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.

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.

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.

A year of blogging: the most popular posts of 2020

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, 1944-2020: Adult educator, scholar, advocate and baby-sitter

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’s appointment as the NHSU’s first chief executive was announced in late 2001, and the University opened two years later. For whatever reason – my understanding is that senior civil servants took the first opportunity to kill off something they’d never wanted, Labour politicians were less than supportive, and the workforce formed a perception that Bob had staffed the new body with chums with no health service experience – NHSU was abruptly closed in 2005, and Bob found himself in the role of the NHS’s director for widening participation in learning. Its legacy was minimal, partly because almost all those involved directly in NHSU left the NHS fairly quickly.

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.

Commercial adult learning: mountain skills

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.

If you want to know more, check out the details on https://www.tiso.com/courses

Adult learning in spy fiction: John Le Carré

Le Carré at the Zeit Forum Kultur, 2008, Hamburg

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).

Education and the Brexit saga

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.

France’s personal training accounts were a great idea – what is going wrong?

When the French government introduced its personal training account (CPF, compte personnel de formation) scheme in early 2015, it was in the hope of promoting an upsurge in reskilling. Yet according to a recent survey, less than a third of workers have opened up their online account, almost a quarter say they haven’t heard of the scheme, and only 7.2% have benefited from training under the scheme. What has gone wrong?

New Picture (3)

First, I should make clear that the survey shows signs of progress. While only 31% said they’d activated their account in the 2018 survey, that is up on a mere 20% in the previous year. Those who benefited have risen from 3.6% last year.

Still, compared with the government’s ambitions, these figures are sobering. They also contrast with the popularity of similar systems elsewhere; whatever you think of the British Individual Learning Accounts, they were certainly widely used. And to me, the idea of time off work to train with costs paid should be pretty appealing.

I don’t know why the CPF has failed so far to take off. It was well-publicised, and it is a reasonably generous scheme. Jobs are changing in France as elsewhere, and ever more will be affected as a result of digitiation, AI, and other tech changes, so upskilling makes sense for enterprises and individuals.

Perhaps it’s just that the accounts are simply unattractive to French workers? Or maybe the scheme is over-bureaucratic? If you know more, please let us all know!