The European Year of Lifelong Learning was launched in the UK this week. Hilary Steedman reports on a lecturers' fact-finding mission to Sweden which tops the adult literacy league using methods discarded in Britain.
Sweden has climbed to the top of the league of industrialised nations for the standards of adult literacy. Levels of excellence have been achieved without the bureaucracy imposed on British colleges and with far more professional independence for lecturers.
A study showing how well the adult populations of seven industrialised nations can read, do maths and process information has recently been published, adding weight to this view.
Two groups which regularly monitor performance - the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and Statistics Canada - jointly devised new scales for measuring literacy skills. They then tested and interviewed adults aged from 16 to 65 to show how each country ranked on these vital skills.
Sweden came ahead of the United States, Canada, Germany, Switzerland, Poland, and The Netherlands with the smallest number of adults at the lowest literacy level and the largest number at the two highest levels. The UK is not included as it joined the study late.
Although education 16 to 19 is only one factor contributing to a high standard of adult literacy it still plays a vital role in ensuring a "platform for further learning" which allows individuals to benefit from education and training in adult life.
Before the OECD report was published - and independent of it - a group of further education and sixth-form college lecturers joined me on a study of upper-secondary schools (catering for the post 16 age group) in Stockholm. They were all experienced teachers on national vocational qualification and general national vocational qualification courses and were concerned about the teaching of core skills (particularly literacy and numeracy), how to meet the needs of weakest students and the need for alternative ways of assessing students on vocational courses.
Sweden has enrolled almost all its 16 and 17-year-olds on full-time vocational or academic courses for more than two decades and most have completed their courses successfully. It was likely, therefore, that the country would have developed strategies to cope with challenges of mass enrolment at 16 to 19 which are relatively new in England.
Sweden has demanded key changes in its upper secondary schools. All two-year vocational courses have been extended to three years, a more rigorous system of assessment has been introduced and core skills (Swedish and maths) reinforced.
Despite the recent changes, we found Swedish teachers working within a well-tried framework. Vocational specialists had close contact with other professionals in their field, in local companies or through national organisations.
Teachers were entrusted with assessing standards reached by students in practical and vocational elements. There was little external moderation and standards tended to be strongly influenced by what local employers demanded.
Our group found Swedish teachers relaxed and confident in class and saw no signs of the onerous paperwork or record-keeping of their UK counterparts.
Core skills, Swedish and mathematics and a foreign language (English) were prominent in all courses available to the 16-19 age group. One aim of recent reforms was to increase the time spent on them following employer demands for greater proficiency, particularly in foreign languages.
Specialist teachers used "traditional" methods to teach core skills but with individual attention when required. The approach impressed our group, several of whom found the Swedish students' English language skills were superior to those of their own students for whom English was not a first language.
Our group was surprised and impressed by the importance the students gave to learning Swedish, maths and English. Some valued such teaching for their own development, others recognised that jobs depended on good basic skills.
Unlike in the UK, core skills are assessed with greater reference to national standards than to the vocational elements of the courses. National tests are taken by all students in all core skills areas and results on this test count towards the final mark. The tests are also to guide teachers on the standards to expect from students. Swedish teachers helped develop the tests. This form of external standard setting caused them few problems and little paperwork.
Two members of our group with responsibility in their colleges for students on GNVQ foundation courses found the Swedish much better served. The teachers ran remedial programmes to help weak school-leavers on to a mainstream vocational courses or into work. They had greater freedom than in the UK to tailor courses to individuals and include more practical and trade work to give them skills for the job market.
This is not as easy in the UK's foundation GNVQ which is slavishly modelled on our higher intermediate and advanced levels. These create rigid courses and assessment styles which do little to develop the English students at this level.
Our Swedish experience showed us a successful system providing for almost all 16 to 19-year-olds. We saw a system which devotes a greater proportion of the national wealth to providing education to young people and to adults than does the UK. We saw a lighter assessment system that still ensured teachers were aware of how their students performed in comparison to national standards. We saw core skills successfully taught by specialist teachers to students on vocational programmes.
Finally, we saw young people confident in their ability and happy to talk to us in our own language - and that was perhaps the most eloquent finding of all.
Hilary Steedman is senior research fellow, Centre for Economic Performance, London School of Economics and Political Science.