Why is the fast-food giant providing classes at the taxpayers' expense?

With its mind-zapping fluorescent lighting and mind-numbing background music, McDonald's does not tend to be associated with braininess. So the news last month that McDonald's is opening up opportunities for employees by providing them with online basic-skills training was the kind of positive publicity the much-maligned fast-food chain has been dying for recently.

What no one mentioned is who is expected to pick up the lion's share of the bill for McDonald's initiative. The answer is us, the taxpayer. The company is offering employees the chance to take a special online skills-for-life course in basic literacy and numeracy equivalent to national vocational qualifications (NVQs), developed by the firm with the City and Guilds examination board.

The need is there. Literacy and numeracy levels in the UK are shocking. One in six adults do not have the literacy skills expected of an 11-year-old and half do not have a similar level of functional numeracy. But can McDonald's really do a better job than Britain's colleges? Two hundred fast-food restaurants are to become accredited exam centres and 1,000 places are being made available in the first seven months. It's all very impressive, but critics are concerned that these are being paid for, not by the multi-million pound company, but by the government, through the Learning and Skills Council (LSC).

"When you consider that most people in need of help with literacy and numeracy are already in the workforce, basic skills training is the responsibility of every employer," says David Fairhurst, the vice-president of McDonald's who is in charge of the move.

So why is the LSC paying McDonald's to do it? "McDonald's are effectively a provider of learning, funded in the same way as any provider," says Chris Banks, chairman of the LSC. "Making learning accessible is crucial to increasing the number of people with these essential qualifications."

Critics point out that, to join the scheme, employees must have access to a home computer. But what worries them more is the way it is being funded. McDonald's has spent £500,000 developing Our Lounge, which, among other things, will work as the online portal from which employees can study. Over the first seven months of the scheme McDonald's will receive around £800,000 from the LSC. Chris Banks says he does not know how much more McDonald's will be investing in the scheme.

The answer, until next year, is nothing. With few overheads McDonald's is getting a pretty good deal. Some people might feel a little swizzed. "It's a lot of money. Is it justified?" asks Vincent Cable, the Liberal Democrat shadow Chancellor. Dr Cable is concerned that McDonald's has misrepresented its scheme.

At a breakfast at the Liberal Democrat conference two years ago, the fast food chain presented its plans as proof of its standing as a responsible employer. But Dr Cable is not impressed to find out that the Government is footing the bill. "It worries me that what was originally presented as a charitable act now appears to be subsidised by taxpayers," he says. "We have to ask: 'Are we getting value for money?'"

The answer seems to be "no". The McDonald's programme is taught entirely online. When similar numeracy and literacy courses are taught in colleges they are priced according to the hours of teaching they involve, says the LSC. Yet McDonald's is to be given roughly the average of the rates further education colleges would get, without having to pay the teachers.

"It seems a desperately poor use of taxpayers' money," says Christina Conroy, the principal of Richmond Adult Community College in London.

Banks argues that he does not care who the education provider is or how they teach, as long as people get the qualification. "What matters to us is that individuals are given the opportunity to learn," he says.

At a time when further education colleges' budgets are being squeezed to bursting point and 700,000 course-places are being slashed nationwide, professionals find it extraordinary that the Government is investing so generously in McDonald's.

They think the LSC has got its priorities wrong. McDonald's, of course, would disagree. It is easy to imagine that they are lovin' it.