Stakeholders, Gatekeepers and Power desperately seeking students

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Stakeholders, Gatekeepers and Power desperately seeking students

    Lyn Tett and Kathy Maclachlan

    Stakeholders, gatekeepers and power: desperately seeking students’ views in adult literacies research.

    Lyn Tett

    University of Edinburgh, Scotland

    Kathy Maclachlan

    University of Glasgow, Scotland

    Paper presented at the 36th Annual SCUTREA Conference, 4-6 July 2006, Trinity and All Saints College, Leeds


    This paper explores the issues raised through a research project that aimed to ascertain students‟ views of the quality of learning and support that they received in their programmes. The research design was based on gaining the views of around 1000 adult literacy and numeracy (ALN) students participating in programmes in a variety of settings (community, work-place, college) and contexts (one-to-one, group, dedicated, integrated), geographical areas (urban, rural, mixed) and age groups. Gaining access to students who are studying in „roll-on, roll-off‟ type of provision by

    local education providers in multiple settings poses many methodological challenges (see also Hyde, 2005). With thousands of courses in a wide range of locations the most logical place to start to contact students was through providers. However, this required the engagement of students through a set of relationships that were mediated through stakeholders and gatekeepers (tutors, managers and organisers of learning). Over two thousand contacts were made that eventually resulted in 613 people participating in the research, a response rate of only 28%. The paper explores the reasons for this low response through an examination of the power of stakeholders and gatekeepers in mediating access to students and the culture/voice interrelationships that were revealed during the process. First however, it will examine issues of power in adult education.

    Power relationships in adult education

    Neither adult education in general, nor literacies learning in particular, operate in a politically neutral vacuum, cushioned from the social and economic struggles for power that are enacted in and around the contexts in which the learning is located. Cervero and Wilson (2001: 11) maintain that this „requires us to recognise that adult learners exist in the structurally defined hierarchies of everyday life …Thus they enter this process marked by their location within larger systems of power and privilege that have shaped their experience‟.

    A body of literature that focuses specifically on power and learning in adulthood (Brookfield, 2001, 2005, Campbell 1996, Edwards 1991, Foucault 1980, 1982, hooks 1998, Luttrell, 1996) critiques unequal tutor/learner relationships largely through pedagogical and epistemological lenses. It maintains that social and institutional structures locate teachers in defined hierarchical positions that axiomatically endow them with power over „their‟ students. Drawing from the work of Foucault, Brookfield

    (2005) argues that regardless of intent, progressive pedagogies, or emancipatory ideologies, power is omnipresent, whether we choose to use, abuse or share it with our students, and whether is externally imposed or internally regulated through

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    surveillance and self discipline. Quoting from Foucault, he states that; „power is already there [in society and in adult education], that one is never „outside‟ it ….The omnipresence of power means we have to accept that all of us, at all times, are implicated in its workings. We must accept that “power is co-extensive with the

    social body; there are no spaces of primal liberty between the meshes of its network”.‟ (Brookfield 2005: 130) As the „social body‟ constructs people/power

    hierarchies, so it also constructs knowledge/power hierarchies where certain codified knowledges are deemed more valuable than others. So the teacher, as both a person in the structural hierarchy and as a holder of valued knowledge, is the cultural embodiment of the confluence of the two manifestations of power. S/he is therefore in a position of great power.

    The power relationships that pervade all adult education are especially pervasive in ALN contexts because the dominant discourses surrounding ALN are constructed on a deficit model of ALN students. This places them in a particularly subordinate position in the tutor/learner relationship because it defines them by what they lack in relation to arbitrary defined norms of acceptable literacies skills, and this construction of students as people who are lacking ultimately prevents their voices being heard in the public world, as the response rates to our research exemplify.

    Despite the growing recognition of the New Literacy Studies and the concept of situated literacies, traditional constructs of ALN teaching still frame it as the acquisition of a body of standardised reading, writing and mathematical skills that can be formally assessed and compared within and between nations. The International Adult Literacy Survey (IALS) for example posits that around 23% of the Scottish population have low (ALN) skills and that „another 30% may find their skills inadequate to meet the demands of the „knowledge society‟ and the „information age‟ (Scottish Executive 2001, p 8). Equivalent figures were produced for England and other participating countries that have spurred governments into channelling funds into literacy teaching aimed at remedying these „deficiencies‟ and meeting pre-set

    targets for minimum levels of literacy competence. Behind these literacy initiatives lie a set of ideological assumptions that are germane to this paper. They are:

    ; That the statistics provide an accurate account of people‟s literacies in use

    ; That formalised teaching will automatically improve ALN competencies in life

    ; That increases in formally assessed levels of literacy will enhance national

    economic prosperity

    ; That responsibility for rectifying the problem of low literacy lies with the poorly

    literate individual.

    The synergistic effect of these unspoken but powerful assumptions positions literacies students as not only less than complete human beings, but also as people whose deficiencies have a direct and adverse impact on the national good and who therefore pose a problem for the literate „others‟. A front-page article in an American

    banking journal proclaimed, „Our high level of illiteracy is more than a sad set of statistics. It is the Achilles heel of our continued prosperity (RBC Centura Bank 2003)

    (emphasis added). Such messages are internalised by those who are deemed to be wanting. „It shapes how they think about themselves and how they act in the world‟ (Soroke 2004: 44). As Charlesworth, (2000, 243-4) argues:

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    Being told that one is not clever is like being told that one is fat or ugly; it is not something about which one can achieve indifference because it is likely to play a deciding role in one‟s destiny, particularly in the possibility of a worthwhile life and happiness. Thus we end up with people defined … as „useless‟, unable, stupid; lacking in the dignities given to the privileged

    Thus literacies students enter the learning situation not as equal adults, but as marked unequals that are positioned in the power hierarchies even lower than the „normal‟ adult learner. Add to this the negative experiences of education endured by many literacies students throughout their schooling (Maclachlan & Tett 2005), and the whole produces an exceptionally „lopsided‟ balance of power in ALN contexts.

    Desperately seeking students’ views

    Thus far, the discussion has centred on power relationships within teaching and

    learning, however our research shows that this power also pervades relationships outside the „classroom‟. In this context our research was unusual because it focused on gaining literacies students‟ views about their experiences of learning. Doing this, however, presented many methodological challenges in gaining access them in order to enable students‟ voices to be heard. At the start of the research, collaboration was secured, in principle at least, from the senior manager in the nine geographical areas we selected for our fieldwork. They in turn devolved authority to the 10 -12 people in each area who were responsible for specific geographical sub-areas or institutions to secure agreement for us to contact students. Negotiating with senior managers within educational institutions and areas was important to ensure that the necessary permissions were in place but in reality it was the „ground level‟ tutors who were interfacing with students and who were ultimately the people that we needed to contact. ALN tutors are amongst the most over-stretched group of educational providers who often are on hourly-paid contracts with little access to staff development (see Tett et al, 2006). In the past, much ALN teaching occurred in one-to-one contexts because students did not want, or were assumed not to want, their shame and stigma to be made public. Tutors were predominantly middle class female volunteers, and Luttrell (2000) claimed that the combination of both produced exceptionally „lopsided‟ relationships between tutors and students. Soroke (2004) maintains that „the roots of [this] imbalance stem from the care-giving approach in

    adult literacy education …[and]… assumptions about the fragility of adults with low

    literacy‟ (p 51) which position tutors in a maternally protective role in relation to their students. In the end over two thousand contacts were made with tutors to seek permission to interview students and this eventually resulted in 613 students agreeing to participate in the research. This low response rate of 28% was predominantly caused by lack of access to students since only 10% did not wish to participate when the project was explained directly to them.

    It appears that managers and tutors exercised, albeit unwittingly, anti-democratic power over students thus denying them a public voice, partly because the discourses surrounding literacy and „illiteracy‟ outlined above infuse additional dimensions of power into existing hierarchical relationships. Furthermore, like any hegemonic relationship, this power is naturalised and unrecognised. Bourdieu (1990: 131) argues that „agents, even the most disadvantaged, tend to perceive the world as natural and to find it surprisingly acceptable, especially when one looks at the situation of the dominated through the eyes of the dominant‟. The „natural‟ attitudes of managers and tutors prevented students from participating in research about ALN

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    practices because many dominant „agents‟ had incorporated the discourse of deficit that pervades literacies practices. Moreover, the discourse of maternal protectionism blocked our access to some students because their tutors were protecting these „vulnerable‟ people from what they perceived as the harsh scrutiny of the external


    In order to illustrate this, here are some tutors‟ comments on why they did not think it appropriate for „their‟ learners to participate. „My learners‟ have learning difficulties

    and can‟t answer your questions‟ (emphasis added). „People in this course are very vulnerable and the research would disturb them‟. „This group doesn‟t like strangers coming in to it‟. „It‟s taken a long time to develop a relationship with [name of student] and I don‟t want an outsider coming in and upsetting her‟. „I don‟t think our learners are capable of understanding these kinds of questions‟. „These young people have enough problems without you adding to them by asking questions‟. „I asked my

    learners if they wanted to be involved on the research and they said that they didn‟t‟

    (emphasis added). „I can‟t guarantee that [name of student] will be here as he has lots of problems and doesn‟t turn up to our sessions that regularly‟.

    These responses show how dominant this discourse of maternal protectionism is and how pervasive is the emphasis on learner deficits, rather than strengths. The final quote also illustrates another area of difficulty in finding and accessing students that may attend sporadically. In the quote the emphasis is on the behaviour of the individual student but we also found there were institutional problems in relation to where students were located that show how low this kind of provision is in the hierarchy of groups especially in further education settings. For example, one further education college allocated a different room each week to one group of ALN students at the last minute so often the tutor had to try to find the room and the students before she could start her class. This meant that student interviews with this group never took place because the researcher couldn‟t find them! Another issue was that a number of learners did not recognise themselves as ALN students because they were enrolled on vocational courses such as brick-laying and were having „additional

    support‟ for literacy or numeracy. Again organisers of this type of integrated literacies provision were reluctant to tell students that they were engaged in literacies provision because they saw it as a problematic label for learners. For example one college

    manager suggested „these boys see themselves as bricklayers and that‟s positive. We don‟t want them to see themselves as not being able to read because it‟s so negative‟. Another, from a different college, said „literacy and numeracy support is

    available on a drop-in basis but we don‟t call it that as students wouldn‟t come‟. Again these quotes illustrate the deficit discourse surrounding literacies provision and show how it has been incorporated into their thinking by managers, tutors and students.

    Hearing student voices

    So far we have shown how difficulties in access to students‟ voices have been caused by deficit discourses and power imbalances in relationships within and outside of the classroom. However over six hundred students did participate and this final section focuses on how we managed to overcome some of the gate-keeping tactics and what learners said about the benefits of being listened to. Faced with difficulties in contacting students through tutors we tried an alternative method of getting managers to provide the venues and times of classes so that

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    interviewers could go directly to students, explain about the research and ask them if they wished to participate. This process took a long time as records of tuition were often inaccurate and finding classes, even when they were confirmed as being in a particular building, was sometimes impossible. It also involved the project administrator in endless contacts with a wide range of people including administrators at institutions who had the necessary information but seemed unwilling to divulge it. When interviewers could talk directly to students, explain what the research involved, and make sure that students understood that taking part was optional and would not affect their tuition, almost 90% participated. This is a strong contrast to the 28% who consented overall and illustrates the role that stakeholders and gatekeepers of all sorts played in mediating access.

    Our persistence paid off however, as students were very positive about being able to tell their stories to interviewers as the following representative quotes taken from the interviewers‟ notes demonstrate. „No-one has really wanted to hear what I had to

    say before‟. „I‟m glad you want to hear my story about my life. I want to become

    something now - before I just thought I was a nobody‟. „I want the world to know that

    these classes are great so thanks for letting me tell you about them‟. „I know that lots of people who can‟t read and write very well try to hide it but I want them to know that

    you can do it. I did it‟. „I don‟t need to hide my literacy problem any more so I‟m happy to talk to you about it. I thought it would be like school but it isn‟t so everyone should know that.‟ A few students had less positive things to say about their tuition.

    „It was difficult to say there were things I didn‟t like about my class to my tutor because she is so kind to me so I‟m glad I could tell you‟. „I want to tell you how bad things are here we have the worst classrooms and the worst tutors because

    everybody thinks we‟re crap‟. This last view was unusually negative but both these quotes illustrate that ALN students may have few opportunities to express dissatisfaction with the provision within this dominant discourse of individual deficits that are owned by individual students and not seen as part of wider structural problems.


    A very broad range of providers delivers ALN learning in Scotland. They include, for example, organizations providing support for the homeless, for recovering addicts, for parents in schools and for the travelers‟ community. Literacies learning can also be found integrated into, for example, the work of health groups, women‟s groups, drama groups, workplaces and community based issue groups as well as vocational courses in further education colleges. In these learning contexts, the literacies learning arises directly out of, and connects specifically with, the issues that the groups are exploring. It is therefore embedded in real life situations that have relevance and importance to the learner. We know that the literacy process itself, and the wider cultural action for freedom born in the context of learning to read and write (see Freire, 1972), need to reflect the values of equality and activity if tutors are to be part of a radical tradition rather than a conservative force preventing change. Freire (op cit) talks of reading the world in reading the word and sees such literacy learning as enabling adults to learn, not their place in society, but about their place in society so that they may collectively act to change it for the better. The comments of

    some of the students who participated in this research show that in a climate where a diversity of literacies learning and learning contexts are actively encouraged, and student‟s views are listened to and acted upon, students do begin to recognise their

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    personal worth and power, and its impact in the wider world. However, critical, radical adult learning extends beyond the parameters of individual change. It is a collective process whereby people who begin to see themselves differently as individuals, also question together the asymmetrical power relationships that have marginalized them and their practices, and act to change them.

    The students‟ comments show that they had changed through participating in learning, but the change process was essentially individualised, and almost entirely devoid of the critical. One learner‟s quote illustrates this clearly, and echoes of it

    were evident in the comments of many others who were interviewed. This learner had improved in skills, in confidence and in self-esteem and no longer felt the need to hide what she called „my literacy problem‟ (emphasis added). However the

    problem was still internalised as hers, and though learning had enabled her as an individual to move beyond the deficit image that she had constructed of herself, it had not enabled her to challenge the fundamental legitimacy of this construction in the first place. Furthermore, there was no evidence of such critique in any of the interviews. The personal had not been connected to the political or the collective. This presents a challenge for literacies learning in Scotland where old habits of thinking of students as deficient die hard despite an ideological commitment to a „social practices‟ approach (Scottish Executive: Learning Connections, 2005) to learning. Perhaps hearing the student voices at the heart of it all will challenge some of these deficit discourses and shift the power practices of stakeholders and gate-keepers, assuming, that is, that students can be accessed in the first place!


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