David Archer

In preparation for CONFINTEA VI, the ICAE has set up a forum for exchange of views on its website, www.icae.org.uy . This aim of this virtual debate is “to start reflecting on the concept of benchmarks, challenges, limitations and expectations; to take into account the already existing experience based on the elaboration of benchmarks for other issues; and to make proposals and suggestions, specifically on adult education, supporting the CONFINTEA VI preparatory process.” We print here the contribution by David Archer of ActionAid. All contributions to the virtual forum can be found at the ICAE website www.icae.org.uy

The Process of Developing and Using the International Benchmarks on Adult Literacy

In 2004/2005 the Global Campaign for Education (GCE) decided to conduct a survey of good quality adult literacy programmes in order to produce a credible set of benchmarks on adult literacy that could be used internationally. This process was timed to coincide with the EFA Global Monitoring Report on adult literacy and we secured funding from UNESCO to do the work. The idea came from the EFA Fast Track Initiative (FTI) indicative framework and benchmarks which had proved influential on donors to education but which only focused on primary schooling. We wanted to do the same for adult literacy and also specifically to help the GCE develop positions on adult literacy five years on from Dakar when many people felt that GCE had followed the donors in being overly focused on primary schooling.

There were four key moments in the process of developing the benchmarks:

  1. In November 2004 about 100 key informants from government, donors, NGOs and academia identified good quality adult literacy programmes around the world – specifically programmes that target over-15 year olds.
  2. These named programmes were then asked to complete a detailed survey to give us insight into the approaches they used and the challenges they faced. We received responses from 67 adult literacy programmes across 35 countries, between them reaching over 4 million learners.
  3. A group of 10 “experts” then met in a workshop in London to analyse the outcomes and draw up a list of proposed benchmarks.
  4. These benchmarks were then circulated to all respondents for verification and comment. Final revisions were then made to the benchmarks based on the feedback from 142 respondents in 47 countries. Respondents came from countries as diverse as China, Brazil, Peru, Guatemala, Nigeria, Ghana, Namibia and Ireland. They represented a wide range of key people in multilateral and bilateral agencies, international NGOs, national NGOs, social movements and academics.

The result was a set of 12 simple benchmarks (see appendix). These were designed to help governments who are committed to developing adult literacy programmes. They did not themselves aim to convert or convince sceptics although we hoped that the case for investing in adult literacy came through. Rather, they aimed to provide a framework for policy debate. They touched concisely on critical issues that need to be considered in designing an effective adult literacy programme. We thought the benchmarks might also be used as a checklist against which a government or donor might ask questions about an existing or new programme.

We were very clear that we did not expect the benchmarks to be used as a set of conditions to be imposed on programmes.

“They should not be used to constrain or limit programmes. There may be contextual factors that justify deviation from these benchmarks. Our intention would be to ensure that such contextual factors are manifested clearly in a dialogue that uses these benchmarks as the starting point. The benchmarks are not an end-point in themselves. This is particularly important in the context of a sector like adult literacy where flexibility is often key and standardisation can be a problem. It is this very fear that has perhaps prevented this sort of exercise from being conducted before.”

The benchmarks were published in a GCE report, “Writing the Wrongs” in which the process was explained in full and the rationale behind each benchmark was articulated, using statistics from the survey, examples and quotes from respondents. The EFA Global Monitoring Report (GMR) included the GCE benchmarks though we felt they were somewhat lost within such a vast publication. There was a clear contrast between the GMR and the GCE report. The GMR was undoubtedly a comprehensive analysis of the adult literacy sector but was not a document that would realistically be read by any policy makers or practitioners … it was not user friendly. The GCE report was short and the benchmarks laid out on a single page could be used in practice to stimulate debate and reflection.

Writing the Wrongs was published initially in English and later in French and Spanish, in each case being accompanied by a simple poster that displayed the benchmarks. These were distributed widely. Through the national education coalitions affiliated to GCE the benchmarks were launched in about 20 countries on International Literacy Day 2006. 

However, there are limits to how far any material, even simple benchmarks, can be internalised by Ministries of Education without some continued pressure. For this reason we organised a major international workshop on the benchmarks in Abuja in February 2007. In preparation new research was commissioned from Vietnam and Tanzania, analysing the national literacy programmes in the context of the benchmarks and showing how they could be used in practice.

60 participants from 24 countries came to the Abuja workshop including Ministers of Education, Permanent Secretaries, Directors and Managers of National Literacy Programmes, United Nations officials, donors and civil society organisations. After four days the participants were all fully committed to “writing the wrongs” in the field of adult literacy. They issued a call for action at national and international levels. Nationally they called for new literacy surveys to reveal the scale of the literacy challenge; national dossiers to show evidence on the benefits of literacy; new national dialogue on literacy policies and practices using the international benchmarks, and the inclusion of adult literacy in education sector plans, especially those submitted to the Fast Track Initiative. They made specific calls for action from UNESCO, the World Bank, FTI, the IMF, donors and others.

The Abuja participants are now committed to following up the Abuja workshop, maintaining pressure at all levels. This has all helped to cement the benchmarks in international and national discourse. Inputs on the benchmarks are being made at major international meetings including the regional Ministerial meetings convened by the UN Literacy Decade. Much more remains to be done but it is clear that the benchmarks have helped to re-galvanise dialogue on adult literacy in many contexts where there has been little interest for many years. And we are seeing new money on the table. In May 2007, the FTI endorsed a sector wide education plan for Benin: the first plan that they have ever endorsed which includes a significant investment in adult literacy. We are now promoting the message to all countries developing sector plans for FTI endorsement that adult literacy can and should be included. At last we might see a reversal in the decades of underinvestment in adult literacy and a recognition of the pivotal role that adult literacy plays in human development.

Appendix: The Benchmarks

The benchmarks that are set out below are designed to facilitate a more rigorous policy debate about literacy, especially with governments, funding agencies and practitioners. They have been developed by experts in adult literacy from around the world and are based on responses to a global survey of effective adult literacy programmes.

  1. Literacy is about the acquisition and use of reading, writing and numeracy skills, and thereby the development of active citizenship, improved health and livelihoods, and gender equality. The goals of literacy programmes should reflect this understanding.
  2. Literacy should be seen as a continuous process that requires sustained learning and application. There are no magic lines to cross from illiteracy into literacy. All policies and programmes should be defined to encourage sustained participation and celebrate progressive achievement rather than focusing on one-off provision with a single end point.
  3. Governments have the lead responsibility in meeting the right to adult literacy and in providing leadership, policy frameworks, an enabling environment and resources. They should:

    • ensure cooperation across all relevant ministries and linkages to all relevant development programmes,
    • work in systematic collaboration with experienced civil society organisations,
    • ensure linkages between all these agencies, especially at the local level, and
    • ensure relevance to the issues in learners’ lives by promoting the decentralisation of budgets and of decision-making over curriculum, methods and materials.

  4. It is important to invest in ongoing feedback and evaluation mechanisms, data systematization and strategic research. The focus of evaluations should be on the practical application of what has been learnt and the impact on active citizenship, improved health and livelihoods, and gender equality.
  5. To retain facilitators it is important that they should be paid at least the equivalent of the minimum wage of a primary school teacher for all hours worked (including time for training, preparation and follow-up).
  6. Facilitators should be local people who receive substantial initial training and regular refresher training, as well as having ongoing opportunities for exchanges with other facilitators. Governments should put in place a framework for the professional development of the adult literacy sector, including for trainers/supervisors – with full opportunities for facilitators across the country to access this (e.g. through distance education).
  7. There should be a ratio of at least one facilitator to 30 learners and at least one trainer/supervisor to 15 learner groups (1 to 10 in remote areas), ensuring a minimum of one support visit per month. Programmes should have timetables that flexibly respond to the daily lives of learners but which provide for regular and sustained contact (e.g. twice a week for at least two years).
  8. In multilingual contexts it is important at all stages that learners should be given an active choice about the language in which they learn. Active efforts should be made to encourage and sustain bilingual learning.
  9. A wide range of participatory methods should be used in the learning process to ensure active engagement of learners and relevance to their lives. These same participatory methods and processes should be used at all levels of training of trainers and facilitators.
  10. Governments should take responsibility to stimulate the market for production and distribution of a wide variety of materials suitable for new readers, for example working with publishers/ newspaper producers. They should balance this with funding for local production of materials, especially by learners, facilitators and trainers.
  11. A good quality literacy programme that respects all these benchmarks is likely to cost between US$50 and US$100 per learner per year for at least three years (two years initial learning + ensuring further learning opportunities are available for all).