Interview with David Mallows, National Research and Development Centre for Adult Literacy and Numeracy
What is your team’s responsibility in ELINET?
Team Adults is responsible for all things adult and for ensuring that adults have a place and a voice within ELINET. Adult literacy is often viewed as the Cinderella of the education world, poorly resourced, unloved and hidden from sight. Now, with ELINET we have been invited to the ball and we are going to make the most of it.
We are currently working on country reports that describe the literacy performance and policy of ELINET member countries and will soon move on to defining and describing good policy practice. Above all we want to engage as many policy actors as possible and influence their thinking and the policy they produce, whether that is on a trans-national, national or local level.
What do you hope to achieve with the network?
I would like ELINET to become a network, owned by its members, that facilitates the exchange of good practice and acts as a forum for informed discussion of literacy policy. Such a network would encourage policymakers to take a lifelong and lifewide approach to literacy. Conceptual shifts can have a major impact on the direction of policy. If is to be successful, it will need to coordinate and deploy the wealth of expertise, experience and connections of its members and engage a far wider group in informed discussion.
What are the main challenges?
There are many, but I will highlight just one. There is a great deal of ignorance among policymakers about what adult literacy is and the impact that it can have on individuals, families, communities and societies. Policymakers’ understanding is often informed by a binary view of literacy with the result that they think their purpose is to defeat the ugly spectre of illiteracy with a wave of their mighty policy sword, rather than to develop systems to support adults to develop their skills throughout their lives as the demands on them shift in response to changes in their lives, their workplaces and the communities they live in. Getting policymakers to understand that literacy is a continuum and to see adult education as a permanent part of the education system, rather than as a temporary battle to be won, is certainly a challenge for ELINET.
How can those obstacles be overcome?
By engaging policymakers in discussion, presenting them with compelling evidence, and helping them to see beyond the current status quo. We need to imagine for them practical and achievable ways to change their system, that are sensitive to local contexts, recognise the real needs of adults, and don’t cost a fortune. It will be a long process, but all of the ELINET team 4 members are actively engaged in influencing policy in their countries and so we have a great deal of expertise to draw on.
Personally, how did you become interested in literacy work?
I have worked in adult education all of my professional life. My background is as a language teacher – I taught English in Spain, Brazil, France and Switzerland before beginning work in England as a teacher of English to migrants and refugees in a large college in London. Later I developed and ran community education projects, again with migrants and refugees, before moving to National Research and Development Centre for Adult Literacy and Numeracy (NRDC) in 2004, where I became very interested in adult literacy – particularly research, but also teacher education. As well as directing NRDC’s research activity, I teach on an initial teacher training programme for ESOL and Literacy teachers and an MA in Adult Literacy, Language and Numeracy.