In a world where the keyboard is king, many people feel stranded on the island of the under-qualified. But adult learners - from office workers in need of PowerPoint proficiency to enhance their CVs, to busy single mums who think that Qwerty is a children's TV character - now have every chance of boosting their educational qualifications. This state of affairs is thanks to learndirect, a government initiative established in 1998 to provide individual adults and entire businesses with a flexible learning option.
learndirect has become known for its computing and IT courses, but in fact the organisation has a number of other strings to its bow. The most immediately accessible of these is a national learning advice service dedicated to matching potential students with the course that best suits their learning requirements - from university degrees to short courses to weekly evening classes. The advice service runs a telephone helpline and a website and, in the past seven years, has fielded more than six million calls and had 12 million internet hits.
The organisation now has around 8,000 online learning centres across England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Adults looking to acquire new skills or improve old ones can enrol on one of 584 different courses (and more than 1.5 million people have done so since 2000). Many of these teach IT skills, but there are also courses in management, finance, languages, and a variety of "skills for life".
Michelle Walker, a single mother who, at 36, had been away from education for 20 years, enrolled with learndirect when helping her son with his GCSEs. "My first course was 'helping your child'," she explains. "At the moment I'm doing a health and safety course; adult literacy and numeracy; and I'm studying for a level two NVQ in early years." Since she enrolled on her first in late 2003, Michelle has completed around 30 learndirect courses. "I want to learn more and more, and the more I learn, the more I want to learn," she says. "It's been a new beginning for me. I do far more in the community than I used to, because I've got more confidence. I always used to go along to my daughter's playgroup; now I'm helping to run it. Soon I'll be a qualified teaching assistant."
Like all the courses that learndirect runs for individuals, most of Michelle's learning is computer-based - in Michelle's case at her local centre in Wolverhampton's Low Hill - but learndirect tutors are constantly on hand to help out if she runs into difficulties. If you have home internet access, you can also do much of any given course online. One of the main selling points of a learndirect programme is its flexibility - you can set your own pace, and structure your course to fit your timetable.
Many of learndirect's centres now also run a workforce development service for businesses. In the London area alone, there are 12 "premier business centres", each of them dealing with between 600 and 1,000 companies. Tim Dobson is the managing director of Role Model Consulting, which is responsible for three such centres, in Sutton, Croydon and Wimbledon.
"Training managers within a business have to justify investment in training with a return," he says. "Training can so easily be a waste of time and money but, with learndirect, you can pick and choose what's relevant to your company."
At the moment, Dobson is in charge of the Information Technology Qualification (ITQ) project, designed to replace an old generic qualification, the European Computer Driving Lesson (ECDL). "The ITQ is a vocational qualification. We gather evidence to tailor the skills we teach to the individual needs of a company's employees. It means that you get a bespoke course tailored to what you're doing, not a generic qualification you have to pass."
Role Model Consulting train not only for IT, but for what Dobson calls "soft skills" - customer service, marketing, management and so on. And, as he admits, "not everyone's up for sitting in front of a computer all the time. But within our training schemes, people can learn individually, in workshops and groups, or on a one-to-one basis, too."
National learning advice helpline: 0800 100 900. www.learndirect.co.uk