chapter  5
15 Pages

Governing Literacy

This chapter brings together the discussions from Part I to focus on the ways in which literacy is constructed in a range of research and government-produced policy documents about adult literacy. In these kinds of documents, as will be clear from these earlier discussions, the use of number is a particularly prominent semiotic resource, and one that is frequently used in combination with image and text. I take an example from recent UK literacy policy, the Skills for Life strategy, to show how number, image and text were combined by the New Labour administration to present a ‘grand narrative’ about literacy. More than five billion pounds were spent on the strategy over a ten-year period and the narrative was used to justify this funding to the treasury, to other politicians, to the general public, and to persuade potential adult learners to take part in educational programmes. I draw on the documentary database described in Chapter 1, which spans the development of adult literacy as a field of social policy in the UK since the 1970s and sets the Skills for Life policy within the influential discourses of international organisations including UNESCO, the OECD and the European Union. My claim is that these global discourses, mitigated by national and local features, can be traced through the textual artefacts of UK policy. My intention in Part II of the book is to offer a model of analysis that can be

used by others to deconstruct the representations of social policy issues and

actors which surround us. In discussing the example presented in this chapter, I will refer to both the policy documents themselves and some of the research that underpinned them. Research and policy often have overlapping functions in governance. As feminist and postcolonial writers have observed, research has a key role to play in shaping and naturalising representations of ‘subjects’, especially positivist research of the kind that has been privileged over many years in the natural and social sciences and which has been reasserted in recent years (Tuhewai Smith, 1999). The New Labour administration, especially under the leadership of Tony

Blair, was one of the most media-oriented governments of modern times, preoccupied as much with its branding and presentation as with the substance of policy. It moved many government information services and access points online for the first time, thus radically changing the ways it could communicate with the public. It developed a close relationship with the mass media in an effort to control the public image and debates that took place around its policies, and was hypersensitive to every aspect of this (see Seldon, 2007). The result was ambivalent in terms of the process of governing. On the one hand, much attention was paid to inclusive, consultative and transparent circulation of information. This generated a deluge of carefully produced documentation, both online and in print. On the other hand, the fear of losing control of the policy agenda led to tight management of the process of democratic involvement. A belief in technocratic expertise and efficiency meant that decision-making about policy issues was in the end felt to be very top-down by those at the receiving end, with participants’ views (even where they were invited) being overruled or not listened to (Edward et al., 2007). Chapter 1 briefly outlined the development of the field of adult literacy in the

UK since the 1970s, and described New Labour’s tightly organised strategy for the field, Skills for Life. The review of adult literacy by Sir Claus Moser (Moser, 1999) was prompted in part by the results of the OECD’s international adult literacy survey, the IALS (OECD, 1997). It resulted in a concerted effort to remake the field through large-scale funding, by mobilising potential learners and the general public through the media and by reshaping the teaching workforce. New standards, core curricula and teaching materials were introduced through widespread free professional training courses. This effort circulated a grand narrative of adult literacy through multiple sources. As well as extensive documentation, there were advertising campaigns, conferences, training courses, and a major research and development programme designed to involve practitioners (Carpentieri, 2007).