Responding to the Centenary Commission on Adult Education – just do it!

If you are a UK adult educator, you are probably a bit taken aback by the sheer number of current inquiries into lifelong learning. The Liberal Democrats and Labour Party both have their own inquiries, another is being led by the college sector, and the House of Commons Select Committee on Education has just announced its own study of adult skills and lifelong learning. And these come on the heels of a variety of high level reports in the past couple of years.

No wonder that some of us are inquiry-weary.  When I tweeted a link to the Select Committee Inquiry, one person responded: “I cannot see what else there is to learn. It’s essential end of! Back it fund it do it stop talking & I dare to add spend more money on finding out what we know”. Another commented: “Not again! I’ve been seeing these reports all of my long life – and learnt nothing”. So I hesitate, if only briefly, before urging you to respond to the Centenary Commission on Adult Education.

Centenary-Commission-on-Adult-Education

Members of the Centenary Commission (from Cooperative News)

The Centenary Commission’s starting point is the 1919 report of the Ministry of Reconstruction’s committee on adult education. The report was a landmark in adult education history, and is often credited with persuading the Government to expand the role of local authority adult education, and inspiring the formation of the British Institute of Adult Education (now the Learning and Work Institute).

While the 1919 report is certainly open to criticism, not least for the unmanageably large number of its recommendations (and its neglect of Scotland), it offered an inspiring vision of the broad and constructive contribution of adult education to a vibrant functioning democracy. And that is something we need to explore all over again in our new times.

So if you are interested in adult learning and education, let me urge you to overcome your inquiry fatigue. It is really easy to do, and the more of us who take the time to do so, the more likely it is that the Commission will have some impact. Of course, if you don’t respond, then I think you lose any right to pop up later complaining that you don’t like their report.

Not wishing to influence your own thinking, here’s what I said in reply to the Commission’s question about examples of good practice:

  1. The French approach to individual learning accounts (the compte personnel de formation) is one of a number of learning account schemes that seem to me well worth looking at. While it has not yet reached huge numbers, it nevertheless provides a model of incentivising learning by funding learners rather than simply increasing funding to institutions.

  2. The concerted and intensive awareness-raising of Adult Learners Week made a real contribution to culture change. In England there is now a rather less focused month-long festival; in Scotland and NI, ALW lost its funding, and now no longer occurs at all. By contrast, Wales has maintained ALW, and my impression is that it continues to retain a momentum and impact that is missing elsewhere in the UK. I’m sure you are already speaking with LWI Wales about the WAG approach to ALE, and it would be useful to know also what their view is of ALE vs a month-long festival.

  3. OER/MOOCs. Digital resources and mobile devices are game-changers. Of course there is considerable hype around MOOCs as well as equally vacuous counter-hype, but they present opportunities for extending and widening participation that we really shouldn’t ignore. I suggest contacting Peter Shukie to share his knowledge of who is doing what with COOCs.

  4. Transformative learning. The forthcoming Global Report on Adult Learning & Education (GRALE4) will show that while ALE is in reasonably healthy condition at global level, ALE for citizenship is an exception; in fact it is in parlous health. UNESCO will formally launch report at its November 2019 conference in Paris; if you want a preview of the findings, you should contact the UIL. Incidentally, the UK chose not to respond to the GRALE survey (neither did it respond in 2015).

And here’s how I replied to the invitation to specify ‘the single most important recommendation the Commission could make ‘:

Reintroduce a system of individual learning accounts, supported by guidance, and favouring those who have benefited least from publicly funded post-16 education. Drawing on experience elsewhere, as well as previous experience in the UK, redesigned ILAs will incentivise learners and improve institutional responsiveness. It might take the form of an entitlement, but I wouldn’t at this stage be too prescriptive about administrative shapes – better to get the min design principles right. This will of course be resisted by HEIs and colleges, who would prefer any additional funding to come to them, so recommending something along these lines will send a very clear message about your priorities.

Lifelong learning and the age of automation

The Economist Intelligence Unit has compiled an Automation Readiness Index, which it says is designed to compare ‘how well-prepared 25 countries are for the challenges and opportunities of intelligent automation’.

automation

I think the study while flawed is nevertheless interesting. The participating countries were selected on a variety of grounds; they include the world’s largest economies, along with others selected on the basis of relevance (Estonia and Singapore were judged to demonstrate key good practices) and geography (four countries representing ‘key emerging economies from Latin America, South-east Asia, and the Middle East’).

The selected indicators and associated metrics make for interesting reading. There are 52 indicators, divided into three broad categories: innovation environment, education policies, and labour market policies, with weightings that favour the first two over the third.In each domain, the researchers drew on their judgements of qualitative evidence (however, I can’t find much about how they did this) as well as on available quantitative data.

There will always be questions about the fit between published data and what it might claim to measure. For example, within the education cluster the researchers evaluated ‘continuous education’ on the basis of ‘the existence of national lifelong learning programmes’ and ‘financial support for lifelong learning’. Within the labour market cluster, they judged ‘targeted retraining’ on the basis of ‘Existence of retraining programmes for displaced workers focusing on transition to high-demand sectors’.

So there are some obvious definitional questions, as well as a degree of subjectivity in how these criteria are evaluated. Among areas missing or neglected, I’m articularly struck by the absence of any interest in how well the wider public is informed about digitization and artificial intellegence, or in which skills will likely be in demand as a result of automation (though the study did look at the role of social dialogue on the future of work in general).

The findings are nevertheless interesting, if not generally very surprising. For example, although the UK is placed 8th overall, it is 10th in respect of continuous education and the researchers conclude that ‘the country could do more to support lifelong learning, in particular, to boost its rank in education policy’. The authors seem articularly interested in measures designed to promote individual demand for learning, such as the individual learning accounts that have been adopted in Singapore and France in recent years.

In short, then, no surprises here but some useful food for thought. In particular, the report reinforces my belief that individual learning accounts remain the best available option for raising demand for learning, particularly among under-represented groups of learner; and it also confirms that countries which aim to take advantage of the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’ need to include lifelong learning as an integral feature of their strategy.

Funding learning through training accounts: what French workers study

In 2015, the French government introduced an entitlement of up to 150 hours of free tuition with paid leave from work for all those active in the labour market. Workers had to select from a wide range of approved courses, all of which had to lead to the award of  a recognised qualification. The system has been tweaked since then, but the compte personnel de formation (CPF, personal training account) system now seems to have settled down.

cpf

The Ministère du Travail has now released the list of certificates taken most frequently by workers in 2017 using their CPF. The top five are:

  1. Test of English for International Communication
  2. BULATS Business Language Testing Service
  3. Certificat de connaissance et compétences professionelles, which largely assesses existing learning
  4. Passeport de compétences informatique Européen, known elsewhere as the European Computer Driving Licence
  5. TOSA, a test which allows you to assess your computing and digital skills

The first thing to say is that these are mainly tests or examinations. The routes by which people progress towards the certificates will vary enormously, but as the CPF gives you paid leave to learn, presumably they will involve attendance at courses of some kind.

Second, two topics stand out: the importance of language and computing are both very clear. Both can be understood as involving skills and knowledge that workers hope can help protect employment security at a time of globalisation and tech change. Of course, other topics also attract large numbers of participants: specialist driving certificates and a mandatory management qualification make it into the top ten.

So far, the CPF seems to have been free from the misuse that scuppered Individual Learning Accounts in England. Central regulation of approved qualifications clearly has some benefits. Looking at these topics, though, it seems very likely that the CPF is being used to fund training that would have taken place anyway, or is even producing more people with some qualifications than the labour market requires. Finally, I’m not clear how the CPF impacts on equity and inclusion; if it has positive effects in this domain, then that can be set in the balance as well.

Funding adult skills in France: here comes the ‘big bang’

Considerable controversy has surrounded President Macron’s plans for labour reform in France, especially measures designed to promote labour flexibility and limit trade union powers. Less widely reported are parallel interventions to promote skills and learning, but this is where the focus is now moving.

The politician responsible for the labour reforms is Muriel Pénicaud, an experienced human resources manager who became Minister of Labour in May 2017. After completing her first set of labour reforms last year, Pénicaud has turned her attention to training and skills, an area where she (and Macron) believe existing French policies to be antiquated and inefficient.

New Picture

“The training system is neither fair nor equitable”: unequal participation

On 5 March, the Minister announced the long-awaited content of her reforms, claiming that they had been ‘largely’ agreed with employers and unions. Above all, there are new arrangements for personal training accounts, or compte personnel de formation: whereas the old system was counted in time, the new entitlement will be calculated in cash, with the funds being collected through the social insurance system. Each individual employee’s account will be credited with €500 a year, capped at a total of €5,000; those with low skills will have a higher sum of €800 a year, capped at €8,000.

Further changes will bring part-time workers into the system, as well as absorbing the congé individuel de formation (CIF) into the CFP. A new tripartite agency, France compétences, will regulate the training costs and scrutinise quality, to avoid the kind of malpractice that dogged the initial foray into learning accounts in England and that has marred the CPF to date.

How much of this will happen is another matter. France’s unions and employers’ associations responded with their own counter-proposals. Pénicaud has initially dismissed these as too modest and conservative, arguing that what was needed was les incremental change than a ‘big bang’ (the French for which turns out to be – yes, big bang) which combined radical reform with a simplification of a complex and inefficient status quo.

Pénicaud’s ‘big bang’ also extends to other areas of skills pilicy. She is in discussion with social partners over how to improve skills levels among the unemployed, and has initiated discussions on an overhaul and expansion of the apprenticeship system. Taken together, these reforms will unsettle relationships not only with the unions buts also with employers’ organisations and France’s powerful regional governments. The outcome is still uncertain, but I’m backing Pénicaud to win.

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.

Personal training accounts – supporting adult skills in France

The new system explained (with beret, naturellement). From www.senat.fr

The new system explained (avec beret, naturellement). From http://www.senat.fr

This month saw the introduction of a new way of supporting adult learning in France. The new ‘compte personnel de formation’ (CPF), or personnel training account, is based on the principle of a time bank, which starts when you enter the labour market and continues through your working life.

The new CPF affects all those active in the labour market – workers, job-seekers and apprentices. Essentially it provides for an entitlement of up to 150 hours of free tuition with paid leave from work, accumulated over an eight-year period. Previously, the law guaranteed 120 hours, accumulated over two years, and to be used within six years.

Inevitably there are restrictions on what can be studied, with a centrally-determined list of 3,881 eligible forms of training at different levels, reflecting the government’s priority of supporting ‘short-to-mid-term economic needs’. And there is a requirement for certification, whether through a recognised qualification or through the national system for accrediting vocational learning (validation des acquis professionels). And in order to receive paid leave, you must apply at least 60 days before the course begins.

If these criteria are met, the employer must agree to let you attend. The costs – including travel and subsistence – are met by what looks to me very much like a training levy on employers, administered by a body agreed by the employers and the trade unions which also meets half of your salary costs while away from work.

This interesting system was introduced under France’s law on vocational training, employment and social democracy, and it replaces the earlier system known as ‘droit individuel a formation’ (DIF, individual right to train). It is, of course, too early to say how the system will work, but it has been generally welcomed by workers’ representatives as offering wider choice and greater control, and a recent survey estimated that 74% of workers intended to take it up.

In one respect, though CPF isn’t working as well as the old DIF. The central body charged with drawing up the list of eligible courses apparently ‘forgot’ to include languages. As 30% of requests for DIF involved English language learning, this came as something of a shock, but it is apparently in the course of being remedied.

Otherwise, this looks like a really worthwhile reform. I hope that policy makers in other European countries, and those who represent adult learners, are watching the CPF with lively interest.