A global village meeting
Literacy and numeracy specialists from 16 countries gathered for the NRDC Nottingham conference this year. Fiona Freel, Moya Wilkie and David Budge report on the insights they shared
It was, as Jan Eldred of NIACE noted, 'the most international of the NRDC's international conferences'. Leonne Beebe, a practitionerresearcher from Vancouver, said simply: 'It feels as if we have the world in a room.'
This year's conference in Eastwood, the former mining village outside Nottingham where DH Lawrence spent his boyhood, attracted adult literacy and numeracy specialists from Australia, New Zealand, Germany, Switzerland, the United States, Canada, Norway, Iceland, the Netherlands, Brazil, Malawi and Ireland, as well as the UK countries.
Each nation has very different policies and qualifications for this sector but, as this conference showed, there are common challenges that make the distances between countries seem minuscule.
How do you rebuild the shattered confidence of learners who failed at school (or were failed by the system)? What is the best way of catering for immigrants and refugees? How do you ensure that the least skilled will not be left behind by global competition and the never-ending ICT revolution?
As Ralf Kellershohn of the Swiss e-learning company Avallain pointed out, even relatively lowlevel jobs demand more skills than in the past. 'Fork-lift drivers, for example, may have to be ICT literate because they may find they are controlling trucks run by computers.'
Encouragingly, Professor Steve Reder, of NCSALL, the sister organisation of the NRDC in the US, reported that the ICT gap between American high school drop-outs and their more educated peers appears to have closed in some respects (in 2000, less-educated adults were not using computers but by 2003 many of them were).
The Americans, like the rest of the world, are still looking for the magic formula that will encourage adult learners to persist with their studies. However, John Comings, director of NCSALL, said that some factors that promoted persistence were already known. 'Students say that the most important thing is a supportive person who encourages them,' he said.
Comings also emphasised that the traditional concept of persistence needed to change. It should be accepted that adult learners might drop out and then resume their studies later.
'It's true that employees with low skills don't trust 'suits' - no matter how
nice they are'
Clare Hannah, Learning and Development Director, First UK Bus, responding to a suggestion that shopfloor workers should champion learning opportunities
That was a key message that practitioners took away from the conference, as Joseph Kingsley-Nyinah, a London ESOL teacher, confirmed. 'Some college managers are loath to re-admit students who drop out but the NCSALL research shows this is a pattern that should be expected.'
The importance of embedding not only literacy and numeracy but communication skills in vocational training was also emphasised. Neil Robertson, head of the Skills for Life Strategy Unit, acknowledged that some occupational sectors already recognised this need. 'I went to Liverpool recently to speak to hairdressers. As I left I picked up a flyer that described the 'recipe' for a successful stylist - it suggested that it was 45 per cent communication skills, 25 per cent vocational skills and the rest was literacy and numeracy.' That point has evidently not percolated down to some hairdressers. Half a mile from the Eastwood conference centre one of the village hairdressers had placed an advert for 'apointments' with the 'beautian' in their shop window.
Much remains to be done therefore. But practitioners who attended the NRDC conference seemed 'up for the challenge' by the final session. 'I have taken part in some very interesting workshops and feel really invigorated now,' said one. 'I am ready to do battle again.' See Letters
'A colleague went into a shop and bought two shirts that were being sold at '20 per cent off'. The woman at the counter said 20 per cent and 20 per cent ... that's 40 per cent off. He said: 'In that case, I'll take five'.' Malcolm Swan, of the University of Nottingham, discussing common mathematical misconceptions
'I read 16 dissertations while we were working on the literature review. No, I don't have a life outside school.' Kathy Stafford of the St Peter's College, New Jersey, describing her contribution to the US Adult Numeracy Initiative
- Malawi: The A to Z of independence
- Norway: Tests are the great leveller
- United States: Over the border and into the classroom
- India: Nothing sinister about the writing on the wall
- Iceland: Definitely divided by age and gender
- England: Leitch charts the path ahead
- OECD: Formative assessment still evolving
- Canada: A beach story for all seasons