Reflections on the Annual English, Maths and ESOL Conference

16 November 2017

Last week, Learning and Work’s annual conference on supporting adults with English, maths and ESOL took place at UCL Institute of Education.  This major event – organised in partnership with UCL IoE, RaPAL, NATECLA and UCU and with sponsorship from ETF – is a longstanding collaboration, and this year we were delighted to welcome over 125 delegates.  Several participants remarked to me that there is something unique about this particular event, as a space which brings together perspectives from research, policy and practice across adult literacy, numeracy and ESOL.  Under the broad theme of ‘impact and innovation’, this year’s programme spanned an exceptionally rich range of content.  It’s impossible to summarise everything here, but I’ll attempt to recap some of the highlights for me.

Appropriately enough, the day started and finished with policy – after all, there will be little impact or innovation in adult basic skills if the policy framework isn’t working as well as it might.  In her keynote address, Katie Schmuecker from the Jospeh Rowntree Foundation highlighted the crucial role of adult basic skills in tackling inequalities and reducing poverty.  Improving adult basic skills is essential in delivering a whole range of Government policy priorities, but there is a clear challenge to Government to ensure that it is sufficiently well resourced – and that we measure impact (the difference good basic skills make to individuals, families, communities and workplaces) in ways that are meaningful and go beyond things that just happen to be easy to count, such as qualifications.

The policy discussion continued in the final panel session of the day, where Sue Pember from HOLEX provided constructive challenge to the Department for Education on a number of issues, notably the lack of a national strategy for ESOL.   Meanwhile, we also took the opportunity to look ahead to future policy developments, as L&W’s Susan Easton examined the forthcoming entitlement to basic digital skills.  Participants discussed a number of key issues in implementing the policy, such as the definition of basic digital skills, which qualifications should be delivered, which kinds of provision (such as family and community learning) are well placed to support adults to develop digital skills, and how delivery might be linked with basic literacy, numeracy and language skills.

Earlier in the day, we were challenged to think differently about the nature of language and literacy practices – and what this means for the classroom –  by Prof. Li Wei of UCL Institute of Education, who presented insights from the research into translanguaging.  How we can incorporate insights from this research into the development and innovation of teaching and learning approaches – and policies – should be a focus for practitioners and teacher trainers in future.  Without it, we risk working in ways which do not reflect the diversity of learners’ backgrounds and their bi- and multi-lingual language repertoires, which can be such an asset in learning new skills.

Our breakout sessions focused on practice, with workshops examining key issues in the current context.  This included supporting achievement in GCSE English and maths, the use of contextualisation in maths and language teaching, a discussion on ESOL and work-based learning, and a session devoted to initial teacher education in adult basic skills.  One of the most popular sessions – led by IoE’s Dr Sam Duncan with NATECLA and RaPAL – looked at how to make space for social practices, participatory and other creative approaches in the context of institutional expectations of practitioners.  A key message was that these approaches are not ‘on top of’ everything else, rather they are essential tools in making course administration, planning and assessment, amongst other things, more manageable and more relevant  to learners.

All this is hard to sum up into a single set of messages – but , getting basic skills policy and practice right is essential to ensure a positive impact upon people’s well-being, and the social fabric and economic prosperity of the country, particularly at a time when our forthcoming exit from the European Union has the potential to create instability and challenges to all of these.  For practitioners to have a space to reflect, discuss these challenges, and collaborate on practical innovations that make a different to adult learners, remains essential, and as valuable as ever.  We look forward to doing it all again next year.