Sarah McEwan: Looking forward


Sarah McEwan is a Lecturer in Community Education, School of Education and Social Work at the University of Dundee



Sarah: A wee bit about me. My name’s Sarah McEwan. At the moment I work at the University of Dundee, I’ve been there for a year now in the Community Education team, which I’m really enjoying and I like to say that in our undergraduate programme we’ve got a range of ages of learners who are doing their community education degree at the moment. Prior to working at the University, I worked for 19 years in local communities in Dundee doing a variety of different roles within that time. I worked for Dundee City Council but my job changed through those years. I didn’t intend to be there for 19 years but that’s what happens. I started off as a sessional youth worker and progressed through into youth literacies work, which then led me into adult learning. It wasn’t somewhere I intended to go because youth work was always my passion but that’s where my career journey went, and I’m glad I did it.

When I was asked to come along and talk about the future of literacies in Scotland, I thought to myself I’m a wee bit out of touch because I’ve been involved in teaching for the past year. It has been at least six years since I was involved in pure literacies work but it has given me the opportunity to revisit what I did and have a wee look and see what was it we did then, and it has actually kindled that passion again in myself and I’ve made links with other people working in the field. When I had a wee look at a bit of research I did in 2003 – because I know the landscape was very different when I was involved in literacies work, I started out doing it in 2003 as I said – in the introduction of this research I’ve noted that “The Scottish Executive has allocated funding of £51 million for the period 2001-2006 in a national drive to improve literacy and numeracy in Scotland”. And I thought that seems unbelievable. I didn’t realise, I was quite newly qualified, I didn’t realise how lucky I was to be working in that landscape with those resources. It wasn’t just about the money that was available then, there was a lot of money but there was also a political will – literacies was high on the agenda, it was high on the agenda nationally and locally within local authorities. And I think Jim made reference to it, there was a real passion and you felt like you were on the leading edge, there was money there to really take creative approaches to the work we were doing. The funding was there, the ideas were there, the passion was there. I think a lot of that is still there, apart from maybe the money.

So I’ve probably spoken about some of this but just to say what my passions are, who I am. I’m very passionate about animals, I’m a vegan and that’s my dog there. I love beaches and I feel passionate about social justice, especially in terms of inequalities and inequalities many of which relate to literacies. I see inequalities on a daily basis where I live in Dundee – it has been my home for the past 20 years – but also in our wider society, in Scotland. Creativity and arts which I’m also very passionate about and I think in the work that we do we have to bring that in because we haven’t found the solutions yet so we need to coming up with creative ways of doing things and working with people and involving people.

I’ve said a bit about that, the work I was doing. I was really lucky at the time because certain people came together: there was myself as a youth worker, with a little bit of knowledge and some money in my back pocket, and we were able to work and pay for resources and other workers. I worked in a small team of people: a poet, a community arts worker and a DJ. And the four of us created a little team: how are we going to do this work? We’re not sure, but let’s talk to as many people and young adults as we can and let’s try as many different things and approaches as we can. I must say we put quite a lot of blood, sweat and tears into that work, and it was one of the most rewarding years of my career. I could talk about that all day but I know we’ve only got 15 minutes, but what I did bring along and I’ll pass them around, is just an example of some of the work that we did. This was a little book of poems that was produced by a group we were working with of young people in Dundee who were fighting against child exploitation, and we worked with them for about six months. Initially it was difficult to get much response from them, so taking a traditional communication route of just talking and asking questions didn’t really yield very much. We did a bit of music, we did a bit of art. When we brought in poetry it really took off and you can see by some of the material that’s in the books how much the young people expressed themselves through that medium, that in reading one poem you could find out more about a young person’s life, their needs, their joy, their pain, than maybe months of talking and questioning might have revealed. Anyway, I’ll pass these around and you can have a wee look.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that there are more ways to express ourselves than the traditional dominant ways that we see literacies within our society. And for me literacies has always been about voice, not just about being able to speak and be heard but also that knowledge that what you’ve got to say is valuable. Even if it doesn’t fit in with the norm and the dominant way that we communicate and express ourselves you still have something very valuable to contribute.

Enough about me. Literacies in Scotland today, what does it look like? Is the future for literacies bleak or bright? Let’s go with that for starters. Who thinks it is bleak? Whose overall feeling is it’s bleak? Okay a small number, you’re in the minority, that’s alright, you’re allowed to be, that’s great. What about bright? Sitting on the fence, and that’s too binary? Well I had a wee dig about because as I say I found I wasn’t quite on the pulse with it, I thought, what is actually happening? I know in Dundee there’s still a dedicated team of literacy workers within adult learning, within the Communities department of the city council, so I knew that was happening in Dundee. But I also knew that wasn’t across the board and that was probably quite unique for that particular team to still be there very much doing literacies work and only literacies work. So I had a wee ask around to see what other people were doing and found that there are still literacies workers out there and some of you have put up your hands and identified yourself today. Not everybody is working in that traditional ‘you’re a dedicated literacies worker’. So often it has been merged into a more generic role, you’re doing other work – but it’s still there, so that was good to see. I only really am speaking about Tayside and Fife for that because that’s what I know, that’s my area. I’d like to explore this further but for now that’s the scope. But I did speak to – there is a person in Education Scotland with a literacies remit, Laura McIntosh, so I had a quick conversation with her and she had informed me that the CLD Adult Literacies network has been re-established by Education Scotland. And that obviously brought mainly managers from local authorities together to talk about what people were doing across Scotland, so that has been re-established. But also, she said there was quite a healthy representation from across Scotland at that, so that gave me a little bit of hope in my heart that that is still there on the agenda, certainly within local authorities and for managers.

As far as getting a map of what’s happening across Scotland, I don’t know where we can get that. I had a few conversations with people, but the CLD Standards Council are as part of their re-registration process they’re introducing will be asking people what their job title is but also what their role is. So, I’m thinking that might give us in the future a little bit of a picture of who’s doing the work. Obviously you’d have to be a member of the CLD Standards Council first to get that but that could help to build a bit of a picture. The main thing being for me is that that work is still going on, people are still out there, they’re doing it. It doesn’t appear in all the community plans, literacies isn’t always mentioned and I know in Dundee the workers were saying we’ve not got any mention of literacies or learning particularly within that plan, which is a little bit concerning, but for now they’re still there.

Just a few other things to consider: where are we? There were those millions of pounds poured into literacies work in the early 2000s, but where are we now? Have we solved it? Is everyone in Scotland literate and have we changed the face of literacies in Scotland? I don’t think so. The Scottish Survey of Adult Literacies in 2009 identified that 26.7% of adults in Scotland may face occasional challenges with their literacies, their functional literacy skills. We don’t have an update on that but I did have a look at the Curriculum for Excellence report produced by the Scottish Government and it’s now based on teachers’ professional judgements about the stage young people are at in terms of their progress, reaching their attainment stages. This is from P7, professional judgements from the teachers. This report was produced last December, so it was for 2017-2018, and as you can see from that the teachers were saying across Scotland that 73% were ready in terms of writing and 79% in terms of their reading. So that still leaves us with almost a third who are not being judged as being functionally literate or are falling behind. So I would ask you to think about what does that mean if you are in that third or that 20% who aren’t reaching those stages? What if you’re one of the 26% who is facing occasional challenges with their literacies? What does that mean in terms of your everyday life? I would say you’re then at the risk of being shut out from parts of society or being left behind altogether. I think where it says ‘occasional challenges’ maybe doesn’t quite tell us what that actually means. It maybe doesn’t quite capture the seriousness of that, if that’s in your own life and you can’t navigate a part of society or feel included within it.

That’s the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation 2016 maps. I just brought the ones related to education. You can’t really see what it says in the text but the darker red spots/patches are the data zones with the 20% highest deprivation in terms of education. For example, working age people gaining qualifications, proportion of young people not in full time education, employment or training, and proportion entering. So I think that in Dundee there are 71 data zones that are in the 20% highest deprivation; in Glasgow it is 318.

Some things to think about when you’re going to have your discussion. We’ve had a wee look at what the statistics are telling us, what the workers out in the field are telling us in terms of literacies work is still there. But what is the wider picture? The world that we’re living in is different today than it was even a couple of years ago, so just a few things. I’m not going to go into them in huge detail as we don’t have time, but things to think about. One of the ones that is a major one is the online world, the faceless society we’re moving towards where it’s really difficult to actually speak to a person when you’re trying to access services or just go about your day to day living, and more and more the pushes for everything to be online and to be digital. I’m not against online, I just think you can’t replace what you get from coming together and having that connection with people and speaking to people. If you’re struggling to navigate the world, making things online and not having somebody you can just speak to produces another set of challenges, a new set of challenges. So, thinking about that landscape we’re in and I think there is a bit of an assumption that everyone’s got a mobile phone or a smartphone or even internet access, and everybody doesn’t. I think the language and the narrative is that everybody does, sometimes.

Also another thing that came up when I was speaking to people is in ESOL work, and work with Syrian refugees and people coming for ESOL support and then it becoming apparent that they’re not literate in their own first language, and oftentimes ESOL tutors or workers aren’t quite sure how to deal with that because they can teach English but they’re not sure, how do they tackle the literacies part of it? That’s another thing just to think about. The employability agenda which is a big agenda, what relevance has that got to literacies and what kind of jobs are you getting pointed towards or pushed into instead of maybe having the opportunity to express yourself or address some of these skills. The skills and demands I’m thinking about, well the demands from the world and the skills of the workforce or people who are working within local communities. Have we adapted our skills to meet the demands that people are coming forward with? But also with the changing demands and also with the ageing workforce and people who might have been around where there was a lot of training for people, when there was money about, are they going to leave and retire? Hopefully they’ll volunteer and come back and still work within communities, but are we potentially going to lose some of those skills and how do we make sure that knowledge gets transferred?

Welfare reform, another huge policy and the impact of welfare reform within our local communities and the tasks it is putting on people, the different nature of tasks that people have to navigate in order to get money, and possibly signing up for things they don’t understand. I was thinking about the conditionality agreements as well that people sign, and maybe don’t realise what they’re agreeing to which we see more and more. When I was looking at this research, this is from 2003 but I thought it was quite good, one of the guys I spoke to he was an 18 year-old male and I was just asking about where might he come up against those occasional difficulties, those challenging daily activities and he said to me all the times he didn’t like: “When I get a letter from the social that really hurts me, I don’t understand the lingo of the social”. It is still so relevant. But that’s having a major impact on people in their communities. Is there going to be money? It’s good to see there is still work going on despite the cuts and austerity and what’s happening.

I put ‘Research’ there because I thought I really want to know now. I know a little bit and a little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing. Now I want to know more. What does the future of literacies in Scotland look like? I’m making that mission amongst other things over the next wee while to look at that in more detail and speak to people. So if anybody is interested in being involved in that or speaking to me some more that would be great. Come and see me at some point during the day and we can have a wee chat about that. And the other thing, that is what literacies is about and keeping that in mind, that it is about connection, it is about belonging, it’s about navigating your way around the world you live in and it’s about your voice. Thanks.


These resources have been archived at the Ragged University.working with Sarah Galloway who works from the University of Stirling the coordinator and curator of the archive. You can find videos, audio recordings and transcripts of the other presentations via the page below: