​Alison Sutton: As she retires, Talking Matters founder says working on literacy at COMET has been a dream job.

Posted on 06 July 2020

Alison Sutton has been a champion for adult literacy and family learning.  Alison was COMET’s strategic analyst then manager of literacy and family learning before founding Talking Matters. Awarded a Winston Churchill Memorial Fellowship to look at adult literacy collaborations across England and the USA, Alison has led the Talking Matters campaign for the last six years.  Alison is retiring from COMET after 12 years. 

“Adult literacy is an incredibly broad concept. When you’ve got health literacy, digital literacy, financial literacy, you've got the ability to be an advocate for your family, and then workplace literacy to keep connected, to get a job, to keep a job and to upskill.. And if you don't have the skills to take part in all of those, it's a real challenge.” – Alison Sutton


Alison grew up with a love of books and stories and became a secondary school teacher. She was disappointed while teaching English at Rutherford High School to discover not everyone had the same excitement. “My fifth form English class had not read a book by choice. Actually, most of them didn’t know how to read for pleasure”.

The significance of young people lacking literacy skills was not obvious to Alison then but unwittingly, a seed was planted.  

Then in 1984 when she met her husband, John Benseman, an adult educator and researcher, Alison encountered adult literacy properly.  “I got a job as the Coordinator of the Auckland Adult Literacy Scheme. It just blew my mind.” When I began to understand how central literacy was to successful adult life and citizenship, it was, you know, life changing, really. And it is quite clear now that literacy should be a human right.”

Connecting to COMET (then the City of Manukau Education Trust)  came through literacy.  Alison attended the Manukau Literacy Forum in 2001, where COMET began scoping an innovative family learning programme.  The result, the Manukau Family Literacy Programme, took parents who weren’t engaged in their children’s school and offered them a pathway for learning and employment.  Most of the parents had low literacy skills and felt alienated from their children’s school. They didn’t believe in their capacity to be a learner. “They thought they’d ask dumb questions and felt they wouldn’t be welcomed. It was a barrier.”  It became a negative cycle, “where they didn't know how to help the kids with their homework and their children often didn’t thrive at school.”

Alison became even more connected to COMET when she stood in as executive officer for then Chief Executive, Bernardine Vester who went on a two-month Eisenhower fellowship. In 2008, Alison went to work for COMET for six weeks, to refresh the programme so it matched changes in the tertiary education system. Whānau Ara Mua (Families moving forward) was the result, which ran in partnership with Manukau Institute of Technology and The Solomon Group for a number of years.  

MFLP and Whānau Ara Mua made a huge difference to families. “More than 1,000 parents ended up with a qualification, more employability skills and with more confidence in their parenting. ‘Parent and child time together' was right at the heart of the curriculum, and that focus on the parent child relationship was the unique proposition of this programme.  My husband was the evaluator, so of course I watched it with great interest.” 

 “Ninety-five percent of the mothers gained qualifications. [Many] graduated with a qualification in early childhood education that led them to work. The early 2000s, there was a push to get more Maori and Pacific ECE teachers, and we were feeding into that. But they didn't only do ECE. They did school teaching, business. They really turned their lives and their family lives around. Very empowering.”

Over the next decade, Alison worked across most COMET initiatives as the strategic analyst and then manager of literacy: digital inclusion and projects to upskill ECEs in using technology; RAISE Pasifika to encourage Pasifika education leadership; community financial literacy  projects;  scoping youth employability:  identifying how employers in Auckland were investing in Science Technology Engineering and Maths.  Additionally, Alison and her husband Dr John Benseman edited the first and only New Zealand textbook about foundation education and adult literacy called ‘Facing the Challenge’ (2008).

Alison knows that COMET is unique in the way that it brings together education, community, whanau, business and looks for opportunity and innovation in places in the education and learning system where no one's paying attention. She has been deeply committed to COMET’s work for equity. 

A change came in 2014.  Alison loved her job but was frustrated. “I had spent 30 years in adult literacy but the number of adults who leave school alienated and without the skills needed to thrive was not reducing either.   Then in 2014, I followed up comments from a couple of principals about children having less oral language at school start than they used to. I thought that was really interesting. Children were not able to ask for help, express their feelings and manage their own behaviour. It was news to me, I didn’t know about the power of talk and babies, even thought I had spent all these years in literacy.”

Huge sociological pressures are behind what is happening, says Alison. 

“We've got increased poverty. We've often got both parents working, sometimes many jobs. So, there is simply not as many people at home and everyone is time poor. We've got screens.  There are longstanding impacts from loss of culture and language - colonisation. We've got a whole lot of factors that make it challenging for families to raise children. And then there’s ECE. [There was a] huge push through the 2000s to get women to work. It was a deliberate economic strategy. We needed to increase the workforce, get women into work, put more children in early learning. So, it’s important to have quality ECE learning.”

In 2014, COMET Auckland and the Learning Auckland Leadership Table backed Alison to explore early language. 

When Alison went on her Winston Churchill Memorial fellowship to England in 2015, it reinforced her mission. “I visited 11 organisations in nine cities in England. And interestingly enough, everywhere I went, they were talking about early language and parents’ roles as brain builders and coaches. It made me realise I had been working at the wrong end. Adult literacy was too late.” Alison came back “incredibly excited”.  The result - Talking Matters, a campaign to get everyone talking more to babies and small children. Its vision is for all children in Aotearoa to thrive as thinkers, talkers, and readers. 

Initially, Alison faced lot of scepticism about the campaign. “Everyone talks to babies, what's the issue? "We've got problems about poverty; we've got problems about behaviour.” 

Those things are more important.”  People didn’t understand how early language is a key driver for children’s development and for self-regulation.”

Raising awareness is still key. “We want everyone to know how important it is to talk to babies and under 3s. At present, most early initiatives focus on ages 3-5 and on school readiness and reading. Early, responsive talk for ages 0-3 is the missing piece.”

Alison says one of the challenges is that the pace of education is increasing and the consequence of falling behind is much greater. “We ask children to do things at five that often they weren't expected to do until six and seven. It makes it harder for kids coming in who haven’t had such a language rich environment at home. The system needs to ensure they catch up and keep up and its challenging. Schools need to be ready for children from more diverse backgrounds.”

Funding from The Next Foundation has supported Talking Matters from the start. The staff of 10 are working to inspire and support action on talk in families, whānau and communities. Talking Matters is also building partnerships with iwi and Maori health, education and social service providers; and is developing a Pasifika strategy. 

Talking Matters has continued the COMET tradition of important public events. “I'm really proud of the Talking Matters summit in 2017. We held the first national event on oral language in Aotearoa and about 350 people turned up. That had a tremendous ripple effect and raised our profile.”   The Talking Matters network has created a community of practice around early language, in the same way COMET created a community of practice around financial literacy. 

Talking Matters is making a difference Alison says they are seeing families increasing their conversation at home. Parents report how children are talking more, more than others in their wider families.  Alison believes that we need the Talking Matters campaign more than ever, with the huge challenges of COVID-19 and climate change.  We need strong resilient whānau.

“Families are telling us how the focus on interacting, talking, singing, and reading with their babies has really made a difference on how the whole family communicates. It’s brought them together. It also affirms their culture and language. Often families think they should speak English first, but, the best thing for their children’s development is to speak the richest language. Sharing your first culture is the biggest gift you can give your children.”

“It is exciting that Talking Matters can support the aspirations of whānau Māori, that we have a part to play in affirming indigenous culture and language.   Being secure in your culture, language and identify is proven to be key in education success.”  

After 12 years at COMET Auckland, Alison says she’s ready to pass on the reins. “I’m going to miss the relationships. I’ll miss the energy and excitement of the Talking Matters team and I’ll miss the focus on equity. It’s been a real privilege being part of an organisation working on equity and courageous for an organisation to go out on the limb for such a bold new idea as a campaign on talking to babies.”

What now for Alison? “I’ve got a lovely E-Bike, so I’m going to do some cycling and clear my head. But I’m sure I’ll end up doing some community things in education.” 

What does success look like for Talking Matters? " When we have raised everybody’s expectations about what children are capable of - all our tamariki are born with this wonderful ability to learn and communicate.”