Adult learning and social mobility: the state of Britain

The Social Mobility Commission (SMC) has published its most recent ‘state of the nation report‘, in which it concludes that social mobility in England is stalled. It provides evidence to support this claim, and then goes on to consider a number of reasons for this stagnation, with recent changes in the education system being the largest.

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Their analysis encompasses adult learning, where the Commission has a number of criticisms of current policy as well as constructive suggestions for the future. Some of these come in discussions of other educational sectors; their discussion of early years education, for instance, looks at qualifications and career structures for the (overwhelmingly female) workforce, and at the importance of family learning in giving small children a strong start; the section on further education also looks at teacher recruitment issues.

When it comes to adult education and training, the Commission draws heavily on its own study of the adult skills gap, which it issued in January 2019. This showed that the least skilled are the least well placed to access opportunities for upskilling, at a time when the fourth industrial revolution is starting to impact most on the least skilled jobs.

The most highly educated, meanwhile, find it relatively easy to refresh their skills and qualifications. The report notes that this appears to be as true of open education programmes such as MOOCs as it is of more conventional opportunities. The consequences, if things are left as they are, will be that adult learning serves as a block to social mobility rather than an enabler.

And all of this following a period in which, as the Commission notes, ‘almost all forms of adult education are in decline’. They produce figures showing that the UK spends two-thirds of the EU average on adult training, well below that of such comparable economies as Germany and France. They show that regional imbalances increase problems of accessing training, and note that those who are most likely to move between regions are the most advantaged. While the new national retraining scheme for England may have potential, they note that it will need to be both large and highly targeted if it is to have the impact required.

While the SMC has no remit to improve social mobility in Wales and Scotland, it notes that while challenges remain, neither has seen the same stagnation as is evident recently for England. They note that the Scottish Government has reponded to a steep decline in on-the-job training with a £10m in-work training programme, while the Welsh Government’s employment policies include proposals for skills and training.

So far as England is concerned, the SMC’s main recommendation for adult learning is that the Government should follow the action plan set out in the SMC’s report in January 2019, and in particular that it should ‘equalise adult education funding with EU statistical averages and reduce the underspend of its adult education budget through more flexible funding structures’. The new regional combined authorities have powers to achieve greater flexibility, but it will be for national overnment to release additional spending.

Clearly, then, the report offer much to encourage those of us interested in adult learning. Of course it focuses largely on adult learning for or in work, but that is for the obvious reason that our occupations tend to shape our life chances. More seriously, the current obsession with Brexit among politicians of all colours probably means that the SMC’s report will have a marginal influence on policy in the immediate term.

But with several committees of inquiry beavering away currently on lifelong learning policy, the SMC has provided further evidence of the wider benefits and policy importance of adult learning. It also provides fresh food for lobbying and advocacy at local and regional level.

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Commercial adult learning: floristry

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I took this photo while I was in Kent visiting my mum. A florist was starting up in one of the small row of shops, and even before opening they were advertising Saturday morning workshops at £30 a person.

So this is another example of adult education as a spin-off from a small independent business. If financially successful, the workshops would produce a small additional income for the business at next to no cost, and also help build customer loyalty. For the learners, they offered a chance to pursue an interest with a group of like-minded people.

Back in the 1980s, politicians sometimes used flower-arranging as the epitome of frivolity and waste in public adult education, although they had no notion whether the learners subsequently put their new skills to use at work or in the community.

Now, with public adult learning narrowing down into vocational and ‘essential’ skills, politicians minded to sneer at adult learner are more likely to jeer at basic computing as learning ‘how to work a mouse and how to organise your calendar at Christmas’.

Brits in Europe – a new target group for adult education?

A friend sent me a link to a story from a local newspaper in Westphalia, just to the west of Bielefeld. Reporting on a speech by the leader of the local Volkshochschule (VHS, adult education centre), the headline reads: “Brexit drives Brits to the VHS – course fees becoming more expensive’.

VHS Ravensberg

Senior staff at VHS Ravensberg launch their Easter brochure (image from the Westfalen-Blatt)

Whatever the headline might make you think, the story desn’t seek to blame the Brits for raising course fees. Rather, it summarises Ravensberg VHS’s yearly report, which notes that the reduced numbers of asylum-seekers entering Germany have had an effect on demand for adult basic education, and encouraged the VHS to offer its integration courses in workplaces, so as to reach foreign workers.

In the process, Ravensberg VHS has discovered a new target group. “50 percent of the people who take the naturalization test with us, are currently British,” says VHS leader Hartmut Heinze. In Germany, the VHS are reponsible for administering both the test of citizenship knowledge and the language competence assessment, so I speculated that this growth in British candidates is similar elsewhere as people try to manage uncertainty.

As for the rise in tuition fees, that was a more or less logical consequence of the VHS orgnisers’ decision to raise payments to course leaders. Learners will now have to pay 2,40  per 45 minutes of class time instead of 1,90. That’s quite a hike, but still a lot cheaper than the typical course fee in the UK.

 

 

 

 

Lifelong learning and the age of automation

The Economist Intelligence Unit has compiled an Automation Readiness Index, which it says is designed to compare ‘how well-prepared 25 countries are for the challenges and opportunities of intelligent automation’.

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I think the study while flawed is nevertheless interesting. The participating countries were selected on a variety of grounds; they include the world’s largest economies, along with others selected on the basis of relevance (Estonia and Singapore were judged to demonstrate key good practices) and geography (four countries representing ‘key emerging economies from Latin America, South-east Asia, and the Middle East’).

The selected indicators and associated metrics make for interesting reading. There are 52 indicators, divided into three broad categories: innovation environment, education policies, and labour market policies, with weightings that favour the first two over the third.In each domain, the researchers drew on their judgements of qualitative evidence (however, I can’t find much about how they did this) as well as on available quantitative data.

There will always be questions about the fit between published data and what it might claim to measure. For example, within the education cluster the researchers evaluated ‘continuous education’ on the basis of ‘the existence of national lifelong learning programmes’ and ‘financial support for lifelong learning’. Within the labour market cluster, they judged ‘targeted retraining’ on the basis of ‘Existence of retraining programmes for displaced workers focusing on transition to high-demand sectors’.

So there are some obvious definitional questions, as well as a degree of subjectivity in how these criteria are evaluated. Among areas missing or neglected, I’m articularly struck by the absence of any interest in how well the wider public is informed about digitization and artificial intellegence, or in which skills will likely be in demand as a result of automation (though the study did look at the role of social dialogue on the future of work in general).

The findings are nevertheless interesting, if not generally very surprising. For example, although the UK is placed 8th overall, it is 10th in respect of continuous education and the researchers conclude that ‘the country could do more to support lifelong learning, in particular, to boost its rank in education policy’. The authors seem articularly interested in measures designed to promote individual demand for learning, such as the individual learning accounts that have been adopted in Singapore and France in recent years.

In short, then, no surprises here but some useful food for thought. In particular, the report reinforces my belief that individual learning accounts remain the best available option for raising demand for learning, particularly among under-represented groups of learner; and it also confirms that countries which aim to take advantage of the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’ need to include lifelong learning as an integral feature of their strategy.

Ofsted’s new inspection framework: adult learning for active citizens with British values?

Ofsted is consulting on its future frameworks for inspection, including inspections of further and adult education. The draft framework for further education and skills sets out a number of areas in which provision (and this explicitly includes adult learning) will be judged:

  • Quality of education
  • Behaviour and attitudes
  • Personal development
  • Leadership and management

I was very interested to see the more detailed discussion of these areas, as well as the interconnections between them. Of particular interest for me was the draft elaboration of ‘personal development’, which make it clear that providers are expected to develop wider capacities and qualities among their learners.

It further elaborates that learning should foster active citizenship and promote equality of opportunity and diversity, as well as instilling ‘fundamental British values’ and encouraging responsibility for one’s own fitness and health.

While talk of ‘ British values’ might raise some hackles, and some will bridle at individuals being responsible for their wellbeing, I don’t have a problem with any of this, at least as formulated in the draft framework. It goes without saying that the values listed are certainly not unique to this island, nor indeed to western Europe; and encouraging individuals to look after their bodies sensibly isn’t incompatible with a strong national health service.

I can, though, envisage circumstances in which a future education minister will spot political capital in this, and revise it to his or her partisan advantage. If recent political events have taught us anything, it is that the unthinkable is entirely possible. Meanwhile, I rather welcome this part of Ofsted ‘s draft framework as restoring a neglected dimension of further and adult education.

Where New York leads: reflecting on market forces and adult learners

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Adult learning in the USA can be an expensive business. For example, New York University charges $125 to join a half-day course on Imperial London and $450 for six three-hour evening classes on Management Principles for Non-Profit Organisations. Presumably enough people are willing to pay these sums for the courses to be viable, but these eye-watering fees also mean that the States can provide many examples of alternative provision.

On a recent visit to New York I came across two cases of alternative provision. The first is the School of Practical Philosophy, which has been running since 1964. The School is registered as a not-for-profit, and describes itself as ‘run by its students on a voluntary basis’. Teachers are apparently not paid; fees vary but a ten week advanced course costs $175, while a one-day event on Plato will set you back $50 (including a Greek lunch and an evening wine reception).

Interestingly, the School has now established itself in the UK. According to its website it has venues across the north west of England, where its offer seems more geared towards mindfulness than the broader programme of its New York parent. I have no idea how successful it is.

The other private venture that intrigued me was the Brooklyn Brainery, the hipsterish name of a not-for-profit which describes its raison d’etre as ‘accessible, community-driven, crowdsourced education’. Its courses are relatively cheap ($13 for an evening on the history of gin, for example), interesting, and short, lasting mostly between one and four sessions. Its founders crowd-sourced the start-up funding, much of which went on premises, and are still involved in organising the programme.

I’m not setting these up as models for others to follow, though I think they are both pretty admirable, but rather as examples of the way in which adult learning doesn’t disappear simply because state agencies don’t provide everything. If established providers are too expensive, or too rigidly tied to qualifications and lengthy study programmes, then other bodies will flourish in the gaps. We’ve seen that here in the UK where the University of the Third Age has flowered for one large group of learners neglected by the public system .

The first obvious problem is who gets left behind in this process, which largely favours those who are already the most committed to investing in their own continuous learning. The second is that the content and pedagogy follow the interests and preferences of the most easily recruited learners.

And guess what: the popular courses are short, fun introductions to regional world cuisines, along with ‘how-to’ sessions on how to go about buying a house in New York City. Again, that’s not at all a Bad Thing, but it’s not going to solve our society’s most pressing problems. We still need to think about how adult learning can help us achieve the kinds of community we want, and then ensure that it receives a reasonable degree of public support.

A new focus on adult skills in Germany?

Inside Germany, news of the coalition agreement was met more with grudging relief than enthusiasm. It followed an election in which both main parties haemorrhaged support; for the Christian Democrats, the outcome probably spells the beginning of the end for Angela Merkel’s long period of political dominance, while the Social Democrats’ loss of support is starting to look existential.

So the new coalition is a partnership of two weakened, and possible vulnerable, political giants. Nevertheless, the Christian Democrats and Social Democrats will jointly be ruling Europe’s largest economy, which is also by far the EU’s most influential member. So regarless of any internal weakness, it is well worth looking at the text of the coalition agreement – and, given my interests, you won’t be surprised that I’ve been keen to see whether it mentions the broad area of lifelong learning.

In fact, the agreement pays a remarkable amount of attention to adult and/or continuing education:

  • Chapter Four – which is devoted to an ‘Offensive for Education, Research and Digitisation’ places a strong emphasis on the role of public policy in securing adult skills. It promises a national strategy for continuing education, focusing mainly but not exclusively on its role in securing digital skills.
  • Chapter Five, on ‘Securing Good Work, Wide Security, and Social Participation’, speaks about a strong, broad alliance for lifelong learning in digital skills.

It should be clear that the priority here is workforce skills, and above all digital skills. In this the new strategy will be building on the existing initiative ‘Berufsbildung 4.0‘ (vocational education for the fourth industrial revolution), as well as continuing earlier atttempts to improve possibilities for mobility between roles.

However, the agreement also stresses that opportunities for digital updating should be available to people ‘at any age and in any life situation’, and looks to the public Volkshochschulen to play a central role in delivering the new digital skills. It also promises to develop basic workplace and family skills provision as part of Germany’s national decade for literacy (2016-2026).

This aspect of the coalition agreement almost certainly reflects the hopes and priorities of the Social Democrats. While it will have to be implemented by Anja Karliczek, the minister for education and science, who is a Christian Democrat, the finance minister is a Social Democrat.

This matters, because financial means will not be easy to come by. The adult education section of the German teachers’ union has broadly welcomed the agreement’s potential for developing workorce continuing education, but pointed out reasonably enough that it says next to nothing about funding. That is a task for the new minister and the new Parliament, and it is here that the weakened standing of both partners may come into play.