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Using the new web for lifeskilling

Riding the Olympic wave of opportunity

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Opinion I recently sat in on a roundtable looking at how the Olympics and Paralympics in 2012 can be used as a springboard for encouraging local unemployed groups to gain extra skills that would help them not only gain temporary employment for the period of the games, but also to empower them to gain permanent employment from then on.

A lot of the discussions gravitated around the amount of standard education given to various groups, and the impact of background on their current attainment levels. There was also discussion around the role of business, and whether the role of skilling the workforce fell as heavily on business as it does on the educational establishments and government - and, indeed, on the community and nation as a whole. This seems to be a "top down" approach aimed at piling as much academic or on-the-job education on to malleable people - and I think this has been firmly proven not to work effectively.

The sticky issue lies in identifying what we actually meant by "skills": are we looking at the need to gain an MA from Cambridge to work at MacDonalds in 10 years' time, or are we looking at how to say "Do you want to go large with that?" in five different languages in six years' time? To deal with this, how do we engage with the communities that are in greatest need for life skilling?

One area is that the current approach to education (50 per cent of all children should stay through to tertiary education levels) is that we are creating a chasm between expectations and reality - why should someone with 10 GCSEs, a handful of AS levels, four A levels and a degree take a job that is seen as being below a certain level?

That we still need people to fill these "low end" jobs is a given - but where will the basic skills (rather than the educational attainments) come from? That we see these jobs increasingly filled by transient labour from elsewhere in the world does not provide a solution - if a high proportion of these transients decide to remain in the UK, they need housing, they need support, they want to move from the base jobs to better paid jobs - so stressing the job and housing markets for those already here.

As was stated during the roundtable, we need to ensure that even the basic jobs have means of job progression, so that today's intake will move in to these jobs, with the knowledge that provided they perform, then they will move on to better things.

Maybe we should be looking more at a "bottom up" approach. We need role models who can talk to the communities at their own level - and here, I'm not talking about the use of the major celebrities in the kind of "Just say No" campaigns, but the general person on the street who can put across why gaining certain basic skills can help them to transcend the problems of their geographic area, their minority status or whatever.

We can bring those who are truly interested together and see how they would like to be involved - one of the roundtable attendees was from Northern Rail, and has put in place an involvement process which has drastically cut down on damage to and trespassing on the railways in his area (from the Scottish borders down to Crewe). Included in this are things such as encouraging those who are likely to turn into graffiti artists to send in pictures - and those that are deemed to have shown a certain level of skill will get their patterns put onto trains in a professional manner.

An interesting area that was touched on, but wasn't gone into in detail, was the role that modern technology and the media should now play in ensuring that anyone can gain access to information and training around the skills that they need and/or want to gain.

Of course, there has been the wholesale rush within the major educational establishments to get as much technology into the classroom as possible - PCs, intelligent whiteboards, audio-visual systems and so on - but research has shown that these don't always have the desired effect. Indeed, with having a teenage daughter myself, I know how boring students tend to find the way that the technology is utilised, and how constrained they feel due to the way that teachers tend to prescribe technology usage in the classroom.

Once out of the classroom, attempts to push not only children, but also people of working age, through to educational sites has only passing success. The problem with PCs hooked up to the internet is that they have access to all the interesting stuff as well - all the instant messaging, all the YouTube, MySpace, and SecondLife sites that are out there. These sites have a far greater pull to the demographic that need the life skills than any well-meaning, "worthy" educational site may ever have. It is also notable how government fails when trying to get people to engage with its own sites - direct.gov is a prime example, and most people only get to a government site through a Google search in the first place.

Maybe we're missing a trick here. These sites are already seen as being the centres of gravity for many people, and they are also available for general use for push purposes (ie, being able to put content on to the site). Could these sites be used to get across some of the skills that we need, or at least to make the people aware of what they could do if they are interested?

I believe that this could be the case, but that we have to keep away from the "worthiness" of some government approaches of the past, and create something that engages and imparts the required information. After all, the Dome is a prime example of what was meant to be a worthy educational event, but was seen as being either at best a strange playground by children or a big turn off by the rest of us. It missed so many opportunities—and we seem to have a strange predilection for not learning from past mistakes.

By being inclusive, rather than trying to be pushy, I'm sure we can begin to draw in those in the community who have the greatest need for basic life skills - those who come from backgrounds where it is rare to mix with those who have a steady job, where aspirations are low due to the overall environment. This is not about education - a lot of skilling for these people will have to be done in community centres, in youth centres, via pre-job and lifelong learning strategies. But unless we can find a way to truly engage with the person at a level that is both understandable and interesting, we will continue to fail.

By tracking the usage of technology within the target groups, we can make the most of the opportunities. The ubiquity of sites used by many, even within heavily disadvantaged groups, also means that the costs of entry can be held low - and as the environments are flexible and inclusive, can be easily put together as partnerships between local agencies, businesses and community groups.

By 2012, we will need a massive group of people with a variety of soft skills - from being able to represent the UK as the first point of contact for a foreign visitor, to being able to work in a team of multiple skills and needs. We must ride this opportunity - but we must also make sure that the skills we provide are transferable, and that those communities in most need that are targeted don't just find themselves better skilled, but still unemployed, in 2013.

Copyright © 2006, Quocirca

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