Brits in Europe – a new target group for adult education?

A friend sent me a link to a story from a local newspaper in Westphalia, just to the west of Bielefeld. Reporting on a speech by the leader of the local Volkshochschule (VHS, adult education centre), the headline reads: “Brexit drives Brits to the VHS – course fees becoming more expensive’.

VHS Ravensberg

Senior staff at VHS Ravensberg launch their Easter brochure (image from the Westfalen-Blatt)

Whatever the headline might make you think, the story desn’t seek to blame the Brits for raising course fees. Rather, it summarises Ravensberg VHS’s yearly report, which notes that the reduced numbers of asylum-seekers entering Germany have had an effect on demand for adult basic education, and encouraged the VHS to offer its integration courses in workplaces, so as to reach foreign workers.

In the process, Ravensberg VHS has discovered a new target group. “50 percent of the people who take the naturalization test with us, are currently British,” says VHS leader Hartmut Heinze. In Germany, the VHS are reponsible for administering both the test of citizenship knowledge and the language competence assessment, so I speculated that this growth in British candidates is similar elsewhere as people try to manage uncertainty.

As for the rise in tuition fees, that was a more or less logical consequence of the VHS orgnisers’ decision to raise payments to course leaders. Learners will now have to pay 2,40  per 45 minutes of class time instead of 1,90. That’s quite a hike, but still a lot cheaper than the typical course fee in the UK.





CfP: International comparison of basic education policies

The Zeitschrift für Weiterbildungsforschung, or Journal for Research in Adult Education, is planning a special issue on the ways in which large scale surveys such as PIAAC are influencing the debate on the best policies for promoting basic adult skills. The editors asked members of the editorial board to circulate the call for papers, and I have pasted it it below.

The journal publishes in English and German, is refereed, and is open access. The deadline for submissions is May 1, 2016, and the issue will appear in August 2016. For further information on the journal see („Submit Online“).

International comparison of basic education policies

Editors: Alexandra Ioannidou / Josef Schrader

Ever since the PIAAC data (OECD 2013) as well as the “leo. – Level One Study” in Germany
(Grotlüschen/Riekmann 2012) were published, the highly developed industrial and knowledge-based society’s failure of securing a minimum of basic competences for all members of society and stabilizing those competences throughout life can no longer be denied. In addition, these studies confirm the connection between social status, participation in continuing education and available competences. In this large scale study, competences were measured, which are classified as indispensable for cultural and social participation as well as employability in each society.

Within the German discussion, those skills are often referred to as basic education, whereas in an international context various different versions of the literacy concept prevail. Both concepts can be regarded as relative, contextual and dynamic terms, based on current social requirements and subject to constant change (Tröster, 2000). Due to the different perceptions of various stakeholders, this dynamic and relational term is difficult to determine.

In the light of the large scale study’s findings, over the last years the scientific debate of the basic education concept has gained in importance along with the education policy debate on compensatory functions of basic education and literacy as well as securing a minimum level of education and competences for all. As a result of the current immigration caused by flight and expulsion and the subsequent expectations of integrating these refugees, the challenges for research, politics and practice of continuing education are increasingly intensified.

During the United Nations Literacy Decade (2003–2012), a literacy and basic education
network was constituted in Germany with various stakeholders from federal government and states, continuing education organisation, social partners as well as the German Federal Employment Agency. In addition, a national strategy was developed, which was transferred into the National Decade for Adult Literacy and Basic Education proclaimed in September 2015.

As the interim results gained in the DIE project “EU-Alpha” indicate, several other European and non-European countries have observed similar developments. They point to the influence of  international and supranational organisations on national policy and practice in the field of basic education.

Until now, little research has been conducted on the national and international reaction of
education, labour, social and integration policy to the problems pointed out by empirical
education research and the resulting operational success. This requires multi-level analyses, which unite system and governance structures with micro data from relevant studies on adult competences (e.g. PIAAC) in an international comparative perspective.

It was often verified that processes of educational disadvantage have a cumulative effect during life, continuing education enforces social selectivity with “soft” and “hard” selection mechanisms, and regional contexts are also significant for educational chances (Tippelt/v. Hippel 2005; Bremer/Kleemann-Göhrig 2011; Schlögl et al. 2015; Martin et al 2015). Less information is provided on how precisely factors and constellations on the system and stakeholder level influence continuing education participation and programmes of basic education or the methods of successfully implementing the objective of “Literacy for All” (United Nations). Which constellation of stakeholders, governance structure, continuing education, labour and welfare systems copes most effectively with the challenges mentioned above?

So far, there is no systematic overview on the effects of governance, structure, education,
labour and welfare policy on the level and structure of adult basic skills. Current literature
research regarding this topic only revealed isolated studies on policy programmes in the field of literacy and basic education but few studies, which connect competence assessment to control mechanisms and governance structures.

Against this background, the planned issue of the Journal for Research on Adult Education
refers to the current research approach in the field of basic education policy but also looks at innovative research approaches. Basic theoretical or empirical research is to be presented, particularly research with an international comparative approach. In addition, case studies from various countries are requested.

Contributions are invited with emphasis on the following issues:
– theoretical articles which cover the dynamic and partly relational term of basic education
as well as its empirical registration/measuring (competence modelling and measuring in
basic education)
– theoretical or empirical research on the connection between basic education competences and continuing education, labour and welfare policy in the country
– empirical research which identifies successful political approaches and the integration in the specific national institutional system based on data and case studies in order to point out methods to strengthen basic skills successfully


Bremer, H., & Kleemann-Göhring, M. (2011). Weiterbildung und „Bildungsferne“. Forschungsbefunde, theoretische Einsichten und Möglichkeiten für die Praxis. Essen. [18.02.2016].

Grotlüschen, A., & Riekmann, W. (Hrsg.). (2012). Funktionaler Analphabetismus in Deutschland. Ergebnisse der ersten leo. – Level-One Studie. Münster: Waxmann.

OECD (2013), OECD Skills Outlook 2013: First Results from the Survey of Adult Skills, OECD

Schlögl, P. Iller,C.& Gruber, E. (2015): Teilnahme und Teilnahmechancen an formaler und nicht-formaler Erwachsenen- bzw. Weiterbildung. In: Schlüsselkompetenzen von Erwachsenen. Vertiefende Analysen der PIAAC-Erhebung 2011/12, Publisher: Statistik Austria, Editors: Statistik Austria, S.81–97 [Available through ResearchGate, 18.02.2016]

Schrader, J. (2015): Large Scale Assessments und die Bildung Erwachsener. Erträge, Grenzen und Potenziale der Forschung. Zeitschrift für Pädagogik, 61 (2015) 3, S. 410-428

Tippelt, R./V. Hippel, A. (2005): Weiterbildung: Chancenausgleich und soziale Heterogenität. In: ApuZ, 37/2005. S. 38-45

Tröster, M./Schrader, J. (2016): Alphabetisierung, Grundbildung, Literalität: Begriffe, Konzepte, Perspektiven. Bonn

Tröster, Monika (2000). Grundbildung – Begriffe, Fakten, Orientierungen. In Monika Tröster (Hrsg.), Spannungsfeld Grundbildung (S. 12-27). Bielefeld: W. Bertelsmann Verlag. Available at: [17.02.2016].

Learning in later life – extending the OECD skills survey beyond 65

Many people, myself included, are very interested indeed in the findings of the OECD’s adult skills survey. And it has already become clear that there is much more to come, both from the OECD team, but also from other researchers who are analysing the data independently.

Like any piece of research, though, the OECD survey has limitations. One, particularly important for anyone interested in learning right across the life course, is that the sample was confined to adults of standard working age. I was delighted, then, to learn that the German Institute of Adult Education had collaborated with researchers from two universities to conduct a parallel survey of adults aged 66 and over.

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Competencies in Later Life – the German study – was designed so that the quantitative findings are comparable with those of the main OECD survey. CILL also went beyond it. While the results are still being analysed, preliminary results are available, and they make fascinating reading. More detailed findings were presented at a workshop in Bonn, and it seems pretty clear that extending the OECD instruments to cover older adults was a well worth while exercise.

Some of the findings were predictable. For example, the survey confirmed that average skill levels continue to fall with age, with IT competencies falling particularly sharply. While this is exactly what we might already expect from the OECD findings for the under-65s, it is still helpful to have clear evidence that this is indeed the case, with obvious implications for policy and practice. The study also showed that even among older adults, the level of their parents’ education has a powerful influence.

For me, though, the most interesting finding concerned the lifelong influence of initial education. The study showed that there were many variations in the literacy and numeracy competences of different groups, but when the researchers controlled for initial education, these variations tended to disappear.

For example, men on average showed stronger competences in both areas than women, but after controlling for initial qualifications, the numeracy gap was much smaller, and the literacy gap vanished. This is, of course, a generational effect, which is a product of the different participation rates in tertiary education of men and women in past times.

The study also explored the ways in which people use the skills of literacy, numeracy and computer competences in later life. Drawing on qualitative as well as survey data, the study shows the continuing importance of these skills – as well as others – in the everyday lives of older adults, whether they are still in the labour market of not.

Reflecting on the Parliamentary inquiry into adult literacy and numeracy

The Parliamentary Select Committee for Business, Innovation and Skills is currently looking into adult literacy and numeracy. They have invited written submissions, questioned witnesses, and visited adult learners in a college and a prison.

This represents quite a remarkable level of public attention for a part of the education system that rarely enjoys centre stage. And its work is likely also to enjoy a high profile given the level of public concern over the English results in the latest OECD adult skills survey, about which I blogged at the time.

Having attended one morning of the Committee’s public sessions, where I gave evidence on behalf of Scotland’s Learning Partnership, I was struck by its seriousness and potential value for adult learners. Most of those who gave evidence alongside me worked for providers, often with strong special interests in a particular sub group of provision. This was enormously informative, even for someone like me who has worked in adult learning for some decades. It was striking that learners’ voices were missing from the august Westminster committee room in which we met.

Caroline Dinenage MP. Image by Lady Geek TV, licensed under Creative Commons

Caroline Dinenage MP. Image by Lady Geek TV, licensed under Creative Commons

Caroline Dinenage, Conservative MP for Gosport, has a track record of interest in and support for adult literacy, and she co-chairs the all-party parliamentary group on maths and numeracy. She set the inquiry in motion, and she will undoutbedly influence its final report. Her questioning of witnesses is thoughtful and informed, and reveals a particular interest in the role of volunteer tutors in helping to support basic skills learners.

I have developed considerable respect for Ms Dinenage, and I also very much welcome greater encouragement and support for those who work with adult learners on a voluntary basis. People who support peer learning in such contexts as prisons, men’s sheds, workplaces, community groups or parent and toddler groups are often likely to achieve much more than formal tuition in a less naturalistic setting.

But we can’t rely on volunteering on its own. It is too hit and miss: some groups may be well served by volunteers, others not; some volunteers may be highly competent, others not; some volunteers may know how to support progression, others not. So we certainly need training for voluntary tutors, and we need to remember that their own learning needs will develop over time. Volunteer tutoring works best when it is part of a strong lifelong learning system.

Another Conservative member of the Committee took the view that any problem with adult literacy and numeracy was the fault of what he calls ‘the educatioal establishment’. Brian Binley MP pursued a number of witnesses in the first part of the session (after which he left). The point that he wished to make was that the UK was the only country in the survey in which young adults performed more poorly than older adults, and this must therefore reflect badly on the ‘educational establishment’ that had taught these young adults as children.

Mr Binloey is no enemy of adult learning; on the contrary, he has spoken publicly and warmly of his own adult learning at the hands of the Workers Educational Association. Of course he was over-simplifying when he spoke about the ‘educational establishment’; he didn’t define what he meant by ‘the educational establishment’, he didn’t show much interest in precisely which young adults had been ‘let down badly’ by it, and he didn’t recognise that some parts of our education system perform extremely well by international standards. But he still has a point.

England and Northern Ireland (Scotland and Wales took no part) were indeed the only countries in the OECD adult skills survey where the younger generation of adults did less well than the older generation. This is a highly unusual result – normally, improvements in schooling mean that the young invariably do better than the old, even in countries where everyone believes that the young of today are useless wastrels. So the distinctive UK pattern requires explanation.

So far, the only explanation on offer has been the Conservatives’ knee-jerk response – namely, that the New Labour government made a complete hash of the schools system. Again, they are politicians, and saying that the last government messed things up is their job. But what is surprising to me is the complete silence of Britain’s educational research community on this topic – a research community, remember, that is totally dominated by specialists on schools and school teachers. I would dearly love to see one of them take a hard, close look at the OECD results, and tell us what (if anything) they mean.

Let me draw one obvious conclusion from this extraordinary finding. What it means is that a large group of young adults is exposed to the scarring effects of recession, while being equipped with relatively weak basic skills. This is a recipe for disaster, and I hope that the Select Committee’s report will include specific proposals for tackling this challenge as a matter of urgency.

Above all, I hope that practitioners and learners contact the Committee to share their views, expertise and experiences. While the Committee’s report is unlikely to lead to specific policy changes, it will certainly influence the climate of ideas in which policy is discussed. With an election scheduled for May 2015, the Committee’s recommendations will face a new Government. A lively response from the field can only help ensure that adult literacies are a priority.

Does educational research stop at 18 or 21? The debate over Labour policies and Britain’s weak literacy and numeracy

There has been a massive debate in Britain over the results of the OECD’s adult skills survey. Known as the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC), the survey involves a series of standardised assessments for individuals in 24 countries, backed up by the collection of background data for each participant. Taken as a whole, Britain’s adults came across as reassuringly mediocre in their performance, coming just below average on literacy, numeracy and IT skills among the countries surveyed.

However, as is usual in international surveys, behind the averages were some significant variations. The sub-group which attracted the most attention were young people, whose literacy and numeracy scores came close to the bottom. The Guardian ran the story under the banner: ‘England’s young people near bottom of global league table for basic skills’. Or, as a Daily Mail headline had it, school-leavers are ‘worse at maths and literacy than their grandparents’.

Government ministers promptly seized on this figures to (a) rubbish Labour’s schools policies, and (b) support their own measures. Superficially, this is quite a reasonable claim: anyone who was aged 16-24 when the survey was administered in 2011 would have gone to school during the period 1992-2011, and Labour was in power for 13 of those 19 years. So a critic might suppose the results to reveal fundamental flaws in the education policies that dominated during that period.

Is this the case? I don’t really know, though I suspect that the answer may well be much more complex. But what worries me is that I am not expecting much light to be shed on this problem by my colleagues in the educational research community. For most education researchers, learning seems to stop when school or university ends. If you glance through the last few issues of the British Educational Research Journal or the programme of the British Educational Research Association’s latest conference, you will struggle to find any sign of interest in those who have left full-time education.

There is, of course, an obvious reason for this. Most university research into education is undertaken by people who specialise in training schoolteachers, and it is understandable that they study teachers and schools. Another group is employed in academic staff development, and they tend to study university teaching. So the question of what becomes of people when they leave full-time education is left to sociologists, economists and the occasional specialist in further or adult education.

Mind you, I still expect a few comments on PIAAC from the ‘mainstream’ educational research community. Most of them will lump PIAAC in with PISA as an example of the wider global trend towards ‘governance by data’ – a phenomenon that Alexandra Ioannidou has discussed in a journal article in 2007 and a number of subsequent papers (other scholars’ more recent accounts seem to me to add little to her analysis).

On the whole, I think I prefer governance by data to governance by opinion, anecdote and prejudice of the kind I associate with Michael Gove. And I would therefore welcome a little help from my fellow researchers, particularly those who studied British and other school systems during the period between the mid-90s and 2010, in understanding precisely how young people in England and Northern Ireland fell so badly behind.

Meanwhile, it will be left to hard-pressed practitioners in further and adult education to support these young adult learners as they try to bring their essential skills into line with the economic, cultural and social demands that they are so poorly equipped to face.

The attack on adult learners: further evidence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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