About thelearningprofessor

I'm an academic, interested in lifelong learning. Right now I am learning Brazilian Portuguese, more slowly than I'd like; and writing two books, one on British work camps 1880-1939 and one on intergenerational learning.

Higher Education and the German Coalition

The new German government has large immediate challenges, from Covid to Ukraine. As the new coalition involves three parties with very different underlying philosophies who have never previously governed together at federal level, nothing is likely to be easy. They share, however, a sense of Germany as a country in pressing need of a necessary modernisation, a word that permeates the government’s discourse and is emphasised as early as the preamble to the Coalition Agreement and symbolised in its subtitle: Dare More Progress.

Unsurprisingly, the coalition is showing a strong interest in education and research. I’ve already posted on the implications for adult learning, workforce skills, and apprenticeships. But the Coalition Agreement also has plenty to say about higher education and research, and these help clarify what it means by modernisation.

First, a simple counting exercise. The Agreement makes nine references to universities and five to Hochschulen (actually six, but one concerns the Volkshochschulen, or public adult education centres), as well as 94 to research and 65 to science (Wissenschaft). There are also 21 mentions of the word Stiftung (foundation), reflecting the importance of research foundations like Max Planck in supporting and influencing research. I don’t think this imbalance is misleading; although the coalition does have ideas for improving teaching and learning, its main interest lies in the potential of science in greasing the wheels of modernisation.

The Agreement is clear on its priorities for higher education institutions (HEIs): “We will strengthen our universities and higher education institutes of applied science as the heart of our research system, and support and accelerate innovation and transfer from the application of basic research”. It specifically commits the coalition to a target of raising public spending on R&D to 3.5% of GDP by 2025, as well as to the creation of a German Agency for Transfer and Innovation to support smaller HEIs. It nods approvingly in the direction of European and international networking, and hints at measures to make Germany more attractive to top researcher from abroad as well as incvreasing Germany’s capacity to engage with China and Asia.

The core of the coalition’s research policy, though, is to generate knowledge transfer. To achieve greater tech transfer, the coalition plans to continue and strengthen the existing Pact for Research and Innovation which provides targeted support for the four largest research foundations, and is broadly open – without a specific commitment – to the idea of a German Tech Transfer Fund. It also hints at a degree of selectivity through the adoption of “the British model” of regional networks (Oxford and Cambridge are said to be the examplars) where “selected locations as lighthouses” have concentrations of top researchers in strategic subjects, such as biotechnology where it believes Germany can be a world leader.

“Modernisation” is also taken to embrace openness to public engagement. It sounds a programmatic note in announcing that “Science is not a closed system but lives from exchange and communication with society”. Researchers will develop their communications skills, and the idea is floated of an independent foundation to support science journalism. There is a commitment to strengthening the role of citizen science, as well as strengthening existing commitments to open access and open science and promising a new law on access to research data.

In a sign of the balance within the coalition, the Agreement seeks to promote excellence and competitiveness along with equity and inclusion. It defines gender equity and diversity as fundamental to quality and competitiveness, and announces new training programmes for university imams. It argues that good science requires secure conditions of employment, particularly for post-docs, and promises that the government will support “modern governance-, personnel-, and organisational structures” along with improved standards of leadership and compliance.

As well as plans for strengthening knowledge transfer and innovation, the coalition has ideas about improving teaching and learning. The Agreement promises further development of the Foundation for Innovation in Higher Education Teaching in promoting the use of digital learning, as well as announcing a federal project of ‘digital higher education’ and the introduction of ‘micro-degrees’ to recognise participation in continuing higher education.

And there’s more, but to keep this post manageable I’m selectively summarising those ideas and proposals that strike me as particularly significant. What should be clear is that the coalition partners have given considerable thought to higher education and research, and have reached agreement on quite a large number of policy aims. Their main focus of attention looks to me to be the strengthening of knowledge transfer, particularly for economic competitiveness but also for the social good. It will be interesting to see how these broad policy goals are translated into practice.


Distance learning for sommeliers and chefs using lickable screens

See the source image

We’ve all become used to digital innovation influencing the ways we learn, fuelled by increasing possibilities of human-device interaction. Now comes the news that a Japanese professor has developed a ‘lickable screen’ which can mimic food flavours. Or, to be more precise, the screen is linked to a group of canisters which spray a mix of flavourings onto a rolling film. The developer, Professor Homei Miyashita of Meiji University, suggests that it could be used for remote training in the food and hospitality industry.

This story emerged just before Christmas, and I missed it at the time. I’m now wondering who will pioneer the use of the technology, which could be engineered not only to train chefs or sommeliers but also to test and assess them. It has potential to be highly inclusive, especially for people working in remote or rural regions, and lends itself to on-the-job training. Professor Miyashita estimates the likely cost at $875 (£735) per device, but presumably that should fall over time.

If it’s hygienic and covid-secure, I’d easily be persuaded to trail this technology – would you?

Commercial adult learning: the mobile gin school

Gin Lane by William Hogarth (1750-51)

Adult learning in Britain has recently been the focus of much public policy, but publicly-funded adult learning has seen better days. This paradox continues to frustrate and annoy me, but at the same time I am fascinated by some of the quirky learning activities that are springing up on a commercial basis.

This morning’s Yorkshire Post reported on a plan to launch a mobile gin school. It turns out that gin schools are fairly numerous and have been going for some time. Who knew? The Nairns’ won’t be the UK’s first mobile gin school – that honour belongs to ‘Still on the Move’ in Devon – but it will be the first in Yorkshire.

Rather than learners driving to a distillery to develop their gin-making skills, Jamie and Charlotte Nairn plan to drive their still around East Yorkshire and teach people how to produce their own gin, whether in their on homes or as part of an organised group event such as a wedding.

The Nairns’ courses will include hands-on activities, and culminate in the learners producing their own 70 cl bottle. According to the Post, the classes will last two and a half hours, with 45 minutes for the actual distilling process. If you’re happy with your product, the Nairns will use your recipe to produce more.

I’m guessing that this won’t be cheap. The Devon Gin School advertises gift vouchers at £75 (£85 for weekends), entitling two people to attend a class at one of its shops; the price includes one bottle of the participant’s gin. The Edinburgh-based gin school Sip Antics charges £105 for two, including cocktails while your gin distills.

I don’t know whether a mobile still will be more or less costly than these shop- or bar-based courses. The Post report certainly makes it all sound very simple. The Nairns think the practical challenges are manageable, and apparently the Revenue is satisfied that it can put arrangements in place to collect duty.

I don’t think I’ll be calling on the Nairns myself as I don’t really enjoy spirits. But this venture has echoes of 1970s experiments in taking provision to remote learners by means of travelling vans, and it is a good example of a type of adult learning that can’t be delivered digitally (cue jokes about blended learning).

Finally, I find the idea of a mobile gin school an interesting example of how fashion and consumerism can combine with adult learning. Other types of commercial adult learning to strike me recently include cupcakes, graffiti, and mountain skills. It looks as though this sector is quite good at spotting niche markets.

Lifelong Learning and the new German Coalition

The party leaders announce their coalition agreement (hint: the Greens aren’t wearing ties)

Germans are used to coalition governments, but this one is different. It’s not uncommon to have three parties sharing power at state level, but at federal level it is new. And the three parties have quite divergent underlying ideologies, with the Free Democrats (FDP, often known colloquially as Die Liberalen) believing fundamentally in strong individual freedom and a limited role for the state while the Social Democrats favour greater intervention and regulation and the Greens have their roots in civic movements and environmental action.

This makes for interesting times. Much media attention outside Germany has focused on possible tensions over the economy, where the FDP will try to promote fiscal conservatism; and foreign policy, where the Greens and FDP are likely to take a strong line on human rights. Further, while all three parties are broadly pro-European, the FDP is hostile to tendencies towards a Euro-super-state, and the SPD is more inclined to share Macron’s vision of a grand project of Europeanisation.

Relatively little light has been shone so far on the coalition’s plans for education. This might not be a surprise; after all, education is constitutionally a matter for each state to determine, so why would the federal government build into its plans something it has limited responsibility for? A quick look at the formal coalition agreement shows that, on the contrary, education – and particularly lifelong learning – is very much part of the new agenda.

A simple word search tells us a lot about the new government’s priorities in lifelong learning. There is no mention of lebenslanges Lernen.The word Erwachsenenbildung, or adult education, only appears once, but as it is a section heading it isn’t exactly marginal. Rather impressively, though, the word Weiterbildung (further education or continuing education) appears 37 times. So on this simple measure there is plenty of interest in both general adult education and in particularly in the more work-related forms of adult learning.

First, let’s look at the section on Erwachsenenbildung. it comprises four paragraphs which start by proposing investment in digital infrastructure for public adult education centres and support for adult literacy, moves on to the simplification and acceleration of recognition for prior learning, includes the strengthening of political education, and promises to promote education for sustainable development at all levels of education. Most of this is uncontroversial, and is in line with the coalition parties’ shared belief that Germany under Merkel has been a slow adopter of digitisation. The emphasis on sustainable development and citizenship education is likely to reflect pressure from the Greens.

Bettina Stark-Watzinger, the new Federal Minister of Education and Research

The idea of continuing education is threaded throughout the coalition agreement, usually in connection with economic modernisation. It first appears on page 5 in connection with targeted investment in upskilling to support modernisation and growth, and is repeatedly used in association with digitisation. The coalition agreement also promises further development of the National Strategy for Continuing Education, with specific reference to mid-career retraining, and It contains sector-related proposals for continuing education in health and social care and early years education, as well as investment in digital competences for teachers, and in knowledge transfer training for researchers. There is even a reference to upskilling tax officers to investigate work in the black economy and financial crime.

As well as the various specific mentions, the agreement devotes a section to Weiterbildung, the opening paragraph of which begins: ‘In times of digital and demographic change, a targeted National Strategy for Continuing Education is an important precondition for reaching our economic and social goals’.

Specifically, this section promises a review of training assistance schemes with a view to to extending statutory financial support for those upgrading work-related qualifications and introduce ‘life chances’ savings accounts that promote participation by the low-skilled; it promises a stronger role for the Labour Agency in ensuring upskilling and providing guidance as well as supporting enterprises in coping with structural change; and it proposes further development of the national online continuing education platform, along with financial incentives for unemployed adults to upskill.

Then there are also a few proposals relating to the initial vocational education system. This interested me, as the Social Democrats tend to be fairly satisfied with the dual system of apprenticeship, while the Free Democrats think it rather rigidly tied into a dated social partnership model and the Greens tend to worry about equity and access. The Free Democrats’ influence is probably visible in the general commitment to simplify the system, especially for small and medium-sized enterprises, and promote digitisation of its administration, as well as increase permeability between academic and vocational education. Green Party influence can be seen in proposals to improve access to Master Apprentice training, as well as provide support for people with migrant backgrounds and women to enter skilled trades.

How much of this will be translated into specific policy interventions remains to be seen Rarely in anything in Germany simple and straightforward, and in the case of education – including adult education – much legal power lies with the states rather than the federal government. In the case of vocational education, the social partners – employers’ associations, trade unions, chamber of commerce – also have significant say in what happens. And then there’s the fact that the federal minister, Bettina Stark-Watzinger, an economist who spent several years in the City of London, is a member of the smallest party in the coalition, the FDP.

I’m no specialist on German politics, so I’d be wise to avoid firm predictions. What does seem clear is that while there is a very marked emphasis on lifelong learning as a vehicle for economic modernisation in general and digitisation in particular, the agreement also contains clear commitments to support for public adult education institutions with their broad remit, as well as specific commitments to adult basic education, citizenship education, and education for sustainable development. So the next few years should be full of lessons to those in other countries with an interest in adult learning.

Global Britain in UNESCO: will the UK respond to the next Global Report on Adult Learning and education?

In 2022, UNESCO will publish its fifth global report on adult learning and education. Based on responses from UNESCO member states, the report will monitor the development of adult learning and education (ALE) across the world; it will also include a focus on the role of ALE in supporting active and global citizenship. But will the UK take part?

Sadly, the signs aren’t encouraging. The UK went unrepresented at the European regional consultation that is responsible for preparing the next monitoring conference, and the UK failed to respond to UNESCO’s fourth global monitoring report on ALE, GRALE 4.

Fortytwo countries from UNESCO’s European region responded to GRALE 4, published in 2019. The UK found itself among a mere six non-respondents, who included Monaco, San Merino, Israel (whose relationship to UNESCO is fraught), and the Ukraine, who were at war at the time. The UK shares with Monaco the distinction of failing to respond either to GRALE 4 or GRALE 3.

Given that 159 UNESCO member states did manage to respond, up from 139 who responded in 2015, this is disappointing. It sits ill with the government’s claim to be outward-looking and global in its perspective. It also reflects badly on the UK’s national UNESCO Commission, who failed to act and help the government avoid this embarrassment. The UK’s UNESCO Commission also has responsibility for the country’s involvement in the region’s preparatory conferences in the lead up to the 2022 International Conference that will discuss performance and ambitions in member states’ policies for ALE.

For me, this sorry state of neglect poses three questions. First, it made me ask why the UK government doesn’t see GRALE as an obviously useful tool in assessing its own ambitions and achievements in adult skills. Bear in mind that the UK government has placed skills at the centre of its industrial strategy, the Prime Minister has repeatedly argued for skills and education in ‘levelling up’ the regions and nations of the UK, and all for nations claim that futher education is significant politically. 

Second,it is time for a closer look at the UK’s National Commission for UNESCO. It probably comes as  no surprise to learn that its Board includes no one with a backgound in or public interest in ALE, but this is nonetheless the body which ensures the UK’s representation at key UNESCO gatherings, and which advises the UK and devolved governments on UNESCO-related issues. Is it simply ignoring correspondence on ALE, or is offering advice on ALE issues that the UK government ignores?

Third, it made me wonder whether it isn’t time for the UK to ask UNESCO to treat it as a federation of four states. Education policy in the UK is a devolved matter. Other countries seem to handle devolution without difficulty; if the Faroe Islands Government submitted its own response to GRALE 4 without any objection from Denmark, why not the UK?


Camping & Socialism

Camping & Socialism Those who follow Michael Rosen’s twitter account (@michaelrosenyes) for more than his thoughts on Arsenal may have seen this week…

Camping & Socialism

Crime fiction: the writer as adult educator

In a rare sortie into the outside world this summer, we spent half a day in August visiting the Farne Islands. A group of 15-20 rocky islands in the North Sea (the precise number depends on the tide), they are managed by the National Trust, and are rightly famous for their wildlife and for their association with Grace Darling. They also featured in Series 7, Episode 1 of Vera.

The Vera novels, written by Ann Cleeves, are fine British police procedural novels. Cleeves’ central character is Detective Chief Inspector Vera Stanhope is a dishevelled, badly dressed, irrascible, overweight, stubborn, compassionate yet solitary-minded woman who is also an inspired investigator. Her character and appearance were softened for television, where she is played by the superb Brenda Blethyn. I enjoy both series, different though they are, not least for their Northumberland setting, but I’ve not spotted any obvious ties with the wonderful world of adult learning.

The author, though, is making her mark in the field. More precisely, she is contributing to literacy work through the Reading for Wellbeing project that she is funding. Through the projecct, community reading workers have undertaken training and are working with local health centres and others in disadvantaged north-eastern communities “support, empower and motivate individuals to take proactive steps to improve their health and wellbeing by providing practical help though access to books and spaces/places for reading, and emotional support through improved confidence in reading and relationship building”.

Cleeves describes the initiative as rooted in her own experience, in several ways. First is her own engagement with reading as a source of comfort while supporting her husband through profound mental health challenges. Second was her career as a librarian in Kirklees, where the local library service pioneered a social prescribing programme for patients with depression or chronic pain. Cleeves later went on to help set up reading groups for groups as diverse as prisoners, men in pubs, and bus drivers.

Cleeves is fnot the only successful crime writer with a track record of supporting adult learners. Among others, Martyn Waites, who worked with teenage ex-offenders before publishing crime fiction set in Newcastle, has held two writing residencies in prisons as well as delivering drama and creative writing workshops to socially excluded adults and teenagers in South London and Essex. And several crime authors have taught creative writing at one stage or another in their careers.

Returning to Ann Cleeves’ project, I’m afraid it’s all too easy to dismiss such initiatives such as too small to make a difference, or to say that the state should fund them rather than relying on individual charity. The reality is that all four governments in Britain don’t fund much family learning (the Kirklees programme stopped when its funding came to an end), and we have so far not managed to persuade governments that adult learning has to become a higher priority if we are to achieve a more inclusive, prosperous and sustainable society.

And we should remember our history. Adult education movements in many countries started life as voluntary initiatives long before the state became involved; in the UK we need only think of the literary and philosophical societies, the Adult School movement, or workers’ education to see the power of voluntarism in beating a path towards a wider recognition of the need for adult learning and education. Reading for Wellbeing is being evaluated, so let’s see what it can contribute – I certainly wish it well.

Adult education and municipal enterprise: Learning from the 80s

Reading Helen Jackson’s political memoir has been both a joy and an inspiration. It is essentially the story of her political life before becoming an MP, when she rose from activist to senior councillor at a time when local government was an exciting space for experiment and innovation as well as an important source of much-needed public services. Until, that is, the Thatcher government decided that local government needed its wings clipped.

Sheffield, where Helen taught, worked, and raised a family, stood at the centre of several significant developments. Before the mass unemployent of the early 1980s, the City Council was one of a number of radical local authorities that sought to protect and expand public services such as housing and education, and led a number of radical new policies such as South Yorkshire’s much-loved policy of freezing bus fares (I have happy memories of taking my daughter into town at the princely sum of 12p each way).

As unemployment hit hard at the region’s traditional (male) industries in the early 80s, the Council shifted to using its position as an employer and purchaser to promote local employment, promote equality of access to work, and to improve the quality of jobs on offer, while woeking in partnership with an initially reluctant business community to support enterprise and attract new jos. And it was striking how strong a role adult education played in this process.

Helen is well-placed to comment on these developments. As an increasingly vocal champion of women’s rights and advocate of racial justice, and as an influential elected office-holder responsible for the large direct works department, as well as being an educator herself, she is able to give an authoritative account of the part played by adult education in Sheffield’s municipal socialism.

Three of these initiatives are particularly worth mentioning. First is the opening of Northern College, the first residential adult college in the north of England, which stood out for its commitment to a broad conception of social justice which linked class, gender and ethnicity to its educational work, and continues to do important work with adults to this day. Keith Jackson, the College’s first deputy principal, was then Helen’s husband.

While the College partly emerged from the strong tradition of trade union education and industrial day release schemes in South Yorkshire, Helen also points to other important influences in the Workers’ Educational Association and some of the innovative community development work launched by the Home Office in 1969. She notes that the College was an early adopter of free childcare for students, initially funded by an outside grant and later absorbed into the ongoing budget.

Second, Helen describes the pioneering work of the women who challenged gender stereotyping in traditionally male manual crafts. It’s easy now to forget how innovative – and controversial – it was for women to train as garage mechanics or builders, and then work successfully in their new trades. Women from this group went on to train others through further education and through new training programmes for women, as well as helping influence the Council to adopt gender monitoring in its own employment practices.

The third pioneering initiative was the Take Ten scheme of paid educational leave for the Council’s manual workers. As the name implied, Council workers could take a day a week off to attend a tailored course for ten weeks; against expectations, some 270 attended in the first year alone, with priority going to the low-paid and those with no previous qualifications.

There were others. For example, the Council established a Community Work Apprenticeship Scheme, recruiting people from disadvantaged backgrounds to train as community workers rather than relying on the largely white middle class graduates who would otherwise have taken these roles. There’s also the informal learning that informed Helen’s gender politics, among other areas. But that’s probably enough to give a flavour of the book’s account of adult eduction’s contribution to municipal enterprise in the conditions of the 1980s.

It’s striking to work out how much of this thinking and experience was carried over into the early Blair years after 1997, when Helen became Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. Particularly while David Blunkett was Secretary of State for Education, the early Blair government supported and promoted lifelong learning as a vehicle for employability and social justice, in ways that have still to be systematically evaluated; but it is also striking that the Labour governments subsequently back-pedalled on much of this work.

What conclusions do I draw from this? First, the book provides a coherent account of adult learning’s role in promoting social change and civic engagement as well as economic regeneration. Second, it shows how local government can serve as a test-bed for broader strategies – something worth remembering given the devolution of adult education budgets to the English regions.

Third, and most important, it made me wonder why the 1997-99 innovations were so easily overturned. On Helen Jackson’s account, the Sheffield adult education measures were popular as well as effective, so that opposition was eventually overcome. But that wasn’t the experience at national level.

With the benefit of hindsight, I’m not convinced that after 1997 we – the adult learning community – did enough to generate enthusiasm and build support for the new policies. Consequently the Treasury found it easy to persuade later ministers that adult education was all cost and no benefit, and could cheerfully be dismissed as a luxury rather than a national necessity.

Entertaining the unemployed: a musical revue in a British work camp 1938

Aerial photo of Haldon Instructional Centre (from Haldon’s Hidden Heritage)

Haldon Instructional Centre was the only government work camp to open in south-west England. Opened in December 1936 with a capacity of 200 places, and located on the Haldon Hills half way between Exeter and Dawlish, the camp was built to take unemployed men from Wales and the south west and north west of England.

As with the other 26 Ministry of Labour camps, the primary purpose was to ‘recondition’ men who had supposedly gone ‘soft’ through unemployment by exposing them to hard manual labour. Conditions The men lived in Nissen huts and worked to clear rough land and build roads so that the estate wad ready for planting by the Forestry Commission. According to a report in the Daily Worker in 1937, the men were “subjected, from 8 am to 4 pm, to an extremely severe discipline”.

But there was also another side to camp life. Early experience had taught the Ministry of Labour that isolating 200 young men in a forest camp was a recipe for trouble; it also discovered that many young unemployed men had trouble reading or writing, or were held back by poor underlying health, so that the camps became a kind of laboratory for adult education and free dental, medical or eyesight care.

As for misbehaviour, the Ministry concluded that the problem lay in boredom. Through the thirties it increasingly approved provision for organised leisure, from film showings to sports teams. And it agreed to allow well-meaning locals to perform in front of the men – a decision that from the Ministry’s point of view brought several benefits: it entertained the trainees while also showing that others cared for them; and it gave a positive public impression of the camp to visitors and more widely.

Devon and Exeter Gazette, 11 February 1938

Like the other Ministry of Labour camps, Haldon closed shortly before the outbreak of war in September 1939. The camp concert was far from unique – similar events took place at other work camps, but always with the approval of the camp authorities, who had their own reasons for entertaining the unemployed. You can read more about a range of British work camp schemes in my book, Working Men’s Bodies: Work camps in Britain 1880-1940.

Batley and Spen: An adult educator enters Parliament

Kim Leadbeater speaking at the launch of the Government’s loneliness strategy in 2018 (Tracey Crouch, the Minister, is on the right)

The Batley and Spen by-election was marked by heightened religious and political tensions during the campaign, followed by a result that upset the bookmakers’ expectations and overturned the predictions of many political commentators. And it returned a candidate who is best-known outside the constituency for being the sister of a murdered former MP, but locally is probably best known as an adult educator.

Kim Leadbeater started her working life in sales before becoming a mature student at Leeds Beckett University. She took a first class Bachelor’s degree in health and fitness, followed by a PGCE in further education at Huddersfield University, which she achieved while lecturing part-time at Bradford College in physical activity, health and well-being, as well as working for herself as a personal trainer and well-being consultant.

According to her LinkedIn profile, Leadbeater left the College after ten years in 2016, but continued her private teaching until her selection in May. She has also been active in a number of voluntary roles, most notably as an ambassador for the Jo Cox Foundation, set up to honour her sister’s memory by working for community cohesion and social justice (this is the capacity in which Tracey Crouch invited Leadbeater to help launch the government’s loneliness strategy).

In a House of Commons full of people whose careers were either in student unions, policy think tanks or piublic relations, Batley and Spen’s new MP brings many years of experience in adult education as well as a track record of advocacy for equity and inclusion. She’ll have a lot competing demands on her time and energy, but I’m very much hoping she still finds space to argue the case for adult learners.