My top books of 2016

west

By this time of the year I’m heartily sick of “best of” lists. Sporting moments, movies, dead celebrities, kitten GIFs – there’s no end to the things that can be turned into an annual league table.But books are the oppositive of trivial, and when the Times Higher invited me to nominate my top two books of 2016, I jumped at the chance.

My first choice was related to my interest in the way that education shapes social mobility – a relationship that cuts both ways, as education (including adult learning) produces and legitimates privileges and inequalities, while at the same time providing a pathway for the least advantaged individuals and groups to improve their life chances and access rewarding careers. My sense is that the social mobility debate has been rather Brito-centric, so it was a real pleasure to recommend a set of case studies that applies a shared approach to the issue of social mobility in quite different types of economically-advanced societies.

Second, I opted for a biography of the Frankfurt School. I found Stuart Jeffries’ study conceptually astute, and historically aware, as well as highly readable. He has the ability to place his subjects in their wider socio-cultural context, while also attending to aspects of their everyday lives. I was utterly persuaded of the importance of family and ethnicity in the formation of the first generation: Benjamin, Adorno and Horkheimer were typical, sharing an upbringing in comfortable Jewish suburban homes, and rebelling against those very capitalist virtues that had made their families rich. Jeffries evokes this milieu beautifully, while quietly insisting that Benjamin was the outstanding intellectual of them all. Habermas doesn’t emerge from the story well, and Honneth merits barely a mention.

Other than sharply analytical curiosity in cultural practices, the book left me wondering how much of the Frankfurt School legacy will survive. We don’t need Benjamin’s soilt tantrums (apparently he was unable to make a cup of coffee well into his thirties), and I certainly hope that their political pessimism and aloofness doesn’t linger, as the next year or two will require inspiration and organised action. We can seek some pointers for that journey in a book I didn’t recommend, Linden West’s Distress in the City: Racism, fundamentalism and a democratic education. While I found this a stunning study of contemporary social solidarities and sharp divisions, set in Linden’s native Stoke, the author is a friend and I provided the foreword, so I felt obliged to leave it out.

What I would say is that reading the book certainly helped me understand the anger, alienation and despair of so many of our citizens. West explores the life worlds of working class people, from a variety of ethnic backgrounds and political traditions, and both genders; and he does so with humanity and sympathy. West’s compassion and integrity are a long way from the demeaning stereotypes of the post mortem on the Brexit referendum, and he concludes with a call for adult learning and democratic renewal that can make the most of the ‘resources of hope’ that he discerns among those he interviews. I hope he reaches the wide audience that his argument merits.

I was similarly impressed by Jan Etienne’s study of first generation African Caribbean women in Britain.explores the learning lives of a group of older women. As well as analysing these accounts in solid academic manner, Etienne represents them in a creative and imaginative way as scenes from a drama.And she does so with humour (including her interviewees’ mocking of her as a middle class academic), drawing on a rich variety of spoken and written English.

While I don’t buy into the idea of a distinctively ‘womanist’ way of learning, the book develops a black feminist perspective that celebrates sisterhood while never shying away from experiences of oppression. I didn’t feel able to include Learning in Womanist Ways in my Times Higher selection because I examined the doctoral thesis on which it draws, but I found it absorbing and informative, and it makes a major contribution to the literature on learning in later life – as well as to our understandings of what it means to be senior, female and black in contemporary Britain.

From the Times Higher Education, 23 December 2016

Gender and social capital: are social networks a mixed blessing for women?

image

Having a decent social network is usually a really good thing, both for you and for the communities to which you belong. Conversely, loneliness and isolation can be seriously harmful to your health and well-being, as well as damaging to your communities’ attempts to cooperate.

In revising my introductory textbook for its latest edition I concluded that the literature on the health benefits of social capital is now well-established and reasonably conclusive. However, as I also emphasised, different forms of social capital can have different consequences for different parts of the population. And just as the book went to press, along came a new study which made this point nicely.

The study was led by Sara Ferlander, from the Stockholm Centre for Health and Social Change, and drew on data collected in the Moscow Health Survey. You can read their paper, which is available on open access here. I will therefore focus in this post on the findings that particularly interested me.

First, as with a number of other studies, the survey found that women were more likely than men to report that they suffer from depression. They were also more likely to say that they suffer from severe depression. The authors then used a statistical technique called regression analysis to try to determine how other factors, including social networks, were connected to depression; they found that while education and age showed little connection, money problems and depression did go together.

Other studies, summarised in my book, have shown that social networks generally help act as a buffer against depression. The reasons might seem obvious: having someone to turn to in times of trouble isn’t just a way of overcoming practical problems, but is also reassuring to your sense of self and worth to others. But Moscow survey findings show a degree of complexity.

Women who were divorced or widowed, all other things being even, had higher odds of reporting depression. This is broadly what social capital theory leads us to expect, and the Ferlander team concluded that this form of social capital has particular importance for women.

More unexpectedly, the study found no association for either men or women between self-reported depression and either membership of voluntary groups or contacts with friends. And for women, it found that those with fewer age-bridging connections were less likely to report depression than those whose social ties were richer in age-diverse connections. The researchers suggest that this might be explained partly by sharp inter-generational tensions in Russian society and gender discrimination in the workplace.

The obvious question is whether we would find similar patterns elsewhere. Given Russia’s particular social and economic history, it’s likely that there are distinctive factors at work in the well-being of both women and men. Nevertheless, this study nicely illustrates the ways in which social capital somtimes works differently for women and men, and I wish I’d had access to it before the book went to press!

front-cover

Adult Learning hits Private Eye

The University of Leicester hasn’t had a great time trying to justify its plan to shut its Vaughan Centre for Lifelong Learning. Bluntly, it has created a PR shitstorm, which you may think is well deserved given that the University seems to have been rather economical with the truth.

So says Private Eye anyway – and you’d think that keeping out of Britain’s leading satirical news magazine should be high on the KPIs of every Vice Chancellor. Especially if you’ve just pushed through a new strategic plan that claims to prioritise ‘Making a real difference to our city and our region’.

Vaughan College started life in 1862, and was one of the institutions that came together to found the University in 1925. You can read more about its history here and if you are so minded you can join me and thousands of others in signing the Save Vaughan petition here.

Meanwhile, enjoy the Eye article, which I have copied from a Tweet by Chris Williams, who Tweets as @Chris_A_W. vaughaneye

Sprouts and all the trimmings: London’s protesting unemployed gardeners, 1906

triangle-camp-plaistow-1906-e1326887146910

From the Abbey Gardens website: http://www.abbeygardens.org

I’m an expert on Brussels sprouts. Well, not really, but I was really pleased when a journalist interviewed me about the 1906 Triangle Camp to be able to tell him that the unemployed squatters of Plaistow planted, among other things, my favourite winter greens.

The Triangle Camp was one of a number of ‘land-grabs’ mounted in 1906 as part of a socialist campaign against unemployment. The logic was simple: if the middle classes believed that the unemployed were idle scroungers, then the unemployed would demonstrate their willingness to work in the most eye-catching, theatrical manner possible. By working, in the full gaze of the public.

Of course, squatting land and planting it was not the only option. Plaistow then fell within the boudaries of the Borough of West Ham, whose council established a labour colony for unemployed men at South Ockenden in Essex. John Burns, a former socialist and trade union official who became a Liberal minister, visited the colony and reported that it was full of ‘Tired Tims’ and ‘Weary Willies’, who ‘where skilled did not belong to Friendly Societies or Trade Unions’.

Led by Ben Cunningham, a local trader and councillor, a small group of unemployed men occupied a small plot of derelict land in the early hours of 13 July 1906. They ran up a tent, which they called the ‘Hotel’, agreed some rules, recruited a band, and started digging. They banned alcohol from the site, and set themselves a long working day. 

Although it had no particular plans for the site itself, West Ham Council took a dim view of this protest. Its first attempt to evict the campers fizzled out when the Council workmen decided to donate to the Triangle support fund instead. It then obtained an injunction, and sent bailiffs with a police guard. Watched by a large and sympathetic crowd, the men left peacefully enough, most of them heading for a neighbouring plot – donated by a sympathiser – to plant their cabbages and sprouts. 

Ben Cunningham and his supporters continued to hold meetings protesting unemployment, and eventually he was arrested for trespassing once more on the Triangle site. After serving his prison sentence, Cunningham duly appeared on the stage of the Bow Palace theatre and music hall, re-enacting the land-grab in front of appreciative local audiences. 

The journalist asked, reasonably enough, whether I thought this story had any contemporary relevance. Three things occurred to me. First, it reminds us of the need to resist the contempt in which our society holds our unemployed. Second, the tradition of guerilla gardening is alive and well, and indeed the Triangle protesters are evoked in a community garden in Plaistow to this day. Third, it shows that protest can capture the imagination and resonate down the years when it is imaginative and – literally in Cunnungham’s case – theatrical. 

If you want to read more about this story, and the wider context, then you will have to get hold of my book – and I say this, of course, purely in the sprouty tradition of seasonal goodwill. Happy Christmas! 🎅🏽

 

Brexit and lifelong learning after the European Structural Funds

esf-template

Withdrawal from the European Union is going to be complicated, not least for the future of adult learning. I’ve written previously about the relationship between Brexit and adult learning, but so far I’ve not really given much thought to the role of the Structural Funds, and in particular the European Social Fund, which provides considerable financial support for adult learning across the UK.

For the period 2014-2020, the UK was allocated €3.5 billion. While it is co-ordinated by the Department of Work and Pensions, much of it is handed over to other bodies for allocation; these include the Skills Funding Agency, the Big Lottery Fund, and the Scottish Government. And while ESF funding is allocated to all regions of the UK, it is worth noting that it is disproportionately sizeable and important in Wales.

The UK’s operational plan for ESF spending between 2014 and 2020 is available online here. Its priority areas explicitly include “activities to inspire and encourage lifelong learning and the consequentbenefits of learning”, with a particular focus on funding provision that promotes employability but does not duplicate existing provision or substitute for private funding.

new-picture

From the DWP’s Operational Programme for ESF 2014-2020

The activities supported by the ESF in the UK are remarkably broad, encompassing the Learning and Work Institute’s Festival of Learning, a range of programmes for women workers, and the governmment’s traineeship and apprenticeship programmes. And, above all, ESF helps to fund literacy, numeracy and English learning.

As for the future, the current funding round doesn’t expire until 2020, so there is time to prepare. In thinking ahead to whatever succeeds the Structural Funds, we need to make certain that adult learning is not forgotten. Ideally, the successor programe(s) in Britain will be more flexible and more learner centred, and less bureaucratically cumbersome, than the ESF and ERDF.

As for the future of the Stuctural Funds without the UK, my best guess is that the design work for the 2021-2028 programme has already started in outline. The real work of developing a draft will therefore take place with no UK contribution; and it will finally be negotiated by a European Commission and European Parliament that will look very different in political complexion and priorities to the bodies that agreed the 2014-2020 programme. I’m inclined to doubt whether the post-2020 programme will, then, just be ‘more of the same’.

Save

Social capital and ethnic diversity at work: the role of language learning

fireI’m extremely interested in the relationship between social capital and ethnic diversity. Put simply, the standard hypothesis is that we find it easier to build trusting relationships with people who share similar characteristics to ourselves. Robert Putnam, the doyen of social capital scholars, wrote in 2007 that residents in ethnically diverse neighbourhoods tend to ‘hunker down’, a contention that he supported with abundant evidence (his article is available here).

And now along comes a rather good study of linguistic diversity in the workplace. People use language in the workplace not just to communicate about the tasks they have to complete, but also to build bridges with one another through small talk, gossip and humour, and displaying trust by disclosing ‘private’ information about themselves.

While linguistic diversity might not disrupt work that involves routine and simple tasks, this study shows that it has wider effects for relationships between different groups of workers. The author, Frederik Thuesen, concludes that ‘in low-skill workplaces characterised by linguistic diversity, communication problems have a small impact on the completion of work tasks but a large impact on social relations’.

So talk really matters.Thuesen concludes that employers and trade unions can and should do more to promote language learning, as well as providing intercultural training for majority workers. He also quotes the example of a supermarket firm which used Facebook to promote inter-cultural dialogue among cashiers. And of course government can help create a supportive environment, not least by promoting language learning and ensuring the quality of provision.

The abstract for Thueson's article

The abstract for Thueson’s article

Of course, workers themselves can also intervene, for better or for worse. I certainly don’t assume that migrants and minorities are passive victims of everything society throws at them; I’ve written before about the attempt to build a mosque that is designed to promote trust and remove suspicion, a development that I very much welcome. But above all it is for the host society, and particularly its government, to ensure that those who come from other cultures are able to contribute effectively, and to build bonds with their new compatriots.

Save

Save

Save

Benchmarking adult learning across the European Union

The European Union’s latest Education and Training Monitor reports on progress against the 2020 targets, originally adopted in 2010 as part of the EU’s ten-year strategy for growth. There are six targets, all sharing the virtue – and pitfalls – of clarity and simplicity. In respect of adult learning, the target is that by 2020, 15% of Europe’s adults aged 25-64 shall have received formal or non-formal education or training in the four weeks leading up to the annual Labour Force Survey.

new-picture-1

Progress against this target has so far been, let’s say, modest. Participation stood in 2015 at 10.7%, barely a rise on the 9.2% achieved in 2012, and exactly the same as it was in 2014.

As ever, this headline figure masks wide variations between countries. Denmark, Sweden and Finland were Europe’s top performers, with participation rates of 31.3%, 29.4% and 25.4% respectively; bottom were Romania (1.3%) and Bulgaria (2.0%), followed closely by Croatia and Slovakia (both on 3.1%). Of the EU’s big four, France and the UK came above the EU average, while Italy and Germany both fell beneath it.

The report also notes variations within countries, with notably lower participation rates among the low-qualified. It does not report, though, on inequalities of participation by age (we can confidently expect that older workers receive relatively little education and training), gender or ethnicity.

Education is, of course, hardly the only area where the European Commission has set targets which then serve as benchmarks. There are similar 2020 targets for various areas of economic activity, from the share of GDP that is invested in research and innovation to the proportion of the population that lives in poverty.

As Alexandra Ioannidou pointed out ten years ago (see this article), the EU and OECD have developed monitoring and reporting into new policy instruments. The problem for the EU is that, unlike OECD, it has real policy powers in the area of education and training.A failure to meet they targets cannot, therefore, be simply blamed on the weaker member states. In this case, the EU is placing a heavy emphasis on its New Skills Agenda.

As the Agenda was only published in 2016, over half way through the monitoring period, it won’t have much impact by 2020. And of course this benchmark is only one way of measuring adult learning; apart from any other weaknesses, it says nothing whatever about quality.