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The problems of the level of adult literacy and numeracy are not new ones for anyone involved in the FE world.

The Government has recognised the importance of tackling the low levels of literacy and numeracy amongst many adults in the UK, and has focussed a great deal of the post 19 FE budget on targeting these adults and driving up skills in this area. However, the question of how to create an effective and efficient programme for adult literacy and numeracy education and training is not only being asked within the confines of these islands. And just one of the other nations facing these issues and debating how best to address them is Australia.

Social Capital Benefits

A report released recently highlighted the findings of a survey of adult learners in the Australian vocational education and training (VET) sector and their experiences in accredited adult literacy and numeracy courses. Specifically, the 57 learners surveyed were examined on the basis of the social capital outcomes they experienced "“ the changes in their connections with other people and the changes this effected in the socioeconomic status of the students.

The report sought to take a fresh approach to assessing the levels of participation and the meeting of expectations, asking questions regarding what people really expect to gain from participating and what changes the course actually contributes to. The report appears to indicate that there is a considerable hole in the data collection through other means; that, although students and teachers cite the social capital outcome of study on these courses as highly valued, there is no current formal assessment and reporting framework for social capital outcomes.

This qualitative study took into account the changes that the learners put down to their participation in their respective courses; (social) network qualities, network structure, transactions within networks and network types. However, the survey also took note of the socioeconomic impact of participation on the courses, according to the eight areas as set out by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in 1982; namely health; education and learning; employment and quality of working life; time and leisure; command over goods and services; physical environment; social environment; and personal safety.

Key Findings

One of the key findings from the report is that their participation in adult literacy and numeracy courses produced social capital outcomes for 80% of the students surveyed. This did not always equate to an improved level of literacy of numeracy; for instance, one student established many new social networks through using the course without experiencing improved literacy or numeracy. The positive outcome in terms of social capital led to this learner approaching potential employers with greater confidence and resulted in his securing a job.

Another result of participating in accredited courses was a reported change in the number and the character of their existing attachments to social networks. Generally learners valued the social capital outcomes, seeing them as representations of an improvement in their socioeconomic wellbeing. Areas where this improvement manifested itself were given as the students" social environments, education and learning, employment and quality of working life. More than 50% of the students surveyed found that socioeconomic impacts were often accompanied by identifiable social capital outcomes.

The order in which these phenomena occurred was not a rigid formula. In fact, improvements in the levels of literacy and numeracy often followed enhancements in social capital outcomes, where membership of a network either gives the student the chance to practice and hone their existing skills or exposes them to new training opportunities. The interaction with peers was found to be a key component in the provision of a successful learning environment, and although the scope of the survey was limited in size the findings suggest that changes in the framework may be beneficial.

The survey presents an impressively comprehensive assessment, and should provide food for thought for people and organisations involved in adult education, and in adult literacy and numeracy specifically, no matter where. Improvements in assessment seem to be required, as the report's summary states: "Social capital outcomes are frequent enough and important enough to be acknowledged."

Jethro Marsh

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