Labour Studies Index

Updated: 2022-05-16

The Abuses of Literacy: The Making of a Worker 'Basic Skills' Crisis in England and North America

Document type Thesis
Author Hoddinott, Susan
Degree Ph.D., Industrial and Business Studies
Publisher University of Warwick; Warwick, UK
Date 1997
Pages 451 pages


Over the past two decades there has emerged a generalized critique of the quality of the labour supply in industrialized countries in relation to concerns about corporate profitability and national competitiveness. Frequently, the critique has focused, in whole or in part, on the so-called 'literacy' or 'basic skills' competencies of workers. This thesis examines the problematizing of workers' literacy competencies at a time when general educational attainments in Western countries have reached unprecedentedly high levels. Both broad-based and historically informed, the study focuses on the United States, Canada and England over the period of the mid-1980s through the early 1990s. The motives of the agencies and interests which have proclaimed a worker 'basic skills crisis', as well as the processes through which their claims have been disseminated, are analyzed. The ideological and material contexts in which these claims have resonated are described. The thesis concludes that the workforce basic skills 'crisis' is a socially constructed one which has little or no basis in fact. It is an issue which has had utility for a number of interests (including business, labour, educationalists and the state sector), however, and this, it is argued, accounts for the role they have taken in its social construction. The evidence presented here establishes that the workforce literacy issue has had real consequences for workers. It has operated to scapegoat sections of the working class and to further marginalize less formally qualified workers in their workplaces and in the labour market. This-the industrial relations context in which the putative workforce 'basic skills crisis' has operated-forms the principal focus of the thesis. The impacts on workers of actions stemming from the acceptance of the idea of a basic skills crisis-including increasing scrutiny of literacy and language competencies of workers and the promotion and establishment of 'basic skills' programmes of questionable value in workplaces-ought to give cause for many who have endorsed claims of a 'crisis' and embraced workplace literacy to re-evaluate their position.