Research, Policy, and Practice in Lifelong Learning

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The Universities Association for Lifelong Learning has chosen to focus on ‘Research, Policy and Practice‘ for its 2018 conference. You will find the call for papers on the UALL website, and it promises to be a lively and constructive event. Given the poor health of adult learning across the four UK nations, it also seems particularly timely.

I’ll be interested to see how researchers and practitioners now understand and address this triangular relationship. Ideas of evidence-based practice have not often found an enthusiastic reception in adult or further education, partly because of a (not unreasonable) suspicion of outside experts floating in to a field where expertise so often draws on experience, partly because ‘what works’ can change dramatically between one context and another, and partly because some academics are rather precious about avoiding a whiff of application.

Now might be a good time for moving beyond such unproductive refusals and to develop further the existing dialogues between research and practice over the types of evidence we need, and how best to use it. Academic researchers are now under considerable pressure to show that people read and use their findings, and practitioners are often required to justify their practice. This offers quite an opportunity.

As for policy, though, where do you begin? Evidence for the benefits of adult learning is not hard to find. My own overview of UK longitudinal studies – which show marked gains for individual learners and their communities, as well as gains for employers – is far and away my most frequently downloaded publication. The OECD survey of adult skills, usually known by its acronym of PIAAC, provides an international insight into these effects. UNESCO devoted its Third Global Report on Adult Learning to a review of research, and found clear support for positive effects on health and well-being, employment and the labour market, and community life and social capital.

So in principle it should be easy to persuade policymakers to consider treating adult learning as an intervention with a proven record of success. In practice, this has not been easy. The evidence base is still not as strong as it could be (for example, is adult learning more effective and less costly than other ways of achieving the same effects?), and I’m not sure we have still figured out what the distribution of benefits might mean for funding the system.

A second problem is, bluntly, the reluctance of policymakers to listen to the evidence and discuss the implications. Very few politicians, employers or senior civil servants have much direct experience of adult or further education. There are exceptions, of course: David Blunkett was an unusual Secretary of State in that he had been an adult student, is an alumnus of the Huddersfield postgraduate certificate in further education, and taught in Barnsley College. And among current MPs, Chi Onwurah and David Lammy for Labour and Caroline Dinenage for the Conservatives have all actively promoted debate over greater public support for adult learning.

So there are grounds for hope, but any chance of effective influence on policymakers will require a much stronger and long term commitment than most researchers in adult learning have shown so far. It will also require dialogue with politicians while in opposition, rather than contacting them for the first time when they are in power. In England, this is something that NIACE used to be very good at, and I hope that the Learning and Work Institute can build on this. But the issues are too important for researchers to hope that they can leave the job to others.

 

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The benefits of adult learning: information technology and older adults

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The IT Group, Yeovil U3A

I’ve just been reading a study of how adult learning influences older people’s use of information technology. I’ll summarise this study, as it adds to our knowledge about the benefits of adult learning, but if you want to read the original it is available here.

The study is of University of the Third Age students in two Italian centres for seniors. The researchers surveyed 135 individual learners; like many other studies of U3A groups the learners were more likely to be highly educated than the population at large, and the IT groups had more men than average for U3A courses. The survey relied on self-reporting, and examined changes in IT use among those taking the course.

The results were highly illuminating, and they are summarised in the abstract below. The only group who did not benefit significantly from the course were university graduates, which should come as no surprise. Those with lower existing levels of education, and especially those with the lowest levels, experienced the largest benefits.New Picture

Given the increasing role of IT in health care and access to other government services, as well as in everyday communications, these are important findings.Last year I got annoyed with a government minister who’d been sneering at part-time courses in IT for adult learners. She justified her attack on adult learning in machine-like language:

there has been a deprioritisation in the range of computing courses that are about things such as how to work a mouse and how to organise your calendar at Christmas.

Well, learning how to use a mouse might just be critical if you are seventy and are terrified to touch a computer. Internet use among older adults is rising, but it falls sharply among the over-65s. Evidence that education changes behaviour as well as attitudes is therefore very welcome.

The collapse of adult learning in Scotland – a government response 

I wrote last week about Scottish Funding Council data showing further decline in part-time student numbers in colleges. The learners whose courses have been cut are overwhelmingly adults, and a majority are female. Now the Scottish Government, in the form of the Minister for Skills and Training, has explained that this is part of a strategy to remove courses of low quality or of no particular benefit.

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Scotsman, 16 January 2016

You will, unfortunately, search in vain on the Scottish Government website for evidence to support this statement. I am not aware of any serious evidence that the lost part-time adult courses were of low quality, or that they had no real long term benefits. On the other hand there are quite a few inpection reports praising the quality of part-time college courses, and there is plenty of research showing that these courses have tangible benefits for learners.

Still, I am pleased that the Minister at least saw fit to justify her government’s decisions, even if the justification is utterly unconvincing. I welcome it as a sign that at long last we might have at least the semblance of a debate on the future of adult learning in Scotland.

 

 

The European Commission’s thinking on lifelong learning

New PictureThe European Commission has recently published two documents that offer us insights into its thinking on lifelong learning. First, it has issued its Education and Training Monitor for 2015; ostensibly a ‘state of the art’ report, the Monitor also provides insights into the  EC’s current priorities. Second, the Commission has agreed a Communication on its Work Programme for 2016, concentrating on what it calls ‘the big things where citizens expect Europe to make a difference’; one of these ‘big things’, it seems, is skills.

What do these documents together tell us about the Commission’s thinking? Well, it seems reasonable to start by saying that learning and skills are a rather greater priority for the European Commission than they are for most of the member states. Both of the documents also confirm the continuing importance of gender equity in the Commission’s thinking about the labour market. Beyond that, though, the two papers differ in purpose and scope.

To some extent, the Monitor treats adult learners as peripheral. Most of it is devoted to schools, higher education and initial vocational training, with adult basic education and upskilling being classed as examples of the need to modernise vocational education and training systems. Apprenticeships are seen as something for young people, in which learning at school and work are combined, while e-learning and MOOCs are treated primarily as a sub-set of higher education.

So far so familiar. But four pages of the Monitor are devoted to adult learning, focusing on participation rates and the benefits of learning. It asserts – reasonably enough – that there are ‘clear social and economic benefits to engaging adults in continuing learning activities’.

On participation, the Commission notes that in 2009 the member states set a target for 2020 of 15% of working age adults participating in learning during a given four-week period; the current rate stands at 10.7%, with only six member states (Denmark, Sweden, Finland, France, the Netherlands and the UK) reaching the 2020 target.

From the 2015 Monitor

From the 2015 Monitor

The Commission concludes that the weak evidence of progress implies ‘a rethink of adult learning policies’. It then draws on an as-yet-unpublished meta-study of the effectiveness of particular adult learning interventions, which are ranked according to the strength of the evidence. The most effective, according to this exercise, are public co-financing of employer training, aligning provision with skills forecasting, and targeting funding on provision for the disadvantaged and difficult to engage groups.

Quite how the Commission will persuade member states to rethink their adult learning policies is unclear. It can pull some levers – including publishing comparative benchmarking reports like the Monitor – but education is a responsibility of national governments, and at European level it is dealt with under the so-called ‘open method of co-ordination’. This effectively leaves it to the member state to decide whether they take any notice of European-level policies or not – which is why the 2020 targets will be missed.

On the other hand, the Commission does have powers over vocational training. The 2016 Work Programme is going to include a ‘New Skills Agenda’, which takes an explicitly human capital approach to investing in skills throughout life in order to improve competitiveness. This includes raising participation in the labour market by women, but otherwise the new agenda is nebulous in the extreme.

From the 2016 Work Programme

From the 2016 Work Programme

The European Commission has a long record of interest in adult learning. Perhaps its most influential intervention was the European Year of Lifelong Learning, a largely symbolic gesture which nevertheless reached out to governments, providers and other actors such as trade unions and voluntary associations. Much of the excitement that surrounded the European Year has evaporated, as has the social democratic vision of Europe that was associated with its then president, Jacque Delors.

In current circumstances, it probably shouldn’t surprise us to find that the Commission’s view of adult learning is an instrumental and impoverished one. Nevertheless, the fact that the Commission is debating adult learning and skills offers opportunities for advocacy and a chance to try and broaden out the terms of debate.

‘We need a cultural revolution’: Alan Tuckett’s inaugural

Alan Tuckett in fine fettle

Alan Tuckett at Wolverhampton University

Last night, Alan Tuckett gave his inaugural lecture at Wolverhampton University. As you’d expect from the much-loved former director of the National Institute for Adult Continuing Education, it was warm, self-deprecating, funny, and incisive. And although he had a lot to say about the history of the adult education movement, the lecture firmly directed us to look towards the future.

Alan gave his lecture a typically perplexing title: ‘Jesus and History, Thunder and Lightning: Lifewide learning for adults’. Equally characteristically, he had taken the first phrase from a learner, when asked what he wanted to learn about. Alan also quoted Alan Johnson, the much-admired Labour MP, who scoffed at adult education as dealing with frivolities like Pilates; needless to say, Alan had encountered a middle-aged plumber who took to Pilates as a way of making sure he could still crawl under a sink.

In short, Alan was arguing for a broad approach to publicly funded provision, which didn’t try to prescribe what adults learned, or whether they decided to take a qualification at the end of it. He name-checked Thomas Carlyle (‘It is the first duty of government to see that the people can think’), Paulo Freire and Raymond Williams, as well as the second wave feminists of the 1970s, as formative influences on his thinking.

The high point of this approach in recent decades was the early period of New Labour, which – as in other areas like pensioner poverty, child poverty and public health – had proven decisive, innovative and progressive. He also noted that when New Labour came to power, the main opposition parties were also interested in adult learning; he modestly forebore to mention the role of NIACE, and Alan Thomson and Alan Tuckett in particular, played in schmoozing with and persuading leading Tories and Lib Dems. The result was that the initiatives of 1998-2003 were largely uncontroversial politically.

Since then, adult learning has slipped progressively down the policy agenda. Alan pointed out that over two million adults have been lost to the further education system since 2003. The only nations which had managed to reduce employees’ participation levels in continuing training since the recession were the PIG nations (Portugal, Italy Greece) and the UK.

This policy neglect will, Alan predicted, command a heavy cost. We are much better informed about the evidenced benefits of adult learning, for one thing; for another, the external forces that drove the European agenda for lifelong learning in the 1990s are still there, with knobs on.

Some of the response may take place through private provision, or by self-help initiatives such as the U3A and reading circles. In an aging society, it may be that health agencies concerned about cognitive resilience will provide adult learning, but it will still be there. And similarly in other policy areas.

‘Adult learning is like ground elder’, he concluded. ‘You can’t kill it off, it grows up somewhere else’. But for it to include those who currently avoid adult learning, who see it as a threat or are excluded by providers’ structures and funding restrictions, we need a long term cultural change.

And there Professor Tuckett finished – only to be asked immediately by a member of the audience just how we might achieve this revolution in attitudes. Alan answered her, citing the learning cities movement as one positive current initiative, but I rather formed the impression that he is inclined to see this challenge as one that he is now ready to delegate to us all.

Sneering at adult learners – why do we let them get away with it?


Adult learning is in crisis across the UK. While demand appears to be as high as ever, and the wider public case is as strong as ever, all four governments are busily cutting direct and indirect funding for provision. And when pressed to justify the cuts, it seems that they simply can’t help themselves from deriding adult learners.

Here’s a case from this morning’s newspapers. Asked about a collapse in part-time information technology courses, the minister responsible said

there has been a deprioritisation in the range of computing courses that are about things such as how to work a mouse and how to organise your calendar at Christmas.

Leave aside that wonderful word ‘deprioritisation’, and reflect for a moment on the idea that adult courses in IT are about no more than organising your Christmas calendar. Just take five seconds to think about why ‘organising your Christmas calendar’ might help to engage some hesitant learners – and then spend another five seconds thinking about who such a course might appeal to.

I’m sure you’re ahead of me, but here’s one example. A study by Age UK found that whilst 13 per cent of the adult population in the UK have never used the Internet, the over-65s comprise over 75 per cent of this excluded group – almost 5 million people. Then add to that the overwhelming evidence of the benefits of learning for older adults.

It’s easy to show that these are silly comments, throw-away remarks that are designed to belittle adult learners and those who support them. But enough. What is important is that sneering at adult learners is so commonplace.

Alan Johnson, when Labour’s education secretary, justified cuts in 2006 by saying that we needed ‘more plumbing, less pilates; subsidised precision engineering, not over-subsidised flower arranging’. John Denham, then Labour’s minister for higher education, defended his government’s 2008 cuts by describing adult education as little more than ‘holiday Spanish’ (only among the Brits would learning a foreign language be seen as frippery). The Coalition’s skills minister Matthew Hancock, also justifying cuts in 2014, jeered at ‘qualifications in coaching angling, aerial balloon displays and self-tanning’.

This discourse of derision has a long history in our field. Alan Tuckett used to recall his days organising an adult centre in Brighton, when a local Tory councillor tried to dismiss its courses as ‘tap-dancing on the rates’. Our early days at Northern College – where working class people came to study – heard cries of ‘the Kremlin on the hill’. And needless to say, similar jibes faced the men and women who created our adult education institutions.

So what can we do about it? To start off, we can benefit from building a different relationship with policy makers, based on dialogue and reason. And that might mean that we in turn start to treat policy makers as people who are trying to get something done, in conditions that they understand better than we do. Speaking truth to power is an easy slogan, but we need to creat platforms for exchange rather than just shouting from our studies.

This doesn’t mean accepting insults that are designed to dismiss us before we even get in the room. In the short term, we need to rebut each and every small-minded jibe. We might even indulge in the occasional cheap shot ourselves – for example, I cant help pointing out that our dismissive Scottish minister was educated at public expense for four years in one of Scotland’s ancient universities.

In the longer term, we need to make a concerted effort to explain the benefits of adult learning, and put policy-makers in situations where they engage directly with adult learners. We have a small mountain of robust evidence on the economic, social and health benefits of adult learning; let’s get it in front of the widest possible audience. And let’s sit policy makers down with learners who can explain exactly why learning how to manage a calendar on a lap top might be an important first step back.

 

Another benefit of adult learning: social mobility

saveaded
Participating in learning has a measurable impact on people’s lives. This is obviously true for children, but recent research has shown convincingly that adults also benefit from their learning. Much of this research is particularly compelling because it is based on longitudinal studies, which allow us to examine how individuals’ lives change over time.

Now Arianna Tassinari from the Office for National Statistics has added to this important body of data. Using data from the British Household Panel Survey, she reported on a study of whether adult education participation can change the relationship between parental background and an individual’s own socio-economic status at different points in time.

The BHPS collects two types of information on adult learning: having acquired a qualification, and having undertaken non-formal adult learning. Tassinari and her colleagues looked at changes in socio-economic status that look place between one and five years after participation in learning. And by controlling for other factors, they were able to determine whether changes in status were associated with something else than participating in learning.

Their findings were clear. Tassinari and her colleagues reported that

A distinctive, positive effect of participation in adult learning for inter-generational mobility is found when considering outcomes five years after participation in adult education. In particular, we find that participation in adult learning leading to qualifications at level 3 or to other professional qualifications significantly decreases the effect of parental education on individuals’ own socio-economic position.

So there we have it. As well as having small but significant impacts on health, well-being, self-efficacy, cognitive resilience, employability, earnings and community-mindedness, we now have clear evidence that adult learning can help overcome inherited disadvantage. So investing public funds in adult learning ought to be a no-brainer, shouldn’t it?