Bob Fryer, 1944-2020: Adult educator, scholar, advocate and baby-sitter

Bob Fryer is probably most widely known for chairing an influential advisory committee that helped shape New Labour’s policies for lifelong learning. But many people will also have encountered him as a teacher, researcher, advocate, and leader across fields such as industrial relations, employment, and social policy as well as adult learning. His influence in all these areas was far-reaching.

Bob also made an intensely practical contribution. I first met him in the mid-70s, when I was working on my PhD at Warwick University, where Bob was chair of the Faculty of Social Sciences. Our families belonged to the same baby-sitting circle in the Coventry suburb of Earlsdon, so I or my partner occasionally baby-sat his kids and he and his partner Ann baby-sat ours. I also saw him at research seminars in the Sociology Department where he was then a senior lecturer.

I left Warwick in 1978 to start teaching at a new adult college in Barnsley, so the next I heard of Bob was a phone call from him asking a few sharp questions about the college. I didn’t know that he was thinking of applying to become the college’s principal until he was short-listed. Bob led Northern College for fifteen years, at a time when financial and political pressures could easily have ended its life.

I left the college in 1985 to return to Warwick, so I didn’t see Bob’s long term impact at first hand. In the short term, he acted to strengthen the college’s somewhat under-staffed and chaotic administration, bring in Mo Mowlam as a senior administrator (though Mo could be something of an occasional presence, given her other interests); he brought in new groups of learners through his connections with trade unions; he built his own relations with the South Yorkshire councils and the miners’ union (his predecessor, Michael Barratt Brown, had his own ties with these groups, who were vital for the college’s health); he worked hard at wider political connections; he built a close working relationship with Sheffield Hallam University; and he enjoyed teaching the lively students we worked with.

It was an exciting time, and I thought long and hard before making the move to Warwick. One of the attractions of moving was the opportunity to help develop a new department – which itself had been created following a report from a Senate working group that Bob had led, and Bob was generous in advice in the next couple of years. Meanwhile, he was taking the college forward, and also starting to think through some of his ideas for rebuilding adult learning. He knew David Blunkett, who had been one of the college’s governors and as leader of Sheffield City Council was adopting the ideas of policy thinkers like Martin Yarnit, including the pioneering Take Ten scheme of paid educational leave for municipal workers.

So it was no surprise that Bob was involved in New Labour’s policy development around adult learning. Like Blunkett, he had nothing much against Blair’s embrace of education as “our best economic policy”, but what excited him – and Blunkett – was education as a crucible of active citizenship and social justice. He also brought a sardonic wit to his interventions. When some on the left disparaged his focus on getting working class peoiple into university, Bob replied that he noticed that the higher someone’s own qualifications, the more likely they were to proclaim the irrelevance of qualifications for other people.

Bob was an Oxford boy in his origins, but his family background lay in the city’s manufacturing community rather than the university, and he always seemed to treat his roots as a touchstone for his educational thinking. That thinking was probably expressed most eloquently in David Blunkett’s visionary foreword to The Learning Age, which set out the new government’s proposals for lifelong learning. I always assumed (wrongly, though that’s another story) that Bob drafted the foreword, while Blunkett then fine-tuned it.

Turning that vision into policy was another matter. On being appointed secretary of state for education, Blunkett created a number of advisory committees, one of which Bob chaired. The National Advisory Group on Lifelong Learning published its first report in 1997, and Blunkett moved rapidly to move on the main recommendations. Well, on what he saw as the main recommendations: the report devoted by far its longest chapter to recommendations, followed by a chapter on how to manage the process of change.

As a member of the Fryer committee, my impression was that the main lines of actual policy development had been thought out in the years before New Labour came to power in 1997. That wasn’t in itself a bad thing, as the earlier work strengthened Blunkett’s hand when it came to implementing the policies. I can only imagine the horror of senior civil servants – especially at the Treasury – when told to introduce Individual Learning Accounts, the Union Learning Fund, and the University for Industry.

Bob conrinued to play a central role in this period, not only chairing the committee as it produced its second report, but also accepting virtually any invitation to speak about lifelong learning. Indefatigable, he travelled these islands and beyond to generate a wider momentum behind the first report, taking several speaker engagements a week to share his vision of an active and inclusive learning culture that was supported by institutions and funding arrangements that placed learners at their centre.

Most people have long since forgotten the Fryer Committee’s second report, which appeared in 1999. Unlike the first, barely none of true second report had any impact, either on policy or on public debate over lifelong learning. Its title – Creating learning cultures: next steps in achieving the learning age – was promising, but in retrospect it lacked focus, and was missing in analytical precision. We’d learned one lesson from experience: this time we narrowed our recommendations down to eight key and twenty-three supplementary proposals. This was still far too many, of course.

More importantly, Blunkett’s focus had shifted, and he was paying far more attention to the politically-popular – and contentious – area of schools policy. Bob had also moved on, and was running New College at Southampton University, taking an able deputy with him and enjoying a secondment to the University for Industry where he worked with colleagues from the public sector union Unison on proposals for what became the National Health Service University.

Bob’s appointment as the NHSU’s first chief executive was announced in late 2001, and the University opened two years later. For whatever reason – my understanding is that senior civil servants took the first opportunity to kill off something they’d never wanted, Labour politicians were less than supportive, and the workforce formed a perception that Bob had staffed the new body with chums with no health service experience – NHSU was abruptly closed in 2005, and Bob found himself in the role of the NHS’s director for widening participation in learning. Its legacy was minimal, partly because almost all those involved directly in NHSU left the NHS fairly quickly.

Bob continued a wider contribution through other organisations and campaigns, largely in the voluntary sector. He remained a strong supporter of inclusive learning, and he was generous in supporting other woking in the area. In recent years his health deteriorated; the last time I saw him was at a seminar in 2019 to celebrate his work. He was physically frail but mentally lively, still championing the values that he had promoted an a scholar, advocate, practitioner, and activist. It visibly moved him to see so many old friends, colleagues, former students and allies turning out to share memories and expore his old preoccupations and passions.

Now he has left us. My personal memories are of a congenial companion, a generous and supportive colleague, a world-class raconteur, a hard-working colleague, a loving family man, and a committed activist who – though I think unintentionally – made me look closely at work and its transformations, and challenged some of my more orthodox thinking on class and inequalities. As a scholar he was knowledgeable and thoughtful, but for some reason everything he wrote simply got longer and longer; he seems to have needed a selfless co-author or a firm editor to help him get finished.

His most substantial contributions seem to me to have been institutional – just keeping Northern College alive would have been no mean feat, but growing it and protecting its distinctiveness was a real achievement; and political, in the work he put into the early years of New Labour’s first government not just in shaping specific policies, but also in generating support and enthusiasm for those policies. That’s a pretty good memorial, and I think he’d have been proud and happy if that was how we remember him.

Lexicometric methods in the study of lifelong learning

I was recently asked to provide a foreword to a new study of the troubled relationship between lifelong learning research and European education policy. The author, Lisa Breyer, was formerly a colleague at the University of Cologne, and is now a head of department at the Volkshochschule Rhein-Erft. While her book is in German, she has published lexicometric analyses in English on approaches to social justice in adult education and on comparisons of national adult education policies.

Given the widespread use of ‘critical discourse analysis’ in Anglophone research in our field, I was delighted to read and recommend a rather different and – as I see it – more grounded method of analysing the languages of lifelong learning policy. If you want to read more of Lisa’s own work in English then take a look at the two papers I mentioned above. What follows here is an expanded and slightly reworked English language version of my foreword.

Adult education research has to position itself in a field rich with tensions, which is influenced by scholarly theory, educational policy, and practical pedagogic demands. Unlike most academic disciplines, the study of adult education developed out of the field of practice, and was also shaped by policy measures. At the same time, policy actors increasingly support their decisions with reference to research findings and recommendations, all in the name of evidence-based policy. Relatively few studies so far have been concerned with the relationship between and form of the communication process between research and policy.

In our field at least, this book presents a new approach to policy research. Lisa Breyer has gone beyond standard approaches, contributing both to our understanding of policy influence and to our methodological repertoire, as well as provoking reflection on the much-debated relationship between policy and research, by subjecting a corpus of 288 texts from adult education research and education policy covering a 20-year period to lexicometric analysis. Her findings force us to think again about the relations between policy and research.

While much discourse analysis tends to be based on the researcher’s reading of a relatively small number of texts, Dr Breyer uses lexicometric techniques to examine and compare the ways in which the core concepts of „Lebenslanges Lernen“ (lifelong learning) und „Kompetenz“ (skill) feature in systematically selected papers from the European Commission as well as in journal articles by adult education researchers. Her analysis of the findings sheds light on relations between research and policy in adult education, as well as on the differing ways in which researchers and policy-makers understand, use, and contextualise the basic concepts in the field. Indeed, even where there is a shared use of terms like lebenslanges Lernen and Kompetenz, Breyer’s findings show that the very notion of a field of adult education is often understood very differently by policy actors and researchers.

Although some of these patterns will seem familiar to readers, as in the divergence between the economic and employment focus of policy as against the emancipatory and critical values of researchers, the book provides a rich variety of evidence and  a refined analysis of the complexities and nuances that can be found. She also examines the attention that each party pays to the other: while researchers refer explicitly to the European level of policy, policy-makers implicitly privilege comparative survey data as their main source of research evidence while turning to researchers as a source of evidence-based policy. This evolving relationship, Breyer contends, means that it is necessary to redefine the relationship between research and policy.

These reflections complement other research and publications of the DIE, particularly in respect to system and policy. However, the book also serves as a case study in a relatively new method. Breyer has adapted her lexicometric approach to the discipline of adult education research and applied it to a corpus of 288 texts, and concludes that the method allows us to identify patterns and relationships that cannot be shown by analysing a handful of texts. This seems to me to have wider methodological ramifications for comparative educational research in general, as well as for adult education research in particular. I am not aware of any other lexicometric study in adult education of such scale and ambition; and personally I am convinced that she has abundantly demonstrated the potential of this approach, and thus makes an important contribution to our methodological debates.

Commercial adult learning: mountain skills

I spotted this poster in the men’s room at my favourite outdoor shop. Tiso’s in Glasgow has a cafe, making it a good place for a break on the drive over to visit family in Dunoon. It has offered outdoor skills training since 2000.

Tiso’s developed the courses as a by-product of its main retail trade. They are held across climbing and skiing sites across Scotland. A one-day course will set you back £85-£95. The main instructor is an experienced mountaineer who holds a Mountaineering Instruction Certificate, an award of Mountain Training UK.

If you want to know more, check out the details on https://www.tiso.com/courses

Adult learning in spy fiction: John Le Carré

Le Carré at the Zeit Forum Kultur, 2008, Hamburg

There’s a brief but telling mention of adult education in John Le Carré’s latest novel. Describing a character who has a left-wing father from a mining background, Le Carré adds that

His mother spent whatever free time she had from work at adult education classes until they were cut.

Le Carré is describing here a politically engaged self-improving working class milieu which he believes no longer exists, due in part to the erosion of public civic spaces of learning.

Agent Running in the Field is entertaining enough, but it’s unlikely to be judged one of Le Carré’s better novels, though its plot may resonate with the beliefs and fears of some Remainers. For the purposes of this blog, though, I will confine my comments to his very brief mention of adult education.

First, the author presents the weakness of UK adult education as a given; and while I think he is wrong about it, I understand that a lot of his readers will share this view.

Second, I’m encouraged that an author of his stature has actually noticed that UK adult education is not in great shape, and can assume that this observation will resonate with his readers. Maybe someone should be signing Le Carré up as patron of a campaign for adult learning (while gently pointing out to him that it isn’t quite dead yet).

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.

France’s personal training accounts were a great idea – what is going wrong?

When the French government introduced its personal training account (CPF, compte personnel de formation) scheme in early 2015, it was in the hope of promoting an upsurge in reskilling. Yet according to a recent survey, less than a third of workers have opened up their online account, almost a quarter say they haven’t heard of the scheme, and only 7.2% have benefited from training under the scheme. What has gone wrong?

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First, I should make clear that the survey shows signs of progress. While only 31% said they’d activated their account in the 2018 survey, that is up on a mere 20% in the previous year. Those who benefited have risen from 3.6% last year.

Still, compared with the government’s ambitions, these figures are sobering. They also contrast with the popularity of similar systems elsewhere; whatever you think of the British Individual Learning Accounts, they were certainly widely used. And to me, the idea of time off work to train with costs paid should be pretty appealing.

I don’t know why the CPF has failed so far to take off. It was well-publicised, and it is a reasonably generous scheme. Jobs are changing in France as elsewhere, and ever more will be affected as a result of digitiation, AI, and other tech changes, so upskilling makes sense for enterprises and individuals.

Perhaps it’s just that the accounts are simply unattractive to French workers? Or maybe the scheme is over-bureaucratic? If you know more, please let us all know!

 

 

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

Adult learning and social mobility: the state of Britain

The Social Mobility Commission (SMC) has published its most recent ‘state of the nation report‘, in which it concludes that social mobility in England is stalled. It provides evidence to support this claim, and then goes on to consider a number of reasons for this stagnation, with recent changes in the education system being the largest.

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Their analysis encompasses adult learning, where the Commission has a number of criticisms of current policy as well as constructive suggestions for the future. Some of these come in discussions of other educational sectors; their discussion of early years education, for instance, looks at qualifications and career structures for the (overwhelmingly female) workforce, and at the importance of family learning in giving small children a strong start; the section on further education also looks at teacher recruitment issues.

When it comes to adult education and training, the Commission draws heavily on its own study of the adult skills gap, which it issued in January 2019. This showed that the least skilled are the least well placed to access opportunities for upskilling, at a time when the fourth industrial revolution is starting to impact most on the least skilled jobs.

The most highly educated, meanwhile, find it relatively easy to refresh their skills and qualifications. The report notes that this appears to be as true of open education programmes such as MOOCs as it is of more conventional opportunities. The consequences, if things are left as they are, will be that adult learning serves as a block to social mobility rather than an enabler.

And all of this following a period in which, as the Commission notes, ‘almost all forms of adult education are in decline’. They produce figures showing that the UK spends two-thirds of the EU average on adult training, well below that of such comparable economies as Germany and France. They show that regional imbalances increase problems of accessing training, and note that those who are most likely to move between regions are the most advantaged. While the new national retraining scheme for England may have potential, they note that it will need to be both large and highly targeted if it is to have the impact required.

While the SMC has no remit to improve social mobility in Wales and Scotland, it notes that while challenges remain, neither has seen the same stagnation as is evident recently for England. They note that the Scottish Government has reponded to a steep decline in on-the-job training with a £10m in-work training programme, while the Welsh Government’s employment policies include proposals for skills and training.

So far as England is concerned, the SMC’s main recommendation for adult learning is that the Government should follow the action plan set out in the SMC’s report in January 2019, and in particular that it should ‘equalise adult education funding with EU statistical averages and reduce the underspend of its adult education budget through more flexible funding structures’. The new regional combined authorities have powers to achieve greater flexibility, but it will be for national overnment to release additional spending.

Clearly, then, the report offer much to encourage those of us interested in adult learning. Of course it focuses largely on adult learning for or in work, but that is for the obvious reason that our occupations tend to shape our life chances. More seriously, the current obsession with Brexit among politicians of all colours probably means that the SMC’s report will have a marginal influence on policy in the immediate term.

But with several committees of inquiry beavering away currently on lifelong learning policy, the SMC has provided further evidence of the wider benefits and policy importance of adult learning. It also provides fresh food for lobbying and advocacy at local and regional level.

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.