Celebrating work camps as national treasures – the case of the Civilian Conservation Corps

Some Australian friends recently sent me some photographs they’d taken while vacationing in the USA. Among other places they visited Colorado, sending me photos of Mesa Verde, where the the Ancestral Pueblo peoples built their cliff dwellings and farms; and the Red Rocks Amphitheatre, where you can watch the moon rising over Denver as you listen to your favourite performer.

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Statue at Red Rocks

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Information panel at Mesa Verde

What both sites have in common was that during the 1930s, they housed work camps for unemployed young men. The Civilian Conservation Corps was a product of Roosevelt’s New Deal; it opened in 1933, placing over a quarter of a million single men in 1,300 camps, employing them on public works that were chosen partly for their public value. In contrast to Britain, the programme became so popular that politicians lobbied to have the CCC open camps in their electoral districts. I’ve met elderly American socialists who will brook no contradiction with their view that the CCC was a force for good.

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This enduring popularity might seem inexplicable, particularly as the camps were segregated, women were excluded, and the men wore uniforms and came under military control. But the USA had no welfare system, in contrast to the unemployment benefit available in Britain and elsewhere, and the CCC made it possible for the federal government to pay unemployed single men. It also benefited from its association with the wider New Deal programme.

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And Roosevelt was not shy of mobilising public opinion. On the contrary, he was one of the first major democratic politicians to make use of new mass media (wireless in his case) to publicise his administration’s work, and the CCC was equally adept at promoting a positive image, helped by the nature of the work it undertook. While the British Government reached an agreement with the trade unions limiting the work to be done in its work camps, the CCC proudly presented itself as building the modern facilities needed for a nation of pioneers.

Hence my interest in Tony and Janet Brown’s photos. I find it fascinating to see how the memory of the CCC is kept alive and celebrated today, and while I love Rachel Whiteread’s Nissen Hut sculpture in North Yorkshire, it is understated and rather remote. If not exactly secret, most of the British work camps are largely forgotten, along with the unemployed young men who laid the basis for so many of our great forests.

Check out my book if you want to find out more about the British experience of labour camps..

 

 

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Adult learning and social mobility: the state of Britain

The Social Mobility Commission (SMC) has published its most recent ‘state of the nation report‘, in which it concludes that social mobility in England is stalled. It provides evidence to support this claim, and then goes on to consider a number of reasons for this stagnation, with recent changes in the education system being the largest.

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Their analysis encompasses adult learning, where the Commission has a number of criticisms of current policy as well as constructive suggestions for the future. Some of these come in discussions of other educational sectors; their discussion of early years education, for instance, looks at qualifications and career structures for the (overwhelmingly female) workforce, and at the importance of family learning in giving small children a strong start; the section on further education also looks at teacher recruitment issues.

When it comes to adult education and training, the Commission draws heavily on its own study of the adult skills gap, which it issued in January 2019. This showed that the least skilled are the least well placed to access opportunities for upskilling, at a time when the fourth industrial revolution is starting to impact most on the least skilled jobs.

The most highly educated, meanwhile, find it relatively easy to refresh their skills and qualifications. The report notes that this appears to be as true of open education programmes such as MOOCs as it is of more conventional opportunities. The consequences, if things are left as they are, will be that adult learning serves as a block to social mobility rather than an enabler.

And all of this following a period in which, as the Commission notes, ‘almost all forms of adult education are in decline’. They produce figures showing that the UK spends two-thirds of the EU average on adult training, well below that of such comparable economies as Germany and France. They show that regional imbalances increase problems of accessing training, and note that those who are most likely to move between regions are the most advantaged. While the new national retraining scheme for England may have potential, they note that it will need to be both large and highly targeted if it is to have the impact required.

While the SMC has no remit to improve social mobility in Wales and Scotland, it notes that while challenges remain, neither has seen the same stagnation as is evident recently for England. They note that the Scottish Government has reponded to a steep decline in on-the-job training with a £10m in-work training programme, while the Welsh Government’s employment policies include proposals for skills and training.

So far as England is concerned, the SMC’s main recommendation for adult learning is that the Government should follow the action plan set out in the SMC’s report in January 2019, and in particular that it should ‘equalise adult education funding with EU statistical averages and reduce the underspend of its adult education budget through more flexible funding structures’. The new regional combined authorities have powers to achieve greater flexibility, but it will be for national overnment to release additional spending.

Clearly, then, the report offer much to encourage those of us interested in adult learning. Of course it focuses largely on adult learning for or in work, but that is for the obvious reason that our occupations tend to shape our life chances. More seriously, the current obsession with Brexit among politicians of all colours probably means that the SMC’s report will have a marginal influence on policy in the immediate term.

But with several committees of inquiry beavering away currently on lifelong learning policy, the SMC has provided further evidence of the wider benefits and policy importance of adult learning. It also provides fresh food for lobbying and advocacy at local and regional level.

Commercial adult learning: floristry

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I took this photo while I was in Kent visiting my mum. A florist was starting up in one of the small row of shops, and even before opening they were advertising Saturday morning workshops at £30 a person.

So this is another example of adult education as a spin-off from a small independent business. If financially successful, the workshops would produce a small additional income for the business at next to no cost, and also help build customer loyalty. For the learners, they offered a chance to pursue an interest with a group of like-minded people.

Back in the 1980s, politicians sometimes used flower-arranging as the epitome of frivolity and waste in public adult education, although they had no notion whether the learners subsequently put their new skills to use at work or in the community.

Now, with public adult learning narrowing down into vocational and ‘essential’ skills, politicians minded to sneer at adult learner are more likely to jeer at basic computing as learning ‘how to work a mouse and how to organise your calendar at Christmas’.

Bourdieu goes to Dublin: Class and Capital in Sally Rooney’s “Normal People”

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I loved Normal People, which I received as a Christmas gift and read last weekend. It centres on the relationship between Marianne and Connell, two young people from a small town near Sligo whose continuing friendship and intermittent love affair carries on from their final year at school to their time as scholarship holders at Trinity College, Dublin.

At the start their relationship is defined by class –  Connell’s mother cleans for Marianne’s family – and by cultural fit – Marianne is a despised outsider, Connell is the popular footballer. Neither, Connell in particular, is willing to acknowledge their friendship publicly, and that does not change when they move to Dublin. What does change is their cultural fit, as Marianne swims in her new environment as smoothly as a fish in water, while Connell is unable to adjust to college life while simultaneously losing his ability to relate to his old life.

Rooney is an avowedly political writer, so it comes as no surprise that her novels map the remarkable recent journey of capitalism in Ireland. One particularly unappealing and entitled character is described as son of one of the people who caused the financial crisis (‘not figuratively, one of the actual people involved’). His friends wear plum chinos and waxed jackets, build their social capital through the debating society, and take their future for granted – all in utter contrast to Connell’s dispositions.

I was struck by the extent to which Normal People is a Bourdieusian project, examining the ways in which people’s habitus promotes or constrains their access to cultural and social capital. For working class Connell, fumbling his way through unfamiliar social and culrural terrain, higher education is an unsettling experience, even as he succeeds academically. And for Marianne as much as for Connell, the dissonance between one’s own values and intimate desires and those one must perform can lead to anxiety, even severe depression. What, indeed, are ‘normal people’?

The book is also a love story, though one whose sexual politics I found disturbing, and which centres around misunderstandings and missed opportunities. And it is a kind of morality tale for millienials, in which people demonstrate over Gaza together, and use emails and texts to maintain or end their social bonds, even on occasion when they are in the same house. I’m not taking my copy to Oxfam, which is where most of our books end up after we’ve read them, because I want to read it again.

Brits in Europe – a new target group for adult education?

A friend sent me a link to a story from a local newspaper in Westphalia, just to the west of Bielefeld. Reporting on a speech by the leader of the local Volkshochschule (VHS, adult education centre), the headline reads: “Brexit drives Brits to the VHS – course fees becoming more expensive’.

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Senior staff at VHS Ravensberg launch their Easter brochure (image from the Westfalen-Blatt)

Whatever the headline might make you think, the story desn’t seek to blame the Brits for raising course fees. Rather, it summarises Ravensberg VHS’s yearly report, which notes that the reduced numbers of asylum-seekers entering Germany have had an effect on demand for adult basic education, and encouraged the VHS to offer its integration courses in workplaces, so as to reach foreign workers.

In the process, Ravensberg VHS has discovered a new target group. “50 percent of the people who take the naturalization test with us, are currently British,” says VHS leader Hartmut Heinze. In Germany, the VHS are reponsible for administering both the test of citizenship knowledge and the language competence assessment, so I speculated that this growth in British candidates is similar elsewhere as people try to manage uncertainty.

As for the rise in tuition fees, that was a more or less logical consequence of the VHS orgnisers’ decision to raise payments to course leaders. Learners will now have to pay 2,40  per 45 minutes of class time instead of 1,90. That’s quite a hike, but still a lot cheaper than the typical course fee in the UK.

 

 

 

 

Lifelong learning and the age of automation

The Economist Intelligence Unit has compiled an Automation Readiness Index, which it says is designed to compare ‘how well-prepared 25 countries are for the challenges and opportunities of intelligent automation’.

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I think the study while flawed is nevertheless interesting. The participating countries were selected on a variety of grounds; they include the world’s largest economies, along with others selected on the basis of relevance (Estonia and Singapore were judged to demonstrate key good practices) and geography (four countries representing ‘key emerging economies from Latin America, South-east Asia, and the Middle East’).

The selected indicators and associated metrics make for interesting reading. There are 52 indicators, divided into three broad categories: innovation environment, education policies, and labour market policies, with weightings that favour the first two over the third.In each domain, the researchers drew on their judgements of qualitative evidence (however, I can’t find much about how they did this) as well as on available quantitative data.

There will always be questions about the fit between published data and what it might claim to measure. For example, within the education cluster the researchers evaluated ‘continuous education’ on the basis of ‘the existence of national lifelong learning programmes’ and ‘financial support for lifelong learning’. Within the labour market cluster, they judged ‘targeted retraining’ on the basis of ‘Existence of retraining programmes for displaced workers focusing on transition to high-demand sectors’.

So there are some obvious definitional questions, as well as a degree of subjectivity in how these criteria are evaluated. Among areas missing or neglected, I’m articularly struck by the absence of any interest in how well the wider public is informed about digitization and artificial intellegence, or in which skills will likely be in demand as a result of automation (though the study did look at the role of social dialogue on the future of work in general).

The findings are nevertheless interesting, if not generally very surprising. For example, although the UK is placed 8th overall, it is 10th in respect of continuous education and the researchers conclude that ‘the country could do more to support lifelong learning, in particular, to boost its rank in education policy’. The authors seem articularly interested in measures designed to promote individual demand for learning, such as the individual learning accounts that have been adopted in Singapore and France in recent years.

In short, then, no surprises here but some useful food for thought. In particular, the report reinforces my belief that individual learning accounts remain the best available option for raising demand for learning, particularly among under-represented groups of learner; and it also confirms that countries which aim to take advantage of the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’ need to include lifelong learning as an integral feature of their strategy.

Trump is proposing heavy cuts to the US education budget – what would they mean for adult learning?

US President Donald Trump is proposing to slash education spending. Although his budget request for 2020 will not be passed, given the Democrats’ control of Congress, it still makes for interesting reading, not least because it proposes to cut over 10% from the Department of Education.

The think tank New America has published a helpful breakdown of the budget proposals as they would affect education. Basically, Trump is calling for cuts to every sector of education, including adult learning.

Within the adult learning spend, Trump is proposing:

  • a small increase in the sum devoted to career and technical education;
  • a slightly larger increase of $60m for adult education leadership programs to support low-skilled adults to enter apprenticeships;
  • a $156m (24%) cut in adult education state grants; and
  • steady funding for apprenticeship programs.
  • So overall, a heavy cut to adult learning including basic skills education, but with some protection for vocational adult learning.
  • As I say, there is no chance of his budget getting through the House; and anyway, most public spending on adult learning in the USA takes place at state and local level, rather than through the federal Department of Education. But Trump’s proposals allow us to judge the substantial gap between his plans for reskilling American workers and his judgement of the adult learning system.
  • The President’s 2020 budget is available here: https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/budget-fy2020.pdf

    New America’s breakdown of the budget proposals is available here: https://www.newamerica.org/education-policy/edcentral/what-know-about-education-funding-trumps-budget-request/