FE needed a movement to improve literacy. Now it’s got one

A new collective has set itself the aim of harnessing literacy for social mobility across the curriculum, explains Kirsty Haughton

A new collective has set itself the aim of harnessing literacy for social mobility across the curriculum, explains Kirsty Haughton

19 Sep 2023, 5:00

When I was growing up, my dad struggled to gain skilled employment. The sole reason was functional illiteracy. This was his painful reality and although decades have passed, this is also the painful reality for one in six adults in England today – a whopping 7.1 million people.

I am so proud to say that my dad accessed our local FE college and trained to be an IT professional and is now working for the NHS. Literacy unlocked a brighter future for us, and does for so many others. But we have to do more to make a truly transformative impact.

FE is brimming with people looking to change their stories. If we want to hear our learners tell them, we need to mobilise across our sector to ensure we give them every opportunity. Literacy is so much more than being equipped for the workplace; our learners need literacy for their mental health, for  participating in society and for tucking their children into bed at night.

At Nottingham College, we don’t overlook the desperate need to improve literacy in our city. Ranked eleventh out of 317 districts for deprivation, we know that our literacy levels reflect a population which needs its college to be responsive and collaborative.

We have built a strong partnership with The Literacy Trust, and work to improve vocabulary is beginning. When Read On Nottingham launched their ‘Year of Stories 2023’, we seized the chance to collaborate with other colleges in The Netherlands, Slovenia and Scotland to launch Story Valley, a European, Erasmus+ funded project. The impact on students has been incredible. We saw learners’ self-expression and peer-to-peer relationships thrive.

Now, we are ready for our next steps. Over the past year, I’ve searched for support and found pockets of matched enthusiasm from other FE teachers and leaders, but no real space to bounce ideas and glean insight.

As I connected with FE colleagues from Edinburgh, Manchester and down to Portsmouth, it was clear that there was a literacy-shaped gap in our sector. Literacy advocates were isolated and colleges were crying out for guidance on how to teach disciplinary literacy and build oracy so that our learners could have the voice they need to succeed. 

It was personal. Now it’s political

These teachers and leaders were ready for a movement. We had heard so much about literacy support in the primary and secondary sectors and wondered when it was going to be our turn. There was urgency. Sharing these thoughts with Kayte Haselgrove, an FE enthusiast with the same drive and passion to develop reading, writing and speaking, we agreed that it had to be now.

This summer, Kayte and I founded ‘The FE Literacy Movement’ – a space (finally) to learn about literacy and connect as a sector. If, as Alex Quigley says, literacy is the golden thread which weaves together the curriculum, The FE Literacy Movement will be the needle for our sector.

This isn’t an exclusive club for English teachers but a team effort. We need representation from all vocational and academic areas. We are all ready to mobilise to transform the futures of the people who walk through our doors wanting more from life. For people like my dad in every college.

Our mission is to improve life chances for learners by harnessing literacy as a vehicle for social mobility. It waspersonal, now it’s political.

When the FE Literacy Movement launched on 5September, our online forum already included representatives from 20 colleges dotted across the UK – and this is just the beginning. We discussed all things literacy, the need for more research into resits and for more networking to pool together resources and ideas.

And we were thrilled to share our three-year plan. This year: a spring term networking event with oracy CPD at Nottingham College and a summer term conference at The University of Derby to explore literacy, English, and the subject specialist teacher through research and collaboration.

The online network will be available for all to tap into for support. We are taking bold steps to support FE, teachers, leaders and learners alike. Join us.

You can reach out to The FE Literacy Movement on Twitter and LinkedIn or by email on

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