Adult education across Britain is in deep trouble. Here’s a handy list of things to do – and with an election coming up shortly, now’s the time to get going!
Most people who come across this blog will already know that adult learning is in crisis across Britain. Politically, we have not yet managed to win the kind of consensus in support of adult learners that has seen off previous attempts to slice the adult learning budget.
It was good to see this motion in support of adult learning in the Scottish Parliament. Although supported mainly by Labour MSPs, it is also signed by Jean Urquhart, the independent Member for the Highlands and Islands who convenes the Cross-Parliamentary Group on Adult Learning, and Liam MacArthur of the Liberal Democrats.
So some policy makers see the value of a second educational chance. Perhaps the tide is now turning?
During the last few weeks, the Scottish Government has faced growing criticism for its perceived neglect of modern languages. Business leaders and European government representatives have lined up to lament the decline of foreign language teaching in Scotland’s schools.
In turn, this has inevitably affected demand for University courses. Several institutions have shut down language degrees, or even whole departments. And one knock-on effect is that fewer language graduates are available to become language teachers, with obvious results for the schools and colleges.
Nor are there opportunities for people to catch up later on. On the contrary: part-time courses in colleges have been derided as ‘leisure courses’ (as though it were somehow improper to enjoy learning something as useless as Spanish or Mandarin), with massive reductions in the number of part-time and evening courses available.
As a result, increasingly the provision of foreign language teaching has become privatised. Despite the fact that only 5 or 6 per cent of Scots children are in private schools, the Scotsman estimated that the private sector accounted for 10 per cent of all Scotland’s French Higher students, 16 per cent of Spanish, 17 per cent of German and 18 per cent of Italian.
Meanwhile second chance adult learners are increasingly faced with a choice between private providers (including online providers like Busuu) and voluntary providers like the U3A.
Scotland is hardly alone: the number of first year undergraduates in foreign languages in the UK fell by 6% over the seven years up to 2013/14. Nor is it new: the Royal Society of Edinburgh was warning of the problem a decade ago.
But what is striking is that Scotland’s Government – always fond of parading its progressive credentials – seems oblivious to the long term implications of its policies for modern languages. Stated simply, those who master a foreign language are more likely to feel confident and communicate clearly in multi-cultural settings; they are empowered. Those who are monolingual are more likely to feel uncertain and anxious in multi-cultural settings, and to seek out the company of their monolingual peers; they are disempowered.
Ask yourself this question: Which of these two groups will thrive in our increasingly cosmpolitan and globalised world, and which will find its options narrowed? And why on earth have successive governments, across the UK, done so little to tackle this obvious source of long term inequality and inefficiency.
Learned societies are becoming increasingly adept at raising their visibility and helping their members engage with a wider audience. I was particularly taken with the “Psychologist in the pub” talks being promoted by the British Psychological Society, but there are many other ways of bringing expertise out of the academy. And of course, these include the use of social media. Having blogged some time ago about how university departments of education use Twitter, I thought it might be interesting to see how our learned societies are getting on in the wonderful world of Tweeting.
The answer, it seems, is that they are finding it a bit of a struggle. The Table shows the crude numbers for the main British learned societies in educational studies. For comparison, I have included the European Educational Research Association. But none of these compares with the British Sociological Association (over 7,500 followers), which represents a discipline with far fewer academic members than ours – and also lacks a ‘natural audience’ of non-academics comparable to those who have passed through our hands. The Table also shows that some learned societies do better than others. I am currently managing the social media sites for the History of Education Society, a relatively small body that nevertheless has a strong social media profile – thanks entirely to my predecessor. On the other hand, some of the societies – particularly those involved in post-compulsory education – have a pretty tiny following. And some, such as the British Association for International and Comparative Education, seem to have no social media presence at all. Overall, I think the message is that the UK’s educational learned societies have a lot to – well, to learn – when it comes to social media. For reasons of size, we will never catch up with the American Educational Research Association (currently over 13,000 followers). But we could be a bit more imaginating in embracing new social media as a way of conducting conversations in public. After all, it isn’t as though our discipline is lacking in public interest, is it?
Workfare schemes are constantly in the news at the moment. Many of Britain’s historic work camps schemes were very much forms of welfare, aimed at giving unemployed men and other vulnerable groups – including sex workers, people with learning disabilities, epileptics and the tubercular – exposure to a period of therapeutic manual labour.
The idea of some kind of universal voluntary work service for the young, popular among Conservative thinkers when the current British coalition government was formed, seems to have slipped under the radar. But there were persistent campaigns, particularly during the 1930s, for public work – mainly in camps – as a form of universal national service.
Cyril Norwood is best known in Britain for his influence on the 1944 Education Act. R. A. Butler, then minister for education, chose Norwood to chair a committee on secondary education, which produced a report on Curriculum and Examinations in Secondary Schools that in turn influenced the 1944 Education Act, setting out the template for the division of state schools in England into three categories: secondary modern, technical, and grammar.
Little wonder that Gary McCulloch described Norwood as “one of the most prominent and influential English educators of the part century”. He was also a died-in-the-wool establshment figure who had passed the civil service entrance examination before devoting himself to a career in education. He served as a teacher in Leeds Grammar School, then as Master of Marlborough College, then headteacher of Harrow for eight years, before becoming Master of an Oxford College in 1934.
Norwood’s interests were many and varied, but among them was the idea of a national labour service. On a number of occasions Norwood wrote and spoke in favour of compulsory labour camps, setting down his ideas in journals like the Spectator. But his ideas were less concerned with workfare – or work-for-benefits – than with building character through collective body work, as a politically palatable alternative to national military service.
Like a number of other writers – including GDH Cole and the Webbs, socialists who had little in common with Norwood’s political stance – he favoured a universal scheme for all young men. He delliberately contrasted his scheme with the Ministry of Labour’s work camps for unemployed men, presenting his proposals for camps as “places for education and recreation” rather than mere training, which would “shake together the classes of the country as nothing else can”. The result should be “a generation with a new temperament . . . proud of itself and with a new sense of power and fitness”.
This was, of course, a selective and masculine focus. McCulloch points out that Norwood’s career was spent entirely in organisations for boys, staffed almost entirely by men, and this formative environment was common in Norwood’s social milieu. Hard work was widely viewed as good for the male body; Norwood’s argument was that hard work and camp life for young men were also good for the nation.