Adult Basic Education: A Digest

Adult basic education is one of the most challenging and innovative areas of educational provision in Britain today.  It covers basic literacy and numeracy for all adults, including those for whom English is a second language.


It also covers the related communication and coping skills which are an essential foundation for other learning or for autonomy in everyday life.  It is based on principles of open access and learners’ rights to define their own learning needs and to take part fully in the decisions that affect their learning.  There is a commitment to learner-centred methods including the right to individual tuition and to exploring new methods of learning which do not simply repeat or continue traditional schooling.


Beginning with a national adult literacy campaign in the early 1970s, adult basic education in Britain has developed from almost nothing to a complex and dynamic area of activity.  This has been achieved within a period of general contraction of funding for education and for adult education in particular, literacy and numeracy are difficult concepts to define and measure.


UNESCO has adopted several different definitions over the years…Whichever measure we adopt, however, that there is a need for adult basic education (ABE) in Britain is not in question.Ever since help with basic skills has been on offer, demand has always outstripped supply, with waiting lists of potential students, the problems of adult literacy and numeracy are structural – that is, they are built into our educational and social system – despite the fact that they are often ‘discovered’ with disbelief and treated as an isolated disease that can be eradicated from individuals.


Such problems have always existed in Britain, despite universal compulsory schooling, and there are similar concerns in other western industrialized societies.It has always been accepted that school will fail many children.  Schooling has been seen as a competition geared toward academic success for a minority, rather than a means for meeting the basic right of every child to adequate, useful competence in literacy and numeracy.


Basic skills are of concern at the present because of changes in the economy and rising unemployment.  These highlight the underachievement of many school leavers and the lack of post school opportunities for adults to return to education or training at whatever level they need and especially for those with no formal qualifications.Adult literacy and basic education in the industrialized countries of Europe and north America is a late-comer to the field of Adult Basic Education.


UNESCO has developed a large body of experience in third world countries since the early 1950s and many other countries have initiated their own programmes of adult basic education, sometimes involving spectacular national mobilization as part of broader changes in the power structure of their society as in the Soviet Union, Tanzania, China, Cuba, and Nicaragua.  These activities form a body of experience and theoretical perspectives from which lessons can be drawn by those involved in Adult Basic Education in industrialized countries.


Much of this work emphasizes the necessary links of adult basic education with community development and access to power and resources for disenfranchised groups.  Differences among countries – in geography, language situation, social and political structures – make comparison difficult.  However, despite the differences, links can be made, for example applications of Freire’s work in the USA, the development of critiques of culture and schooling which help us understand how schools reinforce dominant and unjust cultural patterns and social structures.


Such patterns make access to information and control of basic skills a very real problem for linguistic and cultural minorities and other non-dominant groups, working-class people, and women in our societies, and their situation has direct parallels with populations in developing countries.


Links are also being made through anthropological and historical work [1] that is increasing our understanding of the roles of literacy in society.  This work helps to uncouple literacy from schooling so that we can see it in its broader context as a means of communication and access to information.

The adult literacy campaign in Britain was launched in 1973 as a result of pressure from community workers and educators. A labour Government released one million pounds in 1974 for the first year of the campaign. This money, combined with an enormous amount of volunteer effort and the involvement of the BBC in a novel media campaign, quickly established adult literacy provision.


Whatever model of Adult Basic Education is chosen, it is accepted that literacy and numeracy learning with adults must be closely tied to their uses in peoples’ day-to-day lives.  How best to make Adult Basic Education relevant to everyday life and integrate literacy and numeracy with the activities in which they will be used has been a central dilemma for UNESCO over the last 30 years.


Failure to achieve this integration is one criticism levelled at educational institutions in Britain, both in schools and colleges.  One way is to approach literacy and numeracy through other courses of study or other activities, rather than focus directly and exclusively on basic skills as the central aim: for example, teaching literacy and numeracy as part of a wood-working course or photography course, linking it to cookery or welfare rights, or home maintenance.


The idea is similar to teaching reading or study skills across the curriculum, rather than as a special subject in its own right.  Almost any adult course, especially in craft and technical areas, has elements of literacy or numeracy that can be developed within the wider framework of the course and there are some interesting examples of how this has been done.  Those working in community-based groups have obvious ways of linking basic skills to other activities.  Student participation in learning and management of programmes has always been a prominent part of the rhetoric of Adult Basic Education in Britain, especially within community based groups.


This approach fits in with models of adult learning and androgogy and with practice in parallel adult education courses such as Second Chance to Learn and many women’s courses. It is particularly important that people whose needs have not been met by traditional schooling should be given a voice to define learning in ways that suit them, reflecting their own experiences and concerns and ways of expressing themselves.  In practice real participation is often difficult to achieve.  A truly participative learning programme presents a challenge to those with existing power and voice, and runs counter to the past educational experience of both tutors and learners.


However, there have been some important developments in this respect, which provide pointers for the future. Student participation in learning in adult basic education is encouraged through negotiated assessment and evaluation of programmes.


Small group work in which learners use each other as resources and work co-operatively, help to break down traditional roles of tutors and learners. The National Association of Students in adult basic education has a network across the country and holds conferences and other activities. A few schemes have emphasized learner participation in managing schemes, through management committees, experience in chairing groups and taking minutes, all of which becomes an integral part of the learning that goes on.


The emergence of student writing and publishing has been one of the most interesting developments of adult basic education in Britain and is another way in which commitment to learner participation has been taken beyond words to practice. The production of material written by learners for the use suitable for adults. Production has been supported by local community publishing in Britain, through organisation such as The Gatehouse Project and Centreprise publishing project, part of the Federation of Worker Writers and Community Publishers.


This writing movement is better developed than in any other industrial country, but is carried out with little financial support.  Many collections have now been produced by students for use in local schemes. For several years Adult Literacy and Basic Skills Unit (ALBSU) supported a national newspaper run by a collective of students and tutors; there have been residential writing weekends, development of regular writing groups and resource packs on writing.


Student writing not only helps creatively solve the problem of what adult learners can be offered as reading matter, it also fits in with the idea of participation and validating the experience of learners themselves. The very process of producing such writing, translating spoken words into written form, editing, and laying out for publication has proved to be an extremely powerful way.

Adult Basic Education in Britain and in other countries is underfunded and under researched.  Although the initial development of the adult literacy campaign was well documented [15], the results of nearly 15 years of experience and innovation are largely unwritten or described only in locally distributed reports.  Practice has moved ahead of reflection and comparison.  Until very recently, ALBSU has not been involved in sponsoring research, but it has now formulated research priorities for the immediate future.  These include methods of assessment and evaluation, a comparison of part-time tuition with more intensive courses, and the needs of bilingual learners.


Because of the general approach of Adult Basic Education, which is learner centred and committed to the participation of adults in the programmes, certain types of research and evaluation, consistent with this approach, are more appropriate than others.  These are models which emphasize co-operation among all those involved in research, which reduce the distance between the ‘researcher’ and the ‘researched’, and which treat the learner’s experience as central to any enquiry. One such model is research-in-practice, similar to the idea of teacher-researchers developed in schools, but taken further to involve adult learners themselves.


As in other countries Adult Basic Education is a growing and increasingly well established aspect of adult education in Britain.  With the new emphasis on opportunities for unemployed people and on lifelong education, this trend is likely to continue.  However, despite the increase in learning opportunities over the last decade or more, adult basic education still only reaches a small number of those estimated to be in need of help, and the funding is minimal when compared with any other sector of the education system. The widespread use of volunteers has meant that conditions of work for staff are poor, and recognition of adult basic education as a demanding and valuable field of teaching is long overdue of learning about literacy.


1.       Barton, D. and Hamilton, M. (1988) ‘Social and cognitive factors in the development of writing’, in A. Lock and C. Peters (Eds.) Handbook of Human Symbolic Evolution, London:Sage; De Castell, S., Luke, A., and Egan, K. (1986) Literacy, Society, and Schooling Development in the West, London: Cambridge University Press; Levine, K. (1986) ‘The Social Context of Literacy, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul; Street, B.(1984) Literacy in Theory and Practice, London: Cambridge University Press.


Mary Hamilton is Professor of Adult Learning and Literacy at Lancaster University and Commissioner for the National Literacy Inquiry co-ordinated by the National Institute for Adult Continuing Education and chaired by Lord Tim Boswell.  This article has been created as a digest of her work

Mary Hamilton, Adult Basic Education; Handbook of educational ideas and practices, 1989,

ISBN: 0415020611; pp 313 – 322