We draw on theories of policy enactment to explore the ways in which the situated, material and external contexts and professional cultures in adult literacy in the UK have influenced practitioners. Our analysis of the transnational (OECD, EU) and UK external policy contexts found that skills-related education is prioritised, with a focus on economic growth through increased productivity and accountability. This can lead to a narrow conceptualisation of literacy as a set of information processing skills needed for employment that limits the curriculum so that the knowledge of the participants is ignored. However, our findings show that there is not a one-way flow from the transnational to the local. Instead, literacy practitioners translate and enact policy texts based on their situated contexts and professional cultures leading to approaches to teaching and learning that keep learners and their goals at the centre of the curriculum. We conclude that shared understandings of good practice and an underpinning value system, along with creative ways of delivering pre-set outcomes, allow practitioners to resist to some extent the neoliberal discourse whilst meeting the requirements of policy and funding. However, how feasible delivering this alternative curriculum is over the longer term remains to be seen.