Governance by Data: Where Next for International Literacy Assessments? by Mary Hamilton

We have hit a crucial time in the field of international literacy assessment. This year sees the first results from the latest developments in international testing. PIAAC (the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies) has been conducted in 25 countries, and builds on both PISA and the IALS and is the result of the combined efforts of the OECD and the European Union. In a related development, UNESCO has developed the Literacy Assessment and Monitoring Programme (LAMP) to provide the diagnostic information required to monitor and improve literacy skills worldwide. At this point, it is a good opportunity to reflect critically on the field of international literacy assessment, its ambitions and achievements and the future challenges it poses – for literacy researchers, educators and policy-makers: The implications of governance by data and the implications of viewing literacy through the lens of large-scale statistical projects.

On June 17th we welcomed literacy scholars, policy makers and practitioners to an international symposium on “literacy as numbers” where we looked at how literacy measurements are developed and carried out, and the cross-cultural social, political and scientific contexts in which they take place. Organized by Lancaster University, the University of East Anglia and the London Institute of Education, the symposium aimed to contribute to the process of reflection and commentary on international literacy assessment. Videos of presentations from the symposium are now on the site, and these give a flavour of some of the issues that were raised in the seminar, the strands of research and theory that converged there on the topic of literacy as numbers.

I come to this topic as a long-time researcher in adult literacy in the UK and someone who has watched the field change from its beginnings in the 1970s as a marginal, informal and fluid area of practice to an internationally specified index of social development. I’ve become fascinated by the process whereby the complex diversities of adult experience and achievement have given way to an ordered field of measurement; how the technical debates surrounding the development of these measurements and the assumptions behind them become hidden from view as time goes on and how the concepts and terminology they generate become naturalized within public discourse.

My specific interest is the ways in which literacy is currently being represented through the lens of numbers and measurement – by scholars and administrators and increasingly in government and media discourses. In my recent book Literacy and the Politics of Representation I explored the work that this form of representation does and the effects and implications of imagining literacy through numbers – from the historical rise of social statistics and the creation of national systems of statistical record to the use of psychometric measurement in education.

State policy makers and international agencies are currently mobilising literacy as number as never before, making a persuasive impact in the mass media and the public imagination. A large amount of work (often invisible to the public) goes into creating and sustaining the credibility of these numbers. International surveys aim to harmonise measurement of literacy and enable cross-country comparisons that will be useful for policy. The science of statistics developed to serve the purpose of the state and its role has always been deeply paradoxical – the enumeration of populations is claimed as part of the ideal of a democratic social order but has also been an integral part of colonial projects.

Numerical measures of literacy are, clearly, not the only ways of defining what literacy is and what it does: there are other discourses of literacy – emancipatory and moral – that invoke human rights and religious principles. But the numbers are very compelling, especially given the social power that is currently mobilised behind developing and promoting them.

One of the powerful aspects of literacy as numbers is that it seems to offer certainty and closure on debates of what literacy is, and is for. The slippery and multiple nature of literacy seems finally to have been pinned down by experts into a rational set of competencies, enabling teachers to get on with the technical business of addressing the skill needs of the millions of adults deemed to be in need of help.

My own view is different. I believe that the debates about the nature of literacy and how to account for the diversity of everyday practices are in fact far from resolved. In fact they are more fascinating and challenging than ever before.  The meanings and practices of contemporary literacy are woven into increasingly complex and rapidly moving mixtures of languages and cultures (named by some as “superdiversity”). They are migrating into the new “virtual” spaces created by digital technologies. In these processes, the nature of literacy is being transformed in unpredicted and as yet unclassifiable ways. I look forward to continuing this discussion via this blog and with the international network formed from the symposium.


Hamilton,M. (2012) Literacy and the Politics of Representation Routledge.

Schleicher, A. (2008) PIAAC: A New Strategy for Assessing Adult Competencies International Review of Education, Volume 54, Issue 5-6, pp 627-650

UNESCO LAMP – Literacy Assessment and Monitoring Programme