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.

Keeping it in the family: how parents’ education shapes their children’s schooling

dingSome time ago I bookmarked a paper by Ruichang Ding, a researcher from Beijing Normal University. Applying advanced statistical methods to data from the OECD’s survey of adult skills, Ding tried to find out how far people’s success in education reflected the attainment levels of their parents.

Before summarising Ding’s findings, I want to make a point about method. In order to measure educational level, Ding had to resort to formal qualifications; while we have additional data for those who took part in the survey, there is no alternative when it comes to the parents. And while qualifications systems vary widely, the OECD surveyed adults aged 16-65 in 24 countries. In order to compare the results across countries, then, we have to use a standardised way of comparing qualifications, and Ding – reasonably enough – adopted the OECD’s own standard classification.

All that said, Ding’s findings are easy to summarise. First, as expected, he found that in all countries, today’s adults have better average qualifications than their parents. However, this gap varies considerably between different countries: the educational gap between generations is very low in Sweden and Finland, and very high in Spain and the Czech Republic, with England/Northern Ireland (Wales and Scotland chose not to join the survey) coming in above the average.

Second, he shows that in each case, the parents’ qualification levels are on average closely related to those of today’s adults. Once more, though, there are differences between nations. The relationship is closest in Slovakia and the USA, and weakest in Finland; the UK is among a group of countries (Ireland, France, Italy, Poland) that are clustered above average. Ding concludes from this that ‘intergenerational educational mobility in Finland would be relatively larger’, and correspondingly that it is rather low in the USA.

Third, and from my standpoint most interestingly, income inequality seems to be an important factor in explaining these patterns. Ding tests for other factors including poverty levels, levels of public spending on education, and average levels of wealth, and found no evidence of any correlation with intergenerational educational transmission. In the case of income inequality, Ding finds a very clear correlation: ‘countries with the high level of inequality had some of the lowest mobility’. Here, the UK and USA are marked by very high levels of income inequality and low levels of educational mobility.

I think this is an important paper which contributes to our understanding of social mobility and its constraints. The main findings support the argument of English researcher Andy Green, who with his colleagues has used different techniques to analyse the OECD survey data, coming to similar conclusions about educational inequalities. If we are to tackle these blockages to social mobility, then these findings suggest to me that investing in family learning for the least advantaged really should be a much higher priority than it is at present.

Multiplying literacies

The Community Health & Learning Foundation has just published an interesting short briefing on health literacy. Their basic case is that there are huge inequalities in people’s access to and understanding of information about health, and they set out a number of ways in which to remedy this.

It’s an important argument, and forms part of a wider case for public investment in adult learning. But it also illustrates a trend that I’ve been thinking about recently, which is the proliferation of different literacies. As well as health literacy, we hear about financial literacy, digital literacy, civic or political literacy, and even emotional literacy.

What is this about? Well, one obvious reason for using the word ‘literacy’ is as a way of focussing attention. It is an arresting word, because it implies that some of us are ‘illiterate’ in the context of financial planning, or health, or information technology. Actually, all of us must be illiterate in some contexts, so it’s a kind of linguistic hook, a way of pulling us in to the discussion about this or that form of literacy.

But isn’t there also a risk of linguistic inflation in this multiplication of literacies? The more we use it to describe unequal access to different kinds of knowledge and information, the more we dilute its original, narrower meaning. And we know that we have massive inequalities in people’s abilities to grapple with and command the written word; and this in turn has huge consequences for people’s life chances.

In a modern information society, literacy as narrowly understood is a fundamental precondition of participation in the wider community. Weak literacy skills have clear material effects, which are measurable. The OECD’s recent adult skills survey showed just how far literacy is linked not just to higher incomes, but also to political efficacy, volunteering, trust and indeed health. And it also showed that these effects were larger in the two UK nations that participated in the survey than in most of the other nations involved.

 

piaac

So literacy in its narrowest sense – confident and competent reading and writing in real life settings – is among the most important fields of adult learning. Anything that reduces the focus on literacy, and allows policy makers to avoid their responsibilities for securing its improvement, is a concern.

On the other hand, the proliferation of literacies has a more positive effect in reducing stigma. Anyone who has worked in adult literacy knows that fears of being branded ‘illiterate’ can cause learners the most profound anxiety and distress. This is one of the reasons why Freire’s work became so influential in the 1970s among those working in the area, as his ideas of liberation pedagogy offered a constructive way of understanding literacy practices as having to do with power, and thus offering a possibility of empowerment.

The idea that we are all ‘illiterate’ in some contexts reduces the stigma attached to ‘illteracy’, and breaks down some of the barriers to participation. Of course, this in itself is only one step towards literacy learning as a force for civic empowerment and social change, but it is a start.

This also reminds me that I used to watch a lovely tv programme called ‘On the Move’ which starred the great Bob Hoskins, who died recently. The BBC still took its educational mission seriously in the mid-1970s, and this series – intended for adults with literacy difficulties – attracted an audience of millions. It is generally credited with breaking down some of the stigma attached to literacy learning; the fact that I am still discussing this issue now suggests that we still have some way to go.

More evidence on the benefits of adult learning – the OECD Adult Skills Survey

Plenty of people have commented on the relative performance of different nations in the OECD’s Adult Skills Survey. Relatively few have picked up on the wider messages that are based on results from all the 24 participating states. Here, I’ll just focus on those that relate to the benefits of adult learning.

First, the survey provides clear and compelling evidence of the association between adult skills and economic outcomes. This, you might think, is obvious: of course skills help you stay in work and raise your earnings. But rather than relying simply on intuition, it does help to have robust evidence of the consistent effect of adult skills on earnings and on employability. And the survey findings confirm other studies pointing clearly in this direction.

Further, the results add to our understanding of the wider benefits of learning. In all the countries surveyed, people with lower proficiency in literacy are more likely to report poor health, to believe that they have little impact on political processes, and to play no role in associative or volunteer activities. In most of the countries surveyed, they are also less likely to trust others. Anyone who teaches adults will probably snort with derision, as they must have seen these changes with every group they have supported, but once more it is good to have robust evidence.

These effects are not massive, partly because adult learning is so strongly associated with prior education, but they point to a significant and clear independent impact from learning. The challenge for policy makers will be to focus public policy on supporting learning that attracts those who did not benefit the most from school and university earlier in their lvies. Is this best done by targeted initiatives, or by building a broad learning culture?

The survey also provides insights into the relationship between skills and wider inequalities. I will write about those separately. Meanwhile, it is good to see that it confirms other research on the role of adult learning in helping people change their lives.

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.

Why taking part in the OECD Skills Survey is a good idea

OECD’s Adult Skills Survey has been hitting headlines across Europe. Newspapers and magazines in France, Germany, Sweden, Ireland, Australia, Korea and Canada have been full of it – as has much of the British press. But there is a curious silence north of the border, where the Scottish Government decided that it wanted no part of this particular piece of comparative research.

For all I know, the Scottish Government has extremely good reasons. A senior civil servant told me some time ago that the budget for social research had been cut back to the bone. As a result, the Government had decided to withdraw from some existing international surveys (the 2011 wave of the PIRLS survey of schools literacy, for example), and not to take part in the OECD survey of adult skills.

Further, I would expect the Government, if anyone asks, to point out that it published its own study of adult skills in 2009. But this survey used different instruments from OECD (it adopted the same instruments as those used for the previous OECD survey in 1996). Useful though this survey was, it took a different approach from the later survey, covered a more limited range of skills, and analysed them in less depth. And it was confined to one country, thought this did not stop the authors of the report from expressing satisfaction at Scotland’s ‘creditable placement’ against other countries’ performance in 1996.

Whatever the reason, Scotland did not form part of the 2011-12 Survey, which has now been published. On the plus side, the taxpayer has saved some money – or, more accurately, the citizens will enjoy the benefits of spending being allocated elsewhere. But there is a pretty massive down side as well.

Taking part provides a massive volume of data, collected using internationally agreed instruments that have been developed and tested over four years. This allows policy-makers, researchers and the wider public to undertake an informed benchmarking of their own country’s performance and to see how it stacks up against others.

This in turn turns a spotlight onto adult learning. Berni Brady, director of the Irish adult education organisation AONTAS, appeared on prime time explaining what the results meant for Ireland, and calling for the government to recognise the needs of adult learners in its new strategy for further education and training. In Britain, the BBC’s chief business editor, Robert Peston, wrote and spoke about competitiveness and adult skills.

The Survey has also shed light on some discrepancies in national performance levels. In England, media attention quickly seized on the literacy and numeracy scores of young adults, who did notable worse than older generations. Matthew Hancock, the Coalition Minister for Skills, promptly blamed the previous government’s schools policies, neatly side-stepping the fact that whoever is to blame, these 16-24-olds are already of working age.

Incidentally, Hancock’s claim doesn’t say much about his own numeracy skills. Someone who was 24 when the survey took place in 2011 would have entered school in 1991 or 1992, well before Labour came to power. However, there is enough basis in his claim to pose a few uncomfortable questions for Labour education ministers, along with those academics and others who advised them. But at least we have the data. In Scotland, where there would be huge interest in knowing how schoolchildren fared under devolution, we simply lack comparable information.

Of course, the OECD Survey can easily become a flash in the pan. Having bowed and danced in the spotlight, adult learning could soon find itself in the familiar gloom of the margins, as all the fuss and debate moves back to schools and universities. But that is partly up to those who are interested in adult learners and the institutions that support them. The OECD’s results provide us with plenty of material to nourish debate for some time to come – if we want it.

Skills beyond school: the role of short cycle higher vocational qualifications

The OECD has just published a new report, Skills beyond school – England, which recommends a significant increase in one- and two-year vocational programmes. Fewer than 10% of young people in England currently take a short vocational programme in mid-level skills, compared with up to one third in other OECD countries. The OECD report makes a number of recommendations designed to make short vocational programmes more attractive.

As an aside, the OECD calls these ‘short’ programmes, which is ironic given that you can take an entire apprenticeship within a year. Damaging as this might be for the reputation of British apprenticeships, though, it’s a side issue in this particular context.

If the Department for Business Innovation and Skills wants to learn some easy lessons, it could do worse than look across the border to Scotland. I’m not one of those people who think everything in education is better in Scotland – far from it – but we do have considerable experience of a large programme of short cycle higher education, largely taught in non-university settings. So what can we learn from the Scottish example?

  • It is a sizeable system. One in every three higher education students in Scotland is in a college, taking an HNC/HND. These courses are highly attractive, partly because they are locally offered (there is a college campus in virtually every community of every size), and partly because they are flexible, with many of the students following part-time routes.
  • Short cycle higher education widens participation. While universities in Scotland recruit students who come mainly from the upper socio-economic groups, colleges overwhelmingly recruit the less advantaged.
  • The system has a bias towards employability. This doesn’t necessarily mean that they are in the kinds of subject that the OECD might have in mind: the largest number of HNCs and HNDs are awarded in business and management, followed by health, then creative arts and design. Engineering and computing are significant in size, but are far from the most popular subjects. Nevertheless, broadly speaking, the system fits the vocational model recommended by OECD.
  • Short cycle qualifications appear to be valued in the labour market. Studies of the earnings effects of HNCs and HNDs show that average salaries are lower than for a degree, but clearly above the earnings of those who have lower level qualifications. However, we don’t have many such studies, and none cover the period since the onset of the recession.

So the Scottish system of short cycle higher education, delivered in non-university contexts, has some clear strengths. But anyone looking for easy lessons should also be aware that the Scottish system has come at a cost.

One is that over time, short cycle higher education has tended to crowd vocational further education out. The proportion of college students registered for HNCs and HNDs has held steady over the past seven or eight years, but the number on so-called ‘non-advanced’ courses has fallen. I don’t know whether this is because colleges see higher education as more prestigious, or because it is financially advantageous, or for some other reason, but that is what has happened.

Another problem is that increasingly, the focus has narrowed down to initial full-time courses. For twenty years, the expanded short cycle programmes formed part of a lifelong learning system, attracting many adults through their flexibility and relevance. As the Scottish Government has sought savings to protect its university spending (particularly its policy on tuition fees), so it has slashed back on part-time routes to HNCs and HNDs.

Lastly, while short cycle courses have helped to increase higher education participation and widen it, Scottish universities have remained stubbornly selective in their intake. Scotland has a two tier system, where the colleges’ success in widening access allows the universities to carry on with business as usual. We may not have selection at 11, but higher education is effectively streamed.

So there’s plenty to chew on if England is to expand its vocational system in the direction recommended by OECD. Certainly, given the scandals over poor quality apprenticeships and unpaid ‘training’ schemes, a move up market would not go amiss. But it needs to be done in a way that helps contribute towards lifelong learning rather than damaging it.