Adult learning and the UK election (3): The Liberal Democrats

The Liberal Democrats are conventionally seen as the UK’s third party, though they have far fewer seats than the Scottish National Party. On the basis of the current opinion polls, it is possible that the Lib Dems will have an influence on the next government, either as coalition partners or as holders of the balance of power. They also have a strong if regionally uneven presence in local government. So along with my earlier analyses of the Conservative and Labour proposals for lifelong learning, I thought I’d add my two-penn’orth on the Lib Dems’ manifesto.

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Like the two main parties, the Lib Dems favour an interventionist industrial strategy supporting innovation and skills. In respect of skills, the party’s industrial strategy will include a major expansion of high-quality apprenticeships, including advanced apprenticeships, backed with new sector-led national colleges, to be accompanied by a national skills strategy for key sectors. There is also a general commitment to build digital skills.

Demand for skills will presumably arise as a result of the industrial strategy, and it is accompanied by the idea of a ‘good employer kitemark’. But the skills section of this strategy is considerably less specific than the manifesto commitments of the other two parties, both of which set a numerical target for apprenticeships.

Like the Conservatives, the Lib Dems prefer to avoid the distinction between apprenticeship starts and completions. Other than renewables they do not specify what sectors will form the basis of the strategy. It is unclear whether ‘national colleges’ will be created in England only, or across the UK.

In fact, I cannot imagine why they favour new national colleges given that we have plenty of colleges in existence already, most of which are gasping for investment. And of the three main parties it is the Lib Dems who have the least to say about further education, with colleges meriting little more than a cursory mention in passing.

The Lib Dems reserve their principal proposals for education for a section titled Children First. They signal their support for family learning as a means of raising child attainment, with plans for a new online Family University, supported by leading organisations such as the BBC and Open University, to provide every family with advice and guidance for learning and parenting at home.

This sounds like a good idea, but as will be obvious to every adult educator, the devil is in the detail. Left to its own devices the Family University’s ‘natural’ audience will be middle class mums and dads with ambitions for their kids, rather than those whose kids are systematically failed by the schools system as it stands.

More conventional university education receives detailed attention. The manifesto promises a review of higher education finance, in the light of evidence on access, participation and quality, as well as the reintroduction of means-tested maintenance grants, and a requirement that all universities work to widen participation across the sector. Not a word about the collapse of part-time learning in higher education – most of which took place while the Lib Dems were in the ruling coalition.

The Children First chapter does include a section on what it calls ‘lifelong opportunities to learn’. It offers a paragraph of rationale for lifelong learning, but this is confined to the need for career-long upskilling. Most of it is not particularly concerned with lifelong learning, but instead restates the party’s proposals on apprenticeships and national sector colleges.

Nevertheless, it does offer some specific plans for learning in adult life. These are:

  • Aim to meet all basic skills needs including literacy, numeracy, and digital skills by 2030. This is clearly a Good Thing, but I have no idea what it means in practice; who is to do the ‘meeting’, how they will be funded, and how the results will be measured, are not spelt out.
  • Create individual accounts for fnding mature and part-time adult learning and training, and provide for all adults individual access to necessary career information, advice and guidance. There are plenty of models elsewhere, such as the interesting skills credits scheme in Singapore, so this is a feasible policy if carefully designed. Who will be eligible for the Lib Dem accounts, what types of learning will they cover, how much will they be worth, how will the government avoid fraud, and how will they be paid for? And is the Party really proposing an entire new adult guidance service, or something much more modest?
  • Facilitate across the UK an effective and comprehensive system for credit transfer and recognition of prior learning and qualifications. We already have such a system in place across the EU and beyond (ECTS), and the simplest thing would be for the four nations of the UK to commit to observe it after Brexit. It is, of course, a matter for each of the four nations to decide its own policy in this area. However, the problem is not creating a system; rather, it is to ensure that education providers and employers (including government bodies) actually use the ones that exist.

The Lib Dems make no proposal for replacing the European Structural Funds after Brexit. This is in keeping with the over-arching policy of continuing to oppose Brexit, and in keeping with that they are economic will the truth, predicting ‘the loss of £8.9 billion of European Structural and Investment Funds’, failing to mention that the UK pays far more into the Funds than it receives (and in principle, therefore, will have more funding available for these purposes). As these Funds, especially the Social Fund, are a major source of support for adult and community learning, this isn’t a minor issue. Nor is their decision to keep quiet about reinsertion programmes for the unemployed. 

Before reading the manifesto I wanted to like the Lib Dem’s policies more than I did afterwards. Leaving aside the dishonesty about the Structural Funds (dishonesty was the dominant motif of the Brexit debate, on both sides), I found the manifesto disappointingly thin on specific plans, and lacking crucial detail where it did include concrete proposals. Nevertheless, there are some constructive ideas, and the Family University proposal has real potential for innovation, so there is plenty of fodder for lobbying and development after the election is over.

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.

 

Green Party policy for lifelong learning

Several people recently took part in a Twitter exchange about the policies of the main parties towards adult learning. I expressed the view that all the main parties – including Labour and the Scottish Nationalists – of cutting public favoured reduced spending on what was already a very small field. Effectively, their policy means privatised provision for those who can afford it, and minimal public provision geared to narrowly instrumental policy aims for the most stigmatised.

Natalie Bennett

Natalie Bennett

The only party to take part in the discussion was Natalie Bennett, leader of the Green Party, who sent me a link to the relevant section of their education policy statement. No-one expects the Greens to form the next UK Government, but they are polling well enough at the moment to suggest that they might be able to influence a minority Labour Government if that is what we get. So here is what they have to say about adult learning:

ED260 As stated in the Introduction the Green Party believes that life-long learning will help to create a healthy society.

ED261 As adult education is constantly evolving it demands a flexible approach to new courses whilst ensuring core aspects of education are preserved even where enrolment is low.

Policy

ED262 There should be funded opportunities to study at any level at any stage of life. This is essential for the 21st century; it may be done increasingly on-line, but with local centres for study support groups and face-to-face meetings with tutors.

ED263 To promote accessibility it will be provided in town centres rather than in out of town universities where possible.

ED264 There will be a minimum requirement to provide free education for adults to learn essential literacy, numeracy and life skills including Parenting programmes, and to acquire skills and qualifications which will help them directly gain employment. This will include provision for distance and e-learning, following models such as that of the Open University.

ED265 Adult education should embrace and encourage learning for learning’s sake and as such funding for additional courses will be decided at a local level, without it having to be target-driven and focused only on qualifications.

Like a lot of Green Party policies, there are gaps and loose ends. Funding is one, but so is responsibility for aligning supply and demand. For example, how does this relate to the Party’s policies on decentralisation – and how far will local government have any part in local delivery? Nevertheless, it is welcome that one of our smaller but still serious parties is developing clear policies that do not rely primarily on the free market, with all the inequalities and inefficiencies that untrammeled markets involve.

Note: I am a member of the Green Party

Keeping it in the family: how parents’ education shapes their children’s schooling

dingSome time ago I bookmarked a paper by Ruichang Ding, a researcher from Beijing Normal University. Applying advanced statistical methods to data from the OECD’s survey of adult skills, Ding tried to find out how far people’s success in education reflected the attainment levels of their parents.

Before summarising Ding’s findings, I want to make a point about method. In order to measure educational level, Ding had to resort to formal qualifications; while we have additional data for those who took part in the survey, there is no alternative when it comes to the parents. And while qualifications systems vary widely, the OECD surveyed adults aged 16-65 in 24 countries. In order to compare the results across countries, then, we have to use a standardised way of comparing qualifications, and Ding – reasonably enough – adopted the OECD’s own standard classification.

All that said, Ding’s findings are easy to summarise. First, as expected, he found that in all countries, today’s adults have better average qualifications than their parents. However, this gap varies considerably between different countries: the educational gap between generations is very low in Sweden and Finland, and very high in Spain and the Czech Republic, with England/Northern Ireland (Wales and Scotland chose not to join the survey) coming in above the average.

Second, he shows that in each case, the parents’ qualification levels are on average closely related to those of today’s adults. Once more, though, there are differences between nations. The relationship is closest in Slovakia and the USA, and weakest in Finland; the UK is among a group of countries (Ireland, France, Italy, Poland) that are clustered above average. Ding concludes from this that ‘intergenerational educational mobility in Finland would be relatively larger’, and correspondingly that it is rather low in the USA.

Third, and from my standpoint most interestingly, income inequality seems to be an important factor in explaining these patterns. Ding tests for other factors including poverty levels, levels of public spending on education, and average levels of wealth, and found no evidence of any correlation with intergenerational educational transmission. In the case of income inequality, Ding finds a very clear correlation: ‘countries with the high level of inequality had some of the lowest mobility’. Here, the UK and USA are marked by very high levels of income inequality and low levels of educational mobility.

I think this is an important paper which contributes to our understanding of social mobility and its constraints. The main findings support the argument of English researcher Andy Green, who with his colleagues has used different techniques to analyse the OECD survey data, coming to similar conclusions about educational inequalities. If we are to tackle these blockages to social mobility, then these findings suggest to me that investing in family learning for the least advantaged really should be a much higher priority than it is at present.

Should we fine ‘bad parents’?

We all know that family support is vital for a child’s education. Parents provide help with homework, discuss progress with teachers, provide transport to sporting and cultural activies, and generally help to create a culture of enthusiasm for learning. Ideally, they will also model that enthusiasm by learning themselves, and talking with others in the family about how they are getting on.

Inevitably, though, some families don’t meet that admirable ideal. We could ignore that, on the grounds that people’s attitudes and values are their own business and not the government’s. But that is a pretty short-sighted view, especially given what we know about family support for education and people’s life chances as adults. So if we do think something should be done, what is the best form of action to take?

Michael Wilshaw, the chief inspector of education for England, has suggested that schools should be able to fine parents who allow their children to neglect homework, miss parents’ evenings or fail to read with their children.

Well, it’s a solution of sorts, though it strikes me as hopelessly out of touch with reality. Who will fines hurt most? How exactly will fining people change their attitudes and behaviour? Do schools have the capacity to handle appeals? Will headteachers really send for bailiffs to collect unpaid fines? How will such fines affect relationships between parents and teachers?

More to the point, Wilshaw is ignoring evidence of an alternative approach to parental engagement that actually appears to work. This at first seems strange, given that some of that evidence was produced by the inspectorate, which collaborated with the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education on a series of pilot projects to promote family learning.

Family learning offers a far better approach to engaging disadaged families than fining them. But it requires a much more strategic approach to learning across the life course than either Michael Wilshaw or the current government is willing to consider.

The attack on adult learners: further evidence

My last two blogs presented evidence, taken from the National Adult Learning Survey, that adult learning in England is in trouble. NALS sampled participation in 2010, so conceivably the findings are out of date. However, the Skills Funding Agency’s latest figures suggest that the collapse continues.

SFA’s headline figure is that the total number of adult learners in government-funded further education fell by 10.7% in 2010/11. So for every ten learners in the previous year, one had vanished by 2010/11. Provisional data for 2011/12 suggest that participation may still be falling, but we have to wait until January to see whether this is the case.

Government has made courses leading to qualifications its priority for some years now. Given what we know from NALS, though, it is impossible to be surprised to learn that the number of people achieving a qualification fell even faster than the total number of learners, by 11.8%.

In another priority area, family literacy and numeracy, participation fell by 8.1%; it also fell, by 2%, in wider forms of family learning. This is damaging not only to the participants and their communities, but also affects the life chances of their children.

The SFA figures do contain some good news. The number of apprenticeships continues to rise, with above-average growth among adult trainees, and particularly sharp increases in the number of over-25s starting an apprenticeship. But most people will know that there have been questions over the quality of many apprenticeship schemes, with some evidence that employers are simply using the system to subsidise the employment of new staff or the upskilling of existing staff.

And there was mixed news in what used to be known as adult basic education. While the number of new Skills for Life learners rose by 5.8%, the number who achieved a qualification fell, by 3.1%.

If I were one of the many press officers in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, I would probably encourage Vince Cable to point to improving success rates. But if you reduce the total number of learners, by deterring the most disadvantaged and least highly motivated, then of course your success rates will rise.

And if I were one of the many press officers in the Scottish Government, I would encourage Mike Russell to note that these figures don’t cover adult learning in Scotland. But the Scottish Government did not support NALS in 2010, and doesn’t conduct its own research, so we have very little idea of what is happening to adult learners in Scotland. You might almost think the Government prefers to keep it that way.