Adult education, democracy, and murder in Nordic Noir

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.

Norbotten, photographed by Simo Rasanen (Creative Commons)

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.

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.

Research, Policy, and Practice in Lifelong Learning

uall-lifelong-learning

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.

 

The benefits of adult learning: information technology and older adults

Computer-group

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.

scotsman

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.