Education for older adults: where now?

I’m just back from a European conference on education for older adults. It was a stimulating and impressive showcase for recent research in the area, interspersed with reports from professionals running programmes with older people. There was a lot to digest and it was also fabulously well organised.

Marvin Formosa, a gerontologist from Malta, caused a bit of mild controversy with a critique of European Union lifelong learning programmes. He pointed out that the EU was slow on the uptake, failing to mention older adults at all in the first decade of its discussions on lifelong learning, and then later on referring mainly to ‘older workers’.

Formosa also noted that the EU’s Year of Active Ageing has focussed above all on promoting a particular vision of older people. Essentially, the active older adult is someone who is healthy enough and lively enough and responsible enough to look after themselves. They will make few demands on the welfare state, either for personal and health case, or presumably for publicly funded education.

This reminded me of some of the discussions I joined during the Government Office for Science’s foresight project on Mental Capital and Wellbeing. Our review of research showed that participating in learning, exercise and social activity were all good mechanisms for protecting against cognitive decline and promoting resilience. The problem was that these benefits were all in the bailiwick of the government departments responsible for health and social services, but the spending mostly fell in other departments such as education.

Formosa went on to argue that two key groups are excluded both from the EU’s thinking and from most provision. The first are the elderly old – those who are in what Peter Laslett classically called the ‘fourth age’. Formosa argued that this group are typically neglected by policy because they represent low value as human capital.

This claim prompted a fruitful discussion about programmes for people whose mobility may be limited, especially those living in residential accommodation, or who are socially isolated with little access to transport.

The second missing group, Formosa pointed out, are men. In all those countries for which we have figures, men rarely comprise more than a quarter of members of the U3A or similar bodies, and in some countries they account for far less than that.

This prompted debate about the role of men’s sheds and similar organisations, but I hope my colleagues will forgive me for saying that I found it a bit shapeless. Looking ahead, if we are to move beyond the anecdotal, we need a much firmer gender perspective on learning in the third and fourth ages. At the moment, we don’t really know how to explain men’s non-participation, or whether it much matters to them.

The conference papers are available through the programme web page:

Agism and lifelong learning

OECD has just published its regular round-up of educational statistics. This issue of Education at a Glance shows that 40% of OECD citizens have taken some sort of formal or informal adult education in a given year. Broken down by age, the data show that 50% of 25-35 year olds have taken some kind of education, compared with only 27% of 55-64 year olds. The lowest participation is among the least well educated older people.

How about the UK? Well, on overall participation levels, we do quite well. The gap between the two age groups is about 12% – half the OECD average. But when we come to the time spent in learning, we fall to the bottom half of the table. While the average younger citizen in the OECD spends twice as much time in non-formal on-the-job learning as older workers, in the UK the younger group receives four times as much time as the older group.  

This kind of imbalance is very familiar to most of us, and probably won’t surprise you. A simple human capital calculation will tell us that investing in younger workers has a higher payback than the same investment in older workers. This is so simply because, all other things being equal, the younger worker will live and work longer. Even so, the difference in training hours is striking, and suggests to me that there might also be a large quality gap.

Because employers and individuals base their decisions on a simple rate of return analysis, it falls to the government to intervene. Government can either incentivise participation for individuals and organisations; or it can support the provision of opportunities and secure its quality. That is, if we believe that older adults should receive the kind of training and education that will support active aging. Sitting on your hands waiting for the market to decide is, in my view, a recipe for serious trouble down the line.

OECD, Education at a Glance 2012, is available at

Why academics love each other

I came across an interesting figure this morning. In her recent study of academic time use and gender inequalit, Rosalind Pritchard found that almost half of her study sample were partnered with other academics. Now, this was a relatively small group of 87 women in four subject areas in Britain and Germany. Nonetheless, it struck me as something worth thinking about.

Sociologists are very familiar with the principle of homophily – or, in common parlance, the tendency of birds of a feather to flock together. This is very obvious in our friendship circles, where our closest friends will usually share our cultural tastes. But not only do we have common interests in – say – French movies, Australian soaps and Chicago blues.  Our closest friends are usually of the same ethnic group, generational cohort, social class, political outlook and so on. And this in-group membership often leads on to homogamy – that is, marrying people of similar background and values to ourselves.

All the same, if anything approaching half of academics live with another academic, that really would be exceptionally high. And I suppose another group of academics will find partners elsewhere in the university, probably mainly among their administrative colleagues. This makes for a pretty dense network of interlocking partnerships (especially as, if my own acquaintances are anything to go by, the average university department includes an ex-partner or two, plus the occasional affair).

Does this matter? You could argue that these tight bonds help to generate high levels of social and cultural understanding and support, and reinforce a strong occupational identity that in turn is good for everyone’s morale and security. But the social capital literature suggests that over-reliance on ‘bonding social capital’ can make a community inward-looking, conservative and risk-averse.

In order to innovate and develop, you need to encounter people who will challenge your assumptions and encourage you to explore new approaches and ideas. So if Professor Pritchard’s sample is anything to go by, academics need to get out more. Perhaps the research councils’ programmes for placing doctoral students with government departments, voluntary organisations and the private sector will, over time, have some interesting unintended intimate consequences.

Rosalind Pritchard, Neoliberal developments in higher education, Peter Lang, 2011

Living education – changing the generations

Almost everyone entering university or college this year was born later than the World Wide Web. In itself this is a piece of trivia, but it provoked me to think more widely about the ways that different generations view education, and about the way that changing education systems help in turn to form generations.

Access to mass higher education is one example. In his book on the purpose of universities, Stefan Collini ponders the way in which the clichés of elite higher education are still used. Think of such terms as ‘ivory tower’ or ‘port-swilling dons’, for example. Although these terms were born when one person in twenty entered higher education, you don’t have to wait long to hear them in media discussions of higher education today.

You can imagine how these terms sound to a typical student of the twenty-first century. For today’s young people, higher education is the normal route between school and the labour market. Around one third of young Britons, and over half of young Irish people, go on higher education – far more than go into training, apprenticeships, jobs or further education. This isn’t an exciting induction into tomorrow’s elite, it is just what everyone else around you is doing.

The ‘higher education experience’ too has changed. It is far more diverse, encompassing courses offered in colleges, as well as a growing number of private institutions. The subject mix has changed, most notably in favour of business and accountancy. And while many students still take degrees, large numbers in Britain take other qualifications such as Foundation Degrees or Higher Nationals.

Then there is that WWW factoid. Of course, generations are complex formations, and their experiences of communications technologies are only a small part of what makes each generation more or less distinctive. Here’s another factoid: until they were in their fifth year, this summer’s school-leavers went through all their education under New Labour. Some will have gone through New Labour parenting interventions like Sure Start.

So why do the old clichés linger on, well past their use-by date? It is always tempting to blame lazy journalism, but that won’t do. One reason, quite simply, is that most journalists who write about higher education went to university themselves some years ago. And most university readers had their ideas about further and higher education shaped by their own experiences – which, given the age profile of news consumers, was also some years ago. In popular culture, these clichés were reinforced by costume dramas such as Brideshead Revisited and Willy Russell’s rom-com, Educating Rita, while ideas about further education were burnished by the scabrous novels of Tom Sharpe.

Generational differences of these kinds matter a great deal. Some years ago I was involved in a study of adult returners in further education. We found that many people were very badly informed about colleges, believing that they catered mainly for young people undertaking apprenticeships – because this had been what colleges did when they left school.

And we can, to some extent, project these generational differences forward. For anyone born after 1991, ubiquitous access to the WWW is pretty much a given. We have already seen how the internet has changed our students’ approach to their studies – ranging from their ability to find information to the possibilities of cheating. We have also seen how many professors and lecturers, coming from an older generation with less internet exposure, have struggled to keep up.

Without a major investment in upskilling by universities, this generational gap will now accelerate. And universities’ ability to engage the new generation of students and nurture their love of learning will critically depend on their capacity for connecting with their cultural expectations and norms, including a view of the internet and digital media as nothing special.

How we encourage the media to understand today’s higher education system in all its complexity is another matter. Assuming, that is, that we aren’t better off keeping them in a state of ignorance.

If you want to read more on this topic, try my paper on biography and generation in educational and social research:

Shakespeare, the scouts and the work camp

Janet Suzman, the distinguished actor, recently poured scorn over claims that Shakespeare’s output was in fact the work of the 17th Earl of Oxford. Good on her: Derek Jacobi and Mark Rylance are only the latest in a long line of thespians who cannot believe that great art could be created by a middle class midlander. In a remarkable twist on a drab old conspiracy theory, Jacobi even compared the Earl to the victims of the Stasi in Communist East Germany, achieving two pieces of historical idiocy in one go.

This is, of course, all nonsense, however entertaining. But what does it have to go with work camps? Well, Castle Hedingham, the family seat of the Earls of Oxford, hosted one of the more unusual work camp schemes of the 1930s. In 1929, working with the Scouts, the Castle housed what its owner called a ‘Reconditioning Employment Camp’, training unemployed scouts as chauffeurs, gardeners, grooms, cooks and butlers.

Further camps followed in future years, at Hedingham, Quendon, Cirencester and Christchurch, training about 300 men a year. Members of the Rover Scouts were recruited to lead the camps. The camps themselves were run on scouting principles, with financial support from the Ministry of Labour and a number of charities, with the aim of turning the unemployed – who subsequently included a range of young jobless men as well as scouts – into active citizens as well as workers.

The camps were the brainchild of Hedingham’s owner, Miss Musette Majendie, who was keen to help unemployed scouts find work. An energetic philanthropist and scoutmaster, she and her close friend, Doris Mason of Eynsham Hall, launched a movement in 1929 to provide training camps for unemployed scouts from the distressed areas who wished to emigrate. Within months, though, the global economic crisis brought an end to male emigration, and the two women turned their minds to domestic servant training.

Musette Majendie inherited the Castle from her ancestors, the De Veres. As the name suggests, they had been granted the land after the Norman Conquest, acquiring the earldom of Oxford a century later. For three months, the men lived in an old army hut on the estate, undertaking a work placement with the neighbouring gentry combined with physical training sessions and lessons in scouting.

The camps ran well into 1939, closing only when war became inevitable. Majendie became a Dame of the British Empire in 1935, in recognition for her work with unemployed scouts. She died in 1981, but the Castle stayed in the family, who now run it as a tourist attraction.

Unemployed scouts training as chefs in Hedingham Castle

Raising demand for skills: the role of public procurement policies

Governments have limited policy instruments at their disposal in promoting lifelong learning. Of course, they can intervene on the supply side, through funding decisions and through attempts to steer provider behaviour by setting targets and so on. But their ability to raise demand for skills and training is more constrained. Attempts to incentivise demand, by subsidising individuals or firms, usually combine high levels of bureaucracy with the risk of fraud. Legislation and regulation are politically unpopular, allegedly undermining competitiveness through a tangle of ‘red tape’.

But does that mean governments can do little to raise skills demand? Hardly. Public authorities employ a lot of people, and governments – local as well as national – can try to set an example. And public agencies spend an awful lot of money as purchasers of goods and services. We are already familiar with government using public contracts as a way of promoting equality of opportunity and fair trade principles among firms that supply goods and services. Now, in its consultation on public procurement, the Scottish Government is proposing that it should use major public contracts as a way of promoting skills and training.

The consultation proposes that agencies responsible for public procurement should:

  • Ask every company undertaking a major public contract to produce a training and apprenticeship plan; and
  • Encourage sustainability, for example by inserting community benefit clauses to provide training and jobs for local people.

It also proposes that the company should publish its training and apprenticeship plans for those contracts. It has less to say about enforcing any such clauses, though the consultation asks respondents for their ideas: What sanctions might be appropriate for failure to comply?

This is, I believe, a welcome attempt to raise demand for training and skills. In the forty years since Prime Minister Callaghan’s speech at Ruskin College on Britain’s skills deficit, UK governments have proven remarkably unwilling to tamper with the demand side. The few exceptions, such as the empowerment of trade union learning representatives, have been tentative and rare.

There has been no such coyness on the supply side. On the contrary, one administration after another has tampered with funding, structures and systems in an attempt to make providers ‘more employer-led’. The underlying assumption is that employers are doing fine – they know what skills are needed, they know how to use them, and they know how to develop them – and all that is needed is for colleges and other providers to listen more closely to what employers have to say.

This is reasonable, if limited and unimaginative, if the employer has a long term view of skill and innovation. We might point to the German example, where training and apprenticeships are largely employer-led, albeit in a context which reserves a major partnership role for trade unions. But what if the employer is driven by short term margins, or sees training simply as a cost, or is clueless as to the skills they need?  

In this context, the Scottish Government’s proposals deserve support. Of course, they are not perfect. On their own, they will resolve neither the unemployment crisis nor the problems of skills demand. There is a notable gap when it comes to enforcement. Any skills clauses will need to be backed by monitoring and, if need be, penalties for non-compliance. Nor is the principle new new. Others have gone down this path already, including some pioneering local authorities.

Still, a coherent and consistent strategy at national level, affecting all major public contracts, could help to leverage a significant change in the culture and behaviour of employers. And in the UK, this will make a refreshing change.

The Scottish Government consultation on its Procurement Reform Bill is available at:

Softly, softly: senior management development and the police

How do large public organisations decide how to train and develop their senior staff? For those of us who believe that skills development matters, and who fear that senior managers are often under-trained and poorly qualified, this is a critical question. It should also concern those who run large public organisations, who should be aware that many of their own staff, as well as the wider public, think their managers treat training and development events as perks and jollies.

Here’s a case that reinforces this damning stereotype. In February 2012, the Independent Police Complaints Commission reported on allegations that the Deputy Chief Constable of North Yorkshire Police had wrongly claimed £11,750 for personal development training. The alleged wrong-doing was brought to light by journalists writing about the cost of coaching and mentoring programmes, who found that DCC Adam Briggs had claimed more than any other senior officer in Britain, despite receiving an annual allowance of £10,000 to cover the costs of training and medical insurance.

It looked to me as this episode might shed some light on the way that a major public organisation reached decisions about the training and development of its senior staff. Briggs’ letter of appointment stated that how he spent his annual allowance for training and medical insurance was entirely at the discretion of the post-holder. Moreover, the IPCC discovered that the spending was not auditable; all Briggs had to do, apparently, was claim his £10,000.

This was hard to credit. North Yorkshire Police is a large organisation by any standards. Its People Strategy’sets out an ambitious agenda for develop the skills and capabilities required, and identifies how progress will be measured. I therefore wrote to the North Yorkshire Police on 31 May asking for a copy of their policy on personal development funds, and for the guidance issued to senior officers on their management of these funds. Well over the limits specified in the Freedom of Information Act, I received a reply from North Yorkshire Police on 30 July, telling me that they were unable to find any such policies or guidance.

What Briggs claimed for, outside and beyond the training allowance that he had been given, was a programme of executive coaching and mentoring. To provide this he employed Steve Gorton, previously a manager in the pharmaceutical industry who claims to teach Masters’ courses for several universities, including the OU. After almost two years, the Force’s chief finance officer spotted the invoices, and asked why the contract had not gone through the usual procurement procedures.

So the employer was treating senior management development as a purely personal matter. Briggs refused to tell the IPCC whether and how he spent his £10,000 annual training allowance. During his time in North Yorkshire, Briggs received £31,647 for personal training, and we are still none the wiser as to how he used that money. Senior officers continue to enjoy a personal development allowance, and the Force has no apparent policy or guidance on how it is spent.

Of course, the whole episode tells us something about the North Yorkshire Police Authority. First, the IPCC reported that Briggs simply avoided questions by delaying his response; and that is pretty much how the Force handled my FOIA request. Second, although NYPA became aware of Briggs’ wrong-doing in July 2010, it tried to stop IPCC investigating the affair. When IPCC insisted, NYPA allowed Briggs to retire in February 2011, with his pension intact. His retirement meant that no action could be taken against him, even though the IPCC found behaviour amounting to gross misconduct. Third, despite the shenanigans of the last three years, NYPA apparently still has no policy governing the use of personal development funds.

From a skills perspective, what we learn is just how lacking in strategy some large employers are when it comes to training. It is suitably ironic that Briggs’ dodgy claim was for coaching by someone who claims to teach corporate strategy in MBAs. Yet his Force leaves its senior managers to decide how to spend their training allowance, with no guidance or auditing. For all we know, it might be spent on anything.

Is this how North Yorkshire Police treat training decisions for all staff? The answer is, of course, that lower down in the food chain, the NYPA is highly prescriptive about its training budgets. Its goal of creating an agile workforce’is underpinned by a cross cutting concern with Value for Money and a strategic concern with Improved Confidence (the upper case is emphasised in the relevant strategy papers). So there is a stark contrast between the NYP’s lax approach to senior management development and a more forensic strategy for skills and qualifications for the rest of its workforce. All this at a time of retrenchment in the Force’s budget.

I fear that this case is not unique, and that other large organisations treat senior management development as a private perk rather than a strategic organisational investment. Meanwhile, I imagine that the Briggs revelations have had a highly predictable impact on the way that senior management development is perceived within the Force and probably more widely. Trainers are used to dealing with a culture of cynicism, and such stories make their job harder.