When adults living in developed countries face difficulties in their working, social and family lives due to low literacy, language or numeracy (LLN) skills, we are rightly concerned. With long-established entitlements to free education and the support and protection of the state, we expect that people will leave school equipped with these ‘basic skills’, allowing them to continue their education or apply their skills in workplace or family settings. Yet many developed countries face a challenge in terms of adult basic skills, as was established by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) 1994–98 International Adult Literacy Survey (IALS). It is both an interesting and an important task to compare how different countries have responded to this challenge in terms of policy, strategy and pedagogy. What can we learn from this exercise to improve learners’ experiences and achievements?
This paper examines the two key approaches for tackling low skills within the adult population, two approaches often seen as diametrically opposed. In essence, a ‘social practices’-oriented policy prioritises capacity and quality, whereas a skills-driven one is focused on targets and performance (see Papen 2005, Lavender et al. 2004, Merrifield 2005). The Republic of Ireland and Scotland have both incorporated the former into their basic skills strategies, whereas England has taken the latter route. There has been intense debate within the policy, practice and research communities in recent years about how such policies impact on teaching and learning, with a focus on exposing and analysing the differences between them and gathering evidence in support of one or the other. However welcome the new prominence of adult LLN in stakeholder conversations may be, we should surely question whether the persistence of such ‘camps’ is actually helpful as we think about the future of the sector – and about the learners that should be at its heart.
This paper is an attempt to get beyond this impasse, using research evidence from NRDC and other sources to identify what works best for learners. We will argue that, far from being diametrically opposed, social practices and skills-based approaches can be mutually supportive, coming together in teaching strategies, assessment and classroom relationships to help learners develop in many different ways.