This paper draws on sociological and critical educational frames, particularly Bourdieu’s concept of symbolic violence, in order to contest the dominant model of literacy education that is driven by the premise of a ‘knowledge economy’. Instead it foregrounds the political, social, and economic factors that marginalise learners. Data from two projects: an ethnographic study in a Further Education (FE) College in England and a study of community-based literacy programmes in Scotland, are probed to show how literacy classes can offer spaces to challenge symbolic violence and facilitate learners to reclaim identities of success. These changes are illustrated from the learners’ views of the contrasts between their experiences of school education and literacy programmes that use transformative and emancipatory approaches. Our research demonstrates how critical education can open up spaces for a more equitable approach based on the co-production of knowledge. It is argued that making changes to policy and practice could inform and shape the literacy curriculum and its pedagogy if adult literacy can disentangle itself from instrumental approaches driven by neoliberal fusion and instead create critical space for contextualised and emancipatory learning.