Literacy: an end in itself?
Graham Meadows argues that the focus on learning for employability is marginalising older learners
The number of older learners (aged 50+) attending Skills for Life classes has fallen sharply in recent years, despite legislation aimed at extending opportunities via employment rights and funding. Why is this? One reason may be the policy trend away from promoting education as an end in itself towards the assertive promotion, particularly since Leitch , of training for employment.
This appears to have hit the older learner particularly hard, since those in
need of nurturing and development have been sidelined by demands for vocational
practice. The most marginalised are Entry and pre-Entry level older learners,
those in fact for whom Skills for Life was originally intended - the 'hard to
learners - so the decline in their numbers is a policy issue.
It is interesting to look at the language used over the years to discuss inclusion. The notion of 'Access for all', a key term in New Labour's campaign to widen participation, has changed in meaning. 'Access', which once meant 'access to education', has taken on the dominant meaning of 'access to employment'. Combined with this has been the policy focus on choice as an indicator of opportunity to learn, a focus which can make refusal appear dog-in-the-manger, even perverse.
Underpinning this is an emphasis on the promise to 'tackle barriers to learning', the flipside of the coin of making access available. The question of whether such access is, in principle, truly obtainable, or of whether the goods on offer are appropriate to the recipient, seems to have been overlooked.
Motives and barriers
In my research for an MA (Adult Basic Education), I studied a group of older learners (aged 50+) exploring how their needs and interests as learners linked, if at all, with the general thrust of the curriculum. The research included a discussion with three learners, informed by evidence arising from earlier interviews. The three were chosen to reflect the wider cohort, which consisted of learners at Entry levels.
The participants came from different backgrounds - Hispanic, Arabic, and white workingclass. All had lived in the UK for at least 20 years. One was moderately dyslexic, one a refugee (with experience of war), and one a fluent bilingual but without satisfactory writing skills in either language.
When asked what was, for them, the main purpose of attending literacy classes, their stated motives were complex, rather than being tied to single objectives such as employment. Uppermost for one was the thought of recovering lost ground, 'not missing out on things'; for another, it was 'taking back power to yourself' after a horrendous schooling experience. For all three, the most significant benefit of becoming literate was the dignity that came with being able to read and write.
When asked about 'learning barriers', the refugee, who had been severely wounded, mentioned medical difficulties that had interrupted his attendance at classes. The resulting social isolation, loneliness and displacement were at least as much of a problem for him as acquiring the language:
'I haven't got connection with other people, English people ... when I leave my own country, everything die.' The learner with dyslexia described how this had affected her life, from a disastrous schooling experience ('Cane ... corner ... door ... Head') to a relationship in which her partner took advantage of her verbal difficulties to abuse her: 'He said I was damaged goods ... words? ... he would twist me on them'. These examples illustrate the complexity of the barriers faced by needy learners, and of the solutions for disabled people.
As for the relevance of the curriculum content, discussion focused on learning styles. The learner with dyslexia said that she used friends to help read official letters, adding humorously that they also vexed her: 'If you ask anyone to read you a letter, they will read it to themselves but they won't read it to you; then they'll tell you half of what's in it.' She also volunteered how she learnt to do things without written instructions, thus avoiding unnecessary or embarrassing disclosure.
She learnt, for instance, to assemble motorbikes by copying the mechanic. Her case demonstrates the agency of informal learning in the process of understanding things, as well as the importance of situation as a field of learning. This is particularly applicable at lower levels, where learners begin their learning in the community before accessing more formal education.
In relation to the current Skills for Life curriculum, with its emphasis on testing, employability and youth, the question is how the needs and interests of older learners such as these can be catered for, and whether, by its very nature, the curriculum itself is driving them away. Cameron and Millar  present an interesting view of curricula generally, which may be relevant. The ideal curriculum, they suggest, involves a balance between 'developmental' and 'credential' elements.
'Credential' elements include 'vocation-orientated', 'skillsassessed' and 'market-based' features, while the 'developmental' involves being 'person-focused', 'transformative' and 'justice-centred'. It is worth drawing an analogy with the Chinese notion of yin/yang where, if one side is dominant, the other loses out, to the detriment of the whole.
Initiatives such as Train to Gain,* despite taking literacy into the workplace, have restricted it almost entirely to the credential model. Access is controlled by standard tests, and curriculum content is largely determined by the needs of work. This approach has no developmental features, which might allow a balance that is more favourable to the older learner, nor is there any reference to age as a resource for learning. In fact, older people get no attention at all, a fact confirmed by their omission from the ostensibly 'real' contexts in which Skills for Life builds its literacy programme.
Tackling the problem
This is the kind of imbalance anticipated by Cameron and Millar's model of the curriculum, and is indeed detrimental to the whole. But how should it be tackled? A basic problem is that Skills for Life has never been interested in real people, instead presenting role substitutes: the aspirant secretary, the active entrepreneur, the smart student, the wise team-player. What then should the real world of the older learner include?
Intergenerational learning is one possibility that deserves more attention. Families are potentially less judgemental places for older learners than the world at large, children being promising partners. However, there are plenty more situational contexts worth attention, and around which literacy practices could be developed.
These include 'interest' workshops (eg in health, financial, and computer literacy), news-based literacy groups or reading groups that could lead to local publication or a voice in current affairs. Such possibilities depend, however, on a virtual sea-change in the way literacy for older people is seen by the powers-that-be. Perhaps they will see sense before the last older learners leave education for good.
Graham Meadows works as a literacy tutor in HM prisons and as a consultant
* See Glossary