Reflecting on the Parliamentary inquiry into adult literacy and numeracy

The Parliamentary Select Committee for Business, Innovation and Skills is currently looking into adult literacy and numeracy. They have invited written submissions, questioned witnesses, and visited adult learners in a college and a prison.

This represents quite a remarkable level of public attention for a part of the education system that rarely enjoys centre stage. And its work is likely also to enjoy a high profile given the level of public concern over the English results in the latest OECD adult skills survey, about which I blogged at the time.

Having attended one morning of the Committee’s public sessions, where I gave evidence on behalf of Scotland’s Learning Partnership, I was struck by its seriousness and potential value for adult learners. Most of those who gave evidence alongside me worked for providers, often with strong special interests in a particular sub group of provision. This was enormously informative, even for someone like me who has worked in adult learning for some decades. It was striking that learners’ voices were missing from the august Westminster committee room in which we met.

Caroline Dinenage MP. Image by Lady Geek TV, licensed under Creative Commons

Caroline Dinenage MP. Image by Lady Geek TV, licensed under Creative Commons

Caroline Dinenage, Conservative MP for Gosport, has a track record of interest in and support for adult literacy, and she co-chairs the all-party parliamentary group on maths and numeracy. She set the inquiry in motion, and she will undoutbedly influence its final report. Her questioning of witnesses is thoughtful and informed, and reveals a particular interest in the role of volunteer tutors in helping to support basic skills learners.

I have developed considerable respect for Ms Dinenage, and I also very much welcome greater encouragement and support for those who work with adult learners on a voluntary basis. People who support peer learning in such contexts as prisons, men’s sheds, workplaces, community groups or parent and toddler groups are often likely to achieve much more than formal tuition in a less naturalistic setting.

But we can’t rely on volunteering on its own. It is too hit and miss: some groups may be well served by volunteers, others not; some volunteers may be highly competent, others not; some volunteers may know how to support progression, others not. So we certainly need training for voluntary tutors, and we need to remember that their own learning needs will develop over time. Volunteer tutoring works best when it is part of a strong lifelong learning system.

Another Conservative member of the Committee took the view that any problem with adult literacy and numeracy was the fault of what he calls ‘the educatioal establishment’. Brian Binley MP pursued a number of witnesses in the first part of the session (after which he left). The point that he wished to make was that the UK was the only country in the survey in which young adults performed more poorly than older adults, and this must therefore reflect badly on the ‘educational establishment’ that had taught these young adults as children.

Mr Binloey is no enemy of adult learning; on the contrary, he has spoken publicly and warmly of his own adult learning at the hands of the Workers Educational Association. Of course he was over-simplifying when he spoke about the ‘educational establishment’; he didn’t define what he meant by ‘the educational establishment’, he didn’t show much interest in precisely which young adults had been ‘let down badly’ by it, and he didn’t recognise that some parts of our education system perform extremely well by international standards. But he still has a point.

England and Northern Ireland (Scotland and Wales took no part) were indeed the only countries in the OECD adult skills survey where the younger generation of adults did less well than the older generation. This is a highly unusual result – normally, improvements in schooling mean that the young invariably do better than the old, even in countries where everyone believes that the young of today are useless wastrels. So the distinctive UK pattern requires explanation.

So far, the only explanation on offer has been the Conservatives’ knee-jerk response – namely, that the New Labour government made a complete hash of the schools system. Again, they are politicians, and saying that the last government messed things up is their job. But what is surprising to me is the complete silence of Britain’s educational research community on this topic – a research community, remember, that is totally dominated by specialists on schools and school teachers. I would dearly love to see one of them take a hard, close look at the OECD results, and tell us what (if anything) they mean.

Let me draw one obvious conclusion from this extraordinary finding. What it means is that a large group of young adults is exposed to the scarring effects of recession, while being equipped with relatively weak basic skills. This is a recipe for disaster, and I hope that the Select Committee’s report will include specific proposals for tackling this challenge as a matter of urgency.

Above all, I hope that practitioners and learners contact the Committee to share their views, expertise and experiences. While the Committee’s report is unlikely to lead to specific policy changes, it will certainly influence the climate of ideas in which policy is discussed. With an election scheduled for May 2015, the Committee’s recommendations will face a new Government. A lively response from the field can only help ensure that adult literacies are a priority.

School cheating and social capital

I’ve always been interested in the contradictory consequences of people’s social connections. While the literature on social capital has shown conclusively that there are far-reaching positive benefits, there is also a clear ‘down side’. I’m revising my book on social capital for a new edition, and have been reading up on recent research that addresses the negative as well as positive effects.

soc cap book

In a particularly interesting study, two Italian scholars have examined the relationship between social capital and cheating in school achievement tests. We should note that these were so-called ‘low stakes’ tests: the results are not published, and they have little or no impact on student grades. Their main finding was that cheating was higher in schools situated in neighbourhoods with low scores on several social capital measures. So far, then, the study seems to support the positive story of social capital’s benevolent consequences.

Next, though, they looked at the prevalence in neighbourhoods of two broad sets of values, universalistic and particularistic. Their data showed that cheating was negatively associated with the former but positively with the latter. Finally, they found that cheating was more frequent when teachers were from the local community as well as when the students were relatively homogeneous in terms of social status and ethnicity. This brings us closer to understanding why some forms of social capital are liable to produce ‘negative externalities’.

The dandelions and the docks

Originally posted on The New English Landscape:

Hadleigh.colony.planHadleigh Land Colony Plan

A well designed freesheet called Managed Retreat came our way at the recent Essex Book Festival. Principally about land and environmental issues in Essex, it contained a timely essay by Marina O’Connell on ‘Land Settlements in East Anglia’, made all the more interesting by the fact that the author manages a small-holding on a former LSA (Land Settlement Association) site near Manningtree.

Land settlement or colonisation has a long history in Essex, important strands of which are highlighted in a new history by academic John Field called Working Men’s Bodies: Work camps in Britain 1880 – 1940 (Manchester University Press). Field makes the obvious but often forgotten point that while ‘Work camps may seem strange to us, before 1939 they were a normal part of the landscape.’ Having spent part of my childhood in Hadleigh, Essex, it was common during school holidays to play in and…

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A legal requirement for open access?

Last Thursday, the German state of Baden-Württemberg approved a new law on higher education. It covers quite a number of areas, from access to degree study to an Ombudsman system for doctoral research students, but it is the section on open access publishing that has attracted far the most attention.

Under the new law, universities are required to support their researchers in exercising their right to a non-commercial reproduction of their work after a period of one year. As the publishers do not accept that researchers have any such ‘right’, it is entirely unsurprising that they are bitterly critical of this provision.

Theresia Bauer, the Green Party minister who guided the law through parliament, argues that open access is desirable in principle as a way of informing public opinion. She also cites more practical grounds: the public already pay for the research, and the rising price of journal subscriptions means that even university libraries struggle to pay once more for the published findings.

Conservative opposition politicians have supported the publishers, arguing that it contravenes copyright law. Some prominent academics have even argued that the requirement to make their publicationsavailable in an institutional is an attack on academic freedom.

Mercedes-Benz-welt, Stuttgart

Mercedes-Benz-Welt, Stuttgart

You might not know much about Baden-Württemberg, but that doesn’t make it a minor backwater. It has nearly 11m inhabitants and its capital, Stuttgart, is home to some of Germany’s best-known quality car manufacturers. It could serve as a model of the successful, dynamic city-region, with a high density of researchers among its population. The state also houses a thriving wine industry and the beer is pretty good too (I once enjoyed a pint – yes, a pint – in a bar that claimed to have been Hegel’s regular when he was a student).

If Baden-Württemberg chose to declare independence from the rest of the federal republic, it would be one of Europe’s most prosperous and attractive countries. So I am starting to wonder what would happen if the Scottish Government adopted a similar principle, and insisted that all academics in publicly funded universities in Scotland should similarly make their work available online.

If Holyrood were to reach such a decision, they would find themselves in open conflict with the UK Government, which has opted for the far more publisher-friendly model of ‘gold open access’. Picking fights with Westminster is what Alex Salmond likes best, so long as he is on a winning wicket. In this case, I am pretty sure that he would find widespread support for ‘green open access’, both in the research community and among the wider public who pay for our research.



Wow, I could be a Super Professor!

An email tells me that “Your name has been submitted for Super Professors, which is part of Faculty Row’s global academic network”. The signatory is Jeffrey Finder, who describes himself as the ‘Academic Director’of an organisation called Faculty Row Corporation, with head offices in Madison Avenue, New York.

Image from Wikimedia Commons

Image from Wikimedia Commons

I can’t pretend to have been thrilled. A colleague had received a similar invitation, with identical wording. And all academics receive a steady flow of emails making fabulous offers. Faculty Row, with its offer of ‘official super professor’ status, hope to appeal to our vanity and our awareness of the value of networking. So what services does it offer?

According to their website,

Faculty Row is a Private Network originally developed for educators and researchers to connect, collaborate, and share ideas nationally. Faculty Row is now the leading network of experts for over 100,000 academics globally.

The main services it provides are a news update, apparently culled from the web; press releases promoting new publications and other activities; an online networking facility; and access to information on new career opportunities from what it describes as its ‘partner’, the open website

Most of its current members appear to be based in the USA, but I found one who describes himself as a ‘Lecturer’ in the philosophy department at St Mary Immaculate College, part of the University of Limerick. I could not find his name on the department’s website, so presumably he is not a full time academic. Another turned out to be adjunct professor at Hamline University, in Minnesota, a third an associate professor in New Mexico.

In exchange for these services, you pay a fee. The rates vary depending on circumstances, but a one year subscription for US Faculty will cost you $199, while academics outside the USA can pay £399 for a three-year membership.

So what do you think? Value for money, or candy for suckers? And perhaps more seriously, which social media site is most productive for scholars?

A decidedly odd thing we do in academic publishing

I’ve been reading a book called Space, Place and Inclusive Learning. The title is slightly misleading, as most of the chapters are about initial education in schools and universities, but the book is an interesting illustration of how concepts of space and place are helping to inform educational research.

It is a sign of our digital times that the ten chapters originally appeared as a special double issue of a journal. Nothing wrong with that: one consequence of digitisation is that you can produce the same material in different formats for little extra cost, and presumably the publisher is hoping to sell a few more copies of the journal by repackaging it as a ‘book’, while editors and authors get to add an extra output to their CVs.

But here’s the thing. Right at the start of the ‘book’ are two pages asking readers who cite the chapters to ‘use the original page numbering for each article’, along with the standard referencing for the original journal. My guess is that this is about bibliometrics: it may be convenient for your career to get two separate publications from the same paper, but it is decidedly inconvenient if the result is to split the citations between them and thus reduce the impact ranking of your work.

I suspect that most readers who cite the material will please themselves as to how they reference the chapters. But in a digital world of academic publishing, it is ironic that anyone should try to control how other academics cite their work. In the case of this ‘book’, it is doubly ironic in that its central theme is to do with space and place – and triply ironic in that there isn’t a chapter on the digital spaces of online learning.

Anarchists and work camps in 1930s Britain


Red Clydeside collection:

This leaflet comes from the Glasgow Digital Library, a fabulous mine of information and collection of resources for teaching. It must date to around 1933-34, when the Left was campaigning vigorously against what became the 1934 Unemployment Act. The National Government introduced the Act in order to restructure poor relief and bring unemployment benefits under central control. It also contained a clause which combined the old poor law requirement of the ‘work test’ with existing powers to compel claimants to undertake training.

The campaign against the Bill was enormous, and the historian Neil Evans describes it as the most-discussed piece of legislation in inter-war Britain. Most of the agitation was led by the Labour Left (including the Independent Labour Party) and the Communist Party. But others were involved as well.

This flyer was published by a group calling itself the Workers’ Open Forum, a Glasgow-based network launched by the veteran anarchist Guy Aldred. I don’t know much about the Forum, except that it renamed itself as the United Socialist Movement. Aldred, on the other hand, was and is quite well-known. He viewed himself as a Communist-Anarchist, had been imprisoned for anti-imperialist activities in 1907, and was a conscientious objector in the First World War.  A Londoner by birth and upbringing, he had moved to Glasgow where he thought the prospects for building a new movement were strong.

Several work camps recruited men from Glasgow. In 1933-34, Carstairs Instructional Centre was being prepared for closure, and the Ministry of Labour was opening a new camp out on the Cowal peninsula, at Glenbranter. Both camps experienced a number of protests by angry trainees, and both were visited by Harry McShane, one of the NUWM’s Scottish organisers.

By comparison with the Communist Party, and the National Unemployed Workers’ Movement that the CP dominated, Aldred’s group was tiny. Judging by this flyer, the anarchists shared the Communists’ concern with the threat that work camps posed to the integrity of family life; but they placed a much stronger emphasis than the Communists on what they saw as the militaristic role of the British work camps. Interestingly, the Ministry of Labour’s officials were worried about this issue, and always kept the armed forces at arm’s length, to the point of refusing them to publicise recruitment materials within the camps.