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Progress Report

The practical goals of the project were to carry out the fieldwork, obtaining co-operation with respondents from all target groups, to assemble an archive of donated materials and to publicise the project to the field via conferences and first level practitioner publications.


The fieldwork for the project was largely completed by the end of June 2003. We carried out nearly 200 interviews across our three stakeholder groups. In the first stage of the project we identified key moments, people and organizations that should be included in the project, using a national sample survey to publicise the project and invite suggestions from the field. We received an overwhelming response from the field, leading us to devise a range of ways for people to contribute, such as group, web and e-mail interviews.

In order to make the interviewing manageable and to generate more contextual depth, we clustered the fieldwork into four case study areas in England (Norfolk, Leicestershire, Manchester and North East London). These were selected to provide a range of activity and geographical spread. Each case study generated information on the regional implementation of national policy, in addition to the more micro level of policy creation and implementation in each locality. Twenty interviews were conducted in each case study area, plus a further sample of 20 key national figures. Interviews with the NCDS respondents were also clustered around these four geographical areas.

NCDS Interviews

We aimed to interview 100 adults from the NCDS cohort and eventually completed 71 usable interviews. A stratified sample of eight different groups was identified. Groups were based on background information available about individual's assessed skills, their own perceived skills and desire to improve their skills. The sample contained an equal number of men and women. Where numbers were great enough to allow further choice, we prioritised men and women who had been involved in Adult Literacy or Numeracy or were members of a minority ethnic group.

Advisory group

An advisory group, comprised of people with a range of perspectives from the policy, research and practitioner communities, met three times per year throughout the life of the project. This working group acted as a 'sounding board' as we designed the methodology, carried out the data collection and analysis, and devised an effective dissemination strategy. We also linked with historians working in the areas of Literacy, English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) and Adult Education more broadly. We held a one-day consultation with Professor Jennie Ozga, University of Edinburgh, to discuss our policy analysis framework and took part in a one-day conference on Methodological Issues in Lifelong Learning organized at the University of the West of England.

Transcription, data storage and analysis

All interviews were transcribed, checked and returned to interviewees for comment. We developed a common interview protocol which enabled us to work in comparable ways across different areas of the fieldwork. We devised a discourse analysis strategy using methods drawn from Fairclough, Wodak and Sanguinetti, that can be applied across all the interviews. This careful planning served to structure the data integration and analysis phases of our work. The research team were trained to use Atlas-ti, a qualitative data analysis software package and starting from this training, we trialled the coding system for our data that we have since used within Atlas-ti..

The interview transcripts have been deposited in the national data archive where they can be accessed on-line.

We developed a "timeline" of events and people (available on this website) that is an important central reference point for the materials we have assembled. This enabled us to calibrate personal and local accounts against national public records and to pick up on key policy documents. We have a general timeline covering key events, and specialist timelines covering, for example, the history of key agencies, such as the Basic Skills Agency; events relating to the professionalisation of the field; media campaigns; and events specific to ESOL.

We secured additional funds from the National Centre for Research and Development to begin to catalogue and archive the materials that interviewees donated to the project, ranging from minutes of meetings, teaching and learning materials, to unpublished policy and research documents. We catalogued the materials using End Note software, and developed a physical storage system in consultation with archiving and library staff at Lancaster University. It is now housed in the university library, with on-line links to it through the Lancaster Literacy Research Resource Centre.

Emerging Themes

We have tracked the changing boundaries and definitions of the field in relation to specific initiatives that have organised it. Before the recent Skills for Life strategy, it is arguable that there was no dedicated national policy for adult literacy and numeracy. In the mid-1970s £1 million was used to kick-start a national development agency and to encourage Local Authority provision. When LEA funding was reduced, adult literacy provision lost ground as an unintended consequence. Practitioners therefore found opportunities to develop the field using funds from adjacent areas where there was active policy and money - such as vocational training, the management of unemployment and European funds. They talk of "working in the cracks" as a metaphor for survival under these circumstances.

We can detect intersections between the developments described to us in the field and broader political and cultural changes, national and international. For example, debates and conflicts around the marketisation and vocationalisation of education are clearly reflected in key moments of change and the multiple responses to them by our informants. The gaps we expected to find between policy and practice we now understand as being more complex issues of local versus national awareness of policy. Policy is typically apprehended in extremely local ways, not only by learners and practitioners, but also by many policy actors. People move in limited circles, make reference to a limited range of documents, people and discourses that do not overlap substantially. However, we have very clear examples of national policy impacting forcefully on local contexts and individual experiences, especially around the late 1980s early 90s with introduction of a contract culture and incorporation of the Further Education sector. Global influences are detectable through the introduction of performance indicators and other measures of outcome enforced by funding mechanisms. These governing technologies come with their own discourses and social relations, re-organizing teachers (and managers) work and learners experience of learning.

A key emerging theme is that of professionalisation, and the tensions this has introduced to a field with strong voluntaristic origins. Practitioners entered the field in the mid-1970s at a time when there was heightened awareness of civil rights and social justice issues in a range of social policy areas. This movement found expression in adult education as a key site for exercising a cultural politics of access - access to learning opportunities for disenfranchised groups. The abundance of voluntary and part-time paid work in adult literacy within the institutions of adult education at the time, attracted women with young families, often from earlier full-time work and higher education, looking for interesting opportunities to carry on their vocation. People brought in a set of ideals and networks from that time, that entail an ethics, a moral position about social relations with learners, that are perceived by many as being distorted by new market-oriented and standardising regimes. These regimes - not specifically designed for the pedagogical benefit of ABE learners, but imposed on the field as a result of wider changes in post compulsory education and training - have led to contradictory demands on practitioners. Interestingly, these are often expressed in terms of ethical discomfort rather than political resistance. New regimes also interrupted earlier networks that were prime carriers of such fragile professional identities as have existed within this fragmented and vulnerable field.

The data we have generated in the project is exceedingly rich and we have identified many specialist themes that it was not be possible to pursue within the timescale of the project. This makes the archiving of our data especially significant as a resource for further research. Examples of these themes are (1) the key role of the mass media in shaping the field from the very start, with their own debates about public education and learning; (2) the critical roles of both numerical estimates of need and learner narratives in establishing meanings in the field (3) the methodological challenges of linking qualitative with quantitative data in the work with NCDS cohort members (4) the widespread use of learner narratives and testimonies, both in the immediate teaching and learning setting, but also in policy debates and practitioner training.

Date: August 2007

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