A new social capital paradigm for adult literacy: Partnerships, policy and pedagogy

By Jo Balatti, Stephen Black, Ian Falk Research report 7 October 2009 ISBN 978 1 921413 42 1 print; 978 1 921413 32 2 web


The primary purpose of this project is to produce a set of guidelines on how to deliver adult literacy and numeracy education and training using a social capital approach. Social capital in this project refers to the networks that operate during resourcing, course design, recruitment, teaching and evaluation. The study focused on three specific sectors: health, finance and justice.


About the research

The purpose of this project was to produce guidelines on how to deliver adult literacy and numeracy education and training using a social capital approach. In this context, ‘social capital’ refers to the networks that operate during resourcing, course design, recruitment, teaching and evaluation. The study focused on three specific sectors—health, finance and justice. The study found that the numbers and types of networks or partnerships that currently exist between adult literacy and numeracy providers and organisations in these sectors vary considerably. The under-representation of public education and training providers in these partnerships was a consistent feature of the study.

Key messages

The authors argue:

  • A national and collaboratively developed adult literacy and numeracy policy, embracing social inclusion and social capital, is needed, as it is this which underpins the partnerships necessary for delivering effective adult literacy and numeracy education and training. Whole-of-government approaches to adult literacy and numeracy development are therefore more likely to result in effective policy.
  • Effective partnerships require philosophical compatibility and common understandings of goals and indicators of progress.
  • Teaching based on a social capital perspective encourages individual learners to draw on and develop networks that can help improve their learning.
  • In contrast to burgeoning personal financial literacy programs, government promotion of partnership initiatives between adult literacy and numeracy providers and the health and justice sectors is lacking.

Tom Karmel
Managing Director, NCVER


Executive summary

The most recent Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey (ABS 2007) supports findings of the previous survey (ABS 1997), that there are links between low literacy and numeracy skills and social exclusion. At a time when re-engaging Australians who are socially, culturally or economically marginalised is on the political agenda, it is important to develop approaches that increase the availability, access, take-up and outcomes of adult literacy and numeracy education and training. Previous research (Balatti, Black & Falk 2006) has shown that a social capital approach can do this.

The primary purpose of this study was to produce a set of guidelines on how to deliver adult literacy and numeracy education and training using a social capital approach. By a social capital approach we mean ways in which networks are drawn on or created at the various stages of adult literacy and numeracy provision. These ways include resourcing, course design, recruitment, pedagogy and evaluation. No such guidelines currently exist.

This study focused on three key elements of social capital approaches. These were the partnerships involved in the design and delivery of adult literacy and numeracy programs; the policies that influence the kinds of partnerships possible; and the pedagogical practices that teachers use. The first two elements—partnerships and policy—can have an impact on all stages of adult literacy and numeracy delivery, while pedagogy is arguably the most important element and influences the extent to which learners actually achieve social capital outcomes while they are learning.

The methodology used to produce these guidelines was to synthesise understandings of social capital from existing theory and previous research with the findings from research into current practices in the adult literacy and numeracy field. The study confined itself to looking at delivery involving partnerships in the areas of health literacy and personal financial literacy and in the justice sector. As well as a literature review, environmental scans of health literacy in New South Wales, financial literacy in Queensland and literacy and numeracy provision in the justice sector in the Northern Territory were conducted. Pedagogical practices were further investigated through three action research projects, where teachers trialled strategies that could enhance social capital outcomes for learners.

A social capital perspective necessitates conceptualising adult literacy and numeracy education and training as an intervention embedded in wider spheres of activity, including the sociocultural and economic activity of the community in which the training is taking place. It also requires viewing the learner as a member of networks.

The configurations of players that can lead to more outcomes from adult literacy and numeracy programs for both individuals and the community require partnerships at macro, meso and micro organisational levels. The partnerships at the macro level between government departments and peak organisations, for example, produce the policy that supports the efforts at the meso and micro levels. Furthermore, effective partnership configurations require links among levels; for example, policy-makers at the macro level have ongoing consultation with implementers of policy (meso) and the intended beneficiaries of policy (micro). Appropriate partnering across government, industry, community groups and philanthropic organisations has proved to be a means of getting the right sort of provision to the people for whom it is intended. Such partnership arrangements have been termed ‘whole of government’ or ‘linked up’ approaches.

In addition to identifying the structural aspects of partnerships that were revealed by the study to work well, partners should have common understandings of their joint purpose and of how to determine progress. To achieve the common purpose, they bring the appropriate resources in terms of financial, social, cultural and physical capital. They hold compatible philosophical positions vis-a-vis their common purpose and, most importantly, they communicate well.

As far as the teaching is concerned, there are three relevant networks: those with which the learners already interact; the new networks that learners can access as the result of the learning; and the new network that is the learner group itself. The choice of teaching strategies is influenced by two sets of learner-related resources. The first is the knowledge and skills that the learners already have by virtue of their existing memberships of networks. Part of the teacher’s pedagogical skill is: to acknowledge the capital that learners bring to the group; to encourage learners to draw on those resources, when appropriate; and to minimise the influence of irrelevant or negative connections. The second is the new set of resources that learners will acquire through the learning experience, which can change, for the better, the ways they interact in their current networks or which will have them access new and useful networks. This calls for teachers to create a safe and supportive learning environment that maximises the connections between the learning and the real-life context of the learners. The type of social capital outcomes experienced by the learners depends very much on the wider social context in which the learners operate and the connections that the training makes with this wider context.

Policy is the third element described in the guidelines. Policy is often invisible but it underpins the partnerships that produce the networks, which in turn draw on and build social capital. It provides the rules by which the practical strategies are played out. Wallace and Falk’s (2008, pp.200–1) social capital principles for effective policy development and implementation have application in the context of adult literacy and numeracy development. These state that an effective approach depends on an integration of the macro, meso and micro aspects of the intervention. Effective policy requires understanding the dynamics of change at the ‘local’ level, which means engaging the intended recipients. Effective policy also ensures the continuity of resources for as long as the need is present. Finally, policy cycle effectiveness requires availability and responsiveness of an evidence base.

Some key issues found through this study relating particularly to the fields of health and personal financial literacy include the following.

  • Partnerships that bring together funding, expertise and networks, through which target groups can be accessed, and the real-life contexts in which the learning can be applied are evident, especially in personal financial literacy training initiatives. These point to the effectiveness of integrating training into much wider interventions aimed at increasing social inclusion.
  • Much of the activity in the burgeoning fields of personal financial literacy and health literacy is not accredited or specifically related to vocational education and training and is developing largely independent of the traditional adult literacy and numeracy teachers employed by public providers. Teachers in health literacy and personal financial literacy with no specialisation in adult literacy and numeracy do not appear to see their work as involving teaching aspects of literacy and numeracy.
  • Relationships between public education and training providers and organisations engaged in health literacy and personal financial literacy programs at the community level appear to be few. Examples of cross-referrals were rare.

Opportunities exist for creating new, more productive common understandings about adult literacy and numeracy development. The policy-building process needs to embrace and build on existing successful models from inside and outside government and to draw all stakeholders into the national dialogue on the role of adult literacy and numeracy in enabling socially inclusive policies. Initiatives that engage partnerships in substantial ways appear to be most evident in personal financial literacy. In the case of health literacy, currently there are only ad hoc local partnerships undertaken, without any overall direction or policy, and without significant funding or other resources. Could the equivalent of the national Financial Literacy Foundation and the partnerships between government and the financial services industry occur in health literacy? Could the latest Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) health literacy survey (2008) and the recent announcement that Australia is the fattest nation on earth (Stewart et al. 2008) provide the catalyst for action?

Missing from the zone of policy effectiveness at present is a national and collaborative adult literacy and numeracy policy at the macro level. It is important that a uniform national adult literacy and numeracy policy be developed collaboratively, one which embraces social inclusion and social capital at the upper levels of government policy-making, for example, through the Council of Australian Governments (COAG). It is an appropriate response in a political and social climate in which social exclusion is considered unacceptable. The time is right for change.




586.5 KB
684.5 KB

Supporting documents

337.2 KB
263.5 KB
230.3 KB
159.5 KB

Related items

This good practice guide is based on research that looked at how to teach adult literacy and numerac… Show more