The coming crisis of adult learning in Scotland

The next two or three weeks will see local councils setting their budgets, in a context of significant reductions in overall spending. This will be a particularly tough year for non-statutory services such as community learning and development (CLD), which encompasses most youth work and adult learning.

CLD has already been reduced in many councils, thanks partly to a government commitment not to increase council tax rates. One result is that there are far fewer experienced professionals in the system, and accordingly fewer people with the knowledge, connections and passion to lobby on CLD’s behalf. The early signs for the coming year though are deeply troubling.

Moray Council has already agreed its budget http://www.moray.gov.uk/moray_standard/page_119975.html, which includes cuts to ESOL of £18,000 in 2019-20 and a further £23,000 in the following year, along with ‘removal’ of its Essential Skills (adult literacy and numeracy) provision. Moray says it is adopting an assets-based approach in these areas, though what that means is so far unclear.

South Lanarkshire meanwhile has justified proposed cuts to employability programmes by the use of digital and online resources, which “will allow more clients to meet their needs through self-service routes at a reduced cost”.

No one is arguing that adult learning is unpopular and uncalled by local residents. On the contrary: when North Lanarkshire Council consulted residents over its proposed cuts, it found that from a long list of 47 options, the restructuring of CLD was second most disliked. And as Scotland’s Learning Partnership has repeatedly emphasised, the evidence of adult learning’s public benefits is now overwhelming.

CLD has a proud tradition and has been a distinctive part of Scotland’s education provision since the 1970s. It has also provided credibility and a learning infrastructure for ventures into community participation in other policy areas. And as other providers have withdrawn or closed down through earlier budget cuts, so CLD has come to serve as the last major form of public adult learning in Scotland. The next weeks are, then, critical.

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Ofsted’s new inspection framework: adult learning for active citizens with British values?

Ofsted is consulting on its future frameworks for inspection, including inspections of further and adult education. The draft framework for further education and skills sets out a number of areas in which provision (and this explicitly includes adult learning) will be judged:

  • Quality of education
  • Behaviour and attitudes
  • Personal development
  • Leadership and management

I was very interested to see the more detailed discussion of these areas, as well as the interconnections between them. Of particular interest for me was the draft elaboration of ‘personal development’, which make it clear that providers are expected to develop wider capacities and qualities among their learners.

It further elaborates that learning should foster active citizenship and promote equality of opportunity and diversity, as well as instilling ‘fundamental British values’ and encouraging responsibility for one’s own fitness and health.

While talk of ‘ British values’ might raise some hackles, and some will bridle at individuals being responsible for their wellbeing, I don’t have a problem with any of this, at least as formulated in the draft framework. It goes without saying that the values listed are certainly not unique to this island, nor indeed to western Europe; and encouraging individuals to look after their bodies sensibly isn’t incompatible with a strong national health service.

I can, though, envisage circumstances in which a future education minister will spot political capital in this, and revise it to his or her partisan advantage. If recent political events have taught us anything, it is that the unthinkable is entirely possible. Meanwhile, I rather welcome this part of Ofsted ‘s draft framework as restoring a neglected dimension of further and adult education.

Commercial adult education: graffiti

As I’ve said before, you can learn quite a bit about commercial adult education just by wandering around. GraffitiArtist, who run a shop in Birmingham’s Custard Factory, claim on their website to offer “the ultimate positive Urban Art experience, and provide graffiti workshops for the general public as well as classes tailored to particular groups. They even offer a basic introduction to graffiti as a party for hens and stags. And its a lot cheaper than learning to make cupcakes in Edinburgh…

You can probably figure out for yourself who the participants are likely to be, and what the benefits are – or aren’t – to the budding graffiti artists and the wider community. Who knows – maybe in thirty years time, a new Banksy will look back fondly on her days at the Custard Factory.

blog graffiti

Does anyone know what became of the Liberal Democrats’ Lifelong Learning Commission?

Last summer, the Liberal Party announced that it had put together a Commission on Lifelong Learning. This followed a conference speech by party leader Vince Cable in autumn 2017, backing the widely-discussed idea of a national system of learning accounts, accessible at any stage of life. This in itself followed the Party’s manifesto commitment in the 2017 election to an ambitious expansion in adult learning, including those famous learning accounts.

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Vince Cable – image licensed under Creative Commons

Chaired by Rajay Naik, a prominent specialist in marketing higher education and formerly Director of Government and External Affairs at the Open University, the Commission was supposed to flesh out these bold ideas. It was launched with the promise that the membership and timescale would be announced in weeks, with the formal consultation process following ‘shortly’ afterwards. The membership was revealed in June 2018, with a number of high profile individuals in its ranks, including Stephen Evans from the Learning and Work Institute, Ruth Spellman from the Workers Educational Association, Matthew Taylor from the Royal Society for the Arts, and Polly Mackenzie, of the think tank Demos.

Since then, I’ve seen and heard nothing further. Of course Cable has announced his plans to retire, and his Party – as the only organised parliamentary expression of support for the European Union – has its hands full. And this year yet another group has established its own commission on adult learning, with Ruth Spellman once again among the members, so we’re not facing a sudden dearth of commissions and reports. Still, it’s a pity if the Liberal Democrats have lost interest in lifelong learning as a result.

Unlike some of my chums, who see the Liberal Democrats as a marginal, I think their views matter. Quite apart from their possible role in any future coalition, they have significant influence in local government, and they can help shape public debate. Further, the idea of learning accounts is worth exploring, and any constructive thinking should be welcome to policy makers of any colour. Creating a lifelong learning commission attracted press publicity and generated hope. Is anyone in a position to say whether it still exists, and if so what it is doing?

 

Commercial adult education: cupcakes

Demand for adult learning shows no sign of diminishing, yet in many countries the volume of public provision is in decline. That is certainly the case in the UK, where the Learning and Work Institute tracks participation on a regular basis. Meanwhile, provision by voluntary and commercial organisations appears to be thriving.

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It isn’t hard to find examples of new forms of private provision: you can spot them simply by walking around with your eyes open. I photographed these images in a shop window while we were heading for coffee in the Edinburgh suburb of Roseburn. While I mustn’t over-generalise on the basis of a narrow and unrepresentative sample of advertising placards, a few thoughts occur to me.

Businesses sometimes offer courses as a by-product of their main activities, as in this case. Consequently the additional costs of running even an extensive course programme alongside the core activity appear to be quite modest. Prices can seem high (my partner, who is not an adult educator, was shocked in this case by the fee of £65 for a two and a half hour class). The offer is unconstrained by government regulation, or by expectations of a community benefit. There is no bar on participation, but there is also no focus on social or educational disadvantage.

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Alan Tuckett sometimes compares adult learning to an infestation of weeds: “However hard you try, you can never kill it off”. If it dies off in one place, it soon pops up in another. And while there are benefits from a healthy range of private and voluntary sector provision, I also think there are risks; what we need is a balance, with public policy playing its part alongside other actors.

Film and the public historian – what does a historical adviser actually do?

I’ve just been listening to Dan Snow’s interview with Jacqueline Riding, author of a magnificent history of the Jacobites who now has a new book out on Peterloo. I’m an admirer of her work, which includes her roles of historical adviser to two much-loved Mike Leigh movies, Turner and Peterloo.

The red plaque on Manchester Free Trade Hall was itself the subject of controversy after it replaced a blue plaque that ignored the dead and injured.

Most of the interview covers the background to the 1819 massacre, but Snow also asked her what she actually did on the films (she has also blogged on this topic). As well as generally advising on what we can understand from the available evidence, she rummaged through the archives to provide accounts of who was in the audience that day and what preceded the public meeting, dug up copies of speeches, provided a timeline, read and commented on the ‘script’ (something more like notes in Leigh’s case) as it emerged, advised on casting, worked with the actors, and answered questions from the costume, props and scenery departments.

Snow also wanted to know whether there are moments in the film that, as historian, she found inaccurate or misleading. Riding carefully dodged a direct answer, pointing out that her book is where she had put the historical work, for those who wanted to know more. I’ve yet to get my hands on a copy, but I enjoyed and was impressed by the Jacobites book, and look forward to the new study.

Meanwhile, what struck me was that the historical adviser really has to put in the hours. Riding is a trained historian who is skilled at identifying and evaluating source material, and an eloquent presenter of her findings, but there must be plenty of others with those skills. Rather few also have the skill set needed for working with filmmakers, as well as the requisite public profile, the flexible time (Riding has been an independent scholar since leaving her role as director of the Handel House Museum), and of course a very good agent.

What I particularly admore is her capacity for combining high level scholarship with the ability to reach out to a broad audience. In our times, we need more scholars like her, though I hope that they will include plenty who continue to work in universities, museums, libraries and other bodies with multiple educational functions.

2018: the top ten posts on this site

Blogging platforms provide you with all sorts of data about your blog. Most of it is fairly basic, unless you opt to pay for a superior version. For what it’s worth, here are the top ten posts for 2019, a year when this site had 12,793 views from 9,361 visitors (no, I don’t know what that means either, but it gives you a rough sense of scale).

I’m surprised by the popularity of the post on holistic evaluation, which isn’t much more than inconclusive rumination on what the term might mean. I’m intrigued that the award of honours to adult educators created so much interest. I’m concerned that so many people want to know more about online scholarly scams. I’m not surprised by the interest in learner funding. And I’m mildly disappointed that none of my posts on work camps got close to the top ten.

The end of a year always provokes such stock-taking. The main lesson is that blogging is a great way of communicating, but not great at promoting dialogue. Or perhaps I need to do things slightly differently – your suggestions would be most welcome!