Why England should look North for inspiration
Juliet Merrifield sees great potential in the new adult literacy and numeracy strategy in Scotland.
For the last five years, Scotland has been developing a remarkable adult literacy and numeracy strategy. Those of us working within the English government's Skills for Life strategy have at least three reasons to look north of the border for inspiration and ideas:
- the strategy - its focus on community learning, a social practices view of literacy and numeracy and a commitment to involving learners;
- the literacy and numeracy curriculum - its conceptual and research base, its intent to be a framework and tool for dialogue between teachers and learners; and
- the approach to support and training for practitioners - taking a developmental rather than a deficit approach to teachers.
Scotland's adult literacy and numeracy strategy is built on its distinctive history and infrastructure of education. Community education has played a much stronger role in adult education in Scotland, both as a set of institutions and a way of working.
A working group on the future of community education, writing in 1998 (before devolution), emphasised its importance for other policies such as social inclusion and active citizenship. It noted the significant aspects of community education:
- its focus on motivation and confidence;
- its aim to develop the capacity of individuals and communities to improve their quality of life; and
- its experience of working in partnership. (Working Group on the Future of Community Education, 1998:8)
Given its distinctive educational history, reinforced by the independence that devolution brought, it is not surprising that Scotland's route to a national adult literacy strategy was so different from that in England. The Scottish Executive first commissioned a report, Literacies in the Community, as part of a National Development Project (2000). It set the tone for the strategy by outlining seven guiding principles for community literacy and numeracy, and emphasised the shift away from seeing literacy as functional skills towards seeing it as a set of real-life practices.
The Scottish strategy adopts a social practices model, which 'sees literacies as a key dimension of community regeneration and a part of the wider lifelong learning agenda. Such an approach rec-ognises that:
- literacy and numeracy are complex capabilities rather than a simple set of basic skills; and
- learners are more likely to develop and retain knowledge, skills and understanding
if they see them as relevant to their own context and everyday literacy practices.'
(Learning Connections website)
The social practices conceptual approach results in goals that are strikingly different from the Skills for Life strategy in England. Among others, the strategy identifies:
- a lead role for community learning strategies;
- a commitment to develop provision that is relevant to learners' lives - a lifelong learning rather than a deficit approach; and
- creating 'a system that learns'.
John Leavey's article (page 22) outlines the seven research projects on which the strategy was built, including consultation with learners. The strategy sets a clear direction from which the curriculum and development have followed.
England modelled its Skills for Life curriculum on what was already in place for schools. It specifies in great detail the content to be taught and learned. Scotland took a very different approach (Learning Connections, 2005). The curriculum sets out its research and conceptual base to ensure that practitioners understand what they are doing and why. It maps out a framework of principles and approaches rather than the detailed content of what is to be taught and learned.
The premise of the Scottish curriculum is to provide a tool for a process of dialogue between teachers and learners. Through this dialogue, learners voice their learning goals and the teacher uses the learning wheel to identify the skills, knowledge and understanding required to achieve them (see Audrey McAlindon's article on page 24).
Perhaps the most distinctive aspect of the Scottish curriculum is the degree of trust that it places on tutors and learners. It assumes the ability of learners to identify their own learning goals and the professional skills of tutors to define and then address the learning needed. While the English curriculum tries to leave nothing to chance by specifying every detail, the Scottish curriculum specifies the framework and provides a tool for dialogue, then leaves everything to the tutor and learner. As McAlindon suggests, the Scottish approach is challenging for tutors. Only time will tell whether the trust has been wisely placed.
Support and training
Given the degree of openness and learner-centredness in the Scottish approach, support and development are central to its success. Learning Connections is the 'development engine' for adult literacy and numeracy in Scotland. Consistent with the whole Scottish approach is its location, not in the education department but in Communities Scotland, the department with responsibilities for regeneration activities. The adult literacies team works alongside community learning and community engagement teams. The team includes staff based in the regions, works in partnership at many levels, and encourages practitioner and learner engagement in innovation, research, professional development and disseminating good practice.
A grand experiment is going on in Scotland, one of the most dynamic and exciting places in the world right now to be an adult literacy or numeracy practitioner. The rest of us can only watch (with envy perhaps) as the story unfolds. So far, there is much to encourage us that a social practices approach can be operationalised not just within the classroom but at a national policy level. Of course, it is easy to idealise the situation from the opposite end of the country. I'm sure there are still frustration, confusion, dissatisfaction and resistance. But the idea is what inspires us. We all have much to learn and Scotland is helping move the whole field forward.
City of Edinburgh Council and Scottish Executive (2000) Literacies in the Community: Resources for practitioners and managers. Edinburgh: City of Edinburgh Council.
Scottish Executive (2001) Adult literacy and Numeracy in Scotland. Edinburgh. Scottish Executive.
Working Group on the Future of Community Education (1998) Communities: Change through learning. Edinburgh: Scottish Office.
Learning Connections (2005) An Adult Literacy and Numeracy Curriculum Framework for Scotland. Edinburgh: Communities Scotland.
Learning Connections website: www.lc.communitiesscotland.gov.uk