Research and Practice in Adult Literacy – a friendly group

Some Ethnographic Challenges to Policy and Practice

A CARE Working Paper No. 2 ‘Skills Development and Literacy’
A CARE Working Paper No. 2 ‘Skills Development and Literacy’This paper emerges from comprehensive fieldwork into adult education projects in contemporary, ‘reconstructing’ Afghanistan. It will be of interest to researchers and policy makers in Literacy and Numeracy, in Workbased Literacy and other employability courses. It is of course an international development context that is being drawn on, but it is cutting edge not only in that field of work but also, broadly, in the field of ethnographic studies in adult education. The study is also rooted in New Literacy Studies approaches.

Reading about the diverse training and literacy schemes in Afghanistan will help many scholars to understand what thorough, bottom-up research could do to make policy making more flexible and responsive or in his own words: ‘ethnographic-style studies reveal a more nuanced picture’.

Professor Alan Rogers has been influential and always constructively critical in his field work and written work and this paper is no exception. He states, ‘Wherever case studies reveal valuable lessons even in different contexts, they have been used to ask questions about dominant assumptions and paradigms.’ (p3)

The full article can be found here. Thanks to Sarah Freeman, our Reviews Editor, for this.

Canadian Literacy and Learning Network: Federal government quietly collapses literacy and essential skills network

Canadian Literacy and Learning Network: Federal government quietly collapses literacy and essential skills network

Oh woe! Oh no! How colleagues in Canada are doing:

“Without an announcement or any consultation, it appears that the federal government has decided to quietly collapse Canada’s national literacy and essential skills network…

The results of the recent OECD international study of adult skills show Canada languishing in the middle of the pack. The OECD’s key points for policy development include a broad range of observations on the importance of flexible labour market arrangements, incentives for employers, and accessible lifelong learning opportunities.

The European Union is making significant investments in adult education – across jurisdictional and linguistic barriers more complex than Canada’s – with a focus on accessible lifelong learning, improving professional networks, and sharing effective best pratices. These are similar to some of the program directions CLLN proposed to pursue.

In Canada, the focus now seems to have narrowed to “closing the skills gap” by training workers for high-demand jobs, rather than “elevating the skills level” of Canadians, so there will be a larger pool of talent ready to take advanced training…

But it has become clear that there will be no national strategy on adult education, no inter-jurisdictional council on adult education and training, no national network of non-profits working in literacy and essential skills, and, apparently, not much research. It’s not just the literacy and essential skills sector that the federal government is abandoning – it’s also the most vulnerable low-skilled Canadians.”

References and more detail following the link above.

Compass/ NUT Education Enquiry: another opportunity to make RaPAL’s views felt


The Compass/ NUT Education Inquiry, established in 2013, is progressing at speed now. The most recent draft interim report Education for the 21st Century sets out the values and philosophy, along with some proposals. The full Interim Report will be published in May.

The Inquiry remit will include a ‘fifth dimension’ focused on lifelong learning that currently occupies just one page (p26) of the interim report. A small group are now working to develop this strand and it’s this area we are inviting you to contribute to.

This group is not starting from scratch as over the past 2 years an extensive report was produced by the Compass FE working group: FE for the Good Society. We are now updating and revising that report – filling in some significant gaps primarily to extend the remit to ‘FE and Lifelong Learning’. One of these ‘gaps’ is adult basic skills and it’s this that we hope you will contribute to.

What is required is a piece- 500 words maximum- setting out policy proposals for this area based on the Compass 5 core values (below) that:

· Reviews the strengths and weaknesses of current arrangements, especially from the perspective of learners and of those learners who have befitted least in our unequal society
· Identifies priorities with (brief) justification if not covered in the review of strengths and weaknesses
· Sets out policy proposals.

We want political parties to adopt our policies so hope to make proposals that are realistic whilst being firmly based on our 5 values. We wish to see the creation of a national education service from cradle to crave based on a new settlement between national government, those who provide it and those who use it. The underpinning core values are: democracy; equality and fairness; sustainability; well-being; creativity.

We have been asked to make a relatively small but very important contribution to the Compass/NUT Education Inquiry. Please post your ideas as comments, by Saturday March 1st and we will integrate these into a 500 word statement.

RaPAL Looks Wider

We are delighted to announce that RaPAL will be part of the newly formed European Network of National Literacy Organisations (ELINET).  This umbrella organisation has been formed following recommendations in the 2012 Report of the European High Level Expert Group on Literacy (EHLG) and aims to gather evidence on literacies policies; facilitate the exchange of expertise and good practice; and support organisations in campaigning to raise awareness of the importance of literacy across a range of policy areas.

There are 80 European organisations involved to varying degrees, with a number from the UK.  Work streams will include adult literacy, early childhood & primary schools (including family literacy) and adolescents.  We hope that with RaPAL members’ particular focus on literacies research and practice that we will have much to offer and this will open up opportunities for RaPAL members and establish new working links across Europe.  More details will follow for members in due course.

BERA Vocational Education and Training: Policy, Pedagogy and Research

It’s been a busy few days bunched up. Last Monday, Sai Loo and Bronwen Maxwell, Co-convenors for BERA’s Post-Compulsory Lifelong Learning Special Interest Group (SIG) arranged a somewhat intense day of intellectual input to celebrate BERA (British Educational Research Association)‘s 40th Anniversary.

BERA (British Educational Research Association)

Professor Ken Spours launched the day contending the necessity of a realignment between education and new developments, directions and challenges in the economy and the state. He argued for a comprehensive economic, social and education strategy which moves away from a broad educational focus on low level skills development in further education and more innovation and employer integration. He suggested that periods of educational reform have led to one initiative after another being withdrawn often just as they were starting to function; and an absence of creativity and deep learning. He noted a persistent societal problem with ‘difficult’ subjects being studied to level three and beyond.

Technology is driving flatter social societal structures including flatter hierarchies in companies; where innovation in learning consists of recognising the centrality of the relationship between thinking and doing (which was revisited by Peter Jarvis later in the day). There is an aim for workplaces and colleges to become hubs of entrepreneurism and progression via a more balanced and problem-solving oriented system. This has been engaged with and promoted by the 157 Group of colleges, for example. Ken refuted the suggestion that academic disciplinary knowledge acted as thought policing and outlined the benefits of dynamics of opposites in expanding theoretical development. In turn, politicians have the unfortunate task of reducing the damage of extreme polarity in the implementation of societal structures. People build understanding around knowledge frameworks, where contemporary academia encourages critical analysis and which has led to wide-ranging cross-disciplinary studies. Equally, it is suggested that a triple professionalism is developed in teachers: the expertise of pedagogy, of their specialism, and of working across boundaries which is implicit in education.

To address these developments, Ken advocated democratic modernisation and a new policy style. He outlined an ecosystemic reform strategy linking education, a relational economy and a democratic state where devolved social partnerships linked national, regional and local activity. He advocated deliberation, rather than politicisation, and broad dialogue across the regions. Ken also emphasised developing ‘little r’ research as well as ‘big R’ from primary up, developing children’s capacity for observation and structured interaction in problem solving approaches.

Professor Ann Hodgson then detailed the last three decades’ educational reform paths, highlighting our progress from an 80’s focus on inputs to educational outputs and a 90’s post-sixteen vocational education provision outside the school system; to a turn of the millenium bringing us a parity of esteem between the vocational and the academic in the primary, secondary and workplace sectors, and development of keys skills to level three and Advanced Vocational Certificates in Education (AVCEs) which in the event were found too challenging to implement successfully on a large scale. The last decade saw in increase in divisions and distractions as people grappled with quality, the application of technical skills, and general versus academic curriculum as subjects became modular, multi-level and with increased time flexibility. Ann drew attention to ongoing tensions between inclusivity and high-skilled, high-status employment as well as gender issues in opportunities for women. She noted increases in overlap between higher and further education, increasing youth unemployment with the extended transitions into employment, and general divergence.


After lunch, Emeritus Professor Peter Jarvis privileged us with his first presentation since overcoming a significant health challenge post-retirement. The broad philosophical underpinning to the presentation Learning Expertise in Practice: Implications for Learning Theories led us on an exploration of theories of two types of knowledge which mirror implicit and explicit learning, ie focal awareness and the subsumed subsidiary learning, which processes the rest of the environment outside of one’s immediate focus. Peter usefully illustrated this with the example of learning how to hammer effectively: all our direct focus is on the nail; the subsumed subsidiary learning of how to hammer occurs implicitly in the rest of the brain. He linked this to theories of ‘intuition’ and metis: tacit knowledge based in social practice; an expertise beyond knowledge and language gained via repetition situated in its context. Peter drew attention to happiness (of four basic human emotions) being hardwired into the brain and the concept of ‘flow’ before referencing Phillipe Baumard’s model of learning assimilation to implementation, taking issue with Dreyfus’ five stage model of skill acquisition. He also gave an anecdote closer to home for most people: the experience of finding oneself lost in an unknown place and for whatever reason, unable to communicate. We usually find that eventually a part of the brain kicks in and bits connect as we wander back and forth and stand and look around: and we realise our way back. It would be interesting to read the Special Edition of the Journal of Comparative Education issued last year which compared East with West.

Peter suggested a need to redefine learning theories to account for the subconscious: to draw it out, make it conscious and be able to verbalise it and create knowledge frameworks from it. This enables codification of high value vocational and professional expertise.


BERA have a range of SIGs and seminars up and down the country for those interested in attending, including a conference in September.

BALID’s International Advocacy on Literacy in Development: Challenges and Opportunities

ILD 14

Was lucky to get to BALID (British Association for Literacy in Development)‘s talk on International Advocacy on Literacy in Development: Challenges and Opportunities last Monday evening. David Archer, Head of Programme Development at ActionAid is a key advocate for literacy in development. He noted that adult literacy, and women’s in particular, is the least achieved of the six international Millenium Development Goals, having been squeezed out at high level negotiations given a focus on children’s development goals (apparently oblivious to the influence of family literacy on children’s ability to achieve). He noted that donor harmonisation has given at times disproportionate weight to (frequently progressive and NGO run) priorities where a minimal aid donation may be the only lever for change in a squeezed national budget creating impetus which fizzles out. This is indicative of the management and marketing of literacy projects in a competitive aid environment, where increasingly bold claims create a climate of disinformation; and commentary on lack of adjustment to local context has led to at times excessive consultation at all levels which regardless may not then feed in to the decision-making processes.

Fleury destroyed village school

David referenced a research endeavor where sixty seven literacy programmes across thirty five countries were analysed to produce a set of twelve international benchmarks of effective programmes, including:

  • utilising a broad concept of literacy
  • viewing literacy as a continuum rather than a literate versus non-literate divide
  • governments leading collaborations which decentralise resources and management to local implementation
  • the professional development of (frequently voluntary) facilitators
  • the production and distribution of creative learning materials

which have led to consensus regarding normative international provision. He noted that there is pressure for local education strategies rather than looking for international donor support, currently across fifty nine economically challenged countries. He also identified a lack of literacy statistics beyond a literate/ non-literate divide which on closer analysis could prove largely meaningless, much as literacy in the UK was historically measured as whether an individual could sign their own name. How are literacy levels distributed? Can the impact of primary schooling be accurately assessed? He suggested these challenges would benefit from short, sharp narrative arguments on adult, family and primary literacy.

Economic returns models of literacy development have led to seven key global performance trackers constituted of thirty or forty indicators, primarily concerned with assessment and measurement. They have also contributed to a flourishing of private, assessment-based, schools; and an international market for standardised learning resources. It was wondered why the World Bank’s model was not sufficiently counterweighted by UNESCO’s. As it stands, education is largely domestically financed (as a % of GDP) and countries following IMF (International Monetary Fund) prescriptions have apparently made least progress on educational development due in large part to the capping of public sector budgets. In countries which have for example removed primary school fees and massively increased participation, there have been blocks to proportionate increases in the numbers of teachers employed.

In this context, the tax exemptions made for large corporations, would likely cover the cost of funding entire social budgets, ie education. Zambia grants $2billion loss to large corporations. Progressive taxation progressively spent would significantly reduce the dependence on (and influence of) aid. As a further point, the implications of awareness of a populace that they pay tax (ie via VAT) contributes to a dialogic process of democratic rights and responsibilities and contributes to moving adult literacy away from donor aid. Civil society coalitions such as the Global Alliance for Tax Justice also contribute to these dialogues. One hundred countries now have local education campaigns that did not exist in 2000 when the international Dakar World Education Forum agreements were launched. There is pressure for legislative reform, rather than NGO projects in liaison with government offices, and a suggestion that embedding the benefits of adult literacy within other NGO organisational priorities may be a more effective path forward in ensuring that Every Parent Feeds Their Child.

Brazilian Barrio


BALID‘s next talk on intergenerational literacy, ILD 15, Literacy in and out of school in a Brazilian barrio: implications for policy will be led by Professor Maria Lucia Castanheira and Professor Brian Street will be held in London on Monday 24th February from 5.30-7.30pm. Details on their website.

Public Goods

The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership: What it is and why we should be worried

The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership: What it is and why we should be worried

Interesting report on the proposed Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership from UCU (University and College Union) and its potential for unregulated damage to the public good, such as education and health. They suggest it authorises legal suits should we (governments) attempt to regulate down the line once we work out what is going on with the wonder of experience. Is this really an impending death knell for democracy?

Of course we want to trade with the each other across the EU and with the US, as well as the rest of the world. While in an ideal world welcoming the removal of corrupt barriers to free trade so we can all get on and earn a rewarding living before enjoying our homes, families and other interests, unregulated activity without democratic oversight on such important areas of our lives is a little scary; and the idea we could be heavily financially penalised for waking up to implications and complexities and attempting to regulate down the line scarier still. Who will be held accountable? Politicians that draw on the expertise around them to the best of their ability and are on the receiving end of public pressure; or small cliques of hidden professionals? We pay the bills regardless.

I haven’t read the proposed agreements and probably wouldn’t understand them or their implications if I did. UCU draws on international studies and reports on other free trade agreements, and a study by LSE (the London School of Economics) for BIS (the UK government department for Business, Innovation and Skills). Could the agreement be hashed out to better acknowledge the right to regulate in the public good? Probably.

On that note, UCU has organised a free Defend Public Education: from cradle to grave conference on Saturday 1 February 2014 at the Ambassadors Hotel, Upper Woburn Place, London, WC1H OHX from 10:00 – 16:00 if anyone is interested in going.

lsrn (Learning and Skills Research Network)

I recently attended a regional lsrn meeting kindly hosted by Jacqueline McFarlane-Fraser at the east London African Caribbean Women’s Development Centre and organised by Sai Loo and Rania Hafez at the Institute of Education, where Sai Loo updated us on the outcomes of their Strategic Planning Workshop earlier this autumn and a number of colleagues presented recent research projects.

Jane Speare at Greenwich University has been working on social interaction around poetry in education to develop reflective practice and we look forward to including an article from her in an upcoming RaPAL journal. Azumah Dennis at the University of Hull presented her research on generating portraits and maps from interviews; and our host Jaqueline McFarlane Fraser presented on the work of the ACWDC and its range of provision and community projects. She showed us some beautiful artefacts created by students and members of the centre in classes, ranging from 3D architectural productions to paintings which explore the world around us, identities and integrated literacies skills.

The lsrn’s most recent newsletter is available here and the next meeting is due to be scheduled early in the new year.

Balancing Trust and Accountability

Thought this summarised some interesting research outcomes from Norway on standardisation processes in a country known for strong underlying literacies performance in the populace Re-blogging “Balancing Trust and Accountability”

by Tracey Burns
Analyst and Project Leader, Innovation and Measuring Progress Division, Directorate for Education and Skills

Strengthening accountability is one of the key ways to improve the quality of an education system. Yet reform processes that emphasize strong evaluation and assessment regimes can be misunderstood as controlling or demonstrating a lack of trust: in teachers, in students, and in the system. What is the best way to maintain and build trust while improving accountability?

A recently released Governing Complex Education Systems (GCES) case study looks at this issue. Entitled Balancing Trust and Accountability? The Assessment for Learning Programme in Norway, the report explores the implementation strategies used to enhance formative assessment in Norwegian schools. The reform aimed at helping school leaders and teachers integrate formative assessment into their day-to- day teaching practice and schools.

In Norway there is a strong sense of trust in the system… (read more)

Join the “Crowd Sourced” Research of Media coverage of the OECD Survey of Adult Skills

Contribute to generating the upward curve and make a difference!

The results of the OECD Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC) will be released on October 8th in all the countries that took part in the survey.

There is likely to be a large amount of media attention to these findings and it would be interesting to collect examples of media coverage that could be compared across countries. These examples might include local as well as national media reports in newspapers, broadcast and social media. They could be news or opinion items, such as editorials.

You are invited to post any examples of media coverage you come across in a comment response to this post.

The questions are:
– How are the PIAAC results being reported and where? For example, which results are focussed on: literacy, numeracy and/or problem solving – and which differences in results are highlighted: gender, age, regional, etc.?
– What kinds of issues are being raised in the media in response to the results?

Details of the media coverage to share
As well as your own comments on these questions, please give:

– the source, date and time and geographical location for each media item you post
– links to newspaper articles or broadcast programmes

The postings from different countries will be collated at the end of the calendar year 2013 by the Lancaster Literacy Research Centre and an analysis will be carried out by a team led by Mary Hamilton (Lancaster University), Keiko Yasukawa (University of Technology, Sydney) and Jeff Evans (Middlesex University). This analysis will be disseminated here.