The paper is written against the backdrop of a policy in decline. Skills for Life, New Labour’s flagship policy emerged from the Moser Report in 1999 (DfEE, 1999) aimed at improving the language, literacy and numeracy skills of the adult population in England with a target of 3.5 million adults to be lifted out of low level skills by 2010 (Moser, 1999). It radically redefined the infrastructure that had up until that time surrounded the delivery of Adult Language, Literacy and Numeracy (ALLN) as what had been an informal, community led, localised campaign with an inchoate institutional base became a national strategy (Hamilton and Hillier, 2006). The new policy was bounded by attractive financial incentives encouraging organisations to contribute towards achieving national targets, newly devised qualifications for students and targets for their achievement, a prescribed body of knowledge defining language, literacy and numeracy as a series of easily pinpointed skills referenced in widely circulated National Core Curriculum documents and, to provide an empirical base for the promotion of good practice, a National Research Development Centre (NRDC) whose strap line purpose became to ‘generate knowledge and transform it into practice.’ In 2010 the UK elected Conservative led coalition government. Aspects of Skills for Life are now fully embedded within organisations and are likely to remain in place. But while the arrival of a new policy is accompanied by announcements and effervescence, its departure of policy is less is clear.
Policy dis/continuities: from literacy crisis to a crisis of austerity
In 1946, the Times Educational Supplement published an article entitled ‘The Problem of Adult Literacy’.Calling for the establishment of county colleges offering adult literacy classes, educational psychologist, Fred Schonel (1946), believed that a reduction in the problem of adult literacy would lead to ‘less unhappiness, less delinquency, less crime, and less neurosis;’ and that improved ‘[…] personal and social efficiency would be a major gain to the nation.’ His contribution was part of a slow process through which Adult Literacy was eventually constructed as a problem requiring a policy solution.
In 1999 the Moser Report was published with headline findings that some 20% of the adult population were unable to ‘find a plumber in the yellow pages’; that is, they were unable to exhibit the skills expected of an 11 year old. What followed was a policy driven moral panic in the face of a literacy folk-devel (Barton, 2000) in the face of a literacy crisis. Sustainability was not a feature of New Labour’s Skills for Life as the policy was always intended as a short term response to what was considered to be an eradicable problem. What is remarkable about the ensuing furore was that it persisted in the face to robust evidence demonstrating that levels of literacy had remained constant in England since the 1940s (Bathmaker, 2007, Brooks, 1998, Brooks et al., 1995).
Whatever the ideological discontinuities between New Labour and the Conservative led coalition elected in 2010, they seem not to emerge through their policy surrounding post 16 further / vocational education or skills (Goodwin, 2011, Payne and Keep, 2011). This is something to do with the nature of policy utterances: rarely do they amount to a caesura; The Minister of State for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning , John Hayes – declared a policy framed by three key principles of fairness, responsibility and freedom (BIS, 2010)p3 signalling that the skills agenda will retain its centralised position as the key lever through which policy is able to deliver economic competitiveness and social mobility, ‘plus ça change…’. There is some fraying at the edges of policy – centrally defined targets have been removed and there are reassurances that ‘red tape’ unnecessary bureaucracy will be reduced. The skills agenda itself has been tempered with an acknowledged that skills alone –without attention to employers demand and utilisation of skills – is an insufficient strategy for achieving economic growth and international competitiveness.
The most significant policy rupture between the Conservative-led coalition and New Labour is found within funding. The Comprehensive Spending Review announced £81 bn of cuts (in contrast to the £50 bn proposed by the Labour opposition) to be achieved in the course of one Parliament (H.M.Treasury, 2010). The Department for Business Innovation and Skills faces a 25% reduction – higher than other departments – with the budget for further education reduced from £4.3 bn in 2010 to £3.2 bn in 2015. For ALLN this has meant a confused and inconsistent series of redefinitions of entitlements and uplift for language (English for Speakers of other Languages, ESOL) and literacy. Still the explicit statements of intent and purpose to emerge from Hayes are reassuring; he openly champions craft skills, would like to see greater regard and respect paid to vocational learning; he is keen to open progression routes to Higher Education; has expanded apprenticeships exponentially; he has clearly in his sights the importance of learning for learning’s sake and its contribution to quality of life. The policy intentions have to be balanced with unintended policy consequences as a predicted 50 further education colleges may have to merge or close down and a probability that the sector will see smaller and fewer institutions (Lee, 2010). Since May 2010 the coalition government has positioned debt rather than skills as the problem in need of policy attention: a shift from literacy crisis to crisis of austerity.
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