“I learnt my Italian at the Adult Education Centre in Medway”: languages and adult learners

Kelly Tolhurst, MP, businesswoman and adult learner

Kelly Tolhurst, MP, businesswoman and adult learner

Kelly Tolhurst, the Member of Parliament for Rochester and Strood, recently explained the importance to her of learning another language. Working in marine services, she found herself dealing with Italian firms, where her language skills had a business pay-off. She also enjoys watching the Italian TV detective series Montalbano.

And how did she learn this important skill? “I learnt my Italian at the Adult Education Centre in Medway over 10 years”. Fair play to her: that’s a long haul, and learning another language – even one as beautiful as Italian – is work, real hard work.

Yet however hard-working, persistent and competent the learner, it’s virtually impossible to develop language competence without support. The attack on adult education across Britain has eradicated much provision – an attack often accompanied by politicians’ jibes about adult learners’ frivolous interests – and many adult modern language courses have disappeared.

So I was delighed to see that Medway Council’s Adult and Community Learning Service still offers four Italian classes and a Saturday morning ‘conversation cafe’ at its centre in Rochester – and much else besides. Just imagine what the sneerers would say about even a penny of public funding going towards a ‘conversation cafe’ in Italian.

I very much hope that Kelly Tolhurst, who is clearly a woman who knows her own mind, will share her views with the next politician to jeer at people who fail to show the properly serious and vocational mindset when tackling a foreign language.

Sneering at adult learners – why do we let them get away with it?


Adult learning is in crisis across the UK. While demand appears to be as high as ever, and the wider public case is as strong as ever, all four governments are busily cutting direct and indirect funding for provision. And when pressed to justify the cuts, it seems that they simply can’t help themselves from deriding adult learners.

Here’s a case from this morning’s newspapers. Asked about a collapse in part-time information technology courses, the minister responsible said

there has been a deprioritisation in the range of computing courses that are about things such as how to work a mouse and how to organise your calendar at Christmas.

Leave aside that wonderful word ‘deprioritisation’, and reflect for a moment on the idea that adult courses in IT are about no more than organising your Christmas calendar. Just take five seconds to think about why ‘organising your Christmas calendar’ might help to engage some hesitant learners – and then spend another five seconds thinking about who such a course might appeal to.

I’m sure you’re ahead of me, but here’s one example. A study by Age UK found that whilst 13 per cent of the adult population in the UK have never used the Internet, the over-65s comprise over 75 per cent of this excluded group – almost 5 million people. Then add to that the overwhelming evidence of the benefits of learning for older adults.

It’s easy to show that these are silly comments, throw-away remarks that are designed to belittle adult learners and those who support them. But enough. What is important is that sneering at adult learners is so commonplace.

Alan Johnson, when Labour’s education secretary, justified cuts in 2006 by saying that we needed ‘more plumbing, less pilates; subsidised precision engineering, not over-subsidised flower arranging’. John Denham, then Labour’s minister for higher education, defended his government’s 2008 cuts by describing adult education as little more than ‘holiday Spanish’ (only among the Brits would learning a foreign language be seen as frippery). The Coalition’s skills minister Matthew Hancock, also justifying cuts in 2014, jeered at ‘qualifications in coaching angling, aerial balloon displays and self-tanning’.

This discourse of derision has a long history in our field. Alan Tuckett used to recall his days organising an adult centre in Brighton, when a local Tory councillor tried to dismiss its courses as ‘tap-dancing on the rates’. Our early days at Northern College – where working class people came to study – heard cries of ‘the Kremlin on the hill’. And needless to say, similar jibes faced the men and women who created our adult education institutions.

So what can we do about it? To start off, we can benefit from building a different relationship with policy makers, based on dialogue and reason. And that might mean that we in turn start to treat policy makers as people who are trying to get something done, in conditions that they understand better than we do. Speaking truth to power is an easy slogan, but we need to creat platforms for exchange rather than just shouting from our studies.

This doesn’t mean accepting insults that are designed to dismiss us before we even get in the room. In the short term, we need to rebut each and every small-minded jibe. We might even indulge in the occasional cheap shot ourselves – for example, I cant help pointing out that our dismissive Scottish minister was educated at public expense for four years in one of Scotland’s ancient universities.

In the longer term, we need to make a concerted effort to explain the benefits of adult learning, and put policy-makers in situations where they engage directly with adult learners. We have a small mountain of robust evidence on the economic, social and health benefits of adult learning; let’s get it in front of the widest possible audience. And let’s sit policy makers down with learners who can explain exactly why learning how to manage a calendar on a lap top might be an important first step back.

 

The State of the Nation – the TeachDifferent Keynote 2015 #TD15

thelearningprofessor:

What a fantastic rallying cry – “I’d love to think that it could be the year when adult education finds its voice”. Read and enjoy – then organise.

Originally posted on teachnorthern:

Hello and welcome back to Northern College for our third annual TeachDifferent conference.  Every year has a different feel, but it’s always a celebration.  This year, in the midst of celebration, it’s a call to arms.

Last year was euphoric; this year has been harder for us and for everyone we know.  But we end the year still fighting, still present as ourselves, and still doing amazing, genuinely transformational work, with the support of a growing research base for social purpose education.  And that’s important.  Because the people who make the decisions which so affect our lives really don’t see education in the same way as we do. The onus is on us to prove what works.  

wordmap from the second day of the identities programme
Identities Day 2

That adult education cannot continue as it is, is clear to us all.  The General Election has only underlined what we’ve known for a long time now, that education…

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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.

New Picture

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

saveaded
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.