The State of Adult Literacy in Canada – an overview

On June 13, 2015, I had the pleasure of joining Suzanne Smythe, Simon Fraser University,  Isabelle Salesse, Réseau pour le développement de l’alphabétisme et des compétences (RESDAC), and Linda Shohet, Centre for Literacy, on a panel at the 9th World Assembly of the International Council of Adult Education in Montreal. We were able to share our experiences from the national level with particular attention paid to the situation of francophones outside Quebec, national literacy organizations and literacy practice and policy in BC. I must thank my co-presenters for ensuring that we had a fully bilingual presentation with a special thanks to Isabelle for taking on the role of summarizing my presentation in French, merci Isabelle.

Below are the notes for my presentation. I offer them as a sketch of how I see the state of adult education in Canada.

“State of Adult Literacy in Canada” Workshop – Notes for presentation by Brigid Hayes

My presentation will provide a national overview about where things are at regarding adult literacy in Canada. It fits nicely within the theme of this conference – the right to education and lifelong learning, of which we have neither in this country.

How adult literacy is organized or disorganized in this country:

While education is a provincial responsibility, it has always been a little murky about the status of “adult” education. Over time, policies have vacillated between adult education and adult training that leads to different answers as to who is responsible.

Primarily, provinces and territories are responsible for the delivery of adult education and literacy and they do that in various ways. Each province and territory follows a different definition of literacy, but they can be grouped in certain categories. Some provinces and territories rely on an Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) definition, which is a very expansive definition about what you need to participate in everyday society. Other definitions are narrower in terms of learning to read, about reading and writing.

In Canada, there are not very many people who cannot read at all. However, what we have a challenge with in this country is with people who do not read well enough to manage in everyday society and in a rapidly changing society.

The main delivery providers across the country and again it varies, there are 13 jurisdictions and 13 different ways they do this, are the community organizations which provide most of the training at the lower levels of literacy. Their work is still seen a charitable, is primarily done by volunteers and absolutely underfunded. Community colleges play at large role. They often work at the adult upgrading level, which is called various things across the country. These are learners who have been out of school for some time or who do not have the credits or learning necessary to enter directly into community college. Across the country, school boards also deliver literacy programming.

In terms of outcomes, some provinces and territories have aligned their accountability systems and measurements to the international adult literacy levels, the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) levels. Others align their levels to the nine Essential Skills as defined by Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC). Still other provinces have developed their own benchmarks, for example in Saskatchewan Manitoba. Outcomes are completely different across the country; they are not portable and not transferable, in some cases, even within a province.

The national or federal government trends:

Literacy is the responsibility of the provinces and territories. The role of the federal government has varied or wavered over the years from providing national leadership to being an observer on the sideline which is what I would contend is today’s situation. We do not have a national literacy strategy, we do not have a national literacy focal point in the government any more, and we only have bits and pieces of activity across the federal government.

Up until the late 1980s, the focus was on adult education or basic skills training from a federal point of view. There was a program called Basic Skills Training Development (BSTD), which the federal government ran as a major effort to improve basic skills. In advance of International Literacy Year in 1989, the federal government created the National Literacy Secretariat (NLS) and literacy was very much on the radar screen of the federal government. Its mandate was rooted in the sense of citizenship, participation, on how to ensure that everyone can participate in our society.

As time went on, there was a move away from the sense, ‘we’re doing this because learning and literacy was a good thing to do’ to ‘it has to have a functional purpose’. We start to see in the late 1990s into the early 2000s, a move towards literacy for employability, literacy for work, literacy for a tangible outcome. This was reflected in several moves at the federal level.

First, the NLS became the Office of Literacy and Essential Skills (OLES) and situated in ESDC as one of several workplace support programs. It is not part of anything to do with learning; it is all about how to support work.

The second trend was the transfer to the provinces of responsibility for training of those under Employment Insurance (EI) and those not eligible for EI. The training for those not covered by EI was paid for under the Labour Market Agreement (LMA). Literacy and essential skills were actually named in those 2008 transfers agreements. The provinces and territories were given money for training people with low literacy, for people who had a low level of essential skills and for people who did not have high school diplomas. It was another way for the federal government to step back and get out of the business of literacy.

The third major trend was towards essential skills. These nine skills, of which three are what we would consider the traditional skills of literacy: prose literacy, document literacy and numeracy, were embedded in work: what are the skills need to perform particular tasks. Essential skills became part of the common lingo in the literacy field and linked to the world of work.

Fourth, since 2006, the federal government has been backing away from its literacy commitment. In that year, the federal government ended cost shared projects with the provinces and territories. Since 2006, there has been $77 million unspent by OLES by my calculations. May 2014 saw the end of literacy infrastructure core funding.

Finally, in 2014 we’ve had another major change. The LMAs were replaced by the Canada Job Fund, which no longer places a priority on literacy and essential skills. These funds are for employer driven training. The employer is in the driver’s seat: the employer decides who gets training, what kind of training, when workers get it and how much training they get. There is virtually no role for community groups or for informal learning. Training is encouraged to lead to some form of certification.

Challenges facing the adult education field today, in no particular order:

  • The lack of federal leadership. For example, there is no reference to PIAAC on the ESDC website despite that department’s role as the Canadian lead for this multi-million dollar survey.
  • The continued lack of harmonization across the country. Multiple jurisdictions lead to multiple ways of delivering.
  • The move towards privileging employers. Employers are driving the decisions about training. Within the bureaucracy, officials are often enamored with what business people say as opposed to what the rest of us might say.
  • Separations and silos. ESL is separately administered, as is training for Aboriginal peoples in literacy and essential skills.
  • Increased demands for accountability. The federal government has launched pilots on pay for performance and some social financing experiments.
  • Literacy policy is employment policy.
  • The creation of a major vacuum. In the past year, almost 50% of the national organizations and about 15 – 20% of provincial organizations have closed and the rest are on life support. This means there is no coordination, no resource sharing, no research, no convening capacity at the national level.
  • The CJF recreates an old problem – people who were not eligible for EI training were able to receive training under the LMA. Now we will be back in that situation because there is no longer training for people who are not eligible for EI.

Where do we go from here?

The need to deal with literacy issues in this country remains. Perhaps a few years of fumbling around in this policy domain might lead to innovative solutions, ways and means to create a new sustainable infrastructure within the context of a national policy. However until this happens the forecast is bleak.

We have ended a cycle of literacy policy and programs that lasted a generation. Now is the time to imagine a Literacy 2.0.

About Brigid Hayes

Brigid Hayes has developed an expertise in learning that spans over 30 years as a senior government policy advisor and program manager and partnership developer; director of labour for a national business/labour skills centre and as an independent consultant. Her knowledge of and experience in workplace literacy and learning has contributed to her recognition as an expert in this field, and she has undertaken significant activities to both help promote and enhance literacy and lifelong learning. Brigid works as an independent consultant and expert advisor on learning, literacy, and work. She has successfully developed a strategic planning and policy development practice involving workplace literacy, essential skills, partnership development, research, and evaluation.
This entry was posted in Canada Job Grant, Federal Government and Literacy, International Literacy Surveys, Labour Market Agreements, Literacy and Essential Skills, Office of Literacy and Essential Skills (OLES), PIAAC, Provincial/Territorial Governments and Literacy and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to The State of Adult Literacy in Canada – an overview

  1. yamaskalit says:

    Such timely and well documented information, as always Brigid. The devastation of the field means that there are less of us to bring this message to the forefront at this important election campaign time. Thank you!

  2. Brigid Hayes says:

    My pleasure. I hope you can use this material over the next few weeks.

  3. jayendraj says:

    Such timely and well documented information, as always Brigid. The devastation of the field means that there are less of us to bring this message to the forefront at this important election campaign time. Thank you!

  4. Pingback: The State of Adult Literacy in Canada – an overview | Fifty Five Forever

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