Debating adult learning in the House of Lords


Baroness Sharp, copyright Policy Connect

The House of Lords is an anachronistic piece of our constitution, a second chamber that represents two profoundly undemocratic principles: inherited power, and appointment by the government of the day. So I hope that its days are numbered, but in the meantime it’s the only second chamber we have. And it is discussing adult learning.

First, Baroness Uddin has asked to discuss English for Speakers of other Languages (ESOL). This follows the Prime Minister’s announcement that the government is providing £20 millions for migrant women to learn English as a way of preventing terrorism. This is the same government that last July sliced the ESOL budget by £45 millions.

Manzila Pola Uddin, formerly a Labour politician, has a strong track record of involvement in adult education and training, and she has helped promote skills training for Asian women. Sadly, she was caught up in the public scandal over MPs’ expenses, in a way that seriously damaged her credibility.  But I’m inclined to think that she knows what she is talking about, and that her views on our government’s slippery track record on English for Speakers of Other Languages should be listened to.

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Next, Baroness Sharp is debating the role of adult education and lifelong learning in strengthening the UK economy. Formerly the Liberal Democrats’ spokesperson in the Lords on further and higher education, Margaret Sharp chaired the 2011 Independent Inquiry into Colleges in Their Communities, sponsored by NIACE, the Association of Colleges and the 157 Group. She is also an active member of the Lords’ Select Committee on Social Mobility, which is due to report shortly.

Adult learning hasn’t exactly been a priority for their Lordships in recent years. But here we are – two debates in a single morning. I’ve just been asked to brief one of the members of the Lords, and it will be interesting to see whether any of my suggestions get an airing. More importantly, while they are unlikely to produce much in the way of direct change in government policy, Lords debates provide an opportunity to shape the wider climate of opinion, and set the longer term direction of travel.


My choice for books of the year

I was delighted when the Times Higher invited me to contribute to their feature on ‘Books of 2015’. I then faced the problem of what to select, from the many books I’d enjoyed reading during the year.

I started by excluding books that I’d already written about elsewhere, such as Georgina Brewis’ wonderful study of student volunteering in Britain. I also decided to rule out works of fiction, and in a fit of academic earnestness I also struck off Ian Macmillan’s search for the meanings of Yorkshireness.

There may have been excellent books about higher education and adult learning over the year, but I couldn’t remember reading anything that struck me as exceptional. I ended up with two very different books, both of which made me think, and one of which made me smile.

thes books

Benny Lynch: the world boxing champion who fought in a work camp


Lynch’s grave, image copyright Lairich Rig and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons

Benny Lynch was arguably the greatest boxer that Scotland has ever produced. Born in the Gorbals in 1913, he became world flyweight champion in 1936 (or 1935, depending on which world championship we are talking about) and was a popular Glasgow hero. The popular actor Norman Wisdom, himself a handy amateur flyweight boxer, was said to be desperate to play him.

Now a campaign for a statue in his honour has received support from the actor Robert Carlyle among others. I happen to think a statue would be highly fitting. But my interest in Lynch was sparked less by his sporting prowess than by the fact that he fought an exhibition match in front of an audience of staff and trainees at a government work camp.

This information comes from Mr Ian MacArthur, who contacted the Dunoon Observer after reading an interview about my book on work camps. Mr MacArthur’s grandfather kept a local temperance hotel, and in 1934 his father became woodwork and metalwork instructor at Ardentinny Instructional Centre. Mr MacArthur remembered his father saying that the camp manager had arranged for Benny Lynch to visit the camp, where he fought an exhibition match with the physical training instructor.

Ardentinny was one of 24 ICs in 1934, run by the Ministry of Labour to ‘harden’ young unemployed men through a combination of hard work, a solid diet, and basic medical care. By 1934, the camps also provided some basic skills training, literacy classes, and entertainment, including films and sports, of which football and boxing were far the most popular (along with rugby in Wales). If you look closely at the postcard below, you can see men swimming in the Clyde.

Ardentinny postcard

These activities were, of course, highly compatible with the camps’ aim of ‘reconditioning’ male bodies. Presumably, they also went some way to alleviate the tedium of camp existence, particularly if a local celebrity like Lynch was involved.


The collapse of adult learning in Scotland – a government response 

I wrote last week about Scottish Funding Council data showing further decline in part-time student numbers in colleges. The learners whose courses have been cut are overwhelmingly adults, and a majority are female. Now the Scottish Government, in the form of the Minister for Skills and Training, has explained that this is part of a strategy to remove courses of low quality or of no particular benefit.


Scotsman, 16 January 2016

You will, unfortunately, search in vain on the Scottish Government website for evidence to support this statement. I am not aware of any serious evidence that the lost part-time adult courses were of low quality, or that they had no real long term benefits. On the other hand there are quite a few inpection reports praising the quality of part-time college courses, and there is plenty of research showing that these courses have tangible benefits for learners.

Still, I am pleased that the Minister at least saw fit to justify her government’s decisions, even if the justification is utterly unconvincing. I welcome it as a sign that at long last we might have at least the semblance of a debate on the future of adult learning in Scotland.



Do MOOCs attract older learners?

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Particularly popular with older learners

MOOCs are increasingly familiar – I reckon most people recognise the acronym for massive open online courses – but they still attract controversy. For those who still have an open mind on the issue, there’s a nice summary of the pros and cons here. Either way, though, MOOCs are an important newish arrival on the scene, and they are changing the context for adult learners, including older adult learners.

A number of studies have shown that older adults are a significant proportion of those who follow MOOCs. One early analysis of enrolments on MOOCs offered through the UK FutureLearn consortium found that 26% were aged 56 or over; it also found that 58% were women. Now a recent study has looked at the ages of people enrolling on ten courses offered by one British university through FutureLearn.

In seven of the ten courses, learners aged under 36 were a minority; the three exceptions were two courses in English and one on programming. In two courses, over one third of learners were aged 56 or over: this older group comprised 36.7% of learners enrolled on Our changing climate: Past, present and future and 39.5% on Heart health: A beginner’s guide to cardiovascular diseases.

Over one-eighth of the learners on both courses were aged 66 or over. By contrast, hardly any older learners were enrolled on A beginner’s guide to writing in English for university study – English. The university offered two MOOCs with this title; 0.6% of students on the the more basic MOOC were aged 66+, and 1.5% on the more advanced MOOC. And a mere 0.5% of learners on Managing people: Engaging your workforce were in this age group.

It would, of course, be interesting to know much more about these older MOOC learners. For example, are older learners more likely to complete the course than younger ones? How do different learners use what they have learned through a MOOC? And who gets the most out of them?  Research in MOOCs is exploding, and it is important that some of it at least is sensitive to older learners’ participation.

The authors of this particular study suggest that MOOCs could play a useful role in health and well-being by helping reduce isolation among older adults. This means engaging them as learners by promoting MOOCs in places that attract seniors, as well as developing new MOOCs in topics that are likely to interest seniors. More radically, they also recommend giving seniors ‘the opportunity to co-create community courses by providing an open space for discussions and collaborations’.




The continuing collapse of adult learning in Scotland’s colleges

Colleges in Scotland are still a major provider of adult learning but increasingly they are focused on full-time higher education for young people. The latest Baseline Report on Scottish colleges confirms this continuing trend north of the border.

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Over the last year, there were over 2,200 fewer part-time learners in Scottish colleges. The largest decline came in part-time further education, which seemed last year to have plateaued at around 202,000 learners. As in previous years, the fall represents a particularly heavy loss for adult learners in general and women in particular.

This time last year, I posted an analysis of the decline in part-time higher education in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland. At least in Scotland, part-time higher education appears to have held its own last year, both in colleges and in universities. But the decline in part-time further education continues.

What we are seeing amounts to a reshaping of the college landscape in Scotland. A majority of their full-time students are young people pursuing higher education programes, which broadly represents the political priority of the Scottish Government. Currently, there is no evidence that voters object to this process, so it is likely to continue.





Rationalizing the unreasonable: there are no good academics in the EU

Accessing external research funding is increasingly a basic part of what it means to be an academic today. Some sources of funding are more competitive than others, and the EU’s Horizon2020 programme is particularly tough for researchers in the humanities and social sciences. I have served as an evaluator for the Horizon2020 programme; I have also in the past applied to the predecessor programmes. I can therefore relate very easily to this blog by Jan Blommaert, who gives an informed and thoughtful account from an applicant’s perspective.



Jan Blommaert 

Attracting external funding has become, everywhere, one of the main priorities of academics, and writing funding application has consequently also become one of their main tasks. The idea is “competitiveness”: quality will be evident when academics, individually or in teams, acquire funding after a strict and rigorously exclusive peer-review process. In addition, specific sources of funding are specified as benchmarks, suggesting that they are the “most competitive” ones, and therefore also the best and most objective indicators of quality: think of the ESRC in the UK or (the focus of this text) the European framework program Horizon 2020. In every form of performance management – for individual academics seeking promotion or tenure, for research teams, departments and entire universities – success in such benchmark external funding acquisition is given immense positive attention. Universities, consequently, impose quota on their academic units – “you shall apply for at least five…

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Training provision in the Third Sector: the case of Age UK

Age UK is a highly respected voluntary organisation, which lobbies and campaigns on behalf of older people.It also provides services such as befriending, information and advice, runs a radio station, promotes volunteering, and funds research. To quote its own annual report, Age UK is “dedicated to helping people love later life”.

As part of that aim, Age UK provides quite a wide range of education and training. One of its core aims, according to its articles of association, is that of ‘advancing education’, with a view to building the capacities of older adults and improving the skills and knowledge of those who provide services.

As well as helping older adults learn new skills (from self-care to Skype), Age UK offers training services to employers such as health service and social care bodies, and it also runs its own programmes, including apprenticeship schemes and updating courses for professionals.

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From Age UK’s annual report for 2014

This adds up to quite a sizeable operation. In 2014, for example, Age UK estimated that it raised over £10 millions through its training activities – equivalent to almost a quarter of the £46 millions that it raised from its much more familiar voluntary activities. In 2014 it had some 3,500 registered learners, of whom two-thirds were pursuing apprenticeships.

This is an impressive level of activy, confirming that third sector organisations like Age UK are important players in our increasingly flexible market for training and adult learning.  But according to the government inspectorate, the quality of Age UK’s training and education is not what it should be.

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Age UK’s most recent Ofsted report covers an inspection that took place last November. The inspectors reported many failings that included low completion rates, widespread variations in attendance rates, a failure to challenge learners, poor monitoring of progress, patchy feedback, and, not surprisingly, poor overall management and leadership. They concluded that ‘This is an inadequate provider’.

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One of the more damning findings

In fairness, some of the judgements could apply elsewhere. In a high-stakes assement regime, it is probably common to find – as the report notes – that ‘many trainers focus overly on assessment criteria and not enough on helping learners develop good vocational work skills’.

Many colleges and a growing number of universities could similarly be described as suffering ‘rapid turnover of training instructors and delays in the recruitment of replacements with the appropriate skills’, leading to ‘a decline in teaching standards’.

And Age UK is certainly not the only provider where ‘Reports from managers to supervisory boards focus too heavily on financial targets and reports from external awarding bodies, and not enough on the quality of provision’.

Ofted also recognised some strengths, including good pastoral care and strong links to the labour market. Overall, though, the report raises significant concerns over the quality of training in one of our largest voluntary organisations whose prime concern is improving the quality of later life.

Like a number of other charities, Age UK has handed responsibility for much of its training activities to a semi-commercial trading arm, Age UK (Trading) CIC. I can’t help wondering whether keeping training at arm’s length in this way, while financially advantageous, has led to a weakening of accountability and diluted the focus on Age UK’s main aims.

The charity has said that it will address the concerns raised by Ofsted, but perhaps it also needs to look at the factors that created the problems in the first place. Meanwhile, if the UK is to move still further in the direction of a marketised system of adult skills development, some way has to be found of ensuring that learners do not lose out as a result of poor quality provision.


Skills in a coastal community – the relentless tide of supply side thinking

As a citizen and ratepaper I have just responded to my local council’s consultation for its draft corporate plan. Called Towards 2030, the plan is intended to provide the overarching framework for the wide range of activities that Scarborough Borough Council undertakes on behalf of its population of just over 100,000 people.

At the moment, the Council is interested in our response to the four broad, high-level aims that it proposes to pursue. A cynic would say these are ‘apple pie’ statements, which focus on people, place, prosperity and the Council itself – all four lined up under the ambitious vision of ‘a prosperous Borough, with a high quality of life for all’.

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I had plenty to say about all this, but what struck me was how far the section on prosperity focused on education and skills.This includes turning the Borough into ‘the most highly skilled coastal community by 2030’, a target that I would bet my coffin will never be met (and will probably be quietly forgotten by 2020).

Coastal communities across Britain are generally characterised by low skills levels, and their economies are often characterised by a heavy reliance on low wage and precarious forms of employment. As a result, government has announced a series of initiatives to help regenerate coastal areas, with a major focus on training places and apprenticeships.

All this is of course fine. The problem, though, is that improving the skills and aspirations of young people (and adult workers) may well be highly desirable, but it will not create a highly skilled population. Far more probably, well-educated and highly-motivated workers will immediately move elsewhere to realise their ambitions and use their skills – as indeed they already do from coastal towns like Whitby, Scarborough and Filey.

Scarborough Borough Council is hardly alone in focussing on skills supply as the panacea for all ills. I can see why local government might look at local labour markets and decide that the solution to low skills is to train and educate the young. And the Council has done well in some respects, for example in securing the provision of a higher education campus in the Borough, with Coventry University offering a broad range of degrees.

The problem is that to retain skilled and motivated workers means raising the demand for skills, by promoting types of employment that will use and reward those skills. And in turn that means interventions of some sort to help reshape the local economy and move it up the value chain. These interventions, whether government-led or business-led, will inevitably be of a kind that so far local and devolved governments in the UK have been most reluctant to pursue.