A new skills agenda for Europe – or a drearily familiar shopping list?

The European Commission prearing to publish a position paper entitled A New Skills Agenda for Europe. Due to appear in late May, the paper is concerned with ‘promoting skills’, including the mutual recognition of qualifications, supporting vocational training and higher education, and ‘reaping the full potential of digital jobs’.

Will the content live up to its title – that is, will it really be ‘new’? Judging by the minutes of the Education Council, much of it will be familiar stuff. It will focus entirely on skills supply, with little or no discussion of how to raise the demand for and utilisation of those skills. Employability will be everything; don’t expect any creative thinking about skills for other areas of life. There could be a brief nod in the direction of equity and inclusion, and there will certainly be much rhetorical excitement about the growth potential of the digital economy.

Finally, because responsibility for skills lies largely with member states, several of whom are worried about ‘competency creep’ in the field of education policy, the Commission will largely confine itself to urging other people to do things, few of which will be innovative. So far, then, so familiar.

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Minutes of the European Council, 24 February 2016

Possibly there will be one new feature, compared with past policy papers on skills. The New Skills Agenda is highly likely to refer to the skills and the integration of refugees. Germany’s experience in the last year suggests that refugee integration into the labour market is proving slower than anticipated, partly because of language difficulties, but also because fewer refugees than anticipated hold recognised qualifications.

If my analysis is right, the energy has drained out of the ‘social Europe’project that was embodied during the 1980s by Jacques Delors. But neither are the largely Right or Centre-Right figures who dominate today’s Commission capable of producing creative and imaginative approaches to the skills and knowledge of Europe’s population, whether established or new. I find it hard to see the new paper making much of a splash, but I’d be delighted to be proved wrong when it is published in May.

 

Cracking the class ceiling: where next for Scotland?

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From the chair’s foreword

The Commission on Widening Access has just published its final report. You can read a copy here. Chaired by Ruth Silver, a highly respected former college principal who has considerable experience in adult and further education, the Commission listed 34 recommendations, which it describes as adding up to “a system wide plan to achieve equal access within a generation”.

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Dame Ruth Silver

Overall, I’d say that the Commission’s recommendations are as ambitious as this overall aim suggests. It focuses particularly on the massive socio-economic inequalities that characterise higher education participation in Scotland (I’m assuming I don’t need to dwell on the inequalities in other countries). It starts by calling on the Scottish Government to appoint a Commissioner for Fair Access, whose remit will among other things include responsibility for a ‘more substantial evidence base’ than exists at present.

This sounds to me as though the Commission thinks that OFFA (the Office for Fair Access) has on the whole worked well as an advocate for promoting wider access in England, though for tactical reasons this may be something to mutter quietly north of the border. However, the proposed Scottish Commissioner would have greater powers to work with schools and other pre-16 providers than OFFA, allowing a sharper strategic focus and helping avoid suplication.

The Commission also tackles one of the great challenges in ensuring equity in Scottish higher education: the problem of articulation. In its interim report, the Commission praised the expansion of higher education provision in colleges as a sunstantial contribution to wider access. The problem comes when students try to transfer from a college to university: the Commission estimate that 84% of transfers involved only five universities, with the most selective universities admitting few students and recognising less credit.

This is a problem of long standing, and it is a significant block on social mobility. I was delighted to see a strongly-worded recommendation, urging the Scottish Funding Council to “seek more demanding articulation targets from those universities that have not traditionally been significant players”.

It also makes a number of recommendations about admissions criteria and procedures that will be widely welcomed by advocates of wider access, but will be less popular among academics and managers in the more selective universities. In a move that will provoke horror from some senior managers, the Commission proposes that the SFC should make more use of existing regulatory powers to drive wider access, and urges the Scottish Government to publish data on fair access.

The Commission also recognised that the stratified nature of Scottish higher education has consequences for graduate destinations. Essentially, those who enter the most selective forms of higher education are far the most likely to enter elite professions; those who complete short cyle higher education in a non-university context are the least likely. The report also notes that the least advantaged students are also less likely, on average, to complete their qualification.

Unfortunately, it seems that the Commission was unable to consider inequalities in outcomes for graduates from disadvantaged backgrounds in any depth. Its final recommendation invites the new Commissioner to “consider what futher work is required to support equal outcomes after study for those from disadvantaged backgrounds or with a care experience”.

My initial reaction, then, is that the Commission has done a pretty decent job. I have some reservations about key gaps – for example, the lack of explicit attention to ethnicity and gender. The remit – as you can see above – was narrowly focussed on children’s life chances, with no acknowledgement of second chance learners. But on the whole, I think Ruth Silver and her colleagues have delivered an important and challenging agenda for equity and mobility in Scotland, in a report that should be of interest way beyond our borders.

What will happen next is, of course, a matter for the Scottish Government. Angela Constance, the minister responsible for education and lifelong learning, has broadly welcomed the report (while patting herself and her Government on the back, both for their past achievments, and for appointing the Commission in the first place). Her official statement concluded with the following sentence:

I am very grateful to Dame Ruth Silver and the Commissioners for the considerable time, effort and engagement they have put into producing this ’Blueprint for Fairness’. Their recommendations are bold and thoughtful and fit well with ongoing work around closing the attainment gap and developing the young workforce.

This reads to me as though adult learning still has no part to play in the Scottish Government’s strategy for wider access, which is disappointing, if not very surprising. But the Scottish Government has already faced down the more conservative-minded leaders in the higher education sector in demanding reforms to governance, so I am hopeful that they will go at least some way to tackling the social class inequalities and injustice that this report has highlighted. And if you want to monitor developments, you could do much worse than follow the well-informed and analytical blog of Lucy Hunter Blackburn, here.

 

 

Shaping European policies for adult learning

In 2009, the European Union set itself a series of objectives for education and training by 2020. This agenda, known in summary as ET2020, set four common goals, including that of ‘making lifelong learning and mobility a reality’. It also identified a number of benchmarks, one of which is that at least 15% of adults should participate in some form of lifelong learning.

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Since 2009, a number of working groups have been helping to shape European policies in these different areas. The first stage of this process is now over, and the existing working groups – one of them focusing on adult learning – are due to be replaced. The new working groups will function between 2016 and 2018, by which time presumably all will be in place (or not) for the 2020 finishing line.

So who will sit on these working groups? I don’t know the names of the individuals, but the European Commission has published a list of the organisations who will nominate them. In the case of the Working Group on Adult Learning (WGAL) they are:

  • BusinessEurope, an umbrella group of business organisations (including the CBI)
  • The European Association of Craft, Small and Medium-sized Enterprises
  • The European Association for the Education of Adults
  • European Association of Vocational Education and Training Institutions
  • The European Federation of Education Employers
  • The European Trade Union Committee for Education
  • The EuropeanTrade Union Confederation

I notice that the European Universities Continuing Education Network, which previously was represented, is not among the 2016-18 members.

The Commission has also published the ‘mandate‘ for the working groups. WGAL is asked to address the ‘concrete issues’ of  promoting and widening the availability of workplace learning and responding to demands for workforce up- and re-skilling, especially for the low and mid-skilled.

There is no scope, then, for learning as personal development or active citizenship. However, the two vocational goals are understood in comparatively broad terms, so that WGAL will also be asked to consider such matters as migrant integration and intergenerational solidarity, albeit within the context of workforce skills. And there is a separate working group on promoting citizenship, whose remit is currently limited to children and young people; if we wish to expand their remit, then that means a bit of work.

The Scottish Government takes a narrow view of adult learning, but at least it takes a view

In May 2014, the Scottish Government launched its Statement of Ambition on Adult Learning. Given its title, it isn’t surprising that the paper was long on generalities and short on specifics; its role was to set out a broad direction of travel, which would be followed by consultation over how best to get there.

The job of handling the next stages was passed over to Education Scotland (ES), a state agency which undertakes teaching inspections and supports quality improvement across the education system (excluding only higher education). ES has convened a strategic forum, and earlier this year it published a set of strategic objectives that were informed by the forum’s discussions.

In practice, the strategic objectives didn’t much move things on from the Statement of Ambition. Since then, the Scottish Government has issued its work programme for 2015-2016, an 88-page document that includes the following commitment:

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Some – and I’m one of them – will think this a rather narrow and unambitious set of goals; while all are necessary and even praiseworthy, they are a long way from the aim of being ‘recognised globally as the most creative and engaged learning society’. But at a time when publicly funded adult learning in Scotland is in freefall, we can take a small crumb of reassurance from this commitment to a basic platform of public provision.

 

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.

NIACE is dead, long live the Learning and Work Institute

NIACELO1The National Institute of Adult Continuing Education announced in the summer that it was to merge with the Centre for Economic and Social Inclusion. CESI, itself the product of a merger of the Unemployment Unit with other research and lobbying bodies, had already formed a ‘strategic alliance’ with NIACE. The merger was widely expected, and I fully expect NIACE members to endorse the merger at the annual meeting next month.

I’ve already arranged for my postal vote at the meeting, which will be to support the final stages of the merger. This will mark the end of an era: the British Institute of Adult Education was created in 1921, becoming the the National Institute of Adult Education in l949, and adopting its present name in 1983.The inclusion of ‘Continuing’ in the name was controversial at the time; supporters felt it signalled a commitment to working across all parts of a changing field, opponents believed it represented a capitulation to the vocational agenda of the then Tory government.

The name was not all that changed. The Institute shifted from an association of individual members in 1921 to one that was largely dominated by institutional members; it also attracted increasing levels of funding from government, local and national. Initially dominated by the Workers’ Educational Association, its role broadened steadily, expanding particularly in recent years under the energetic leadership of its director, Alan Tuckett, at a time of considerable government interest in adult learning. It has also merged with other bodies, notably the Basic Skills Agency which it had helped create in the first place.

NIACE became, in many respects, the model for a representative umbrella group. It provided a wide range of services, from publishing to research to staff development to a quiet word in Ministers’ ears. It was respected overseas as a willing and competent partner, an informed source of information, and as the producer of invaluable resources. It managed to negotiate a delicate balance between the two UK nations that it was charged with representing and the two that had much weaker representative structures. It was a source of creative thinking and energy, manifested in such influential developments as the annual Adult Learners’ Week.

After such a glorious past, why has NIACE felt such an urgent need to change?  One factor was undoubtedly a sharp collapse in funding, as central government and its agencies felt the impact of austerity.NIACE has already had to shed staff and abandon activities (including much of its publishing arm), and CESI is in the same position.

Financial retrenchment has been accompanied by the weakening or demise of many established adult education programmes, above all in local government. Formerly powerful allies such as the universities were cutting back on general adult education, and even on part-time degrees, while colleges’ capacities to deliver local adult programmes were throttled.

The other major factor is surely the clear vocational turn in adult learning. In many ways this represents an opportunity: from adult apprenticeships to employee development, from personal learning accounts to MOOCs, there is a huge role for a national representative body to engage with providers, help support teachers and trainers, and lobby and advocate at national level.

I can see that the merger with CESI will add to NIACE’s capabilities, as can be seen in the impact the two organisations are having jointly on the Government’s Welfare-to-Work programmes. And I very much welcome the clear focus on equity and inclusion that both organisations already share, and are promising to pursue in the future.

Do I have concerns? Of course I do. I fear that the need to adapt and change will damage core values, and that the new, merged body will find itself drawn to focus on young adults, to the cost of learners aged 25 and over – let alone those who are learning in the third and fourth age. And there is a risk that the merged Institute will be pushed into becoming a partner of government rather than its critical friend. But drifting on as things are is a strategy for irrelevance and marginalisation; better by far to work with those who will join from CESI, and who will bring new skils and capabilities.

That does, though, leave the vexed question of the name. Last week NIACE sent out the papers for its annual meeting, which spelt out the proposed new name: the Learning and Work Institute. The online weekly, FE Week duly ‘revealed’ this news. The name will duly be debated at the annual meeting on 4 November. Is this a name which trips off the tongue, and will it lend itself smoothly to an acronym? How will it play in Wales, where NIACE Dysgu Cymru has established itself as an important player in the devolved nation?

We shall see, of course. But whatever the name, the task of representing and supporting a large, diverse and rapidly changing field is going to present much more significant challenges than a bit of rebranding.

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.