Education and the Brexit saga

One thing seems to be consistently clear in the debate over the UK’s relationship with the EU: our participation in the EU’s education and training programmes is set to continue. That shouldn’t surprise anyone, as all the main UK parties have said repeatedly that they would like our participation to continue. And now the political declaration attached to the latest withdrawal agreement confirms it.

What exactly this will mean in practice is another matter. Given its track record, the question of whether the U.K. Border Agency is capable of distinguishing between students and illegal immigrants at point of entry is a good one. And I have no idea whether we are reaching the end of the beginning in the never-ending story of Brexit.

Still, it seems clear to me that those who value international exchanges now have work to do if they are going to shape the scope and scale of future U.K. participation – especially if they are involved in areas other than the well-represented and lobby-rich sectors like schools and higher education.

What is new about Germany’s national strategy for continuing education?

Well, the first thing that is new is the fact that it exists at all. Under the German federal constitution, responsibility for education lies with the individual states (Länder) and the federal government (Bund) is cast in a largely supporting role. The new strategy is the first of its kind, jointly produced by the Bund, the Länder, employers, and labour unions.

“Sharing knowledge, shaping the future, growing together: National Strategy for Continuing Education”

The rationale offered for this spirit of cooperation is digitisation. One much-cited study claims that a quarter of German employees work in occupations at high risk of replacement through the new technologies, and that report is duly mentioned in the new strategy.  The focus here is on workplace skills as a means of tackling the challenges of digitisation for individuals and enterprises alike, with a particular focus on small and medium sized firms and on the least skilled workers.

The strategy sets out ten ‘action goals’, and commits the partners (federal ministries for education and labour, Länder, employers, unions) to putting them into practice. These goals are:

  1. Supporting the transparency of continuing education possibilities and provision.
  2. Closing gaps in support , putting new incentives in place, adjusting existing support systems.
  3. Strengthening comprehensive lifelong educational advice and skills guidance, especially in SMEs.
  4. Strengthening the responsibility of the social partners.
  5. Testing and strengthening the quality and quality evaluation of continuing education provision.
  6. Making visible and recognising workers’ prior skills in vocational education.
  7. Developing continuing education provision and certification.
  8. Strategic development of educational institutions as skill centres for vocational continuing education.
  9. Strengthening continuing education staff and preparing them for digital change.
  10. Strengthening strategic foresight and optimising continuing education statistics.

if anyone wants more detail of these broad goals and their implementation, let me know.

Imp-lementation starts after the summer break. Responsibility for overseeing progress against these goals is being handed to a national committee of the partners, which is charged with producing a joint progress report in 2021. At the same time, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development has been asked to produce a national report on continuing education in Germany.

Those who look for a broad and civic approach to lifelong learning will not find it in this strategy. Its focus is aimed entirely at change in continuing vocational education, with a view to reducing the rigidities of Germany’s skills system, and promoting greater labour flexibility flexibility in the face of tech change, and digitisation in particular. As a strategy for upskilling, though, it’s an enormously interesting development, and given Germany’s wider influence in Europe and beyond, it’s worth watching closely.

Germany’s National Strategy for Continuing Education

For the first time, Germany now has a national strategy framework for continuing education. In Germany’s federal system, responsibility for education policy lies with the Länder, who are understandably reluctant to cede ground to the federal government. To date, each Land has developed its own policies for adult learning and education, albeit in consultation with the other Länder as well as with other partners.

In this post, I am summarising the official press release announcing the new strategy. I’ll look at the strategy, and comment on it, next week. Meanwhile, I hope you find this outline useful.

Anja Kurbiczek, Federal Minister for Education and Research

The new federal strategy has been agreed, following protracted negotiations, between the federal education ministry, the Länder, trade unions, employers’ associations, and the federal labour agency. Decisive in creating the new consensus was the shared concern over Germany’s ability to seize the opportunities of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, and in rparticular to adapt to global developments in digitisation.

According to Anja Karliczek, the federal minister for education and research, the new conditions require a pervasive culture of continuing education. “Continuing education in one’s career must in future be part of everyday working life”. More specifically, the government plans to create a digital platform for vocational continuing education, improve the validation of informal learning, and raise significantly the state loans for learners.

The press release is available at https://www.bmbf.de/de/nationale-weiterbildungsstrategie-beschlossen—gemeinsam-fuer-eine-neue-8860.html

Financing adult learning in Germany: the changing balance between public and private

The Bertelsmann Foundation has published a report on the financing of continuing education in Germany between 1995 and 2015. The broad headline finding is that although the system has enjoyed rising overall levels of income, the balance between private and public funding has shifted steadily over that time.

“The state withdraws from adult learning”: changes in public funding by sector, 1995-2015

The report begins with a brief history of adult learning since 1945, in order to illustrate the new significance of adult learning in the contemporary knowledge society. They then propose that participation in adult learning is a prerogative of those who are profiting from modernisation and the knowledge society. At the same time, the costs of learning increasingly fall on the individual or their employer; and participation is seen as a virtue which then legitimates the rewards enjoyed by the successful.

The authors’ evidence for this broad social trend is not all new, but the report does provide a new analysis of funding data. This is no easy task; estimating public spending alone involves adding together figures from different sources (federal government, Länder, Gemeinde/communes) concerning learning support of different types, from local funding for adult education centres to loans and grants for training master craftsmen (apologies for the gendered language, but it’s in the original).

The report confirms that the lion’s share of public education funding is allocated to schools, followed at some distance by higher education. Interestingly for a Brit, the initial vocational training system receives slightly less funding than adult learning (€21.8bn in 2015 as against €26.9bn). Note, though, that the adult learning figures include continuing vocational training.

When it comes to the balance between public and private funding, the sectors are very clearly differentiated. Adult learning in 2015 was 77% funded from private sources, compared with 43% for vocational training and 18% for higher education. Moreover, only in adult learning has public funding fallen since 1995, by 43%, though it has been more than replaced by funding from individuals and their employers.

The share of public and private funding, 2012: outer circle = public funding, inner circle = private sources

The authors remark on the contrast between public policy announcements on the increasing necessity of learning through life with the reduced public funding for adult learning. A broader and more inclusive approach to lifelong learning, which does not simply meet the immediate short term needs of the enterprise or individual career, requires both an increase and a rebalancing of public funding.

Germany has a relatively generous approach to adult learning, which remains stronger and better funding than in most European countries. Yet it too seems to be experiencing trends that are socially damaging and economically at odds with its policies around the fourth industrial revolution. The Bertelsmann report is a helpful intervention which will inform policy debate and has already attracted press attention but the significance of its analysis goes well beyond the case of Germany.

Finally, a brief note on language. The authors say in a footnote that they use the words Erwachsenenbildung (adult education) and Weiterbildung (continuing or further education) interchangeably. Some German colleagues would probably challenge the idea that these are synonyms, but that’s another issue.

The report is available at: https://www.bertelsmann-stiftung.de/fileadmin/files/BSt/Publikationen/GrauePublikationen/LL_Hintergrundstudie_Weiterbildungsfinanzierung1995-2015.pdf

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.

Yet more gongs for leaders in lifelong learning

Every time I publish a post on adult educators and the honours system, generous readers point out the names I managed to miss. Here is the latest crop:

Mary Stuart, vice chancellor of the University of Lincoln

Maggie Dawson, former chief executive of the WEA Cymru, following a long career in adult education in South Wales, has an OBE

Stella Hardy, active as a voluntary officer in the WEA South Eastern District and a member of the Advisory Council on Adult & Continuing Education, received an MBE in 1980.

Rob Humphreys, recently retired as Director of the Open University in Wales where he moved after heading up Dysgu/NIACE Wales following a career in adult education at Swansea University, has a CBE.

Ruth Spellman, who became chief executive of the WEA in 2012, was awarded an OBE in 2007 for services to workplace learning

Mary Stuart, Vice Chancellor at Lincoln University, who formerly worked in the Centre for Continuing Education at Sussex University, was recently awarded a CBE.

in addition, a number of national directors of the OU have been honoured (including Peter Syme in Scotland and Rosemary Hamilton in Northern Ireland) as well as Will Swann, the OU’s director of students.

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.

New Picture

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.