A mosque that enhances social capital

How can we improve relations between Muslims and other members of the community? In many neighbourhoods, where people are rubbing along quite happily together, this question might not make much sense. But it can’t have escaped anyone’s notice that suspicions and hostility are also common, and for symbolic reasons, these feelings often find expression when a Muslim congregation decides to build a new mosque.

Equally, though, the decision to build a mosque can also be an opportunity to build bridges between Muslims and their neighbours. I was very forcibly struck by that when I saw the splendid new mosque in Cologne’s multi-cultural Ehrenfeld district. Cologne is famous for its extraordinary gothic cathedral, from which you can see the mosque’s two tall minarets, while the mosque itself is a large modern building on a busy cross-roads on the area’s main street.

In short, it is very visible, and it’s big. As in many other European countries, there were noisy protests when the plans were first announced, and far right groups have called repeatedly for it to be demolished. In contrast to some other cities, though, the protests rapidly became tiny, and have now vanished. Instead, in a city that has some pretty mediocre architexture, the mosque is now more llikely to attract pride.


What struck me was not just the soaring dome and minarets, but the lightness and openness of the building. There are vast windows and massive glass doors, which open out onto a square. We looked through the doors and saw rows of girls in the prayer hall with name plates in front of them, with tv cameras recording. A passer told us that the girls of the madrassa – it was Saturday – were taking part in a competition, and it was being filmed for Turkish tv. The congregation also have an informative and lively website, in German.

I found this openness – architectural and personal – very inviting. The whole aim of the building is to provide a space for worship and other community events that allows outsiders to see what is going on. And though this on its own won’t abolish mistrust and fear, it seems to me very likely to reduce them, and to prevent some of the ridiculous but harmful misinformation that surrounds Islam in much of the west.

For someone who is interested in social capital, this was a very encouraging experience. It is common in the social capital literature to find that most people trust and mix with people who are similar to them, and a number of studies show that ethnic and religious diversity are associated with lower levels of social capital.

However, while this may often be how we behave, there is nother inevitable about it. I particularly like one article, which confirms that while ethnic and religious diversity tend to undermine the social capital of white majorities, this effect disappears when people interact ‘across the fence’.

For me, the Cologne mosque at least puts windows in the fence, and provides a public space where non-Muslims can interact with Muslims on a personal level. It’s also an impressive statement of the ability of the Muslim community to take control of the debate over their place in the wider society, rather than passively suffering prejudice. In my view, an example worth following.

Update, December 2016: At the end of 2016 the mosque was still unfinished. It isn’t unusual for large building projects in Cologne to fall behind schedule (and over budget), but in this case it also seems that the project has fallen foul of the conflict within the Islamic community between supporters of Turkey’s president Erdogan and his critics. At present, the local committee seems fully supportive of the original “mosque for Cologne”; they opened the building for visitors on the Day of German Unity, under the theme of “Hijra: migration as challenge and opportunity, and were overwhelmed by curious locals. According to the local press, the mosque is now scheduled to open some time in 2017.


From work camp to Arsenal: the footballer Jimmy Evans

In March 1935, Arsenal recruited a twentysix year old Welsh footballer called Jimmy Evans. Evans, who came originally from Merthyr Tydfil, was a work camp trainee who was playing at the time as an amateur for Hereford United in the Birmingham and District League.

As a long term unemployed young male, Evans had chosen to join – or was pressured into attending – one of the Ministry of Labour’s Instructional Centres. In 1937, there were thirty ICs, charged with the role of ‘hardening’ young men whose bodies had supposedly been ‘softened’ by protracted unemployment.

Mainly, the young men’s bodies were hardened through a daily routine of heavy manual labour combined with a solid, if unimaginative, diet. But sport also played a role, not just in improving physical fitness, but also in boosting morale and building an esprit de corps.

When Evans entered Shobdon IC, some 20 miles north of Hereford, his footballing skills clearly flourished. Back home in Wales, he had never managed any better than his local Sunday School team. In Shobdon he initially played for the IC team, before joining Presteign and then Hereford United, who recommended that he turn professional.

Jimmy Evans - reproduced with thanks from www.margatefchistory.com

Jimmy Evans – reproduced with thanks from http://www.margatefchistory.com

Having found work, Evans has no longer any direct concern of the IC, though in early May the camp hosted a visit from Hereford United, who duly won 4-0. He stayed on Arsenal’s books until 1937, spending most of the time on loan to Margate, before moving to Fulham, then serving in the RAF before returning to Margate after the War, and retiring from the game at the age of 45. He died in Margate in 1993.

I’m not sure how much Jimmy Evans’ story tells us about the experiences of young men more generally in the Ministry of Labour camps. But it does offer some insights into the importance of sport in the camps, as well as the extent to which the camps were integrated into their local economy and society. Incidentally, I only encountered his story thanks to Jon Price, a knowledgeable Hereford citizen and blogger, who sent me several reports from the Hereford Times, including two that I’ve drawn on here.

Ambitious Policies and Learners’ Voices

The Scottish Government today launched Adult Learning in Scotland: Statement of Ambition. This is one of a number of broad vision statements covering different areas of Scottish education, and its broad purpose is to guide policy development over the next five years. What should we make of it?


My initial reaction, as well as my more considered response, is that this is a very welcome statement indeed. The statement acknowledges the central role of adult learning in helping people change and develop – as individuals, as family members, as workers, and as part of the wider community. It sets out broad principles – namely, that larning should be lifelong, life-wide and learner-centred. And it calls for a broad range of provision, with learners involved in planning, developing and evaluating that provision.

Much of this may well remind you of the optimistic policy debate over lifelong learning of the mid-1990s. Key texts such as Learning: the treasure within from UNESCO and England’s The Learning Age expressed similar hopes and values in very similar language. The first main ambition listed in the Scottish statement – for Scotland to be ‘recognised globally as the most creative and engaged learning community’ – could have appeared in any of a score of policy papers from different countries. So could several of the other proposals, such as high quality training for professionals, giod quality advice and guidance, or the recognition of informal learning.

But there are also new and distinctive features in the Scottish statement. The most significant of these is the role envisaged for learners in driving the system forward. The Scottish Government set out to engage with learners in producing the statement, and it contains broad proposals for empowering learners not only in their own learning but in developing policy.

And this is also a key feature in the strategy for taking the ambitions forward. The first step listed in the statement is the creation of a cross-sectoral task group to develop a strategic implementation plan; the second is to ‘ensure learners are involved in the process’.

There are some obvious challenges in taking this forward. What about people who are, or see themselves as, non-learners – who think the system is ‘not for me’? What about working learners, with limited time to spare on meetings that may or may not meet their needs? Will the loudest voices be those of the most articulate and confident – and indeed the best educated and most affluent? And will some people simply become semi-pro learners, constantly speaking for other learners long after moving on from the experiences that brought them into learning?

I’m sure there are plenty of other practical questions like this, but the principle is a good one. Of course professional adult educators will also have relevant knowledge and experience to bring to this debat. And we have plenty of time, as nothing much is going to happen this side of the Scottish Referendum in September – and the issues and challenges will still be here whatever the voters decide.

So it would be interesting to hear from anyone who has tried to organise learner voice in this way, whether in the UK or elsewhere, or who simply has some ideas about how it might be done.

And a few closing words on resources. In practice, the Scottish Government has prioritised young full-time learners, particularly in higher education. As a result of selective funding cuts, colleges alone have lost over 196,000 enrolments of part-time further education students since the current government took power in 2007; almost all of these were adults and well over half were women.

Decide for yourself what this tells us, if anything, about the scale of the political challenge ahead. But the history of adult education has always been a history of struggle, and no one in Scottish adult learning expects a statement of ambition alone to change that fact.


Lifelong learning and the global market – will Europe benefit from American competition?

Should lifelong learning be opened up to competition? In particular, wwould the world be better if American providers were allowed to enter the European market – and, presumably, vice versa?

This idea is being discussed as part of the free trade treaty that the European Union is currently negotiating with the United States. The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), it is fair to say, isn’t at the tip of most people’s tongues in Britain. Essentially, it is a set of negotiations over free trade between the EU and US. In so far as people have heard of it, it is probably in connection with the health service, where the proposed treaty will make it much easier for private health providers to compete across the Atlantic.ttip

But the treaty will cover many areas, including at least some education services. Precisely how these are being handled in the negotiations is something we will probably never know. The whole process takes place behind closed doors, in secret and without democratic oversight, and thse responsible issue only a minimum of officially-sanctioned ‘news’.

Higher education is an obvious target for private firms, particularly in the UK where the universities are legally private (charitable) corporations, albeit that many of their activities are publicly funded. The Universities and Colleges Union has expressed grave misgivings over the likely consequences for higher education in Britain.

But the treaty could also cover other areas of post-school education, especially if they operate in any kind of ‘mixed economy’. This covers further education and skills training, which may involve a mixture of public funding and both private (including voluntary sector) and public provision, as well as adult learning. The American negotiators have explicitly expressed interest in ‘privately-operated adult and other education services’ – including vocational training, and covering services provided digitally along with those delivered face-to-face.

You may well think that the benefits of American corporations providing numeracy skills, second language teaching or local history classes probably aren’t immediately apparent. Past experience, though, shows that where the US has introduced particular services into free trade treaties, it is because someone has lobbied for them to be included. The bubbling world of MOOCs is another likely target for commercial competitors. And their track record suggests that the larger corporations will use the force of the law to protext their rights, challenging regulation and inspection regimes, and blocking the publication of unfavourable comment.

At this point, I should declare an interest: since the mid-80s I have been a card-carrying member of the only political party in Britain to campaign against TTIP, the Greens. So you may decide that I am an untrustworthy witness, or you may share my unease over what I see as a threat to standards and – given the lack of transparency over this process – to democracy. If so, you should at least be writing to share your views with your regional MEP.

Learning in later life – extending the OECD skills survey beyond 65

Many people, myself included, are very interested indeed in the findings of the OECD’s adult skills survey. And it has already become clear that there is much more to come, both from the OECD team, but also from other researchers who are analysing the data independently.

Like any piece of research, though, the OECD survey has limitations. One, particularly important for anyone interested in learning right across the life course, is that the sample was confined to adults of standard working age. I was delighted, then, to learn that the German Institute of Adult Education had collaborated with researchers from two universities to conduct a parallel survey of adults aged 66 and over.

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Competencies in Later Life – the German study – was designed so that the quantitative findings are comparable with those of the main OECD survey. CILL also went beyond it. While the results are still being analysed, preliminary results are available, and they make fascinating reading. More detailed findings were presented at a workshop in Bonn, and it seems pretty clear that extending the OECD instruments to cover older adults was a well worth while exercise.

Some of the findings were predictable. For example, the survey confirmed that average skill levels continue to fall with age, with IT competencies falling particularly sharply. While this is exactly what we might already expect from the OECD findings for the under-65s, it is still helpful to have clear evidence that this is indeed the case, with obvious implications for policy and practice. The study also showed that even among older adults, the level of their parents’ education has a powerful influence.

For me, though, the most interesting finding concerned the lifelong influence of initial education. The study showed that there were many variations in the literacy and numeracy competences of different groups, but when the researchers controlled for initial education, these variations tended to disappear.

For example, men on average showed stronger competences in both areas than women, but after controlling for initial qualifications, the numeracy gap was much smaller, and the literacy gap vanished. This is, of course, a generational effect, which is a product of the different participation rates in tertiary education of men and women in past times.

The study also explored the ways in which people use the skills of literacy, numeracy and computer competences in later life. Drawing on qualitative as well as survey data, the study shows the continuing importance of these skills – as well as others – in the everyday lives of older adults, whether they are still in the labour market of not.

Multiplying literacies

The Community Health & Learning Foundation has just published an interesting short briefing on health literacy. Their basic case is that there are huge inequalities in people’s access to and understanding of information about health, and they set out a number of ways in which to remedy this.

It’s an important argument, and forms part of a wider case for public investment in adult learning. But it also illustrates a trend that I’ve been thinking about recently, which is the proliferation of different literacies. As well as health literacy, we hear about financial literacy, digital literacy, civic or political literacy, and even emotional literacy.

What is this about? Well, one obvious reason for using the word ‘literacy’ is as a way of focussing attention. It is an arresting word, because it implies that some of us are ‘illiterate’ in the context of financial planning, or health, or information technology. Actually, all of us must be illiterate in some contexts, so it’s a kind of linguistic hook, a way of pulling us in to the discussion about this or that form of literacy.

But isn’t there also a risk of linguistic inflation in this multiplication of literacies? The more we use it to describe unequal access to different kinds of knowledge and information, the more we dilute its original, narrower meaning. And we know that we have massive inequalities in people’s abilities to grapple with and command the written word; and this in turn has huge consequences for people’s life chances.

In a modern information society, literacy as narrowly understood is a fundamental precondition of participation in the wider community. Weak literacy skills have clear material effects, which are measurable. The OECD’s recent adult skills survey showed just how far literacy is linked not just to higher incomes, but also to political efficacy, volunteering, trust and indeed health. And it also showed that these effects were larger in the two UK nations that participated in the survey than in most of the other nations involved.



So literacy in its narrowest sense – confident and competent reading and writing in real life settings – is among the most important fields of adult learning. Anything that reduces the focus on literacy, and allows policy makers to avoid their responsibilities for securing its improvement, is a concern.

On the other hand, the proliferation of literacies has a more positive effect in reducing stigma. Anyone who has worked in adult literacy knows that fears of being branded ‘illiterate’ can cause learners the most profound anxiety and distress. This is one of the reasons why Freire’s work became so influential in the 1970s among those working in the area, as his ideas of liberation pedagogy offered a constructive way of understanding literacy practices as having to do with power, and thus offering a possibility of empowerment.

The idea that we are all ‘illiterate’ in some contexts reduces the stigma attached to ‘illteracy’, and breaks down some of the barriers to participation. Of course, this in itself is only one step towards literacy learning as a force for civic empowerment and social change, but it is a start.

This also reminds me that I used to watch a lovely tv programme called ‘On the Move’ which starred the great Bob Hoskins, who died recently. The BBC still took its educational mission seriously in the mid-1970s, and this series – intended for adults with literacy difficulties – attracted an audience of millions. It is generally credited with breaking down some of the stigma attached to literacy learning; the fact that I am still discussing this issue now suggests that we still have some way to go.