Funding adult learning in Scotland: the non-formal sector

Neil Findlay, Member of the Scottish Parliament

Neil Findlay, Member of the Scottish Parliament

Neil Findlay, Member of the Scottish Parliament for Lothian, is an inveterate poser of written parliamentary questions. In contrast to the debating chamber, where ministers typically score smarty-pants points off any MSP who challenges them, written questions must be answered. And fortunately, Neil Findlay – a member of the Cross-Parliamentary Group on Adult Learning, is interested in adult learning – presumably because he thinks it an area where the Government is vulnerable.

So far this year he has posed four questions about adult learning, four of them concerning funding. They include this one on Government funding for ‘non-formal adult learning’. Overall, it looks at first sight as though Government has been relatively gentle on this part of the sector. Looking more closely, though, this budget has not changed in cash terms since 2005, and a ten-year standstill in cash terms represents a significant cut in real terms.

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Incidentally, I ought to make it clear that I have not written this post as a supporter of Mr Findlay’s party, which is Labour. Those who have read earlier posts on the blog know that already, but I don’t think party allegiance counts in this context – adult learning should matter to MSPs from all parties.

Another benefit of adult learning: social mobility

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Participating in learning has a measurable impact on people’s lives. This is obviously true for children, but recent research has shown convincingly that adults also benefit from their learning. Much of this research is particularly compelling because it is based on longitudinal studies, which allow us to examine how individuals’ lives change over time.

Now Arianna Tassinari from the Office for National Statistics has added to this important body of data. Using data from the British Household Panel Survey, she reported on a study of whether adult education participation can change the relationship between parental background and an individual’s own socio-economic status at different points in time.

The BHPS collects two types of information on adult learning: having acquired a qualification, and having undertaken non-formal adult learning. Tassinari and her colleagues looked at changes in socio-economic status that look place between one and five years after participation in learning. And by controlling for other factors, they were able to determine whether changes in status were associated with something else than participating in learning.

Their findings were clear. Tassinari and her colleagues reported that

A distinctive, positive effect of participation in adult learning for inter-generational mobility is found when considering outcomes five years after participation in adult education. In particular, we find that participation in adult learning leading to qualifications at level 3 or to other professional qualifications significantly decreases the effect of parental education on individuals’ own socio-economic position.

So there we have it. As well as having small but significant impacts on health, well-being, self-efficacy, cognitive resilience, employability, earnings and community-mindedness, we now have clear evidence that adult learning can help overcome inherited disadvantage. So investing public funds in adult learning ought to be a no-brainer, shouldn’t it?

Four scenarios for the future of adult education in Britain

From SaveAdultEd.org

From SaveAdultEd.org

There is a pervasive sense of crisis around British adult education. Public funding for adult learning has been slashed, and on this issue at least there are few differences between Scotland, England and Wales. And the decline began well before the Coalition came to power, let alone before George Osborne announced his plans for massive savings from education and training: Ruth Kelly was cutting adult education in 2006.

But at least New Labour had provided new funding for adult learning in the first place, and supported important new initiatives, even if they did pull back later. Now, though, there is little left to cut.

Local councils in England provide minimal adult education, with a heavy focus on basic skills provision; the picture is more variable in Scotland, where some councils maintain most of their adult provision while others have all but withdrawn. Colleges in all three British nations have been told to reduce part-time adult provision and focus on school-leavers and full-time provision. Only a dozen universities still have a department or centre for adult education.

According to Caroline Lucas*, Member of Parliament for Brighton and Hove, “It’s no exaggeration to say that the very existence of adult education is in jeopardy”. I think she exaggerates, but it is true to say that public provision has been slashed, and what is left is likely to be cut further.

At the same time, none of the pressures that created the debate around lifelong learning have gone away, so at some stage in the future there will be new debates, though probably the terms will have changed. And so will the context: many people still want to learn, and quite a few have to learn, regardless of what the government provides. What, then, is the most likely future?

What follows is speculative, less an attempt to predict the future than to think through the possibilities. One of these is that the various campaigns to save adult learning will succeed, that policy-makers will rediscover their love for lifelong learning, and that we will see a return to the levels of funding that existing under the first Blair government. We have strong collective voices for the sector in many European countries, including England and Wales, but not in Northern Ireland where the Assembly shut down the main independent voices.

This, though, has to be a strategy for the long haul. Winning over the policy-makers will take organisation, persistence and patience. After all, it was Labour’s Alan Johnston who derided adult learners as Pilates addicts, Labour’s John Denham who jeered at subsidies for ‘holiday Spanish’. And it will also require a broad coalition of influential allies, just as the older movement for public adult education relied on the support of the trade unions, co-operatives, women’s institutes and churches.

The second possibility is that a strong voluntary adult education movement will emerge and replace part at least of the state sector. The signs here are rather encouraging: the University of the Third Age movement appears to be thriving, and its local associations manage to run a lively programme of classes and events over the whole UK with little or no support from the state. If older adults can build a national self-help movement, why shouldn’t other groups do so?

I’m a great admirer of the U3As, but they do have limits. As a social capital researcher it comes as no surprise to me that its membership largely comprises the like-minded. Not only are they mostly well-educated and drawn from comfortable middle class occupations; the movement is also overwhelmingly white. The risk, then, is that other groups are simply ‘frozen out’ – or indeed exclude themselves – from the U3A.

And while older people have managed to created a sustainable network-type association, other interest groups don’t seem to have done so. There may be sudden collective rushes to the internet when some issue or other comes to the top of the political agenda, but there isn’t much sign of any more sustained and organised framework for supporting collective learning.

A third scenario is privatization. De facto, this is more or less what is happening anyway in the UK – and not just in the UK. The main European research journal on adult learning is putting together a special issue on marketisation and commodification. Eila Heikkila, in her recent overview of adult learning in Finland, noted that the reduction in public funding had helped to create a much more competitive sector, where providers had an interest in differentiating their offer, and thus widening learner choice. Policy-makers may well find this an attractive message.

The difficulty with this scenario is that a market-led system will almost certainly face massive quality problems, at least at its margins, and will gear provision towards profitability rather than any wider social or economic need. At the very least, then, the state is likely to seek at least a minimal role in securing training for groups such as school-leavers or the unemployed, in whom there is a wider political interest. Beyond that, the market will certainly meet the needs of many adult learners, these will be the relatively affluent and well-educated. It probably won’t reach many of the 25 % of EU adults who have completed no formal education beyond lower secondary education.

My fourth scenario is a hybrid future. Public adult learning will continue, but it will adapt and change, particularly through the adoption of digital and mobile technologies. This implies a weaker role for local face-to-face providers, who will increasingly concentrate on those whom new technologies find ‘hard-to-reach': migrants, refugees, the long-term unemployed, learners with special needs. Public providers will forge partnerships with voluntary and commercial providers, particularly in areas such as workplace learning. While voluntary providers will develop programmes for specific interest groups, commercial providers will sell places on study tours, heritage weekends, bespoke professional qualifications, and so on.

Of these, I find the hybrid model most likely. It will involve some continuing public provision with sporadic attempts at government steering, but will be increasingly dispersed and at least partially privatised. I find it difficult to see how this rather fragmentary and often competitive world will produce anything like a social movement approach, but perhaps that is slightly pessimistic? On the other hand, while I don’t see much sign of an emerging social movement in the real world, there is nothing to stop us taking the long view, and trying to build one.

* I need to declare an interest: I am a member of the Green Party, which Caroline Lucas represents

Saying farewell to Michael Barratt Brown

001Around 80 people gathered yesterday at Golders Green to say goodbye to Michael Barratt Brown. Michael was an extraordinary man: born in 1918, he made his mark as an economist, political activist, gardener, peace campaigner, free trade pioneer, Quaker and above all as an adult educator. Oh – and as a runner.

Yesterday’s gathering brought together people from all his life worlds, as well as members of his family. It may seem heartless to say so, but it was a lovely occasion, marked more by celebration of a life than by mourning, and enlivened by fine violin music. And as Robin Murray said in his tribute, the baton passes on to us who remain very much alive.
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I’ve already written of my own memories of Michael on this blog. Recently, Harry Barnes – Derbyshire miner, adult educator and MP – shared his recollections of a beloved friend, colleague and comrade. So let me just add one final thing: the last message I had from him.

It is typical of Michael that in his 90s he had no fear of social media. We were in touch through LinkedIn, and he wrote about my review of his autobiography:

Good to hear from you, John. I am glad you liked “Seekers”. It has had a mixed reception. Some of my family and friends thought I was too open about my love life.You would undertand the problem. I have often thought of you at Stirling, because I used to visit there regularly with Kenneth ALexander. You mention my UNRRA experience, but, apart from Northern College and Fair Trade, I think my most important work was with the Humanities Committee of the EU, with Ben Bella and others and trying to save a Yugoslavia. What are you going to do in retirement? We need a major defence of adult education.Best wishes, Michael

So his last sentence to me was about the need to campaign for adult education. Though I have cheated a little, and changed one word: I’ve put Stirling, in place of Strathclyde. It isn’t often that I could correct Michael, and it gives me great pleasure to have this last opportunity.

Britain’s 1930s work camps: more Midsomer than Maribor?

New Picture
My book on British work camp systems has just been reviewed in the august pages of the English Historical Journal. It’s a largely positive review (phew!) and provides a more than fair summary of the contents. Inevitably, the author has some reservations; she points to limitations in my treatment of gender relations and also argues that I overemphasise the body at the expense of the communitarian dimension of work camp schemes.

These are valid points, which I largely accept (though I defend my inclusion of a chapter on residential training centres for unemployed women on the grounds that these present such a contrast with the masculine world of the work camps). On one point I do take issue, and this is where the reviewer quotes me as saying that ‘the British work camps were “more Midsomer than Majdanek”‘.

I did indeed use that phrase, but not in relation to work camps. I was writing about the vision of a future England that was proposed by the British Germanophile and environmentalist thinker Rolf Gardiner, who in turn was writing about the Danish folk high school movement. Gardiner’s dream, I claimed, was ‘an idealised rural vision of Nazism – more Midsomer than Majdanek’.

While I don’t think that even the most stringent British work camps can compare with the extermination centres of the Third Reich, I also made it very clear that I did not share the view of some historians that the Ministry of Labour camps in particular, along with their predecessors in the labour colony movement, were a comfortable place to be.

I wanted to clarify this point partly because we need to be clear about what the work camp experience involved, and partly because of contemporary debates about work-to-welfare. But in the end, this is a small part of a nice review, which is written by Christine G. Krüger, a historian who is researching youth volunteering in West Germany and Britain in the 20th century. She writes with authority and with knowledge of the sources, and I’m grateful to her.

Austerity plans and post-compulsory education

George Osborne has announced the scale of savings to be achieved by government departments in England. Some of the savings are to be achieved through planned (I use the word loosely) underspends and ‘efficiency gains’ in Whitehall. But they also involve cuts to spending on services, including specifically – and ominously – higher education and further education.

Sajid Javid, Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills

Sajid Javid, Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills

Quote how the budget cuts will be achieved is not yet clear. The Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), which handles the further and higher education budgets, has agreed to a reduction in spending of £450 millions, as its contribution to total government savings of over £3 billions. And at the risk of repeating myself, I think it significant that George Osborne’s statement specifically mentions further and higher education, presumably reflecting his earlier discussions with the Secretary of State.

Andrew McGettigan suggests that part of the BIS contribution could be achieved by selling off student debt and converting student grants into loans, but it looks to me as though there will still need to be direct reductions in the funding available to colleges and universities. It  may well be that the Secretary of State for BIS will have strong views on where the axe should fall, and that he will make this clear in his annual letter of guidance.

And of course any reduction in the BIS budget for further and higher education means that the relevant Whitehall allocations to the devolved administrations will also be reduced. In Scotland, the devolved government has chosen to protect higher education spending and concentrate cuts on part-time further and adult education. Given the political kudos of Scotland’s position on university tuition fees, I would expect this process to continue.

The Chancellor’s statement also identifies considerable reductions in the budgets for other areas, including the non-schools spending of the Department for Education, and the Department of Communities and Local Government. I suspect that local government, across the whole of Britain, has cut its adult education provision so drastically in the last fifteen years that it no longer offers much of a saving, but otherwise the future is not looking too rosy.

Neuroscience and the impact of adult learning – or why I got it wrong on mindfulness

Meditating_in_Madison_Square_ParkWhile I hope I have always been polite about it, I’ve never had much time for things like mindfulness or meditation. They ring of new age phooey, embraced by enthusiastic zealots who dismiss the very idea of any evidence beyond their own beliefs. Courses in these subjects have always seemed at best harmless, at worst a tax on the gullible.

Well, I got that one wrong. A recent review by a group of neuroscientists from Canada, Germany and the USA brought together the findings of research into the impact of meditation and mindfulness classes on the adult brain, with impressive results. For anyone concerned with lifelong learning, their findings are consistent with the view that our brain is not fully formed at the end of adolescence, followed by a long phase of dreary decline, but continues to change during adult life.

One of the studies reviewed compared people who had taken an eight-week mindfulness stress reduction class with a control group who had applied for the class and gone onto the waiting list. Longitudinal scans of their brains showed that course participation was associated with changes in gray matter concentration in brain regions involved in learning and memory processes, emotion regulation, self-referential processing, and perspective taking.

Other studies reviewed consistently showed that meditation caused changes in the brain regions concerned with memory consolidation, meta-awareness, and self and emotion regulation. While the evidence was less abundant, the researchers concluded that there were gounds for believing that meditation interventions can also offset age-related cognitive decline.

This research is potentially of huge importance for our understanding of lifelong learning. Earlier studies, such as the well-known case of London taxi drivers, have already shown that the adult brain is plastic – that is, it continues to change throughout the life course. The mindfulness research not only confirms this, but shows that what is true for the right hippocampus in taxi drivers is also true for other parts of the brain; and that planned interventions can cause brain change.

While the importance for lifelong learning is clear, what this means in practice is far from simple. There is a good news story here about resilience and the avoidance of cognitive decline, which is of obvious significance for policy-makers and employers, who might otherwise be as sceptical about the value of these interventions as I was. It might also be useful for the public, particularly older adults, to understand why they need to exercise their minds as much as any other muscle. But what none of this tells us, at least so far, is what to teach and how best to teach it.