A new year always brings with it a spur to reflection: looking back, taking stock, and looking forward. So to start with, has this blog done what I’d hoped – and how might it do better?
My main hopes in continuing the blog have always been to share my own work, and to engage in dialogue, on topics that interest me. I was intrigued, then, to find that the two most popular posts of 2020 were something on predatory publishing that I published some years ago, and an open question about holistic evaluation that I didn’t answer.
These are interestiing themes, but my main focus is on adult learning (including its history) and social capital. As you can see, both of these topics attracted reasonable numbers of readers, as did an old post on the EU’s Erasmus scheme which found new readers this year after the UK government announced that it would no longer take part.
As a writer, I’m more than satisfied with the numbers who read these posts, and I only hope you found them useful. No one knows how many people read the average academic paper, but it’s widely believed that the numbers are very small indeed, and far smaller than those of you who check out my blog. And I get far more feedback, both through the comments section and via social media, than for any of my more academic publications.
I’m also struck by how international this readership is. The vast majority of you are based in the world’s richest countries, but quite a few of you come from middle income countries where English is a second or third language. Brazil looks particularly strong: obrigado!
In fact, thank you all for taking time out in 2020 to read this blog. I hope you continue to find it useful, and send me your feedback in the year ahead. My best wishes to you for 2021, and may it be happier, more productive, and healthier than the last twelve months.
Bob Fryer is probably most widely known for chairing an influential advisory committee that helped shape New Labour’s policies for lifelong learning. But many people will also have encountered him as a teacher, researcher, advocate, and leader across fields such as industrial relations, employment, and social policy as well as adult learning. His influence in all these areas was far-reaching.
Bob also made an intensely practical contribution. I first met him in the mid-70s, when I was working on my PhD at Warwick University, where Bob was chair of the Faculty of Social Sciences. Our families belonged to the same baby-sitting circle in the Coventry suburb of Earlsdon, so I or my partner occasionally baby-sat his kids and he and his partner Ann baby-sat ours. I also saw him at research seminars in the Sociology Department where he was then a senior lecturer.
I left Warwick in 1978 to start teaching at a new adult college in Barnsley, so the next I heard of Bob was a phone call from him asking a few sharp questions about the college. I didn’t know that he was thinking of applying to become the college’s principal until he was short-listed. Bob led Northern College for fifteen years, at a time when financial and political pressures could easily have ended its life.
I left the college in 1985 to return to Warwick, so I didn’t see Bob’s long term impact at first hand. In the short term, he acted to strengthen the college’s somewhat under-staffed and chaotic administration, bring in Mo Mowlam as a senior administrator (though Mo could be something of an occasional presence, given her other interests); he brought in new groups of learners through his connections with trade unions; he built his own relations with the South Yorkshire councils and the miners’ union (his predecessor, Michael Barratt Brown, had his own ties with these groups, who were vital for the college’s health); he worked hard at wider political connections; he built a close working relationship with Sheffield Hallam University; and he enjoyed teaching the lively students we worked with.
It was an exciting time, and I thought long and hard before making the move to Warwick. One of the attractions of moving was the opportunity to help develop a new department – which itself had been created following a report from a Senate working group that Bob had led, and Bob was generous in advice in the next couple of years. Meanwhile, he was taking the college forward, and also starting to think through some of his ideas for rebuilding adult learning. He knew David Blunkett, who had been one of the college’s governors and as leader of Sheffield City Council was adopting the ideas of policy thinkers like Martin Yarnit, including the pioneering Take Ten scheme of paid educational leave for municipal workers.
So it was no surprise that Bob was involved in New Labour’s policy development around adult learning. Like Blunkett, he had nothing much against Blair’s embrace of education as “our best economic policy”, but what excited him – and Blunkett – was education as a crucible of active citizenship and social justice. He also brought a sardonic wit to his interventions. When some on the left disparaged his focus on getting working class peoiple into university, Bob replied that he noticed that the higher someone’s own qualifications, the more likely they were to proclaim the irrelevance of qualifications for other people.
Bob was an Oxford boy in his origins, but his family background lay in the city’s manufacturing community rather than the university, and he always seemed to treat his roots as a touchstone for his educational thinking. That thinking was probably expressed most eloquently in David Blunkett’s visionary foreword to The Learning Age, which set out the new government’s proposals for lifelong learning. I always assumed (wrongly, though that’s another story) that Bob drafted the foreword, while Blunkett then fine-tuned it.
Turning that vision into policy was another matter. On being appointed secretary of state for education, Blunkett created a number of advisory committees, one of which Bob chaired. The National Advisory Group on Lifelong Learning published its first report in 1997, and Blunkett moved rapidly to move on the main recommendations. Well, on what he saw as the main recommendations: the report devoted by far its longest chapter to recommendations, followed by a chapter on how to manage the process of change.
As a member of the Fryer committee, my impression was that the main lines of actual policy development had been thought out in the years before New Labour came to power in 1997. That wasn’t in itself a bad thing, as the earlier work strengthened Blunkett’s hand when it came to implementing the policies. I can only imagine the horror of senior civil servants – especially at the Treasury – when told to introduce Individual Learning Accounts, the Union Learning Fund, and the University for Industry.
Bob conrinued to play a central role in this period, not only chairing the committee as it produced its second report, but also accepting virtually any invitation to speak about lifelong learning. Indefatigable, he travelled these islands and beyond to generate a wider momentum behind the first report, taking several speaker engagements a week to share his vision of an active and inclusive learning culture that was supported by institutions and funding arrangements that placed learners at their centre.
Most people have long since forgotten the Fryer Committee’s second report, which appeared in 1999. Unlike the first, barely none of true second report had any impact, either on policy or on public debate over lifelong learning. Its title – Creating learning cultures: next steps in achieving the learning age – was promising, but in retrospect it lacked focus, and was missing in analytical precision. We’d learned one lesson from experience: this time we narrowed our recommendations down to eight key and twenty-three supplementary proposals. This was still far too many, of course.
More importantly, Blunkett’s focus had shifted, and he was paying far more attention to the politically-popular – and contentious – area of schools policy. Bob had also moved on, and was running New College at Southampton University, taking an able deputy with him and enjoying a secondment to the University for Industry where he worked with colleagues from the public sector union Unison on proposals for what became the National Health Service University.
Bob continued a wider contribution through other organisations and campaigns, largely in the voluntary sector. He remained a strong supporter of inclusive learning, and he was generous in supporting other woking in the area. In recent years his health deteriorated; the last time I saw him was at a seminar in 2019 to celebrate his work. He was physically frail but mentally lively, still championing the values that he had promoted an a scholar, advocate, practitioner, and activist. It visibly moved him to see so many old friends, colleagues, former students and allies turning out to share memories and expore his old preoccupations and passions.
Now he has left us. My personal memories are of a congenial companion, a generous and supportive colleague, a world-class raconteur, a hard-working colleague, a loving family man, and a committed activist who – though I think unintentionally – made me look closely at work and its transformations, and challenged some of my more orthodox thinking on class and inequalities. As a scholar he was knowledgeable and thoughtful, but for some reason everything he wrote simply got longer and longer; he seems to have needed a selfless co-author or a firm editor to help him get finished.
His most substantial contributions seem to me to have been institutional – just keeping Northern College alive would have been no mean feat, but growing it and protecting its distinctiveness was a real achievement; and political, in the work he put into the early years of New Labour’s first government not just in shaping specific policies, but also in generating support and enthusiasm for those policies. That’s a pretty good memorial, and I think he’d have been proud and happy if that was how we remember him.
Update: on the 17th August, the English and Welsh education ministers joined their Scottish counterpart in reversing their commitment to an algorithm-based approach to exam results, and settling for teacher-based assessments. All three ministers have also issued apologies. For details, see: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-53810655
This summer’s examination results have triggered unusual indignation and outrage across the UK. It all kicked off in Scotland, where the education minister reacted to public anger by dumping a strategy that he had originally approved. This was followed a week later by an outcry when results were announced elsewhere in the UK, but a common theme was that in each system, the preferred solutions to problems caused by the pandemic all tended to discriminate against the least privileged children.
Understandably, the media – social and ‘traditional’ – had a field day. In the middle of the row I tweeted a mildly-worded reminder that adults were affected as well as school-leavers: some second chance returners take GCSEs and/or A-levels, either to measure themselves against able youngsters, or – probably more significantly – as a way of building up a portfolio of qualifications that are widely recognised and can enable progression.
My message prompted a number of replies, and this post summarises the main points that people raised. Some people tweeted that any inherent bias in this summer’s system was likely to affect adult returners more severely than youngsters. One noted that as adults usually do a GCSE in 9 months, they had less time for full mock exams to fall back on. Another said that adult learners’ lack of previous education may have caused issue with the moderation of their grades. Finally, David Hughes commented that Ofqual’s algorithms struggle to cope with adults because of lack of comparable prior achievement data
One person pointed out that the number of adults taking schoolleaver qualifications has dropped significantly. In particular, a tiny number of adults now sit GCE A levels, with 1780 entries (not learners) for 19+ learners on 2018/19 NARTs (many of whom will be under 21), and only 340 Advanced Learning Loans approved for A Levels in 2018/19.
Once the dust settles, and the inevitable enquiries grind into action, it will be important to ensure that the disinctive needs and experiences of adult returners are not overlooked. I hope that this short summary of initial responses helps make the case for including adult learners in the conversation – and maybe in the longer run ensuring that these qualifications are made more accessible elements in our lifelong learning system.
My thanks to all those who commented. You can follow them on Twitter at:
I’ve been reading my father’s wartime diaries, which cover periods of his life as a prisoner in Hong Kong. He was in Bowen Road Hospital at the time of the British surrender, suffering from shrapnel wounds, and was then taken to the former British barracks at Sham Shui Po. As an acting second lieutenant (temporary in his case, but the Japanese didn’t know that), he moved to the Argyle Street officers’ camp in April 1942. His diary is patchy, and is written in pencil on small sheets of paper; the section I’ve been reading covers the period between December 1941 and late April 1942.
Most of the entries discuss food – the meals he had eaten that day, and those he imagined eating. If food was his main concern at this time, he also tends to list the state of his bowels. The Japanese, usually referred to in abusive terms, feature relatively rarely. The rest of the entries tend to be taken up with thoughts of home and the snippets of news he’d picked up about the progress of the war, punctuated by the odd angry complaint about the British army’s treatment of its men.
He also records his daily activities, which invariaby include a regular parade as well as occasional physical exercises, roll calls, and on one occasion an escape. And he records his attempts to expand his knowledge, to counter the confines and boredom of camp life by working his brain.
Following his injury, my dad was briefly taken to a temporary hospital in the university library, where he “borrowed” two books on foreign languages. After almost three months of imprisonment, he decided to spend five hours a day on languages. On 23rd March, he reported that he had fallen short of his target by half an hour, adding that “today was not a good day for non-stop study” (partly because he’d spent part of the morning attending a lecture on military history).
The next day he grappled with French tenses in the morning, then “went for an hour’s French lesson with M. Matthieu”. The following morning he worked on his Japanese (using one of his pilfered books) before attending a lecture on the Indian Ocean. The following day he again studied Japanese “until 2 pm when I developed a headache” (though this didn’t prevent him from going to another lecture on military history).
On the 27th “the morning & afternoon passed quietly studying Japanese” By the following day he was complaining that he had “got a little behind in my work programme which I must catch up before the end of the month”; the next day saw him working “very hard”, and the following morning was devoted entirely to studying Japanese, followed in the evening by a talk on flowers that had him reflecting on home. In March 30th, he faced a setback: the guards had searched his hut while the prisoners were at roll-call, and seized his “notes on the Malay language”.
Unsurprisingly, his enthusiasm for this rigorous “work programme” flagged. There’s a week’s gap in the diary, and by the time it resumes he had established a new and slightly less demanding regime (and was also learning Malay). On April the 9th he reported that he couldn’t find his French teacher, who he supposed had been taken out by their captors on an inspection tour, so he attended another lecture, this time on fuel supply. He spent most of the 10th and 11th working on his Japanese before his studies were interrupted on the 12th by Japanese demands for constant roll-calls after four men escaped. By the 15th he was back to his routine, and on the 16th his French class resumed.
During his time at Sham Shui Po, then, much of my father’s energy was spent on what appears to have been largely self-directed study. Possibly it was supported by some sort of exchanges with native language speakers, though I wonder exactly what that involved. Only in the French lessons does there seem to have been some sort of organised course, led by a native speaker (it sounds as though this might have been a civilian).
On the 18th of April, though, this all changed: the officers were to to pack their belongings for transfer to the Argyle Street camp, where his first concern was to try to find some cigarettes and a bed. But he was still interested enough in adult education to sign up on 22nd April for classes in Japanese, Cantonese, and Book-keeping, and in the following few days he attended lectures on publishing and Gallipoli, and started plotting to wangle a transfer to hospital “as I badly want a change of company”.
Life at Argyle Street sounds rather more organised with its classes than Sham Shui Po had been. It was, after all, a camp full of officers. But that was possibly also why my father fancied “a change of company”, as his fellow prisoners would have been acutely conscious that his status as an officer (and gentleman) was temporary; to them he would have seemed a jumped-up battery serjeant major.
I imagine he was rather relieved when on 16th May the camp commander decided to send the wartime officers back to Sham Shui Po, though this does beg the question of whether the regular officers had complained about them to the Japanese.
As Midge Gillies shows in her book The Barbed Wire University, self-help education was quite common among prisoners of war, forming part of an informal economy of entertainment and improvement that countered the loss of control and freedom that the camp represented. In my dad’s case, the experience led to a reasonable grasp of spoken French, a smattering of Japanese (which he said had driven him half mad), and a grounding in German; he also picked up some Punjabi from Sikh gunners, and he remembered enough of it to baffle Bengali waiters in the 1970s.
But let’s put all that active attainment into perspective. He also witnessed several murders of Chinese civilians (male and female) and a couple of executions of his comrades, which marked him for life; suffered long term effects of malnutrition; was badly beaten for protesting being used as slave labour; and stood as witness in the post-war trial of a leading British collaborator. The prisoners may have built their own world of improving activity, but all in all it was a bloody awful experience.
In her novel Red Wolf, the Swedish crime writer Liza Marklund bumps off a character who lives in the far northern region of Norrbotten. Margit Axelsson, a one-time Maoist revolutionary in the 60s, now makes a living by teaching ceramics to adults in the remote town of Piteå.
Marklund portrays Swedish adult education, at least as carried out by the Arbetarnas bildningsförbund (AFB, or WEA), as an extension of Margit’s beliefs:
The Workers’ Educational Association had always believed that those who had received the fewest of society’s resources should be compensated through education, cultural activities, and opportunities. he regarded it as jjstice applied in the educational and cultural sphere.
Study groups were a lesson in democracy. They took as their starting point the belief that every inividual has the capacity and desire to develop themselves, to exert influence and take responsibility, that every ndividual is a resource.
And she saw how the members grew, youing and old alike. Whwen they learned to handle the clay and the glazes their self-confidence grew, their understanding of the opinions of others, and, with that, their ability to actively influence what went on in the society around them.
It all ends badly for Margit, but isn’t it interesting to see an author set out such a clear analysis of the wider effects of adult learning? I have no way of knowing whether the study circles of the Arbetarnas bildningsförbund really do have these effects, but I hope so.
Gareth Jones was a fearless investigative journalist, famous for his reports on the horrific famine that followed enforced collectivization in the Ukraine. He is the subject of a biography published by the Welsh Academic Press, but is now becoming familiar to a wider audience thanks to the newly-released Mr Jones, a major film directed by the wonderful Agnieszka Holland, starring James Norton as Jones (and featuring part of Fife as his home town of Barry).
Jones’ impressions of the German camps he visited were overwhelmingly positive. He compared the large scale of the German Arbeitsdienst camps with the handful of voluntary and government camps in Wales, concluding that the latter had lessons to learn.
If Wales had done as much as Germany for the unemployed there would now be 300 camps here, and about 10,000 young Welshmen between 18 and 25 years of age would be engaged at useful work, repairing boots, singing, doing physical exercise, playing football or cricket and discussing everything under the sun. . . .Germany is years ahead of Wales in tackling unemployment. Thus Wales has a chance of catching up its brother nation and perhaps of beating Germany in the quality of work done. The opportunity is a magnificent one, especially for the Churches (Western Mail & South Wales News, 27 April 1933).
This cheery picture might seem odd, given how we now view the German labour camps. But when Jones visited Germany, the Nazi Party was just consolidating its hold on power, participation in labour service was still voluntary, and the camps were still organised by a wide variety of voluntary organisations.
Jones visited at least one camp run by the Stahlhelm, a nationalist and conservative paramilitary grouping founded in 1918 as a veterans’ movement; after the Nazi seizure of power, it was integrated into the Nazi structures in 1934. Jones noted that the unemployed trainees wore uniforms and helmets, concluding that the Stahlhelm camp ‘had done excellent work in making orchards and building roads, but their outlook was nationalistic and military’.
Jones also visited other types of camp, including one organised by a Christian group. But he worried that ‘Now, however, the whole system is in the melting-pot, for Hitler is in power, and it is feared that he may destroy its voluntary basis and make it compulsory and narrowly nationalistic’. As indeed was the case when the Nazis replaced the voluntary system with their universal male Reichsarbeitsdienst.
Jones was far from alone in admiring the voluntary labour service of pre-Nazi Germany. In my book I quoted Jones alongside the example of a Workers’ Educational Association study tour which was particularly taken with the ‘democratic way of living’ in a German camp. The fact is that many if not most of these camps were very different animals from the universal labour service enforced by the Nazis.
Entirely consistently, Jones also admired Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps, another large scale work camp initiative which trained young unemployed men on public works, in what Jones described as ‘a labour army’. Jones valued such camps because they ‘rescue’ unemployed men from ‘the apathy of worklessness’; what he despised was indifference to their plight.
Did this make him a Nazi sympathiser? Not at all, but Jones certainly has good contacts with the Nazi leaders, and he was denounced by some Western anti-fascists for ‘smearing’ the Soviet Union, of which the Ukraine was a part.
Jones died young, murdered in China in 1935 shortly before his 30th birthday. I very much welcome the film’s celebration of a journalist who uncovered uncomfortable truths about things most readers preferred to ignore. Meanwhile, if you want to read more on 1930s work camps in Britain (and to a lesser extent Ireland), hunt down a copy of my book.
I spotted this poster in the men’s room at my favourite outdoor shop. Tiso’s in Glasgow has a cafe, making it a good place for a break on the drive over to visit family in Dunoon. It has offered outdoor skills training since 2000.
Tiso’s developed the courses as a by-product of its main retail trade. They are held across climbing and skiing sites across Scotland. A one-day course will set you back £85-£95. The main instructor is an experienced mountaineer who holds a Mountaineering Instruction Certificate, an award of Mountain Training UK.
There’s a brief but telling mention of adult education in John Le Carré’s latest novel. Describing a character who has a left-wing father from a mining background, Le Carré adds that
His mother spent whatever free time she had from work at adult education classes until they were cut.
Le Carré is describing here a politically engaged self-improving working class milieu which he believes no longer exists, due in part to the erosion of public civic spaces of learning.
Agent Running in the Field is entertaining enough, but it’s unlikely to be judged one of Le Carré’s better novels, though its plot may resonate with the beliefs and fears of some Remainers. For the purposes of this blog, though, I will confine my comments to his very brief mention of adult education.
First, the author presents the weakness of UK adult education as a given; and while I think he is wrong about it, I understand that a lot of his readers will share this view.
Second, I’m encouraged that an author of his stature has actually noticed that UK adult education is not in great shape, and can assume that this observation will resonate with his readers. Maybe someone should be signing Le Carré up as patron of a campaign for adult learning (while gently pointing out to him that it isn’t quite dead yet).
One thing seems to be consistently clear in the debate over the UK’s relationship with the EU: our participation in the EU’s education and training programmes is set to continue. That shouldn’t surprise anyone, as all the main UK parties have said repeatedly that they would like our participation to continue. And now the political declaration attached to the latest withdrawal agreement confirms it.
What exactly this will mean in practice is another matter. Given its track record, the question of whether the U.K. Border Agency is capable of distinguishing between students and illegal immigrants at point of entry is a good one. And I have no idea whether we are reaching the end of the beginning in the never-ending story of Brexit.
Still, it seems clear to me that those who value international exchanges now have work to do if they are going to shape the scope and scale of future U.K. participation – especially if they are involved in areas other than the well-represented and lobby-rich sectors like schools and higher education.
If you are a UK adult educator, you are probably a bit taken aback by the sheer number of current inquiries into lifelong learning. The Liberal Democrats and Labour Party both have their own inquiries, another is being led by the college sector, and the House of Commons Select Committee on Education has just announced its own study of adult skills and lifelong learning. And these come on the heels of a variety of high level reports in the past couple of years.
No wonder that some of us are inquiry-weary. When I tweeted a link to the Select Committee Inquiry, one person responded: “I cannot see what else there is to learn. It’s essential end of! Back it fund it do it stop talking & I dare to add spend more money on finding out what we know”. Another commented: “Not again! I’ve been seeing these reports all of my long life – and learnt nothing”. So I hesitate, if only briefly, before urging you to respond to the Centenary Commission on Adult Education.
Members of the Centenary Commission (from Cooperative News)
The Centenary Commission’s starting point is the 1919 report of the Ministry of Reconstruction’s committee on adult education. The report was a landmark in adult education history, and is often credited with persuading the Government to expand the role of local authority adult education, and inspiring the formation of the British Institute of Adult Education (now the Learning and Work Institute).
While the 1919 report is certainly open to criticism, not least for the unmanageably large number of its recommendations (and its neglect of Scotland), it offered an inspiring vision of the broad and constructive contribution of adult education to a vibrant functioning democracy. And that is something we need to explore all over again in our new times.
So if you are interested in adult learning and education, let me urge you to overcome your inquiry fatigue. It is really easy to do, and the more of us who take the time to do so, the more likely it is that the Commission will have some impact. Of course, if you don’t respond, then I think you lose any right to pop up later complaining that you don’t like their report.
Not wishing to influence your own thinking, here’s what I said in reply to the Commission’s question about examples of good practice:
The French approach to individual learning accounts (the compte personnel de formation) is one of a number of learning account schemes that seem to me well worth looking at. While it has not yet reached huge numbers, it nevertheless provides a model of incentivising learning by funding learners rather than simply increasing funding to institutions.
The concerted and intensive awareness-raising of Adult Learners Week made a real contribution to culture change. In England there is now a rather less focused month-long festival; in Scotland and NI, ALW lost its funding, and now no longer occurs at all. By contrast, Wales has maintained ALW, and my impression is that it continues to retain a momentum and impact that is missing elsewhere in the UK. I’m sure you are already speaking with LWI Wales about the WAG approach to ALE, and it would be useful to know also what their view is of ALE vs a month-long festival.
OER/MOOCs. Digital resources and mobile devices are game-changers. Of course there is considerable hype around MOOCs as well as equally vacuous counter-hype, but they present opportunities for extending and widening participation that we really shouldn’t ignore. I suggest contacting Peter Shukie to share his knowledge of who is doing what with COOCs.
Transformative learning. The forthcoming Global Report on Adult Learning & Education (GRALE4) will show that while ALE is in reasonably healthy condition at global level, ALE for citizenship is an exception; in fact it is in parlous health. UNESCO will formally launch report at its November 2019 conference in Paris; if you want a preview of the findings, you should contact the UIL. Incidentally, the UK chose not to respond to the GRALE survey (neither did it respond in 2015).
And here’s how I replied to the invitation to specify ‘the single most important recommendation the Commission could make ‘:
Reintroduce a system of individual learning accounts, supported by guidance, and favouring those who have benefited least from publicly funded post-16 education. Drawing on experience elsewhere, as well as previous experience in the UK, redesigned ILAs will incentivise learners and improve institutional responsiveness. It might take the form of an entitlement, but I wouldn’t at this stage be too prescriptive about administrative shapes – better to get the min design principles right. This will of course be resisted by HEIs and colleges, who would prefer any additional funding to come to them, so recommending something along these lines will send a very clear message about your priorities.