Research and Practice in Adult Literacy – a friendly group

Short news from Japan: Foundation of ‘Japanese Society for the Study of Basic Education and Literacies’ by Tomoya Iwatsuki (Kyoto Women’s University)

In August 2016, we founded the Japanese Society for the Study of Basic Education and Literacies. Its mission is to develop research and practices in basic education and literacies and to offer policy proposals to local governments and the central one. About 200 learners, practitioners, policy makers, researchers and people involved in the media throughout the country took part in the foundation meeting and discussed research on literacy, methods and policies of basic education and other matters of national concern. We were delighted that the Permanent Secretary of Education delivered a congratulatory address which emphasized the need for a guarantee of basic education from the perspective of a guarantee of the right to education as a constitutional one.

Now in Japan a slightly bigger policy change in adult basic education is taking place. Japan’s bicameral legislature are introducing a bill that expands provision of night junior high schools and alternative schools for people who could not receive compulsory education fully. Therefore, we are going to continue to reinforce our campaign for establishing the national policy on adult basic education on the basis of learner-centred research and practices.

The key activities of our society are the following:
1.      Carrying out joint research of researchers and practitioners (building a national network of researchers and practitioners).
2.      Building an archive of the educational materials which have been used in the literacy classrooms of all areas of the country.
3.      Carrying out a longitudinal and in-depth nationwide survey of literacy.
4.      Promoting cooperation with foreign organizations which work in the field of basic education and literacies.

We think RaPAL is one of the most suitable models for our society and look forward to exchanging experiences with each other in the near future.

*The author (Tomoya Iwatsuki) is a professor of adult and community education at Kyoto Women’s University and also a member of RaPAL. In 2010, I was visiting research fellow at Lancaster Literacy Research Centre.

National Standards and Subject Content Consultations

RaPAL are gathering members’ reviews of the final draft of the new national Functional Skills Subject Content for English and maths for the early September deadline. If members have missed the call, please contact your Regional Advocate or keep an eye out for the repeat in the newsletter at the end of the month. More information by the Education and Training Foundation and the original documents and survey by Pye Tait consulting is available.

RaPAL fed back on the drafts of the national national literacy and numeracy standards in August and July, and look forward to the modifications to the extremely useful Core Curricula in the year ahead.




Weaving Literacy Through Lifelong Learning


The British Association for Literacy in Development (BALID) will be hosting a seminar on Friday 18th November 2016 (10.30-16.15) in central London entitled

Weaving literacy through lifelong learning

The keynote speaker is Dr Ulrike Hanemann, UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning (UIL) on ‘Promoting lifelong learning: incorporating multi-sector approaches to literacy’.

The seminar will be chaired by Prof Alan Tuckett, past president of the International Council for Adult Education.

This seminar is aimed at practitioners, academics, NGOs, students and policy makers in the fields of literacy and lifelong learning. It will provide a forum for multi-sectoral dialogue exploring the role of literacy in enhancing lifelong learning.

In international education thinking, the concept of lifelong learning is well established, focusing on the promotion of learning opportunities of varied kinds for people of all ages with a view to unlocking their potential to live fulfilled lives as individuals and as members of their societies. However, much work remains to be done to develop a full understanding of how literacy is located within lifelong learning – a task which is complicated by the dominance of the traditional concept of literacy learning as involving only the mastery of basic reading and writing skills.

Through the day we will be exploring literacy within the context of international development agendas, especially the Education 2030 Framework for Action.  There will be opportunities to hear examples of innovative practice from resource poor contexts and to take part in interactive sessions on the role of literacy in lifelong learning.

Standard booking fee £80
Members fee (IoE Post-14 Centre or BALID) £60
Unwaged £30

Book early by requesting a booking form from Dr Ian Cheffy on ian_cheffy@sil.org

Booking form, agenda and publicity available on balid.org.uk
We look forward to seeing some of you there.

Building Skills for All: A Review of England

OECD Skills Studies: Policy Insights from the Survey of Adult Skills

Malgorzata Kuczera, Simon Field, Hendrickje Catriona Windisch

Early interpretations of the autumn 2013 Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC) results for England and Northern Ireland rang some terrible alarms: we’re at the bottom of pretty much everything, with only the US and some of the southern European states meandering in and out of equivalent low performance parameters; and our youths are showing a terrible paucity of basic skills, with our older cohorts on retirement’s door responsible for holding our performance statistics up towards average. If I recall correctly, the only place we were deemed to perform reasonably well was in improving basic skills through workplace involvement and application.


The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), the OECD and CVER, the Centre for Vocational Educational Research based at the London School of Economics (LSE), released the results of further analysis of the statistics and associated policy recommendations at an event last Thursday, 28th January. This appears to have been a similar exercise to the reports released by NALA in the Republic of Ireland last autumn. They suggest nine million adults of working age, or a quarter of the population, struggle with basic functionality for life and work, particularly in numeracy. These numeracy issues place us well below the OECD average.

Weak basic skills reduce productivity and employability, damage citizenship, and are therefore profoundly implicated in challenges of equity and social exclusion.

OECD, 2016:1

These issues present up the qualification scale; and clearly demonstrate an entrenched absence of assured basic skills development applied across educational provision. It cannot be assumed that ‘it’ has been ‘done already’. Remediation is more costly than getting it right in the first place at each appropriate stage of education. The raft of reforms integrating improved basic skills development into post-16 adult provision cannot be evaluated effectively yet.

Recommendation 1: Give priority to early intervention

We have three times as many 16-19 years olds with poor basic skills, mainly numeracy, than the highest performing nations; and a high level not in formal education or training, at 30%, rather than the close to zero of other OECD nations. Migrants were explicitly excluded from these figures. Those with GCSEs and level 2 and 3 NVQs (including English and maths) perform below their counterparts in other countries with upper secondary qualifications.

Recommendation 2: Sustain reform efforts and increase basic skills standards for upper secondary education

The UK has made great leaps in extending university participation across society; however, the basic skills profiling of our university students is the worst of the OECD, heavily dependent on parental background. Outcomes demonstrate many are likely to better benefit from shorter professional or vocational programmes which incorporate basic skills development; leading to improved labour market prospects. All provision needs to do more to develop basic skills to and beyond level 2, with more students entering Further Education.

Recommendation 3: divert unprepared university students and enhance basic skills tuition

Sixty percent of the low-skilled are in work; however, the UK has one of the highest levels of young adults neither in employment, education nor training (NEET). As skills decline with lack of use, cycles of unemployment and low-skills work may limit the effect of remedial basic skills education later in life.

Recommendation 4: Improve transitions into work and promote upskilling at work

There are many practical and personal barriers to addressing weak basic skills in adults which need support to be overcome. Part of this is appropriately trained and resourced teachers. In addition, a number of key targeted techniques are found to have impact including formative assessment, e-learning twinned with tutor input, contextualised learning, and family literacy and numeracy programmes.

Recommendation 5: Use evidence to support adult learning

The full report can be found here. CVER appear to have a regular schedule of events at the LSE in London, which can be found here.

The European Literacy Policy Network

The conference from 20th to 22nd January 2016 at the historic Beurs van Berlage in Amsterdam saw the culmination of ELiNet’s two year project bringing together 78 literacy institutions across 28 European countries. It issued a call for literacy to be recognised as a fundamental human right.

Continue reading

NALA PIAAC analyses


Since 2013, Ireland’s NALA has undertaken, and recently published the outcomes of, further analysis of the last round of PIAAC data on adult literacies. NALA were interested in interrogating connections which would allow better understanding and target provision. They explored the three areas of Literacy, Numeracy and Problem-solving in Technology Rich Environments (PSTRE): in workplace literacies; in everyday literacies; and in social trust, political efficacy and volunteering. Level 1 and below were compared to Level 2, and further differentiated by age group, gender, graded (un)employment status, sector by skills level, and highest qualifications. PIAAC level 1 equates more closely to UK Entry 3. The skills themselves are assessed on typical tasks. It is notable that levels appear not to have advanced since the IALS survey in 1997. There is considerable emphasis on the social integration, participation and empowerment impact of skills, as well as the transformation effect on financial well-being and families’ generational attainments.

In workplace literacies, the analysis was interested in workplace skills requirements and mismatches, earnings and job satisfaction. Broadly, those at level 2 were using skills, performing in their jobs, and more likely to be rewarded with higher earnings. This trajectory maintains across the life course, peaking in middle age, and ‘up’ occupations and skills levels. Higher skills were associated with having the PSTRE needed for one’s job. An interesting feature was that those with numeracy at or below level 1 were particularly aware of a lack of PSTRE impacting on their work performance, but not in respect of improving their numeracy skills, and while feeling that their work did not provide sufficient challenge. Poor skills correlated with lack of employment. All levels showed significant awareness of ‘needing more training’.

While confirming much accepted wisdom, these results also strongly indicate for utilising PSTRE to attract participation and in parallel scaffold numeracy skills in the major social target group of those with numeracy at or below level 1. They also further substantiate the rationale for lifelong learning programmes. As they conclude, productivity does not necessarily decline with age: skills and qualities acquire through experience.

There appears to be a positive feedback loop between having skills, using skills and benefiting from skills, whether in employment, civic engagement or health. Another major area of PIAAC data was in the areas of social trust, political efficacy and volunteering, which showed positive correlation with higher skills levels, which in turn were associated with better self-reported health status, volunteering and parent’s educational levels. The most notable findings here linked level 2 skills to political efficacy, and level 2 PSTRE to social trust in particular. Again, focussing on developing PSTRE appears to be a window to wider benefits.

The third theme looked at skills and proficiencies in home lives. Similar results were found where those with higher skills were more likely to use them; they were also more likely to be protected from the decline associated with longterm unemployment. Higher education levels are associated with higher skills usage, as is being female in literacy, while in PSTRE, numeracy and level 2 reading, the genders are equal. It was noticeable that, unlike skills in work, literacy and numeracy skills show a downward trajectory with age in the home environment, and writing in particular. PSTRE does not show this trend. Numeracy shows a higher proportion of people at both levels who use them infrequently. For those at level one and below this is striking in those aged 55 and over, and for those with lower levels of education. Across all skills the differences are exacerbated at the lower end of the educational spectrum, and narrow near the top. It is interesting that a level 2 in both numeracy and PSTRE, short- and long-term unemployment is associated with higher skills usage.

The results were launched to a full audience in Dublin on the 7th October 2015 at ‘Invitation to the launch of a report providing an in-depth analysis of PIAAC with participants at or below Level 2 funded through the European Agenda for Adult Learning (EAAL) and hosted jointly by the National Adult Literacy Agency (NALA) and AONTAS. Berni Brady, National Coordinator EAAL, introduced the day by outlining how politically, Ireland has moved with the EU from engaging in early publicity and dialogue with main stakeholders via a steering group, to having literacy and numeracy underpinned by statute in adult and further education in the summer of 2013. The current agenda is clearing up some of the outstanding issues which SOLAS, the Further Education and Training Authority in Ireland, had not been able to resolve previously. There is still a focus on workplace learning, which integrates social and other skills. Almost half of the adults seeking basic skills are in employment; while about seventeen percent are long-term unemployed. Regional literacy and numeracy strategies are arranging Education and Training Board events to strengthen ties with the ETBs.

Dr. Sarah Gibney, Adjunct Research Fellow UCD, highlighted the social implications of adult literacies and in particular the clear links between parents’ educational levels and their grown children’s. She also pointed to the impact at work and job satisfaction being linked to skills levels. Marian Lynch, National Adult Literacy and Community Education Coordinator, emphasised the change and penetration of technology into every day lives and jobs as a major societal change. However, she also drew attention to potential issues of ‘over-accreditation’ in entry level work such as carers and bouncers, and the role of community education in wheedling out social problems.Professor Mark Morgan, TCD, introduced new connections in psychology between engaging cognitive capacity, development via literacies, and social outcomes as he described a ‘cognitive reserve’ protected by literacies use, bilingualism and other engagements which provide protection against cognitive decline in old age. Finally, Keith Pollard, Mandate Trade Union, discussed communication as a basic skill, the success of union learning initiatives with low paid workers, and the new training centre at Croke Park stadium, Dublin.

While the travel up and down the country was a bit much, lunch was delicious and the venue comfortable. At the end of the afternoon, the seminars around each theme were summarised and Inez Bailey, Director at NALA, emphasised the ongoing multi-partite activity occurring across Ireland, the value of the development trajectory in play, and the sustained contributions of all stakeholders to driving the agenda forward focussing on society’s neediest: the low skilled. Furthermore, adults with literacy and numeracy difficulties benefit from training by up to three times the average (Kelly et al, 2012). It is worth taking away from the day that PSTRE appears to be a window to resolving a range of issues; and that everyday literacies usage needs support not to decline with age outside of employment. I was sorry not to have had time to revisit the Museum of Modern Art late afternoon, but did take a stroll through the grounds on my way back.

BERA SIG (Special Interest Group): Post-Compulsory Education and Lifelong Learning ‘Vocationalism: Past, Present and Future’


I enjoyed attending this intense day recently, which comprised ten compact presentations with round-table discussions, including international perspectives of participants from universities in Australia and France, and the global WorldSkills initiative. Diverse theoretical frameworks of andragogy and associated contemporary issues were explored prioritising conceptualising knowledge and experience in vocational practice. Policy and institutional critiques discussed functionality and complex skill development. Overall tensions included those between vocational and academic; broad and transferable versus situated curricula; judgments of social value and flexibility; and developing professionalism. The SIG have run a number of events in the last year or two and I wish I could make it to Belfast at the end of the month! We also have the RaPAL Joint Conference on 22nd October in London to look forward to. A theme running through is defining forms of specialist knowledge, whether vocational, professional, English, maths or science, and the associated teaching and learning and institutional frameworks of delivery.

Anna Mazenod, Université Paris-Dauphine (currently undertaking studies at the UCL Institute of Education) presented Vocationalism and Academic Drift – the conflict at the heart of apprenticeship policy which is based on comparative case study across policy and provision in England, Finland and France. She identifies tensions in England between policy and practice; and between vocationalism, or the emphasis on preparation for work in a given ambit, and academic drift, the bias of an overwhelmingly academic education system to fundamentally structurally undermine other forms of education and training. This debate around the nature of knowledge and practice in vocational education and associated educational andragogy and curricula is a major current theme of the BERA SIG, and Mazenod describes a policy environment which is not developed to meet its own stated objectives. Mazenod suggests a need to improve the standing of apprenticeships in England, and to recognise their adult nature and need for underpinning skills and knowledge which are not likely to be held by NEETs (not in employment, education or training). As such, she argues that apprenticeships are not an appropriate vehicle to resolve social issues around youth employment, education and training, where an emphasis on broader vocational learning may be more appropriate.

Mazenod queries curricula of vocational competence which delineate completion of tasks to specification and overlook ‘professionalism’. She suggests that learners who participate in workplace learning develop aspects of professionalism, posited as benefits of situated learning in communities of practice (Lave and Wenger, 1991). This ‘professionalism’ perhaps relates to decision-making capabilities and applications and other forms of interaction and applied context or discipline specific knowledge which may not be overtly expressed or described. Elements of this debate were studied by an international team analysing WorldSkills participants and focussing on generic characteristics and perceptions (Nokelainen et al, 2012) where selection of winners is based on broader criteria than excellence to ever more detailed and inaccessible technical specifications.

Norman Crowther, Association of Teachers and Lecturers and Norman Lucas, UCL Institute of Education, followed on with Understanding the FE Sector as a Strategic Action Field and argue similarly to Mazenod with apprenticeships that neoliberal policy frameworks are not meeting their own objectives for Vocational Edcuation and Training (VET) within the Further Education (FE) environment. They develop a model of ‘strategic action fields’ where incorporation of colleges in 1992 left undefined significant core features, or ‘unorganised social space’ critical to implementation in its rush for quasi-market creation. We witness a sector which has suffered recent cuts of 25% and a further 25% ongoing as it flounders in combining its roles of self-management, direct employer engagement and social service to local and regional needs; while being central government regulated and funded.  Crowther and Lucas argue that the logic of incorporation stands in the way of it reaching stability in these critical unorganised social spaces requiring stakeholder negotiations and settlement in respect of teaching and learning, curricula and professionalism and their strategic role in provision. Paramount are industrial relations which recognise the requirement for complex high skill professionalism where groupings of variable performance and contextual set-up currently exist across the sector. Crowther and Lucas conclude that the implied pre-requisites of educational and vocational focus and innovation are not provided for by incorporation’s policy drivers of autonomy of college interest, financial efficiency and quantitatively understood outcomes.

Erica Smith, Federation University Australia, interrogates apparent value-judgments in funding hegemony in When is a job considered an ‘occupation’ and what effect do these assumptions have on training? as established apprenticeships’ funding and provision is extended out to ‘traineeships’ in new ‘valued’ ambits while other forms of, particularly service sector, VET are undercut as their socially constructed value and skills levels assessments fall short. Augmenting the range of provision has met with challenges in developing curricula and schema of underpinning knowledge and the quality of private training providers, which in turn has impacted upon the prestige of the new traineeships. Established conceptions of occupation, occupational skills and occupational identity found in apprenticeships influence an identification with the trade or craft, and often male-centred prioritisation; while the less established traineeships were more likely to identify with an employer or industry, to be non-unionised, and female. Smith suggests that organised resistance to the traineeships, by unionised apprenticed occupations, led to their funding being progressively undermined in successive budgets without democratic debate and associated oversight by the agencies which had put together the policies and funding frameworks to introduce them. Funding reduced under the guise of directed and prioritised subsidies which differentially resourced across traineeships and had an impact of reducing participation by minority and marginalised groups. Furthermore, the overall reduction in VET participation correlates with an increase in youth unemployment.

Sonal Nakar, Griffith University, Australia was unable to join us with ‘Reasonable adjustment’: Is it a way forward to manage diversity and equity issues in Vocational Education and Training? The paper discusses how social equity influences on supported participation in VET have progressed to market-driven strategies increasing participation in global educational provision. Nakar draws attention to the blooming market in international educational participation which in tertiary education is predicted to rise from three to eight million studying outside their home country by 2025, Australian VET enrolments at 35.6% annual growth, and with $17billion of exports overall. Nakar argues that inattentive policy shifts, such as in visa regulations, and economic flexibility requirements impact negatively on learners’ participation leading to choices to study elsewhere. These pressures combined with reasonable adjustment obligations have inspired innovation in flexible teaching and learning delivery by private providers; however questions have arisen with regulators whether this flexibility is impacting on the quality of skills and attribute development in learners, particularly in fast-track courses. Ultimately, it may be found that reasonable adjustment for any given profile of learner is not being responded to adequately in the generic teaching and learning flexibilities developed to increase global participation and provision.

Jim Hordern, School of Education Bath Spa University, presented on Differentiating vocational knowledge elucidating the importance of coherent underpinning theoretical knowledge frameworks from ‘pure disciplines’ being appropriately recontextualised to the detail of vocational practice and applied problem solving across scenarios thereby reconstituting both applied knowledge and practices as a specialist field; and vice versa. Prioritising which disciplinary knowledge and the extent to which it retains its structural meaning as it is recontextualised across vocational applications is a matter for agreement between stakeholders. Hordern emphasises the importance of the existence and development of such specialist knowledge and practices in dialogue with theoretical disciplines, arguing that this constitutes vocational expertise and standard-bearing communities of practice which adapt to change, respond to industry challenges, and contribute to a self-improving system. Equally, the importance of other situated knowledge and practices gained from immersion in terms of norms and interactions contribute to the functioning and coherence of the vocation. In debating vocational curricula, Hordern notes the potential for conflict between underpinning theories, applied knowledge and practices, other generic capabilities, and legislative and policy compliance where an imbalance in favour of any area would result in dysfunctionality to purpose in the state.

Matt O’Leary and Rob Smith, University of Wolverhampton, presented Vocational pedagogy, policy anxiety, discourse & practitioners utilising Bernstein’s (2000) concepts of vertical and horizontal knowledge to investigate pedagogy in FE institutions. Reporting on participatory research with eighteen ‘expert’ practitioners from eight colleges, O’Leary and Smith found reflective practice served the purpose of generating applied horizontal knowledge from vertical specialist knowledge frameworks in the context of teachers’ situated learning. Three particular issues were identified in practice which positioned practitioners in direct conflict with institutional management: around the struggle to teach specialist English and maths curricula, in emphasising the role of holistic ‘care’ of learners as essential to provision, and the pressures of ‘dataveillance’ which ate in to time for preparing and engaging in teaching and learning practice. O’Leary and Smith conclude that institutional policies and activity foreground low pedagogical value institutional horizontal knowledge and practices; undermining and eating away at high value vertical theoretical frameworks and professional teaching practice.

Janet Hobley, Oxford Brookes University, presented Vocational pedagogies: The science of teaching or the teaching of science? analysing the implications of integrating subject specialist pedagogies such as science and maths within VET and the conflict between quality theoretical underpinning knowledge whose meaning structures recontextualise across a vocation’s applications, and task-based approaches which unitise theoretical application and focus on skill. She draws attention to research discussing exam boards’ sustained move away from the former towards the latter; rather than targeted teaching and learning innovation; while contrasting posited motivational versus demotivational characteristics of learning and curricula for diverse learner cohorts. In particular she highlights teachers’ capacity to recontextualise “facing both ways” (Barnett, 2006) between vertical and horizonal knowledge. Hobley argues against a separation of academic knowledge specialisation from vocational practice specialisation; and for more effective selection and recontexualisation of the vertical forms of scientific theoretical knowledge within vocation specific pedagogy such that learners draw on and utilise transferring explicit meaning structures across problem-solving in their practice.

Tara Furlong, Designing Futures  (currently undertaking studies at the UCL Institute of Education), followed on with Client Care and Professional Communication: implications for vocational and professional adult education reporting on a study which utilises Systemic Functional Linguistics and discourse analysis of initial professional client communications in the legal domain to generate curricula in professional and vocational communication. She argues that the features of written communication negotiating the early stages of client professional relationships and the matters to be resolved extrapolate out across professions and into the vocations. These integrate the framing of a client in reference to pertinent features of a situation, assessment of risk, agency and action and the relationship established between client and professional. The analysis produces genre and register findings of seven social stages of a client communication, and includes functional content and associated language features which provide exceptional client care. These pedagogical meta-findings support the development of ‘discursive competence’ as a component of ‘professional expertise’.

Tony Leach, York St John University, presented Vocationalism in the 21st Century: graduates’ experiences of employment and career enactment in a neoliberal environment illustrating the construction of neoliberal employment markets and protean models of human transferable knowledge, skills and abilities packages; and the role for VET. Leach explores a range of post-graduation narratives which delineate the increased self-confidence, -knowledge and -opportunities of learners in their working environments, the impact of policy and funding cuts, and their navigation of uncertain career paths and future potentialities.

Dr Sally Messenger, Director, WorldSkills UK Legacy Projects, sadly missing Jenny Shackleton, Assessment Adviser, WorldSkills International and WorldSkills Europe, concluded the day with Global Vocational Standards and Assessment for Excellence discussing the value of research-underpinned international WorldSkills competitions to developing and driving improvement in international standards and best practices in vocational excellence. WorldSkills commissions experts in each field, liaising with business, industry and governments and creating Test Projects constructed to provide evidence across parameters endorsed by industry and including engagement with global bodies such as the OECD, UNESCO and the ILO. A recent study ‘Modelling Vocational Excellence (MoVE)’ (Nokelainen et al, 2012) was a collaboration by researchers from Australia (RMIT University), Finland (University of Tampere), and the UK (University of Oxford) analysing Squad UK 2011 in London. Beyond technical specifications, communication, innovation, creativity, problem-solving and work organisation/self-management are found to be critical to competitive performance with motivational commitment factors, and belief in themselves, rating highest. In developmental environments, ‘expansiveness’ was found to be key. Further studies are in process. There are implications for the investment in technical and professional development of teachers and curricula in VET.

“An individual undertaking VET must not only acquire abstract knowledge, but must be able to apply this knowledge, for example in the form of technical and reflective skills, to real problems in work-based and work-related situations.”


Barnett (2006) ‘Vocational knowledge and vocational pedagogy’ in Knowledge, qualifications and the curriculum for South African further education, eds. M. Young and J. Gamble, 143-157 Pretoria: Human Sciences Research Council

Bernstein, B. (2000) Symbolic Control and Identity Oxford: Rowman and Littlefield

Lave, J. and Wenger, E. (1991) Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Nokelainen, P., Smith, H., Rahimi, M. A., Stasz, C. and James, S. (2012) What contributes to vocational excellence? Madrid: WorldSkills Foundation

Ra ra! Go Functional Skills!

ETF (March 2015) ‘Making maths and English work for all’

Literacy Matters, RaPAL Conference 2006, Glasgow

Literacy Matters, RaPAL Conference 2006, Glasgow

Attended a session hosted by CfL (Campaign for Learning) last week as part of their programme of fortnightly policy seminars. Ed Sallis, OBE and chair of the steering group which reported significantly on Functional Skills in March (ETF, 2015), presented and answered queries with Sue Southwood, ETF (Education and Training Foundation), previously of NIACE (National Institute of Adults Continuing Education aka Lifelong Learning). The enquiry had a straight forward brief from Nick Boles, MP and Minister of State for Skills: to evidence Functional Skills’ employability value, i.e. find out what employers want of maths and English and an assessment of what they’ve currently got.

Well, Functional Skills’ non-existent PR campaign has worked phenomenally well in the sector: the qualifications clearly stand on their own two feet and answer for themselves the hard way. With only four months for the entire enquiry start to finish, the sector responded with a remarkable degree of feedback; and for a qualification that has only been around for five years (of hundreds!), 43% of employers have heard of them and of those 87% regard them usefully. Of those who had no knowledge of Functional Skills, many expressed a desire for applied qualifications of Functional Skills’ ilk. It was also made clear that another new qualification set is not desired; and that Functional Skills are not necessarily a precursor nor ‘stepping stone’ to GCSEs, rather an alternative route and a distinctly profiled and necessary qualification set. So, it seems our highly flexible Functional Skills are here to stay.

We were slightly concerned to hear that employers consider English skills to be more problematic and in demand, apparently due to communication’s high visibility; while the population as a whole may be unintentionally ‘dumbed down’ by support processes or automation which simply remove maths.  Skills performance impacts directly on employers. We’d rather people had the skills, were able to use them, and warded off Alzheimer’s by actually using them. Instead, employers frequently comment that they remove the maths demands from roles to avoid errors. It was commented that a GCSE grade ‘D’ for example has frequently surprised employers in the associated performance. One might suggest that international comparisons, for example by the OECD, help objectively here in levelling perceptual playing fields. “Three quarters of the employers consulted believe that action is needed at national level to improve maths and English skills for people who have not achieved grades A*-C at GCSE” (ETF, 2015, p.9)

Attention was drawn to the dissonance between standards and curriculum since the demise of the BSA (Basic Skills Agency), which oversaw them jointly. OFQUAL’s remit is limited to standards. There was a suggestion that a review to update in the face of technological and workforce trends may be timely.
Literacy Matters, RaPAL Conference 2006, Glasgow

Literacy Matters, RaPAL Conference 2006, Glasgow

For those keen on more sophisticated, detailed and historic (back to the 1920’s!) analysis, Pye Tait Consulting’s undepinning research report is available on the ETF website or here

Research Research Research Practice Practice Practice

There has been plenty in the educational press about progressing research in education at all levels over the last year or two; less about the teachers and other practitioners who manage it. Pasi Sahlberg’s Annual Lecture last summer celebrated 40 years of the British Educational Research Association (BERA). Its title ‘Facts, True Facts and Research’ reflected him arriving from a Washington-type bubble in comparison with the ‘myths, facts and research’ chosen by his roots in Helsinki. His topic was an analysis of a Global Educational Reform Movement (GERM) he has identified developing via standardisation, increased testing and accountability mechanisms, as much in-country as via organisations such as the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). This has echoes of the nationalisation and language standardisation of establishing statehood in recent centuries and the frequently contrary influences of locality; perhaps less of a surprise in conceptualising education when considering the role of language in underpinning and developing thought, particularly higher order thought processes (c.f. works of N Mercer, R Wegerif, C McLoughlin). This year’s lecture by Fiona Millar at the end of June appears very different.

Sahlberg_BERA-Talk-2014.6 The lecture is held at the Royal College of Physicians in London, which resonated both with Sahlberg’s international pandemic GERM model which he identified as originating in London in the 80s; and restituting ‘clinical models’ of best practice in Initial Teacher Education (ITE) which have come to the fore recently (Burn and Mutton, 2014) for example in Finland or the Continuing Professional Development (CPD) of providers’ London Challenge in the 00s. Sahlberg analysed the mechanisms now being used globally as drivers for improving educational systems, also including competition and choice, and literacy and numeracy performance, which has spread from the UK to the States and Australia and is currently a global phenomena across some fifty countries that he has worked with. He identified corollary features such as a focus on learning, inclusivity, special educational needs and achievement across all learners; while emphasising the differential life and death nature of the GERM phenomena, one of whose impacts is learners taking their own lives. He argues in implicit support for policymakers

“to reappraise the balance between capacity-building activity, on the one hand, and accountability mechanisms, on the other, to ensure that the foundations are in place for a research-rich system at all levels” (Mincu, 2014, p.17),

enabling teachers and educational systems to engage in the lifelong enquiry, evidence and evaluation of their own practice found to be a cornerstone of self-improving educational systems (BERA-RSA, 2014).

Sahlberg_BERA-Talk-2014.7-page-001Sahlberg_BERA-Talk-2014.10-page-001 Unpacking The GERM Symptoms: Sahlberg juxtaposed myth, fact and research on several international ‘drivers’ of quality education. For example, emphasising socio-economic influences, and debating measures of the contention that teacher quality is critical to learner success. His discussions suggest a need for meta-study of impact similarly to J Hattie’s (c.f. R Marzano and G Petty) highly influential meta-study of the impact of different teaching and learning strategies and factors; a research technique more common to medicine than education. BERA-RSA (2014) point out that the significant variation across jurisdictions of the UK provide a fertile ‘natural experiment’ for comparative research on factors and policy impact. In respect of initial and continuing teacher education, however, their unequivocal opinion is that

“the findings are clear: in the UK and elsewhere, teachers’ research literacy and opportunities for engagement in the research process correlate closely with the quality of teaching and, through this, with student outcomes” (BERA-RSA, 2014, p.11)

and they give detailed recommendations for improving policy, leadership and practice across the nations. This necessitates the infrastructure for capacity, motivation and opportunity to use research related skills being developed by leadership across national and local bodies and networks.


Finland accepts the top 750/8500 teachers for six to seven year Masters research-based ITE, with recruits thereby arriving with advanced academic skills, engaging with and in research in a departmental faculty structure where a ‘clinical practice’ approach ensures a structurally underpinned research-rich environment. Scoring top in most international health and happiness and general ‘state success’ measures, Finland was the first country in 1906 to give women the right to vote and to stand, and identifies what happens in the home at the start and end of the day as making the difference to achievement. How social derivatives of such factors might constitute Goldhaber’s 79% of learner success identified above were not unpacked. Sahlberg went on to draw attention to nation-state level income inequality appearing to correlate negatively with national achievement, while family background appears to correlate positively, which in turn would correlate with findings that provider choice is not a positive influence on achievement once socio-economic factors are taken into account, and may indeed only contribute further to social segregation. To what extent do the features hold in adult education? Internationally, it seems we should give ourselves a pat on the back over our Pupil Premium initiatives, if not our ITE.


Diverting further, in the microcosm of Wales, achievement in assessment, Estyn inspection reports, and PISA rankings has been cause for concern in particular, ranking in the lowest percentiles across PISA measures unlike the other nations. Similarly to Scotland and Northern Ireland, Wales recently commissioned an analysis of its initial and continuing teacher education (J Furlong, 2015), which sited a 2014 OECD report on schools in Wales arguing for building ‘professional capital and collective responsibility’, and drawing attention to the changing nature of teaching and learning necessitating reconceptualisation of teaching as a complex profession. The OECD report further identified shortages in differentiated teaching and learning strategies, ongoing individual formative assessment and developmental feedback (c.f. Petty’s meta-study output of Assessment for Learning); applied basic skills development and subject specialism in teaching particularly in numeracy and mathematics. Broadly, these may be summarised as interwoven disciplinary and pedagogical specialisms. Educational research capacity has diminished significantly over the last decade in Wales.


The notion of ‘professional capital’ as opposed to ‘human’ or ‘social’ (P Bourdieu) has been refered to by Sahlberg, Furlong and OECD analysis recently in respect of improving educational systems without its meaning being delineated. Sai Loo (2014) gives a detailed academic analysis of generic theoretical frameworks of knowledge in Further Education and their interpretation in teacher training guidance, where he finds a noticeable absence of reference to their own research base of theoretical frameworks and content of knowledge, discipline specific or otherwise. His analysis identifies critical grey areas of professional pedagogical knowledge which currently fall outside established theoretical frameworks and in turn teacher education standards and policy documents. These he describes as ‘tacit’ and falling within the pedagogical expertise of enabling learners to appropriately recontextualise disciplinary knowledge old and new across situated applications. Loo’s own research on types of knowledge and the discussion of video-recordings of trainees’ teaching found that this structured peer review and reflection space was

“a crucial platform to integrating disciplinary and pedagogic knowledge from a teaching practice perspective” (Loo, 2014, p.348)

and externalising a 360 degree appreciation of practice. Further opportunity to investigate this with Sai Loo at Vocationalism?: Past, Present And Future in London in July.


Returning to Sahlberg’s core message, and mirroring OECD values, is the systemic enabling of equity and quality focus on individual learners and schools. From arguments about not being able to equate countries with one international yardstick such as the PISA studies, to pointing out that on the international competitive field, Finland had never sought to ‘be the best’, rather priortising collaboration, trust-based responsibility, ‘professional’ capital, individual talent and equity, Sahlberg acknowledged the role of quality international studies in driving the identification and dissemination of best practice, and of the United States in applying the necessary pressures for faster turnaround of data interpretation.


Celebrating 30 years, RaPAL encourage the presentation, discussion and dissemination of small-scale practitioner research and practice in adult literacies at our Regional Colloquia 2015 on the 19th June: further details to follow…


Summary of Where We Are on NIACE’s Learning Through Life


Adults Learning autumn 2014

The autumn edition of adults learning reviews where we are five years on from Learning Through Life: Inquiry into the Future for Lifelong Learning. NIACE built on the report’s findings in its manifesto for the upcoming general election, Skills for Prosperity. Its overarching drive is to resolve investment in a framework for lifelong learning by employers and individuals, as well as government. In particular, addressing the skewed investment in young learners towards ongoing life course and workplace productivity. A key suggestion for managing this is via a national system of ‘learning accounts’ which would include periodic career review, a better system of credit transfer and accumulation, and decentralising to an as yet unclear ‘localism’. Concern is expressed at the significant reduction in investment overall, in mid-level and part-time courses, and reduced social mobility and well-being.

In the opening Commentary David Hughes, Chief Exc. NIACE emphasises the now urgent need to create a new model of the educational life course based on a ‘stage’ rather than ‘age’ approach. David Watson and Tom Schuller, authors of Learning Through Life, assess the legacy of this widely acclaimed report which quantified the value of post-compulsory education and training in the UK at between £55 and £93 billion. It conceptualised learning as a human right and “set out a framework of opportunity, structured around investment, incentives and capabilities” (p.6). The agenda was to be shaped via ten recommendations. The rest of the edition looks through the eyes of experts at each of these recommendations in turn, before concluding with a retrospective from Alan Tuckett and a summary with the implications for the manifesto from Tom Stannard.

Recommendation 1: Base lifelong learning policy on a new, four-stage model of the educational life course
Karen Evans, Chair of Education Lifelong Learning IoE, UCL
These key stages are proposed as being up to 25, 25-50, 50-75 and 75 plus and respond to “an ageing society and changing patterns of paid and unpaid activity” (p.6) over the life course, with different priorities for development and competence in each life stage. The interplay of life, skills and learning across life courses demonstrates a requirement for accessible adult learning at a range of points, the benefits of which are demonstrated by recent research.

Funding has been biased heavily towards young learners starting out in life, and away from the growing pool of elders. The lack of such a carefully planned four-stage provision has led to a phenomenal drop in mature and part-time participation in study, made worse by funding constraints. At the same time, the effects of recession on under-thirties economic activity and in turn their health and civic life is perceived to portend social disintegration. Karen Evans believes that effective lifelong learning in an integrated policy approach will lead to a rational rebalancing of the resources.

Recommendation 2: Rebalance resources fairly and sensibly across the different life stages
Stephen McNair, NIACE
This rebalancing is to “reflect a coherent view of our changing economic and social context” (p.7) where planning in a very slight redistribution across later years would be paid for by an anticipated reduction in the number of young people over the next decade, and in addition to economic investment, would support social engagement and wellbeing.

The move towards loan-funding in higher, and now further, education appears likely to be more expensive than the system it replaced, while contributing to a collapse of mature and part-time learner numbers. In parallel there has been an increase in older learners participating in private and online learning, particularly those who have remained in work. A pilot of mid-life career reviews via the National Careers Service proved very successful, and older people are more likely to be beneficiaries of community learning initiatives.

Recommendations 3: Build a set of learning entitlements
Tom Wilson, Director of Union Learn
These would include recurrent opportunities to universal entitlements such as basic skills, access to IT, and thresholds into lifelong learning at key life points or events. It is argued that the State should provide this at least to level 2 and free at point of use. At higher levels, there is a suggestion of redeploying corporation tax relief for training or redundancy measures into granting ‘learning leave’ from working life, for example.

Union Learn has been a successful model of employer employee training engagement, mirroring the successes of a range of models in other organisations. Funding via grants or tax rebates are other possibilities, beyond subsidised loans. Personal Learning Allowances should draw on the successes of the Individual Learning Accounts whose implementation failed in England but flourished in Scotland and Wales.

Recommendation 4: Engineering flexibility: a system of credit and encouraging part-timers
Claire Callender, Professor of Higher Education Policy, Birkbeck, University of London
Argues for funding that mirrors and supports this form of provision and removes the perceptual bias towards full-time learning. This might for example fund credits rather than qualifications, be ‘mode’ free, and integrate in-house employer training. A credit-based system is a learner-centred system as it centralises choice. Limited progress in the vocational Qualifications and Credit Framework (QCF) is not translating across to schools, higher and professional qualification frameworks and therefore does not currently enable learners across post-compulsory education.

Notional equivalency in loans for part- and full-time learners did not translate in practice as it ignored the other forms of support, presuming part-timers’ sufficient employment income to fully subsidise living and study costs, only covering around a third of prospective part-timers, and leading to a 46% fall in participation. Maturer learners attempting to re-skill laterally are penalised across a number of fronts, whilst being most likely to have to balance these compromises against more pressing work, home and family commitments. Equally for institutions, part-time provision is riskier than full-time. The reduction in part-time vocational sub-degrees and shorter modules leading to credit has been most pronounced in prestigious and research intensive institutions, focussing on full-time bachelor study. The system has become less flexible.

Recommendation 5: Improve the quality of work
Ewart Keep, Chair, Education Training and Skills, Oxford University
By focussing on how skills are used (rather than increasing ‘volume’) e.g. at work, acknowledging the need to “bring supply and utilisation into some kind of relationship” (p.8), and with equity of access to training across the status ladder. A significant percentage of the workforce is recognised as being over-skilled and/ or over-qualified for their current role implying stagnation, worsened by the finding that “work that allows limited discretion and room for decision-making and creativity is more stressful and can pose serious physical and mental health risks.” (p.19) Keep queries the assumption that a proliferation of qualifications (previously reserved to a privileged subset) equates to society as a whole upskilling (and deriving equivalent benefits). He draws attention to the conflict around recognition of the value of qualifications in women, whose careers are more likely to incorporate career breaks.

Recent job creation includes a significant increase in insecure and unpaid activity contributing further to income polarisation. Creativity and innovation may not be acceptable in many jobs, which in turn may generate transactional rather than transformational employee relations.

The UK does not score well on high proportions of high skill work across workplaces; nor on workers participating in discretionary learning to the same degree as managers. However there are projects which have addressed quality of work and one example is of the Scottish Funding Council which is funding the undertaking of twelve diverse experimental ‘proof of concept’ pilot projects between business and academia on effective skills utilisation, which promotes high performance work practices and innovation.

Recommendation 6: Construct a curriculum framework for citizens’ capabilities
Ruth Spellman, Chief Exc., WEA
This would incorporate a common core such as digital, health, financial and civic capabilities with local and contextual customisation. These are found to have transformational impact on the lives and community activation of participants, where critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity are developed, and local networks work together.

The initiative has been pressed by cut backs and wholesale systemic change across services such as health and digital learning over the last few years. However some examples of initiatives in community learning do exist.

Recommendation 7: Broaden and strengthen the capacity of the lifelong learning workforce
Jim Crawley, Senior Lecturer, Bath Spa University
In the light of a 35% funding cut in adult skills and the removal of teacher qualification requirements, there has been significant growth in private providers, with quality determined by the market.

The Qualified Teacher Learning and Skills (QTLS) initiative has not had the predicted take-up and The Education and Training Foundation (ETF) is currently overseeing a period of less support for individuals’ investment in their competences, and less pressure on employers to use professionally qualified staff. However, revised simpler standards guiding Initial Teacher Training (ITT) and Continuing Professional Development (CPD) have enabled diverse positive change and 80% of the teaching workforce hold or are working towards teaching qualifications. A positive impact has been demonstrated on the workforce, and in parallel union learning activity is developing professional identity through paradigms of ‘democratic professionalism’.

Recommendation 8: Revive local responsibility…
Councillor Keith Wakefield, Leader of Leeds Council
Strategic local capacity has been lost with recent waves of change and there is a call for strategy-making by local authorities, autonomy of FE colleges, local employer networks, roles for cultural institutions, and appropriate learning spaces connecting learners with teachers. Britain’s ten core cities hold approximately a quarter of the population, generate 27% of the wealth, and demonstrate the range of local specialisms which impact on skills demands. They have also shown how local councils owning skills impacts on effective local economy demand-led provision, including in youth employment and welfare to work.

Recommendation 9: … within national frameworks
John Field, Chair Scotland’s Learning Partnership & Emeritus Professor University of Stirling
The four nations give opportunity for experimentation and comparison for best practice in determining national strategy in frameworks for lifelong learning, within the international context. But lack of coherence in approach is still evident at ministerial level. A single government department is argued for, and an independent overseeing body. While political structures exist from European Union level down through national to within member nations in the oversight of adult learning, it is among providers that networks are stronger.

Field points to the need to listen to learners on policy, as is done in Scotland, in order to figure out how ‘to advance the common interests of learners in a chaotic and dynamic world.’(p25) Narrowing to a focus on the common interests of learners appears the only likely course of advancement.

Recommendation 10: Make the system intelligent
Mark Ravenhall, Chief Executive of FE Trust for Leadership
This system needs periodic review with consistent information and evaluation generating debate. The strength of Learning Through Life was that it took an overview of all lifelong learning activity across the nations informal, non-formal and formal, unlike direct government funded research and development where ‘the imperative in government has been to fund support for research into existing policies and programmes… with a strong emphasis on making current policies work, rather than asking whether they were good ideas in the first place or how they affect other parts of the system’ (p.26) There is a call for systems-wide leadership to remedy the fact that Schuller and Watson’s 3-year reports have not yet been carried out.

Lifelong Waiting
Alan Tuckett, Chief Executive NIACE at the time the Inquiry into Lifelong Learning was launched
This article gives background on developments in Adult Education to the point of the 2009 Schuller and Watson report, and gives a view on where government policy is now going with this area of learning. It is very useful for researchers who need to draw on background to the Learning through Life report.
A Manifesto for Lasting Change
Tom Stannard, Deputy Chief Exec NIACE
The impact of Learning Through Life was undoubtedly reduced due to being published too close to a general election to impact on proposed policies, intentionally not carrying specific recommendations for providers to get on with in the meantime, and having a minimal dissemination and promotion budget associated with its launch.

The most influential reports in education, however, have made themselves felt over years if not decades, and this independent report as a culmination of three years of research by officers from NIACE and UNESCO is as relevant and illuminating today as when it was published in 2009.

Stannard revisits all the recommendations and indicates how these could be reflected in NIACE’s overarching aim to ‘set an agenda for lifelong learning that makes sense for our times’ (p.31) The outline includes:

1. the successful pilot of the Mid-Life Career Review for those between 45 and 65
2. the Citizen’s Curriculum currently being developed
3. reversing the erosion to part-time HE
4. adult skills and local growth strategies to be joined up
a. LEPs and local authorities to identify local skills shortages
b. learning providers and employers to offer appropriate courses
c. individuals to take up learning opportunities and loans
5. coherent national strategy via a joined up department
a. to include a major independent longterm skills and funding review
6. transformational learning at all life stages

And on that note, this issue of adults learning concludes.