Researching adult learning and active citizenship

Over the next few months I’m going to be revisiting research into adult learning and active citizenship. Part of the initial rationale for looking at this area again was my assumption that it was definitely off the agenda for most adult learning researchers. Yet it was once a thriving field of study, with its own international network which pre-dated and then aligned itself with the European Society for Research on the Education of Adults.

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The ESREA network went very quiet about ten years ago, and I concluded that this area was now struggling. I’d imagined a few ageing scholars grumbling that no one listened to them any more, as new themes and topics forced their way up the agenda.From my point of view this was an ideal situation, of course: my starting point would be that now is an ideal time to breathe new life into this area.

Still, as you do, I decided to start the new work by checking out the literature. A quick online search of the International Journal of Lifelong Education yielded 114 articles that mentioned ‘active citizenship’. Taking those published from 2000 onwards, and excluding book reviews and editorials, I was still left with 86 articles, which is a sizeable number.

Even more striking are the yearly figures. The numbers spike in 2006, for no obvious reason (there wasn’t a special issue, for example). Otherwise, up to 2008, usually there are two or three articles a year which address active citizenship; from 2009 to 2014 there are seven or eight; then there is a fall to only three in 2015.

So the first thing I discovered was that my starting assumption was quite wrong. Far from being moribund, these figures suggest that research into active citizenship and adult learning is in reasonable health.

Of course, the crude figures on their own won’t take us very far. They include papers that deal with active citizenship as one among several outcomes of adult learning, papers that trace a decline in adult learning for active citizenship, and Foucauldian studies that present adult learning as part of a wider process of ‘government’ which turns subjects into active citizens. And it is perfectly possible for research into a topic to thrive while practice goes into decline, which may be the case here.

Even so, there is nothing to suggest that interest in the topic has vanished, and I find that quite heartening. It’s also annoying, as it means that I now have to jettison my cherished assumptions, and rethink my approach, but that is often how the research journey goes.

Cornton Vale: from inebriate colony to women’s gaol

Cornton Vale, Scotland’s one specialist prison for women, is closing.  You will find an interesting account of it by a former inmate here. The Scottish Government plans to replace it with a smaller specialist prison for long term women prisoners and to disperse others across the sector. I’m not qualified to judge whether this will improve prison conditions for women, or simply remove them from the spotlight by dispersing them.

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Image from Scottish Prison Service

This decision brings to an end a long and intriguing history of deviant incarceration. Cornton Vale farm, on the banks of the Forth just outside Stirling, went on the market in the economic downturn of the 1890s. For a number of years it functioned as an inebriate colony, whose inmates included some middle class alcoholics who on graduating were usually sent by their families to run estates in the dominions, but this venture failed and the farm went back on the market.

Inspired by the training colonies associated with the German Lutheran church, the Church of Scotland bought the 34-acre estate in 1907, with a house, sheds and greenhouses, for the sum of £23,500 with the aim of training ‘habitual inebriates’ as ‘colonists or as agricultural labourers’.

Operating through its Social Work Department, the Kirk officially opened its new labour colony in September 1907, aiming for an intake of 44 men. Although it continued to accept inebriates, over time the colony increasingly recruited the unemployed; once more, its aim was primarily to remove them from Scotland, and a number duly shipped out to Canada.

The Army requisitioned the site during WW1, after which the Kirk re-opened the colony , initially training jobless ex-servicemen while negotiating with the government for funding under the Empire Settlement Act. Some thirty to forty unemployed men were still being trained annually at Cornton Vale when the Empire Settlement scheme came to an end in 1929.

The new minority Labour government continued to fund small scale training for would-be emigrants, but this ceased in 1931. The Kirk, though, supported the colony for a number of years in the hope that improving economic conditions would bring about a return to Dominions emigration, and even extended the accommodation as late as 1938.

The colony was again taken over by the government during WW2. In 1946, the Kirk leased and subsequently sold the land to the Scottish Office Prisons Department, who opened it as a Borstal for young male offenders, then later as a prison for women which was partly built by young men serving their Borstal sentence.

Cornton Vale’s story exemplifies the changing ways in which work camps for deviants of different kinds have mutated over time, and as the story of Osea Island confirms, inebriate colonies in particular tended to change as funding sources dried up. Cornton Vale, though, is the only case to my knowledge which started as an inebriate reformatory and ended up as a women’s prison.

If you’d like a more detailed portrait of Cornton Vale, the Smith Gallery and Museum in Stirling has published a booklet that I can warmly recommend (contact details here).

Murder in the evening class: adult education and the crime novel

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I’ve just been to hear Klaus-Peter Wolf reading from his latest novel at my local bookshop. Wolf is best known for a series set in the far north western coastal region of East Friesland, whose central figure is Hauptkommissarin Ann Kathrin Claasen. Luckily for me, his work is highly readable, with relatively (for German) short sentences, lots of humour, and enjoyable plotting.

Several things strike me about the Claasen series. First, Claasen typifies a trend in German crime fiction, much of which has a female as the main detective. Some commentators have observed that you are much more likely to encounter a female Hauptkommissarin in fiction than in reality.

Second, the series is firmly rooted in its region. Indeed, I thought Wolf’s latest novel went overboard in contrasting the close, decent and upright communities of East Friesland with the freetic, atomised peoples of the cities (exemplified in this novel by an ambitious and ruthless reporter, who is promptly killed off).

It’s not just Wolf and East Friesland. Most German cities and regions have their own local crime writers, just as each of regional broadcaster contributes its own locale and detectives to the long-running series Tatort. Perhaps this local focus and identity in crime fiction is one more hangover from the many local states and principalities that were pushed and pulled into a Prussianised Germany in the late 1860s.

Third, though, is the role of adult education. When the principal criminal is hunting down a victim in the small town of Emden, he enrols in an adult education class at the local Volkshochschule. He studies alongside his victim before abducting her from the car park, after which detectives question her fellow classmates and the Volkshochschule principal.

Back in the real world, staff at Emden VHS seem to have embraced their fictional infamy. Far from worrying that their reputation had been stained by a vile crime, they invited the author to read from his book, accompanied by music from his wife Bettina Göschl.

This made me wonder whether and how adult learning generally features in fiction. It might be a natural location in Germany, where adult education centres are everywhere (there is a large one ten minutes’ walk away from where I live), but what about writers in other countries? I’m aware of Maeve Binchy’s novel The Evening Class, set in a Dublin suburb and  apparently often discussed by reading groups, but I can’t think of other novels that feature adult learners.

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I can’t help but think that British crime writers like Ian Rankin and Val McDermid have so far missed a trick. Adult courses can be filled with suppressed intrigue, they sometimes make people frustrated with their circumstances, and they have been known to provoke jealousy from spouses and even children.An ideal setting for murder and mayhem, then.

Yet how many murders are linked – in fiction, of course – to adult courses? Is fictional mayhem in adult education a positive indicator of a learning society? And what about the shift to digital learning – can you actually murder someone in a MOOC?

 

 

Shaping European policies for adult learning

In 2009, the European Union set itself a series of objectives for education and training by 2020. This agenda, known in summary as ET2020, set four common goals, including that of ‘making lifelong learning and mobility a reality’. It also identified a number of benchmarks, one of which is that at least 15% of adults should participate in some form of lifelong learning.

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Since 2009, a number of working groups have been helping to shape European policies in these different areas. The first stage of this process is now over, and the existing working groups – one of them focusing on adult learning – are due to be replaced. The new working groups will function between 2016 and 2018, by which time presumably all will be in place (or not) for the 2020 finishing line.

So who will sit on these working groups? I don’t know the names of the individuals, but the European Commission has published a list of the organisations who will nominate them. In the case of the Working Group on Adult Learning (WGAL) they are:

  • BusinessEurope, an umbrella group of business organisations (including the CBI)
  • The European Association of Craft, Small and Medium-sized Enterprises
  • The European Association for the Education of Adults
  • European Association of Vocational Education and Training Institutions
  • The European Federation of Education Employers
  • The European Trade Union Committee for Education
  • The EuropeanTrade Union Confederation

I notice that the European Universities Continuing Education Network, which previously was represented, is not among the 2016-18 members.

The Commission has also published the ‘mandate‘ for the working groups. WGAL is asked to address the ‘concrete issues’ of  promoting and widening the availability of workplace learning and responding to demands for workforce up- and re-skilling, especially for the low and mid-skilled.

There is no scope, then, for learning as personal development or active citizenship. However, the two vocational goals are understood in comparatively broad terms, so that WGAL will also be asked to consider such matters as migrant integration and intergenerational solidarity, albeit within the context of workforce skills. And there is a separate working group on promoting citizenship, whose remit is currently limited to children and young people; if we wish to expand their remit, then that means a bit of work.

Osea Island: workfare camp, inebriate retreat

Helen Rogers, a socio-cultural historian who studies working class writing among other things, runs the fabulous website on working class autobiographies called Writing Lives. The other day she tweeted a link to a post about the life of May Owen, a Londoner born in 1896, whose father was an alcoholic.

May writes that: ‘I can remember Charrington the Brewers son forming a club for alcoholics my father was one of thirty sent to a small island off the Thanet coast Osea Island. No drink, his wage given to my mother and he had to help build a sea wall.’

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Osea Island – image from Wikipedia

Helen’s Tweet asked whether Osea was one of my ‘work camps’. The short answer is yes: it was indeed one of the many work camps that were opened in Britain for marginal and stigmatised groups. Osea hosted a labour colony for unemployed Londoners, which became a colony for habitual inebriates, as the island’s owner was a leading temperance campaigner and social reformer.

Frederick Charrington might seem an unexpected adherent of temperance. Son of a London brewing dynasty, Charrington reportedly sold his shares in the family business after seeing a drunk man punch his wife. He promoted the Ragged School movement, supported striking Jewish tailors, and helped open a temperance assembly hall on the Mile End Road.

Charrington bought the island in 1903,with a view to turning it into an inebriate retreat. Initially, he opened a small colony for inebriate women. This proved a failure, and in 1904 he invited the London local authorities to use it for poor relief.Supported by the Lord Mayor’s fund, unemployed male heads of household were sent in the following winter to live on the island, where they laid roads, leveled land, and built sea walls while living in wooden huts.

Further groups were sent in the following year, under the auspices of the Central (Unemployed) Body for London. At full capacity, the dormitories held 80 bunks, but William Beveridge estimated that  there were usually around 70 men in residence.

A number of interested visitors came to view the colony, including Beveridge, who  noted that the unemployed residents were supplied with boots on loan, and had to bring one change of clothing. They had to be accustomed to heavy labour, and were inspected for infections and cleanliness before entering the colony. The colony rules, he reported, were simple:

(a) Prompt obedience to orders;

(b) Sobriety;

(c) Observance of appointed hours

Rules or not, three of the first group of 25 men rapidly scurried off to the mainland, where they apparently caused a disturbance in the pubs of Malden.

After 1905, and using the infrastructure built by the unemployed Londoners, Charrington then opened a temperance holiday village on the island. According to the Little Book of Essex, the locals smuggled alcohol out to the island, and ferried thirsty holiday-makers to Malden.

Charrington’s holiday settlement continued until the Great War, when the Admiralty commandeered the island for use as a motor boat harbour. In 1934, the Rural Community Council of Essex opened a ‘reconditioning camp’ on the Island to help unemployed men improve their fitness and readiness for work.

Since the 1940s, its main claim to fame is as a splendid habitat for bird life. Strangely, though, the great house on Osea briefly returned to its earlier role at the start of the present century, when it was opened as a retreat for wealthy addicts – including, most famously, Amy Winehouse. That venture also failed, and the island is now marketed as a luxury holiday destination.

May is wrong about one thing: Osea is off the Essex coast, and not Thanet. Essex was a popular location for labour colonies, situated close enough to London to simplify transport but far enough to cause trainees to think twice about running away. There was also plentiful land, much of it economically marginal so that it therefore presented abundant opportunities for reclamation work.

 

The curious absence of older workers from the equity and skills agenda

One of the things I find admirable in current Scottish policy thinking is that skills policies are broadly aligned with policies for equalities and poverty reduction. Quite how this works out in practice is of course another – very difficult – matteer. But at least the general intention of marrying skills development with equity is clear and unambiguous.

There is, though, a lingering gap in the thinking when it comes to age and ageism. I took a quick look at the 2010 ‘refresh’ of Skills for Scotland, the Scottish Government’s main policy document for the area. This key text barely mentions skills and adult workers, and presents no strategic thinking on the older workforce.

In 63 pages, the word adult is used eleven times; seven of those refer to adult literacy and numeracy, and ESOL, unemployed career guidance, offenders and local council services get one mention each. There is one reference to older workers, in the appendix.

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Age distribution of Scotland’s population in the 2011 census

Scotland’s population profile is an aging one. As in so many European countries but in contrast to England, Scottish society is characterised by low birth rates and relatively low rates of immigration.This has obvious implications for the size and shape of Scotland’s working age population, so the absence of any serious thinking about the upskilling and reskilling of older workers is striking.

Vocational education on parade: a microcosm of German’s dual system

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I’m currently living in Cologne, where I’m fortunate enough to have a visiting post at the university. My blog in the coming months will likely contain more pieces on German education than usual.

This time I want to write about Karneval, supposedly a way of marking the onset of Lent, but actually a massive celebration of everything Kölsch. The central features of Karneval are that five days of fancy dress, drinking, and parades. The parades range from local neighbourhood activities through to the four-hour march and ride by members of the Karneval associations (many of whom dress in eighteenth century military uniforms). In the middle comes the Schulzöch, or schools parade, involving secondary pupils and members of various local clubs, wearing home-made fancy dress.

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Among the 49 schools who paraded this year were the staff and pupils of Berufskolleg Ehrenfeld. The Berufskollege in the Land of Nordrhein-Westfalen are secondary level institutions who accept young people who have completed their ten years of compulsory education, most of whom will have an apprenticeship contract with a local employer, and leads to a formal examination and certificate on completion.

This represents a highly structured pathway into skilled employment. Pupils can expect a combination of college-based and work-based learning, with a mixture of vocational and general education. On conclusion they can, if they wish, move on to higher education, through a Fachhochschul (broadly, a technical university).

Let me take the role of baker, a trade which requires three years of workplace experience, combined with college instruction in work organisation, production techniques, and sales, as well as politics, social science, German, sport and health, communications, and religious studies. In short, the aim remains that of a well-trained baker with a rounded skillset.

From a UK perspective, two things stand out about this pattern. The first is the specialist nature of the Berufskolleg, which is defined as a school with a specific purpose; to our eyes, it would look like a form of streaming, in which kids are placed rigidly at age 16 on different pathways. Second, the highly structured combination of academic and workplace learning over three years, including continuing experiences of general education, is a long way from the mishmash of programmes of different lengths and types that are branded as apprenticeships in the UK.

The German system has its critics, but it is generally held to be a gold standard against which other European transitions are judged. Naturally I can’t speak for the quality of the training and education at the Berufskolleg Ehrenfeld. What I can say is that the bread in Ehrenfeld is, as almost everywhere in Germany, wonderful.