‘Reading the past, writing the future’: Adult literacy in the UK

It is 50 years since UNESCO first proclaimed 8 September International Literacy Day. In that time, thinking about literacy in the UK has changed profoundly. Despite growing interest in the achievement of universal literacy in international politics, and a gathering appreciation that this matters to adults as well as to children, it wasn’t until the 1970s that politicians here began to appreciate that adult literacy was an important social issue for developed countries, including the UK. That is not to say that adult basic education has not been a long-standing part of the British adult education movement. It was a major concern of adult educators throughout the nineteenth century. However, with the advent of universal compulsory primary education, adult literacy faded somewhat to the background, both as a concern of the liberal establishment and as a focus of the adult education movement. The attention of the movement in the first half of the twentieth century shifted sharply to opening up higher forms of learning to working-class adults.

By and large, the British system of education was content to allow a large proportion of pupils to leave school with limited literacy skills and just as limited life chances. It codified this approach through a system of selection at 11 years of age which effectively labelled (‘tattooed’ might be better, given how hard many have found it to erase the perceived stigma) the majority of children, who went to secondary modern schools, as educational failures with little potential for learning, while giving those who made it to grammar school greatly enhanced chances of progressing in education and in life (little wonder those who attended grammar schools speak so highly of them!). The social cost of educational selection and inequity began to emerge clearly during the 1970s. The number and scale of adult basic literacy courses delivered by local authorities and voluntary groups had been growing steadily, leading to calls from adult educators, and from the British Association of Settlements, in particular, for a national adult literacy campaign. Gerry Fowler, then Minister of State for Education and science, in 1974 released £1 million for the Right to Read campaign, to be administered by the Adult Literacy Resource Agency (ALRA), set up by the National Institute of Adult Education (later NIACE and now the Learning and Work Institute). This money supported a huge expansion of local authority adult literacy provision, as well as special development projects and new resource materials. The BBC supported the campaign through a series of programmes, first shown in 1975, intended to raise awareness of adult literacy and signpost people with poor literacy to appropriate provision.

The campaign marked the start of a perceptible shift in government thinking about adult learning towards adult basic education, though, increasingly, this was framed in terms of economic necessity rather than human rights and dignity (with an attendant increase in central government interest and control). Provision continued to grow, supported by ALRA and its subsequent incarnations, with continuing government support channelled through local education authorities, which had developed significant expertise in the area and were prepared to be radical, creative and highly innovative in their approach to delivery. However, the 1992 Further and Higher Education Act reduced the role of local authorities and directed funding for vocational and basic education through FE colleges, now free from local authority control. The Act cemented the divide between vocational and qualification-bearing courses and adult education for personal and community interest, satisfaction and growth, and precipitated an abrupt decline in local authority adult education. Although, through fierce, intelligent campaigning, NIACE and other groups secured a commitment from government to retain a statutory duty for local authorities to provide ‘other’ adult education, it wasn’t possible to arrest this decline once the vocational/non-vocational divide was set in legislation and funding for the latter began to be squeezed. Although adult basic skills continued to attract significant policy attention, the Act in some respects marked the end of a golden age of innovation and enterprise around adult basic education.

New Labour briefly promised a new dawn for adult education, with David Blunkett’s The Learning Age Green Paper appearing to return to a more comprehensive view of the value and purposes of adult learning, calling for a culture of lifelong learning for all and a ‘learning society’. However, within a few years, this wider, more expansive vision was supplanted by a narrower, more utilitarian approach to policymaking on education. The 1999 Moser report urged the government to ‘tackle the vast basic skills problem’ in the UK, reporting that as many as 20 per cent of adults in the country lacked functional basic skills. The government’s response was the Skills for Life strategy, which set a target to improve the basic skills levels of 2.25 million adults between 2001, when the strategy was launched, and 2010. The strategy came to symbolise the growing prominence of basic skills in the government’s post-16 education policy. It was followed by a new skills strategy (2003), which emphasised the government’s intent to pursue equality and fairness through economic modernisation and underscored its increasing distrust of provision which could not be understood in narrowly economistic terms. A second skills strategy white paper, published in 2005, consolidated this move, while the 2006 Leith report on skills set a new target of 95 per cent of adults achieving the basic skills of functional literacy and numeracy by 2020. The government, seemingly convinced that major productivity gains could be engineered simply through supply-side interventions, took up Leitch’s naive view that driving up qualifications was the critical factor in improving economic productivity.

Despite these interventions, we appear still to be some way off the ‘world class’ skills system promised by Leitch. The OECD’s 2013 international adult skills survey found England to be the only country in the developed world where 55–65 year olds are more literate and numerate that young adults aged between 16 and 24. Out of 24 nations, England’s young adults ranked 22nd for literacy and 21st for numeracy. The OECD’s 2016 survey report, Building Skills for All: A review of England, said that 9 million adults of working age in England (more than a quarter of the working population) had low literacy or numeracy skills or both, while one-third of those aged 16-19 had low basic skills (three times more than the best-performing countries). It urged an improvement in the standard of basic schooling, an increase in basic skills standards at upper-secondary level and the greater use of evidence to guide adult literacy interventions. An analysis by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, published last week, similarly reported that five million adults lack basic reading, writing and numeracy skills essential to everyday life and to securing employment. The picture JRF painted was of large numbers of people let down by the education system with little chance to improve their skills and lives – what new PM Theresa May has described as the ‘left behind’. Huge numbers of young people were entering adulthood without the skills to get by, it said, while those who wanted to improve their skills as adults encountered an offer more focused on gaining qualifications than on positive life outcomes such as securing work or progressing to further education and training.

JRF calls for a renewed drive to ensure all adults meet all basic skills needs (including digital skills) by 2030, arguing for more learning in community settings and in the workplace and more online learning. It also suggests, quite rightly, that learning should be relevant to the everyday lives and concerns of learners. The report chimes with growing concerns among the political class that years of austerity and ministerial indifference have created an underclass of people struggling to get by who feel they have little or no stake in the mainstream political life of the country – people who find it hard not only to see how things can get any better but also, more dangerously, how they can get any worse. As JRF argue, education must play a key role in a joined up strategy to reach these people and lift them out of poverty and civic disaffection. Localism, and the devolution of the adult education budget, may represent an opportunity to make these interventions both more meaningful to learners and more relevant to other local social and economic policy aims. However, the attenuation of local authority expertise in adult basic education and the huge pressures currently being brought to bear on colleges in terms of area reviews and a welter of other reforms such as the Sainsbury review, apprenticeship reform and machinery of government changes (not to mention Brexit, which has huge implications for FE) must raise serious questions about local capacity to respond to the massive expectations currently placed at the door of the devolution agenda. Centralisation and the hollowing out of local government have seriously diminished local-level capacity to respond to this new agenda (though it should be added that one of the tensions at its heart is the government’s reluctance to take its hands of the levers of power – localism, to coin a phrase, must mean localism).

Against this backdrop, the swingeing cuts to the adult education budget, introduced by the government since 2010, appear, to put it mildly, exceedingly short-sighted. And while the current stability in funding levels is welcome it is far from clear that FE is where it needs to be to respond positively to the latest wave of reform, while also rising to the country’s seemingly intractable adult basic skills challenge. It is clear, however, that we cannot get to where we want to be by focusing purely on early years and basic education at school (hugely important though these are). Children learn best when they have the support and interest of their parents and when their parents are able to inspire and motive their children through their own example. And securing a future for one’s children is often the key motivator in getting adults back into learning. Had New Labour had the courage to retain its focus on lifelong learning for all rather than insisting on a dodgy distinction between vocational and non-vocational and adopting a narrow focus on employability, we might by now be surveying a very different scene. The overarching theme of International Literacy Day 2016 is ‘Reading the past, writing the future’. This seems highly appropriate. Failure to learn the right lessons from the past can lead us to repeat its mistakes, as new PM Theresa May seems set to do over grammar schools. However you try to dress it up, grammar schools are not ‘inclusive’ and they do not promote social mobility. However, they do, quite clearly, benefit disproportionately the already well-heeled. For those ‘left behind’, the enduring legacy of grammar schools is one of disaffection and stigmatism, low expectations and reduced life chances – a lost generation of people denied the chance to write their own futures. If they are the answer, Theresa May must be asking a very different question. I wonder what it is.

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One thought on “‘Reading the past, writing the future’: Adult literacy in the UK

  1. It is so important that we understand the history behind adult education. Thank you for posting this very insightful view into the past, present, and future of the system. Great blog!

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