Choosing to learn or chosen to learn: a qualitative case study of Skills for Life learners.
PhD thesis, University of Nottingham.
It has been estimated that as many as one in five adults in England have difficulties with literacy or numeracy skills (DfEE, 1999). Raising the standards of language, literacy and numeracy (LLN) skills amongst all adults of working age in England has become one of Government's highest priorities (DfEE, 2001a).
The Skills for Life strategy (DfEE, 2001a) was launched in England in March 2001. Its fundamental aim was to allow adults to improve their LLN skills; identified as a crucial factor in enabling adults to be able to contribute fully to society, both socially and economically.
As a result of the strategy, some identified target groups, e.g. the unemployed and benefit claimants, have found that receipt of benefits has had 'conditionality' attached to it; that is they are required to undertake activities, including training, in order to be able to continue to receive welfare benefits.
This study considered the Skills for Life strategy in relation to an identified target group: long term unemployed adults attending training programmes provided by a private training provider, contracted on behalf of Jobcentre Plus to deliver Skills for Life training programmes. Their learning experiences whilst attending this training programme are explored, alongside the experiences of other adults with poor LLN skills also attending Skills for Life training programmes through other pathways: a 'hard to reach' group attending training at a further education college and a 'prisoner' group accessing Skills for Life training through the prison education system.
The research was conducted predominantly using a qualitative methodology. Semi-structured interview was the primary research tool for gathering data for this study. These were supported by undertaking informal classroom observations and informal discussions. This provided an opportunity to triangulate the primary data and led to a robust data-set.
Using the conceptual framework provided by Pierre Bourdieu's thesis on the reproduction of culture, society and education, evidence is presented to support the argument that the Skills for Life strategy is being used as an apparatus of symbolic violence; legitimised through misrecognition.
The concepts of social and human capital are utilised to consider how, or if, the Skills for Life strategy is working to develop social cohesion and economic competitiveness within the adult workforce: one identified mission of the strategy. I argue that the strategy is situated in a tense field between these concepts, rather than the envisaged complementary relationship.
Based on analysis of the data, I present evidence to support the argument that in the race to compete in the new global knowledge economy, Government has devalued the social networks upon which our society has historically relied for social stability. Further analysis of collected data provides evidence that making attendance at training provision a 'conditionality' of receipt of welfare benefits is unlikely to result in a significant increase in an adult's LLN skills. Whilst attendance at training provision can be increased through the use of interventions, such as sanctioning, this negative association acts as a barrier to an adult engaging in the training activities.
The major finding of the study is that adults do not engage in learning as a result of compulsion and, in fact, activity rejects engagement as a result of compulsion. This supports more than a century of learning theory that concludes that learning is most effective when an individual chooses actively to learn. Despite a mounting body of research, developed through the work of the National Research and Development Centre for Adult Literacy and Numeracy (NRDC) and others, promoting a social practice approach to teaching and learning LLN, activity continues to revolve around a functionalist, decontextualised delivery mechanism.
The thesis concludes with some suggestions for both policy and practice in the development of Skills for Life training provision. It argues that flexible training programmes which are linked to personal interests, whether social or vocational, will provided an improved framework in which to achieve the aspirations set out in the Skills for Life strategy (DfEE, 2001a).
Thesis (University of Nottingham only)
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