Research, Policy, and Practice in Lifelong Learning

uall-lifelong-learning

The Universities Association for Lifelong Learning has chosen to focus on ‘Research, Policy and Practice‘ for its 2018 conference. You will find the call for papers on the UALL website, and it promises to be a lively and constructive event. Given the poor health of adult learning across the four UK nations, it also seems particularly timely.

I’ll be interested to see how researchers and practitioners now understand and address this triangular relationship. Ideas of evidence-based practice have not often found an enthusiastic reception in adult or further education, partly because of a (not unreasonable) suspicion of outside experts floating in to a field where expertise so often draws on experience, partly because ‘what works’ can change dramatically between one context and another, and partly because some academics are rather precious about avoiding a whiff of application.

Now might be a good time for moving beyond such unproductive refusals and to develop further the existing dialogues between research and practice over the types of evidence we need, and how best to use it. Academic researchers are now under considerable pressure to show that people read and use their findings, and practitioners are often required to justify their practice. This offers quite an opportunity.

As for policy, though, where do you begin? Evidence for the benefits of adult learning is not hard to find. My own overview of UK longitudinal studies – which show marked gains for individual learners and their communities, as well as gains for employers – is far and away my most frequently downloaded publication. The OECD survey of adult skills, usually known by its acronym of PIAAC, provides an international insight into these effects. UNESCO devoted its Third Global Report on Adult Learning to a review of research, and found clear support for positive effects on health and well-being, employment and the labour market, and community life and social capital.

So in principle it should be easy to persuade policymakers to consider treating adult learning as an intervention with a proven record of success. In practice, this has not been easy. The evidence base is still not as strong as it could be (for example, is adult learning more effective and less costly than other ways of achieving the same effects?), and I’m not sure we have still figured out what the distribution of benefits might mean for funding the system.

A second problem is, bluntly, the reluctance of policymakers to listen to the evidence and discuss the implications. Very few politicians, employers or senior civil servants have much direct experience of adult or further education. There are exceptions, of course: David Blunkett was an unusual Secretary of State in that he had been an adult student, is an alumnus of the Huddersfield postgraduate certificate in further education, and taught in Barnsley College. And among current MPs, Chi Onwurah and David Lammy for Labour and Caroline Dinenage for the Conservatives have all actively promoted debate over greater public support for adult learning.

So there are grounds for hope, but any chance of effective influence on policymakers will require a much stronger and long term commitment than most researchers in adult learning have shown so far. It will also require dialogue with politicians while in opposition, rather than contacting them for the first time when they are in power. In England, this is something that NIACE used to be very good at, and I hope that the Learning and Work Institute can build on this. But the issues are too important for researchers to hope that they can leave the job to others.

 

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Does Britain need a new national institute for lifelong learning?

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The Institute’s membership forms are still listed in the URL as ‘NIACE Membership’

I’ve been participating in a lively email debate recently about the way in which adult learners and providers ought to be represented. The debate was triggered by the Learning and Work Institute’s announcement that it had appointed Stephen Evans as its new director, someone with considerable experience in the areas of employment and skills, but less well versed in some other areas of adult education.

One reply to LWI’s email came from a retired university adult educator who used to hold a senior position in the National Institute for Adult Continuing Education.While he remains a keen supporter of liberal adult education, he no longer wishes to continue his life membership of NIACE’s successor organisation.A number of other senior adult education supporters and professionals responded to his original message, some of them also resigning their membership.Some have even suggested that a new organisation is needed.
It has been an informative and thoughtful conversation, in which I’m firmly on the “remain” side.Partly this is because of the excellent work that LWI continues to do in support of adult educators of many different varieties, including those involved in areas such as prison education, citizenship education and literacies. I value the work LWI does in promoting adult learning at the main party conferences and in its lobbying, as well as its contribution to European policy debates.
For me, there is far more continuity with the work undertaken by NIACE than some colleagues are suggesting, and far less discontinuity. Of course there has been a shift, and it is clearly in the direction of skills and employability as well as towards younger learners.
But this shift has taken place across the board, including in the field of practice. Many universities have pulled out of extramural type provision, local adult education services have been slashed, and some liberal adult education providers have vanished.While new providers are flourishing, from private initiatives to voluntary and self-help providers, they do not necessarily identify with the adult education tradition.
A profound change in the field, though, is no reason for the adult education tradition to go off and die. I can’t see any reason why adult educators – and their representative organisations – should not engage with labour market training.
Perhaps I am partly influenced in this view by coming from a slightly different corner of our little forest from some other colleagues. My early days in adult education were spent at Northern College, which tried to weld together the best of the liberal tradition with social purpose adult education, and deliberately recruited working class students.
As others were very happy to point out, this separated us both from the numerically dominant mainstream of local authority adult education, and the culturally dominant world of the extra-mural departments. And when I moved to the new continuing education department at Warwick, working in the areas of access and second chance education, plenty of extra-mural specialists were happy to tell us that we were selling their tradition down the river.
So I’m used to hearing how crap employability is, usually by people in comfortable  employment themselves. And when the proposed merger between NIACE and the Centre for Economic & Social Inclusion first came up I was fine with the choice of partner (link). I’d known colleagues from the Unemployment Unit (CESI’s predecessor) from its early years, and had enormous respect for some of its specialists such as Dan Finn and Paul Convery. They undertook project work and research with marginalised and stigmatised groups – as did NIACE, particularly through its REPLAN team.
Over time the Unit evolved and changed, as did many other bodies. It merged with YouthAid in 2001 to form CESI, and it sharpened its focus on research. CESI struck me as an appropriate partner, and in the circumstances as a very good one. Others took a different view (see here for Stephen McNair’s critique). To sloganise a bit, unemployed learners and young disadvantaged adults are adult learners too.
And as Paul Stanistreet pointed out at the time of the merger, the circumstances were dire. Carrying on as before was not an option. First, the field was changed and continues to do so, and NIACE’s role was always to represent the field as it is (rather than as we would like it to be). Second, the national policy context changed and is shifting rather quickly as we write these messages; the context after 2010 was always likely to be much tougher for adult learning, with serious implications for NIACE. Third, and closely related, the money dried up. Member subscriptions and book sales won’t fund a national representative body, so the options are limited.
As some of you will know, I’m committed to and proud of the social and civic purpose tradition of adult education. It isn’t the only significant part of our field, nor should it be, but I’m glad that it survives and in some cases thrives. I don’t see resigning my LWI membership as in any way helping to strengthen and maintain that tradition, or even contributing constructively to the future.
And even if a new association is needed, it will have to appeal beyond the old adult educators like myself who look back yearningly to better days. It will also need to engage with colleagues outside England, especially in Wales where NIACE and now LWI play a major role.
I don’t think LWI is perfect, but it’s what we have. My preference is to work with it and help it succeed. One thing it needs to sort out soon is why it has members and engage in them in debate about what it would like them to do and where we all want the future priorities to lie. But it also has to get on with negotiating its place in a world that has become much less hospitable to an open, broad and generous view of publicly funded adult learning. And we shouldn’t blame LWI for creating that world.

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.

‘We need a cultural revolution’: Alan Tuckett’s inaugural

Alan Tuckett in fine fettle

Alan Tuckett at Wolverhampton University

Last night, Alan Tuckett gave his inaugural lecture at Wolverhampton University. As you’d expect from the much-loved former director of the National Institute for Adult Continuing Education, it was warm, self-deprecating, funny, and incisive. And although he had a lot to say about the history of the adult education movement, the lecture firmly directed us to look towards the future.

Alan gave his lecture a typically perplexing title: ‘Jesus and History, Thunder and Lightning: Lifewide learning for adults’. Equally characteristically, he had taken the first phrase from a learner, when asked what he wanted to learn about. Alan also quoted Alan Johnson, the much-admired Labour MP, who scoffed at adult education as dealing with frivolities like Pilates; needless to say, Alan had encountered a middle-aged plumber who took to Pilates as a way of making sure he could still crawl under a sink.

In short, Alan was arguing for a broad approach to publicly funded provision, which didn’t try to prescribe what adults learned, or whether they decided to take a qualification at the end of it. He name-checked Thomas Carlyle (‘It is the first duty of government to see that the people can think’), Paulo Freire and Raymond Williams, as well as the second wave feminists of the 1970s, as formative influences on his thinking.

The high point of this approach in recent decades was the early period of New Labour, which – as in other areas like pensioner poverty, child poverty and public health – had proven decisive, innovative and progressive. He also noted that when New Labour came to power, the main opposition parties were also interested in adult learning; he modestly forebore to mention the role of NIACE, and Alan Thomson and Alan Tuckett in particular, played in schmoozing with and persuading leading Tories and Lib Dems. The result was that the initiatives of 1998-2003 were largely uncontroversial politically.

Since then, adult learning has slipped progressively down the policy agenda. Alan pointed out that over two million adults have been lost to the further education system since 2003. The only nations which had managed to reduce employees’ participation levels in continuing training since the recession were the PIG nations (Portugal, Italy Greece) and the UK.

This policy neglect will, Alan predicted, command a heavy cost. We are much better informed about the evidenced benefits of adult learning, for one thing; for another, the external forces that drove the European agenda for lifelong learning in the 1990s are still there, with knobs on.

Some of the response may take place through private provision, or by self-help initiatives such as the U3A and reading circles. In an aging society, it may be that health agencies concerned about cognitive resilience will provide adult learning, but it will still be there. And similarly in other policy areas.

‘Adult learning is like ground elder’, he concluded. ‘You can’t kill it off, it grows up somewhere else’. But for it to include those who currently avoid adult learning, who see it as a threat or are excluded by providers’ structures and funding restrictions, we need a long term cultural change.

And there Professor Tuckett finished – only to be asked immediately by a member of the audience just how we might achieve this revolution in attitudes. Alan answered her, citing the learning cities movement as one positive current initiative, but I rather formed the impression that he is inclined to see this challenge as one that he is now ready to delegate to us all.

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.