Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences

AUAS researchers slate approach to illiteracy

31 Jul 2019 14:37 | Communication

The Social and Economic Council (SER) is calling for a more intensive fight against functional illiteracy. However, according to Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences (AUAS) researchers Krispijn Faddegon and Eelco van Wijk, the recommendations will have little effect, because they are mainly based on administrative considerations. The approach to functional illiteracy can only be effective if it ties in with what the functionally illiterate want themselves.

The SER recommends greater access to language courses, especially for those who “experience the greatest problems and who can be helped quickly and effectively.” While this is a good ambition, the Council advocates a great many measures in order to achieve it: more national management, more cooperation between municipalities, employers, civil society organisations and the education sector, and more cooperation with parties involved in poverty reduction, care and housing. And more financial resources need to be made available to achieve all of this.

More isn’t necessarily better

In effect, the Council is in favour of largely continuing the existing policy, but with better implementation and the use of far more resources. Although most of the recommendations are sympathetic in themselves and it is difficult to object to them, the question is whether they are feasible. Can national management go hand in hand with a local, tailor-made approach to illiteracy?

Promoting the connection between adjacent domains and cooperation between those directly involved also sounds wonderful, but doesn’t this create all kinds of administrative coordination problems, which will then take over? (see also Bannink and Bosselaar*). Doesn’t this put illiteracy at risk of becoming an administrative problem rather than a problem for the functionally illiterate themselves?

Furthermore, how does this super-integrated approach relate to the equally recognised need to act quickly? Does an effective approach actually require more of the same or rather a fundamental reorientation based on the experiences of the functional illiterate?

The fact that the report talks about ‘combating’ illiteracy and ‘identifying’ functionally illiterate people speaks volumes. That is language we are more accustomed to seeing in the judicial domain. According to the SER, the functionally illiterate may “be expected to cooperate in learning or enhancing their basic skills.” Does the Council mean by this that working on linguistic qualities is a social obligation?

Intangible motives are also involved, but not sufficiently acknowledged by the SER

AUAS researchers recently interviewed functionally illiterate people in order to gain insight into the benefits of the language programmes they had followed and the obstacles they had to overcome.**  This shows that people often have to overcome a lot of shame to admit to themselves that they have difficulty reading and writing, and that it takes courage to enrol in a language course. This is especially true for functionally illiterate people of native Dutch heritage, who form the largest group in the Netherlands in absolute numbers.

Recent research commissioned by the Academie van de Stad (‘Academy of the City’) and the City of Amsterdam also underlines the fact that it is often difficult for native Dutch people to recognise that they are functionally illiterate and have a problem at all***. Let alone that they want to work on improving their language skills, as the SER evidently expects, or even almost demands.

Perhaps even more important is the fact that the interviewees appear to have mainly intangible motives – such as self-reliance or more social contacts – for attending a language course and that the benefits for them are mainly in improved psychological wellbeing rather than in finding a employment or a better paid job.

Although the SER does mention of these motives indirectly, it does not take sufficient account of the difficulty of educating people who do not acknowledge a need for education, or those who want to learn in order to improve their psychological wellbeing, and not primarily to increase their labour productivity. This is more than a matter of ‘identifying and combating’; with such an image there is a risk that the supply of programmes will be separated from the needs of the functionally illiterate themselves.

Reorientation of policy needed

The SER's approach and the choice of words in the report reveal a largely administrative and economic view of illiteracy. Exaggerated somewhat, it seems that the Council sees illiteracy primarily as an obstacle to economic growth. By doing this, the Council risks branding 2.5 million functionally illiterate people in the Netherlands as a problem. And then it is just a matter of time before they are stigmatised.

Instead of ‘more of everything’, a reorientation of policy is needed, based on the experiences and the needs of the functionally illiterate. In other words, the policy should focus much more on the needs of the functionally illiterate, and this should be done before setting up a new, large national supply of programmes. We need to understand what motivates the functionally illiterate in order to determine whether language courses are needed and what types of programmes are suitable for this.

An approach that ignores the experiences of the functionally illiterate and remains focused on a supply that is not geared to the demand will inevitably be met with resistance from functionally illiterate people who feel they are not sufficiently recognised. On the other hand, a policy that takes into account the needs and aspirations of the functionally illiterate will benefit not only those concerned but also the economy and labour productivity.

Krispijn Faddegon and Eelco van Wijk are both senior researchers and lecturers in the Management van Cultuurverandering research group and the interdisciplinary Urban Management research group of the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences. Read their recently published article here (in Dutch).

Foto: tup wanders (Flickr Creative Commons)