff.

Another frequent venue for No Problem? are union regional conferences. Since achieving new-found status commensurate with union negotiators in April this year, union learning representatives are playing an ever larger role in engaging employers in literacy, language and numeracy programmes.

It is understood that the DfES is also interested in booking some performances. If that comes off, one thing's for sure: Ms Robinson won't have a problem tracking down copious examples of bureaucratic, departmental documentation to poke fun at.

For more information, phone 01752 862350; or e-mail karen.griffiths@lsc.gov.uk