It has been estimated that as many as one in five adults in England have difficulties with literacy or numeracy skills. In an attempt to address this problem the Skills for Life (SfL) strategy was launched in England in March 2001. Its fundamental aim was to allow adults to improve their LLN skills, identified as a crucial factor in enabling them to contribute fully to society, both socially and economically. This study considered one target group: long term unemployed adults attending an employability skills training programme (ESP). Their learning experiences whilst attending this training programme are explored and form the basis of this thesis.
The research was conducted predominantly using qualitative methods, which included semi-structured interviews combined with observation and statistical data to provide details of the population living within the study area. The research findings conclude that the Employability Skills Programme of study significantly reduced the attrition rates normally associated with Skills for Life learners. The thesis argues that flexible training programmes which are contextually linked to personal interests, whether social or vocational, will provide an improved framework in which to achieve the aspirations set out in the Skills for Life strategy. It concludes with some suggestions for both management and pedagogic practice in the development of Skills for Life training provision.
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In 2001 I was asked to undertake a one year secondment with Birmingham and Solihull District Jobcentre Plus in order to help them identify the skills needs of unemployed adults and to subsequently improve the delivery of basic skills training. Following this one year secondment I was offered a position as the District Skills Manager with them, in order to develop and support national training programmes for unemployed adults through training providers; a position I continued in for 8 years.
The training providers were contracted by the Skills Funding Agency (SFA), to deliver literacy, language and numeracy (LLN) to unemployed adults receiving benefits from Jobcentre plus (JCP) the executive arm of the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP). The training programmes were aimed directly at long-term unemployed adults i.e. more than six months unemployed, who had been identified as having no qualifications and poor LLN skills. The need to be unemployed for six months to become eligible for these programmes was later changed so that any unemployed person could access them from the beginning of their benefit claim.
Managing this learning provision led me to encounter for the first time, a range of adults who were struggling with their LLN skills. These adults recounted stories of feeling pushed from one training programme to another by Government agencies; often describing the relief of finally being able to tell someone that they were struggling with their LLN skills and at last finding some training which would help them to develop these skills. They told stories of only coming to the training programme because they would lose their welfare support if they didn't. Others referred to the frustration of attending a training programme which focused on developing their LLN skills, but having to undertake work placements or accept any type of employment rather than continue with the training programme.
It became clear that for many attending the training programme there was a misunderstanding, or a mismatch between their expectations of the programme they were attending - its aims and objectives - and the purpose of the programme as perceived by those contracted to deliver the training. Additionally, there were initial difficulties for the training provider tutors responsible for working with these adult learners who were attending the training programme because 'they had been told to'. Tutors reported difficult behaviour and non-attendance whilst learners reported having to undertake meaningless activities that were irrelevant and de-contextualized from their day-to-day activities.
At the same time a new strategy, called Skills for Life: a national programme to improve adult literacy and numeracy (DfEE, 2001a) was launched. The Skills for Life initiative was developed to address the LLN needs of the whole of the population of England. However, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland developed their own initiatives independently.
The new strategy had a focus on up-skilling unemployed adults' LLN skills. Yet the training programmes provided by the Government agency responsible for unemployed adults had a 'work-first' focus; which stressed the importance of obtaining employment and learners were expected to leave their programme of study if suitable employment became available.
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I needed to understand the apparent disparity between Government wants and learner needs. I had also come to realise that most learners had significant barriers preventing them from starting any programme of learning. So in 2005 I began a Master's programme of study that gave me the opportunity to research barriers to training for long-term unemployed adults. As a result of this research I was able to contribute to the development of a new learning programme for the unemployed; the Employability Skills Programme (ESP), which addressed many of these barriers through its approach to teaching and learning.
In 2008 I was given the opportunity to undertake further research, of which this thesis is the culmination. Under the supervision of experienced colleagues in the field of adult continuing education, I have been able to explore the experiences of adults attending an Employability Skills Programme (ESP) which is part of Skills for Life training that has proved successful in engaging and retaining unemployed learners.
Table of contents
List of abbreviations and acronyms
ALI Adult Learning Inspectorate
ABS Adult Basic Skills
BSA Basic Skills Agency
BET Basic Employability Training
DA Diagnostic Assessment
DWP Department for Work and Pensions
DfEE Department for Education and Employment
DfES Department for Education and Skills
DIUS Department for Innovation Universities and Skills
ESOL English for Speakers of Other Languages
ESP Employability Skills Programme
JCP Jobcentre Plus
JSA Jobseeker's Allowance
IA Initial Assessment
ICT Information and Communication Technologies
IFL Institute for Learning
LLN Language Literacy and Numeracy
LSIS Learning and Skills Improvement Service
NRDC National Research and Development Centre for Adult Literacy and Numeracy
NQF National Qualification Framework
OECD Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development
QCF Qualification and Credit Framework
QCA Qualifications and Curriculum Authority
QTLS Qualified Teacher Lifelong Learning Sector
SJFT Short Job Focused Training
UNESCO United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation
WBLA Work Based Learning for Adults
Chapter One: Introduction
This introduction outlines the framework and content of this thesis. In addition, the rationale for the study and the research focus is presented along with an overview of the policy context in which the study is situated. The case study area used and the institutions involved in the study will also be described. Finally, an overview of the thesis structure is provided.
Section one: Research focus
Rationale and aims of the study
This research study explores the experiences of adults attending a Skills for Life Employability Skills Training Programmes (ESP) in order to provide illumination on how such experiences can provide some implications for both policy and curriculum pedagogic development in England in relation to LLN training provision.
I commenced this research because I observed first-hand the positive engagement of learners on an employability skills programme (ESP). This positive engagement went against the normally reported non-engagement and high attrition rates of 25% to 45% associated with the provision of training for long-term unemployed non-traditional learners (Hasluck and Green, 2007). Attrition rates on the ESP were reported to be 5% to 8% (DWP, 2010); with the learners being highly motivated and engaged, many expressing reluctance to leave the course at its end.
In adult education, resistance to learning is a well-known phenomenon, often being explained as an issue of motivation or founded in a prior unsuccessful education experience (Illeris, 2003a; Wedege and Evans, 2006; Wincup, 2009). Adult learners often appear particularly resistant to learning language, literacy and numeracy (LLN) skills (Parsons and Bynner 1998). Furthermore, it is widely acknowledged that many adults who have been assessed, and found to have poor LLN skills, when asked about their skills level over estimate their ability in this area. Therefore, they do not feel the need to develop their skills as their current skills level, they feel, is sufficient to meet their requirements on a day-to-day basis (Ekinsmyth and Bynner, 1994). However, research suggests that adults with poor LLN skills are more likely than the general population to be on low incomes, or unemployed and be more prone to ill health and social exclusion (DfEE, 1999, 2001a; Parsons and Bynner, 1998, 1999, 2006). Improvement in ones LLN skills is, therefore, likely to impact positively on an individual's life both socially and economically.
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As outlined above, this research explored the experiences of adults attending an Employability Skills Programme under the Skills for Life training remit. The aim was to conduct a qualitative study, which analysed participants' experiences during their programme of study. In order to accomplish this, I set out:
To explore the participants' perception of their present skills level and determine if this perception changed during the course of the programme of study
To explore any changing expectations of the participants over the duration of the course of study.
To explore to what extent the learners' participation on the course impacted upon their social capital and self-identity.
I did however find that my initial study and interview routine although insightful was lacking in depth and did not fully answer my research questions. I needed to expand my research focus while still following my research timeline (appendix 12: 356). Following discussions with my supervisor I changed my interview routine to encompass learner's opinion and feedback at both the start and end of their learning episode. To add further impact to my work I felt it necessary to introduce a perspective from a small number of tutors. This expansion to my original study remit still addressed the original issues I wished to explore but provided greater insight into the Employability Skills Programme of study and its impact on learners.
In 1997 the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) published 'Literacy for a Knowledge Society'. This report, the second in a series of three commissioned by the OECD to compare the standards of adult literacy globally highlighted the findings of the survey that compared adult literacy standards across 11 industrialised countries. The conclusions suggested that the literacy skills within the workforces of all the countries involved in the survey were poor. Specifically, it highlighted the need for countries to increase the literacy, language and numeracy (LLN) skills of their adult population in order to be able to continue to compete effectively in the global economic market. The report recommended that a lifelong approach to learning be adopted by countries, supported by Governments through policy interventions OECD, (1997). Also in 1997 the newly elected Labour Government identified education at all levels as a priority target. In fact, a key manifesto motto during the election campaign was 'Education, Education, Education' (Labour Party, 1997).
Following receipt of the OECD report in 1997 the Labour Government, appointed a Working Group, chaired by Sir Claus Moser, to provide an independent review of the literacy and numeracy capabilities of the adult workforce in England. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland responded independently to the OECD report. When reporting in 1999, Moser identified that as many as seven million adults in England had literacy and numeracy needs; i.e. they had below average ability and did not meet the Working Group applied definition:
…The ability to read, write and speak in English/Welsh and to use mathematics at a level necessary to function and progress at work and in society in general. (DfEE, 1999: 2)
The report confirmed that this lack of functional literacy and numeracy was highest in the part of the population which is made up of the long-term unemployed; the focus of this study. Further to this it suggested that it was likely to have a real impact on the ability of the economy to increase its productivity (DfEE, 1999). In response to the findings and recommendations the Labour Government launched 'Skills for Life: the national strategy for improving adult literacy and numeracy skills' (DfEE, 2001a) which provided a framework for cross-departmental working in an attempt to ensure a collaborative approach in working to support the development of LLN skills within the adult workforce. The rationale underpinning the strategy was to tackle and eradicate the 'burden' (ibid 11) of adults with low levels of literacy and numeracy through the introduction of a suite of interventions which included:
Initiating radical changes to the education and training system for those learning literacy and numeracy skills in order to raise standards and boost levels of achievement.
The introduction of new national standards, new materials and a common core curriculum leading to national tests to make sure that the same approach to teaching and learning, based on the most effective practice, was adopted across the country.
The introduction of new, more effective ways of assessing need and better teacher training through setting up a new research centre combined with rigorous national inspections to monitor standards (ibid: 7).
In addition, the Government promised a national promotional campaign to inform adults how and what they should do to improve their skills and where they could go to get help to meet this goal (appendix 1: 345).
The national standards for adult literacy and numeracy were published in 2000 by the Qualification and Curriculum Authority (QCA), in conjunction with the Department for Education and Skills (DfES), to ensure a consistent approach to LLN teaching and learning. These standards formed the basis on which the further initiatives identified above, were built.
The national standards for adult literacy and numeracy in England are specified at three levels: Entry Level, Level 1 and Level 2 with Entry level being further divided into three sub-levels: Entry Level 1, Entry Level 2 and Entry Level 3. Entry Level, which has these three sub-levels, of which 3 is the highest, is the foundation level of the National Qualifications Framework in England, Northern Ireland and Wales. Confusingly, Entry Level 3 and Level 1 are roughly equivalent to Levels 1 and 2 of the International Adult Literacy Survey scale, respectively.
The term 'Level' is used in this study to refer to the range of criterion of LLN that has been developed to meet qualification standards comparable with other qualifications within England. These standards have been devised by the Qualification and Curriculum Authority (QCA) and applied to the National Qualifications Framework (NQF). These levels have been set out to illustrate in detail the steps required for adults to make progress. Table 1 below offers a comparison of LLN levels in relation to other qualifications in England.
Language, literacy and Numeracy assessment levels
Approximate age range
Table 1: Comparison of Qualifications and Levels in England (Adapted from the National Qualification Framework, 2004).
This table highlights (in row two) the levels at which adult LLN are assessed and teaching and learning opportunities are provided. Row three acts as an indicator of age: that is the age at which, according to QCA and NQF individuals are most likely to achieve each level. It is clear from this table that the Government anticipates that most individuals should achieve a minimum of Level 1 in their LLN competence between the ages of 11-14 and have achieved Level 2 by the age of 16. These expectations of achievement are grounded in the compulsory schooling system in England. A national literacy strategy for primary schools was introduced as a result of presented evidence that just 57% of children were achieving a school Level 4 in 1996 (National Literacy Trust, 2006). Confusingly this is approximately equivalent to Entry Level 3 on the adult LLN level.
The adult national curricula for literacy and numeracy were constructed in line with the National Qualification Framework (NQF) and underpinned by the national standards developed by the QCA to provide a framework in which Skills for Life teaching and learning could take place. The curricula provide teachers with a comprehensive framework to help identify and meet each learner's individual learning needs, including examples of teaching strategies and lesson plans that can be used to meet these needs. For teachers and learners alike the introduction of core curricula and proposed lesson plans reinforce the controlled nature of some adult LLN training.
To further support the development of LLN skills, national tests for adult literacy and numeracy were launched in September 2001. These tests reflect the national standards and enable all stakeholders to have a clear understanding of what competences have been tested and the value attributed to the resulting qualification. The tests for both literacy and numeracy consist of 40 general multiple-choice questions and can be undertaken at Level 1 or Level 2.
As mentioned above, a further aim of the strategy was to raise teaching standards amongst adult literacy and numeracy tutors who had previously had little scope or opportunity to acquire accredited qualifications in the teaching of their subject. Since September 2002 a new professional programme has been developed and put in place to enable both existing and new tutors wishing to specialise in teaching adult language, literacy and numeracy to meet the requirements of the national standards by undertaking a subject specialist qualification, leading to Qualified Teacher Lifelong Learning Sector (QTLS) status. It was envisaged that this professional suite of qualifications would assist in raising the professional profile of the post compulsory sector, aligning it more closely with teaching staff in the primary and secondary sectors.
Quality assurance mechanisms, through national auditing and monitoring, were also implemented through the strategy. The Adult Basic Skills Strategy Unit was renamed the Skills for Life Strategy Unit and the Institute for Learning (IfL), was set up to undertake this task. In addition, all teaching became eligible for inspection by the Adult Learning Inspectorate (ALI) which began work in April 2001, and Ofsted.
Alongside these changes to LLN curriculum pedagogy and organisation, the National Research and Development Centre for adult literacy and numeracy (NRDC) was created as a centre dedicated to research and development in this field. Established by the DfES in 2002, and initially funded for five years, it included an expert experienced consortium of partners, largely drawn from the university sector, which were identified as having specialist academics working in the fields of literacy and numeracy. The aims of the NRDC are to improve teaching practice and inform Government policy through the generation of knowledge by creating a strong research culture and developing professional practice (NRDC, 2003).
In order to attract adults into training programmes a national media campaign was launched namely, 'The Gremlins' campaign, which was identified as the most recognisable and successful media campaign ever launched by Government. Its aim was to encourage adults to overcome their fears of learning by presenting a range of real life examples of where improved LLN skills would be helpful (Papen, 2005). Some examples of the images used in the campaign along with a description of their aims are illustrated in appendix 1: 345.
Further campaigns which had a huge impact on all those involved in education in the post-compulsory sector in England include 'Your future in your hands' and 'Beryl', a face made from hands, appendix 9: 353 (Crawley, 2005; Freud 2007). The stated mission of the Skills for Life strategy is 'to give all adults in England the opportunity to acquire the skills for active participation in twenty-first-century society' (DfEE, 2001a: 3). It is one of the biggest overarching policy drives ever to take place in post-compulsory education in England, attracting massive Government investment, e.g. £3.7 billion by 2006 (House of Commons, 2006). It has continued to attract funding, in a way few policies have, to ensure the strategy is embraced and penetrates all areas of training, including community education, private training providers, prisons, workforce training and further education colleges.
Whilst the strategy had a focus on economic goals it was also seen, and supported, by Government as part of a wider social policy focussed on 'inclusion' (Papen, 2005). Interestingly, the strategy estimated that 'at least 32% of all unemployed people have literacy, language and/or numeracy needs, which in part prevent them from improving their employability and finding secure work' (DfEE, 2001a: 13).
Together with the introduction of the Skills for Life strategy (DfEE, 2001a), the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) published an Employment Green Paper entitled 'Towards full employment in a modern society' (DWP, 2001). In doing so the Government confirmed its aim to focus on raising the level of LLN amongst adults of working age, in order to avoid any adverse impact on economic growth. The stated objective within the report was to deliver work-focused support for all those of working age on out-of-work benefits, whether unemployed or economically inactive.
The targets set by Government were considered optimistic at best; 750,000 learners to improve their literacy and numeracy skills by 2004 and 1.5 million learners by 2007 (Papen, 2005). However, the first target was achieved earlier than expected and similarly, the subsequent target was announced as achieved in February 2007 by the skills minister Phil Hope, who stated that 1.6 million people had gained qualifications as a result of the Skills for Life programme:
…meeting one of our major skills targets is fantastic news and I would like to congratulate all the learners and staff across the country whose hard work has made this possible. Over 1.6 million adults have improved their skills and transformed their lives, taking vital steps towards better employability and social inclusion (House of Commons, 2007a).
The publication, in July 2003 of '21st Century Skills: Realising Our Potential' (DfES, 2003a) reconfirmed the existence of shortfalls in broad foundation skills within the adult population, which were considered necessary for sustainable employment. This report set out a National Skills Strategy aimed at employers to ensure that they had the right skills available to them to support the success of their businesses, and to ensure individuals had the skills they needed to be both employable and personally fulfilled (DfES, 2003a).
Section two: Overview of training programmes
Training programmes which target excluded groups, and particularly skills programmes for the unemployed, have been in existence for a considerable time and can be justified, according to Field (2002), because this group lack the skills that employers require and such training programmes enable them to acquire these skills. In developing and reviewing the employment and training programmes for the unemployed the Government clearly set out their objectives to 'deliver work-focused support for all those of working age on out-of-work benefits, whether unemployed or economically inactive' (Webb, 2003: 8). Brooks et al., (2001a) argues that a major motivator for an individual attending basic skills provision is a desire for self-development and the recognition that if they improve their literacy and/or numeracy skills, they are likely to secure employment or a better-paid job.
Unemployed adults who are identified as possessing poor LLN skills, can access the Employability Skills Programme (ESP) at any point in their claim for Jobseekers Allowance. Once started on the ESP they undertake a process of formal assessment using instruments constructed by the Basic Skills Agency (BSA, 2002). This process is undertaken through referral by Jobcentre Plus advisory staff to contracted specialists who are independent of them. Adults being considered for this programme are required to undertake a skills assessment. If they evidence basic skills below Level 1 in literacy, numeracy or both, they are referred to the ESP. This programme forms part of a suite of training programmes provided by Jobcentre Plus under the umbrella of Skills for Life Learning for Adults. This suite of programmes is seen by Government as:
…a vehicle for tackling the basic skills and other barriers to employment faced by people with the most severe basic skills problems … but the key aim of the provision remains to move people into work (Webb, 2003: 13).
Such programmes last for a fixed period and incorporate periods of job search activity, work placement activity and intensive basic skills support. Success, on these programmes is measured in two ways: by obtaining employment or by achieving Skills for Life or an employability qualification. Should a participant complete the training programme and remain unemployed they are unable to re-enter the programme unless they evidence a further 26 weeks of unemployment. Once a participant has achieved a level 2 qualification, they no longer qualify for entry into the Employability Skills Programme (appendix 10: 354).
Adults, who it is felt by Jobcentre Plus staff may be suitable to attend the ESP programme, but who decline to attend either the skills assessment or the ESP programme itself, can be 'directed' by Jobcentre Plus staff to attend. Direction refers to the requirement of a client in receipt of welfare benefits, to undertake an action at the request of their welfare support worker or adviser. If adults continue to decline to attend either the skills assessment or the ESP programme then 'sanctions' can be imposed in the form of withdrawal of welfare benefits. Adults, who are eligible to attend and do so, automatically receive a training allowance and reimbursement of travel costs to and from the site of the training programme.
Private training provider
The private training provider involved in this study offers training services across the West Midlands Region of England. They offer a range of training specialising in adult programmes targeted at people who are working in vocational settings and attending training provision full time. Additionally, they are contracted to deliver a number of training programmes on behalf of the Skills Funding Agency (SFA), formerly the Learning and Skills Council for Jobcentre Plus, the executive arm of the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP), which includes Employability Training. As noted previously, these programmes are provided for adults from age 18 plus, who are unemployed, in receipt of welfare benefits and have been identified as having poor LLN skills.
Section three: Thesis structure
This chapter has positioned the research within the field of learning for employment, which provided the research focus and the research questions. The policy context for the study has been outlined, along with the institutions involved in the study and their training programmes.
Chapter Two considers the literature that has been explored to frame and inform the study. I am particularly interested in choice within adult learning and learner experiences in the context of: Skills for Life. The literature reviewed considers the notion of choice within training programmes for adults. Additionally, the literature associated with human and social capital is explored to inform discussions.
Chapter Three describes, critically evaluates and justifies the methodological approach adopted for the study and the research design. The chapter concludes with a presentation of the data collection methods used and the various research tools designed to support the compilation of data as well as the system used for analysis of the data. Within this section there is a description of the research sample and the construct of the research design to allow for ethical considerations, reliability, validity and triangulation.
The findings resulting from the fieldwork are then presented in Chapter Four. These findings are analysed and discussed, using the voice of the research participants where appropriate to provide authenticity to the study, and are analysed drawing on the theoretical framework outlined in Chapter Two.
Chapter Five draws together the study, providing a synopsis of the key emergent themes and findings. These are used to inform the final conclusions drawn from the study which are presented. To conclude this chapter time is given to considering the implication of the findings for the learners involved in this area of education and particularly those involved in curriculum management, as well as for tutors and researchers.
Chapter Six in concluding the thesis highlights how further research in this field would assist programme providers in the development of LLN training programmes, which could be appropriately contextualised and provide greater relevance to adults' day-to-day lives. Further research encompassing a broader study with a focus on the learning agenda for adults engaged in LLN learning and its role in the development of a cohesive society would add to the field.
Chapter Two: Review of literature
This chapter reviews the existing literature relevant to the research themes outlined above in order to inform this study, placing a particular focus on the evolving development of adult LLN training. I examine the development of policies associated with this group and perceptions around choice associated with training opportunities. In this way I will position this study within the existing body of knowledge in the field of enquiry and also consider how this study may offer additional insight through its findings for the field.
In Chapter One I have taken the opportunity to introduce adult language, literacy and numeracy (LLN) training in England and its relationship to employment. This chapter will now consider literature that directly frames the response to the research question(s) introduced in chapter one on page 16. This study is particularly interested in adult learning experiences in a defined context that is: Skills for Life Employability Skills. The literature presented is focussed on concepts of choice within training. In addition, literature that highlights the discussions taking place relating to the theories of social human and economic capital are investigated using a collection of concepts provided by a number of authors on human capital theory.
I continue by exploring the usefulness and applicability of these writings as a lens through which the collected data can be considered. Of particular interest to this study are the concepts of habitus (p 110), field (p 113) and doxa (p 115) and their association with misrecognition and legitimisation within the social construct of the planned actions of tutors (Bourdieu, 1997). Following a discussion of these concepts they are unpicked, and their applicability to the study is considered.
Predominantly, this literature review will act as a first step in responding to the research focus of this study, allowing for comparison of published work with this study. Additionally I will consider the variety of research approaches taken previously. The identified literature will serve to identify key authors in the field and to construct a framework within which this study has been undertaken.
This review of literature has been assembled under three broad themes:
The historical development of adult language, literacy and numeracy (LLN) training in England
The policy developments surrounding adult learner choice linked to perceptions of their LLN skills
The social and economic capital measures associated with adult LLN learners.
The chapter will conclude with a summary of the literature reviewed.
Section one: Adult language, literacy and numeracy
Within this study I consider the learning experiences of adults undertaking language, literacy and numeracy (LLN) programmes since the launch of the Skills for Life strategy (DfEE, 2001a). I feel it is important to briefly review such provision prior to its introduction to understand how current developments have been influenced by past practices.
Following the introduction of compulsory schooling in England under the Elementary Education Act of 1880 for children aged between five and ten and then up to the age of 14 under the Fisher Education Act of 1918, an assumption emerged that everybody who has been through this system would be able to read and write effectively. The first indication that this was not the case was the establishment by the Army of Basic Education Centres for recruits during the Second World War (Papen, 2005).
Hamilton and Merrifield (2000) offer an overview of adult basic education (ABE) in England; an umbrella term regularly used to refer to adults undertaking training programmes associated with the development of language, literacy and numeracy (LLN) skills. This starts with the launch of the Right to Read literacy campaign in 1973 considered to be 'the first adult literacy campaign to take place in a Western European country' (ibid: 249) and was the largest scale indication that adult literacy within developed countries may be a matter for concern.
Prior to 1973 LLN development was largely linked to needs in developing countries with UNESCO (United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation 2006), being instrumental in supporting efforts to overcome illiteracy in these countries. Adult basic education (ABE) provision in England during this time was sporadic and disparate, often being provided by local community groups and going largely unnoticed (Haviland, 1973).
After the introduction of the Further and Higher Education Act (1992), ABE became a permanent feature within the further education sector of England and Wales (Hamilton and Merrifield, 2000) and consequently was destined to become a programme which focussed on qualification outcomes and related functionality, linked to economic wellbeing.
The development of adult LLN provision during this time saw a significant shift in the approach and ethos of adult LLN teaching and learning from one which was largely perceived as liberal, and having an emphasis on self-development to one which included a discourse of human resource investment and achievement. Hamilton and Merrifield (2000) see LLN skills as now related to functionality and associated with employment opportunities and economic success rather than academic pursuits.
Whilst the delivery and purpose of adult LLN provision has dramatically changed and developed, so too have the definitions of exactly what LLN is. Definitions used in policy today are most often linked with England's position in the global economic market. Papen (2005) describes differing functional, critical and liberal approaches to LLN which can be positioned to create a useful model of LLN described below.
Language, literacy and numeracy (LLN)
The discourse surrounding the use of words such as 'language', 'literacy' and 'numeracy' is problematic and it is as yet unclear how such terminology is understood by many audiences involved in this area of work, including Government, policy makers, and not least the employers and employees who appear to link education level to job role or function. It continues to be difficult to filter the many and varied interpretations of these terms into one uniform agreed and understood definition. Many assumptions are made regarding these terms that only act to increase the confusion amongst those either using or being faced with such terminology.
The term 'language, literacy and numeracy' in England has evolved over the life of the Skills for Life strategy out of terms such as 'basic skills', which became synonymous to adults seen as illiterate or lacking good LLN skills. Terminology has similarly evolved in line with a move from a focus on negatively charged language, such as 'illiterate' and school-rooted terms, such as English and mathematics. During the 'Right to Read' campaign of 1972, the collective term 'basic skills' was popularised. However, because of its negative connotations with learners it has during the last six years undergone multiple replacements, which include 'essential skills', a return to the use of the terms 'English and maths', an extension of literacy and numeracy to 'language, literacy and numeracy' and more recently a move towards 'functional skills' and 'employability skills'. These changes have come about in an attempt to achieve a common understanding of these various terms; both for learners who were struggling to interpret what they actually mean and also to achieve commonality in the use of terms within the sector.
In reality, as will be evidenced later in this thesis, the majority of adults are generally more familiar and comfortable with the traditional terms: English and maths. Whilst it was found that these terms often had a negative emotional connotation connected to previous formal educational experiences, they have a common understanding and interpretation. It became evident as my research progressed that the introduction of the new terminology has created confusion amongst the learners involved in this study, and continues to be highly contested by academics (Hasluck and Green, 2007). In the drive to remove stigma from terms associated with 'illiteracy' the field has moved towards the less judgemental of negative terms - 'functional'. The use of this term suggests that those who are unable to evidence through assessment, competence against a standardised assessment, are 'dysfunctional' or are in some way unable to participate in a 'functioning' society (Edexcel, 2010).
The term 'literacy' continues to be a highly contested one (Street, 2004), traditionally being associated predominantly with reading and writing activities. Whilst literacy has long been promoted by UNESCO as a human right and an instrument of liberation and development global discussions around literacy are often associated with discussions around overcoming 'illiteracy'. This is clearly illustrated by the work of the United Nations in the presentation of the eight Millennium Development Goals (appendix 11: 347), drawn up in September 2000, and the six Education for All goals (appendix 12: 348) reaffirmed in Dakar in 2000, following their launch in 1990 at the World Conference on Education for All. Both these sets of goals incorporate the intent to eradicate adult 'illiteracy'. In its Global Monitoring Report (2006): Literacy for Life, UNESCO identify literacy as being crucial for economic, social and political participation and development and also as the key to enhancing human capabilities with wide ranging benefits. These include critical thinking, improved health and family planning, HIV/AIDS prevention, children's education, poverty reduction and active citizenship; in essence the promotion of civil society.
Cook-Gumperz (1986) comments that the term 'literacy' originates from the word 'illiteracy' and has historically been used pejoratively to describe an individual who is unable to read or write. This view has been hard to shake off and there is often a stigma felt by individuals who find themselves unable to exercise the practices of language, literacy and numerical competence at an independent level. This is further compounded by many adult literacy programmes commonly constructed on formal models of teaching and learning programmes built for children; with the inclusion of formal measures of progression and assessment and often being frequently de-contextualized from learners' life experiences. This inclination veers significantly from the notion of contextualized and meaningful learning proposed by Dewey (1997a; 1997b) and significantly denies the experiences that adults bring with them to the teaching and learning environment. Dewey (1997a: 340) stressed that the 'business' of education could be defined as 'an emancipation and enlargement of experience, which is often reflected in today's common way of describing practices as 'learning from experience'. Rogers (2002, 2003) also argues that what differentiates an adult learner from a child learner are experiences, expectations and personal agendas and these should instrumentally inform and frame the development of teacher-learner relationships in which learning as an adult takes place.
Forms of literacy communication
Written language, a component of literacy, is one of the most common mediums through which communication is undertaken. Written language is used in various ways but always forms part of a discourse (Fairclough, 1989; Fairclough, 1992; Gee, 1996). However, literacy communication actually takes a multiplicity of forms, including visual signing, written, spoken, performance of the body, pictorially, technologically and via music to name a few (Kress and Van Leeuwen, 2001). These diverse media use very different genres both within and between them to 'talk' or interact with their audience. It is these multiplicities that come together under the umbrella term of literacy. What is common among them is the intention to engage with, or be engaged by an audience. However, the use of the term literacy within policy discourse has a very different meaning and will be explored in more detail in the following chapters.
Language, when written, spoken or signed provides a framework of structure in which our existence - our culture and society - is created (Bourdieu and Wacquant, 1992). Barton (2007) takes this view as a starting point for his discussions of literacy, describing literacy as a social activity which operates in a variety of discourses or speech acts across a variety of domains involving literacy events and literacy practices: social practices. The term 'literacy practice' he explains as the socially acceptable or unacceptable ways in which a literacy action can or cannot take place. Such practices he argues, are closely associated with 'literacy events', and are explained as 'venues' or points of interaction.
Barton's research (2007) explores how the activity of literacy, which he argues is part of an environment, influences and is influenced by that environment. He proposes that literacy is ecological in nature and can only be understood in social practice terms as it deals with the complexity of people's lives as they live them and cannot be isolated from them. This is an idea initially developed by Vygotsky (1978) who used an ecological approach to contrast his theoretical framework, in which he stated that social interaction plays a fundamental role in the development of cognition by tracing how children's internal thinking develops out of external social interactions with other people. This ecological approach to language and literacy development is supported through the work of several authors (Gee, 1992; Rogers, 1992: Street, 1995; Hamilton, 2000), who refer to it as a radical literacy's approach or new literacy studies.
Barton uses the term 'literacy' to define a variable that encompasses aspects of reading, writing, literacy and language (Barton, 2007) and argues that literacy has social meaning, with social constructions being built out of individual or social networks of attitudes, actions and learning. He discusses language through a constructivist view that considers language as it has been; is being and continues to be used and evolve; seeing language as a dynamic social activity that serves the purpose of the person or people using it. For Barton literacy is rooted in the contexts of people's socio-economic status, their culture and ethnicity and is policed within the social networks of these realities. This is in direct contrast to the more traditional view of language that considers language solely in terms of its structure. A statement made by UNESCO in 1962 defines a literate person as one who:
…'has acquired the essential knowledge and skills which enable him to engage in all those activities in which literacy is required for effective function in his group and community and whose attainments in reading, writing and arithmetic make it possible for him to continue to use these skills towards his own and the community's developments' (Cited in Oxenham, 1980: 87)
This is a 'functional' view of literacy, in contrast to the view of the 'new literacy' studies. Functional literacy is largely associated with a 'skills set' which has universal applicability, underpinned by the idea that there is one literacy which everyone should learn in the same way (Mayor and Pugh, 1987). Gray, (cited in Stubbs, 1980) first used the term 'functional literacy' in 1956 to describe literacy in relation to the requirements of an individual relative to a particular society; 'the degree of literacy required for effective functioning in a particular community' (Stubbs, 1980: 14). Such an approach is closely linked to an economic model of employment rather than social networks and is often associated with imposing literacy on individuals, rather than starting from their own perceptions of need.
However, if individuals maintain a constructivist approach (Barton, 2007) it becomes apparent that literacy practices derive from the environment in which lives are constructed and lived. These activities are influenced by the culture in which individuals hold their 'social network', defined by Baynham (1995: 263) as:
…'the web of relations with other people through which meanings are negotiated and changed in spoken and written language'.
Literacy and social networks
Social networks are informed and framed by the similar experiences of individuals who share values, faiths and belief systems; such as extended families, school peer groups, work colleagues and other groups with whom they may be attached. Nevertheless, such experiences and influences are also likely to be affected by governance and contested issues of power and social hierarchy and through processes of self-policing of the state and society (Foucault, 1980). Foucault's description of how power is exercised through society and how individuals 'circulate between the threads' places emphasis on an image of a network in which we all participate. This carries with it the implication of equality and agency in a society rather than the more common concept of the domination of the many by the few.
Foucault's re-conceptualization of power as a positive, as well as a negative force is a radical reformulation of the theory of power. He extends the proposal that power is a positive force to the idea that all power relations are potentially reversible and unstable and that wherever domination is imposed resistances will inevitably arise. Power he theorises, does not only work through techniques of repression or inculcation but through strategies of normalisation. However, Foucault's examination of power relations within institutions considers only how power is installed within institutions, not how power is experienced by subjects; a fundamental aspect of this study.
Power penetrates all literacy events and practices (Street, 2004) and if one considers literacy to be a social activity then it must be acknowledged that it functions within the framework of power (Barton, 2007). Willis (1981, 59) when talking of non-conformist individuals who are struggling to find some kind of conversion of their institutional opposition into a more resonant form of acceptance, described how in becoming conformist they are insulated from their class culture and are freed from its processes.
Some see education as a way out of their situation, a game to be played, while others have a different sense of social position and continue with non-conformist ways. Freire (1996) recognises this complexity, asserting that most social relations are relations of oppression with the poorest in society evidencing the poorest skills, being the least powerful and being the most oppressed. Freire popularises this radical view of literacy in response to the decade of functionalist literacy programmes provided by UNESCO during the 1960s and 1970s. Similarly, Olson (1977: 12) challenged the dominant claims for literacy for adults being made by UNESCO, stating:
…'the use of literacy skills as a metric against which personal and social competence can be assessed is vastly oversimplified. Functional literacy, the form of competence required for one's daily life, far from being a universal commodity turns out on analysis to depend critically on the particular activities of the individual for whom literacy is to be functional. What is functional for an automated-factory worker may not be for a parent who wants to read to a child'.
Fairclough (1989, 1992) extended this thesis further, exploring the connection between language use and unequal relations of power. He considered how language contributes to the domination of some people by others (the literacy event). Power was described and understood by Fairclough as parts, or domains, separate from each other, which form a hierarchical relation of domination and subordination. Such power relations, he suggests, arise from ideological assumptions that embed particular conventions such as the pedagogical approaches and practices used for adult literacy programmes. These include, for example, the de-contextualization of literacy teaching being 'done' to adults using a formal school-type approach. These conventions are significantly dependent on the political power relations that underpin them and act as a means of legitimising existing social relations and differences of power simply through the occurrence of ordinary familiar ways of behaving, which take these relations and power differences for granted.
Debate continues regarding the extent to which language can sit outside literacy and whether literacy informs language or is informed by language, or both. Criticism is routinely voiced regarding how such literacy's or languages can be suitably or effectively measured and assessed; with different approaches only acting to highlight the on-going debate (Tuijnman et al., 1997; OECD, 1997). The issue of who needs to be literate, for what purposes and in what functions has become a matter of social and political policy, rather than simply a curricular decision (Goodman, 1987).
Darkenwald and Merriam (1982: 9) argue that literacy is not concerned with preparing people for life, but rather with helping people to live life more successfully. They suggest literacy has an overarching function which is to assist adults to increase competence, or negotiate transitions in their social roles, to gain greater fulfilment in their personal lives, and to assist them in solving personal and community problems. In reality it can be said that society often represses itself through social reproduction. The truly oppressed are those who have lived in poverty and degradation and consider what has been good enough for them, will be good enough for their children (Tressell, 2004) This became evident from the intergenerational reliance on benefits and support from society, rather than any drive on the part of some learners, to improve their social standing.
In a similar way, numeracy is also a deeply contested concept (Coben et al., 2003) with many interpretations of what elements of knowledge, skills and numerate behaviours make up 'numeracy'. Currently, in England, according to Coben et al., (2003: 3)
…'numeracy covers the ability to: understand and use mathematical information; calculate and manipulate mathematical information; interpret results and communicate mathematical information - all of these at a level necessary to function and progress at work and in society in general'.
The establishment of the components of this concept are further complicated by the potential difficulties adults may have with language and literacy skills in relation to the interpretation of presented material. The contextualization of numeric concepts, both in terms of the environment in which numeracy activity is met and the location adds further levels of complexity in attempting to understand the elements of this term. Coben et al., conclude that whilst there is an emerging consensus in England of the importance of numeracy, there is as yet little consensus on what it actually is. What is clear however is that an economically driven functionalist approach of the concept has been developed and is described in the next section.
What emerges from the literature is a significant debate around the use and content of the terms 'literacy' and 'numeracy'. However, for the purposes of clarity I have chosen to frame the discussion in this thesis using the functional definition of basic skills, provided by the Department for Education and Employment (DfEE 1999: 2) Skills for Life strategy, which is still predominantly drawn upon by those involved in the delivery of LLN:
…The ability to read, write and speak in English/Welsh and to use mathematics at a level necessary to function and progress at work and in society in general.
Functional literacy has been defined as:
…A person is literate when he [sic] has acquired the essential knowledge and skills which enable him to engage in all those activities in which literacy is required for effective functioning in his group and community, and whose attainments in reading, writing and arithmetic make it possible for him to continue to use these skills toward his own and the community's development (Gray, 1956: 24)
This definition makes it clear that the term 'literacy' is used to describe a person's reading, writing and numeracy practices and associates this practice with an ability to provide for themselves economically and for their community socially. However, missing from this definition is speaking and listening. Additionally this definition could readily be misinterpreted to suggest that individuals without the identified skills-sets are less able or even unable to contribute to their community in any meaningful or useful way, either economically or socially.
This type of definition is closely allied with quantifiable outcomes that can be measured through testing and assessment activities (McClelland, 2000). Literacy using a functionalist model is considered as a set of discrete technical skills that exist independently of the culture and society in which they are constructed (Papen, 2005). Underpinning this approach is a perceived responsibility on each individual to ensure their development of such skills; any deficits should be identified by the individual and rectified in order that they are able to function effectively within the economic market.
Critical literacy, often referred to as 'radical literacy' (Hamilton, 2000) is used to describe a pedagogical approach to literacy. Rather than associating literacy with the functions of reading and writing, it associates reading with the working and functioning of the world and particularly the development of an understanding of world constructs, focussing on dualistic concepts such as justice and injustice, power and oppression.
This approach was popularised particularly through the work of Freire (1996), who viewed literacy as a tool through which learners could develop a critical reflective action in relation to the environment that they inhabit, enabling a radical consideration of domination through the existence of power relations between groups (ibid). The focus here however, is much less about the technical components that contribute towards or encompass 'literacy' and much more about literacy as a tool for empowerment and emancipation (Papen, 2005).
A third model associated with literacy is a liberal literacy tradition, regularly referred to as 'new literacy studies', which connects literacy with welfare provided for the disadvantaged sectors of society by the middle classes. Informed by a humanistic view, it embraces literacy as an activity linked to self-development and leisure pursuits, such as creative writing available across the age groups, regardless of economic potential (Papen, 2005). Once again this view does not consider components of literacy which may impact or influence economic activity but is more closely allied with an individual's personal and social development, contextually linked to personal interests and goals.
The dominant model
The model which dominates today's LLN practices and services is undoubtedly linked to a functionalist model, which is often described as the most deficient of the three models (Barton 2007: 189). This model holds the individual accountable, not only for their successes but equally for their failures - for example failure to achieve the minimum level of LLN - which theoretically should enable them to function satisfactorily within both the economy and also socially. Ekinsmyth and Bynner (1994) suggest this is not usually a view shared by those who have been deemed to have deficient LLN skills. The International Adult Literacy Survey (IALS), carried out in the United Kingdom in 1996, used a functional definition of literacy provided by the United States of America (USA) namely:
…'using printed and written information to function in society, to achieve one's goals and to develop one's knowledge and potential' (Carey et al. 1997: 13).
As noted previously in 1999 the Moser Group (DfEE, 1999: 2) defined basic skills as:
…The ability to read, write and speak in English/Welsh and use mathematics, at a level necessary to function and progress at work and in society in general.
This definition of adult LLN is readily identifiable as a functional one regarded as comprehensive because it considers literacy, oracy and numeracy implicitly applying to native and non-native speakers of English (Brooks et al., 2001). However, this is not to say it is without its problems. As Brooks et al, point out; this definition does not consider Information and Communications Technology (ICT) in the teaching and learning of basic skills. In constructing this definition Brooks, et al, break down each component of literacy, oracy and numeracy, identifying literacy as a term used to cover both reading and writing; oracy as a term used to cover speaking and listening and numeracy as a component of mathematics with an emphasis on the practical application and use of mathematics.
This numeracy focus draws on the work of Willis (1998: 32) who states that 'to be numerate is to function effectively mathematically in one's daily life, at home and at work'. This has been further developed within the United Kingdom (UK) to combine 'arithmetical and number skills with elements of geometry and statistics' (Foxman, 1998: 1). Brooks et al, (2001) conclude that such an approach affords a very functional, mechanistic interpretation of LLN as it is based on skills competence within a given context; establishing standards and levels of functionality. Adults on the ESP when self-reporting their LLN skills, provide significant discrepancies between what constitutes 'functional' for Government and what constitutes 'functionality' for the individual adult:
…'whether a literacy or numeracy problem is perceived as important probably has more to do with its centrality to individuals in their daily lives than the objective level of performance reached' (Ekinsmyth and Bynner, 1994: 23).
This is the central tension between the self-assessment of an adult's LLN competence and the assessment by formulated tools linked to an externally constructed and imposed framework of standards; this is a point for consideration in this thesis. An adult in this country is considered to have achieved LLN functionality when they can evidence competence at an identified minimum level as noted in the previous chapter (Level 1, page 21).
Whilst a functionalist approach has broadly been adopted in England, an alternative does exist and has a growing body of support. This approach is seen as an alternative vision to the dominant economic focus of LLN policies (Hamilton, 1998); literacy as a social practice. This view of literacy argues that LLN programmes should be about much more than just a desire to ensure individuals are more able to enter the economic market and be productive agents in that field. They should encompass a much wider agenda concerned with active citizenship, political participation and individual development leading to empowerment (Coleman, 1988). A central tenet of this approach is recognition that adults are regularly involved in a host of literacy practices and events and hold a significant amount of skills that go unrecognised through assessment and testing. These practices are undervalued, both by the individual holder of the skills and by agencies acting on behalf of Government to develop policies and assessment practices. Rather than attributing focus to the deficiencies that exist in an individual's LLN skills, this approach aims to acknowledge the existence of these skills and work with the individual to build on and develop existing skills that are contextually relevant and meaningful to the individual's life.
This thesis considers both a functionalist approach and a social practice approach to the development of adult LLN, arguing that the dominant approach to policy development is based on assumed need, rather than on needs expressed by learners. A social practice approach starts from recognising the diverse range of literacy that exists, acknowledging a person's contribution to society can be of equal value to that of a functionalist approach. Indeed each approach could arguably complement and usefully inform the other and do not need to be seen as directly opposing, or polarised views.
As noted earlier, LLN provision moved from being something of a 'Cinderella' activity in the 1970s to becoming a central feature of Government policy by the late 1990s. The prioritising and centralisation of this provision was the resu