The coming crisis of adult learning in Scotland

The next two or three weeks will see local councils setting their budgets, in a context of significant reductions in overall spending. This will be a particularly tough year for non-statutory services such as community learning and development (CLD), which encompasses most youth work and adult learning.

CLD has already been reduced in many councils, thanks partly to a government commitment not to increase council tax rates. One result is that there are far fewer experienced professionals in the system, and accordingly fewer people with the knowledge, connections and passion to lobby on CLD’s behalf. The early signs for the coming year though are deeply troubling.

Moray Council has already agreed its budget http://www.moray.gov.uk/moray_standard/page_119975.html, which includes cuts to ESOL of £18,000 in 2019-20 and a further £23,000 in the following year, along with ‘removal’ of its Essential Skills (adult literacy and numeracy) provision. Moray says it is adopting an assets-based approach in these areas, though what that means is so far unclear.

South Lanarkshire meanwhile has justified proposed cuts to employability programmes by the use of digital and online resources, which “will allow more clients to meet their needs through self-service routes at a reduced cost”.

No one is arguing that adult learning is unpopular and uncalled by local residents. On the contrary: when North Lanarkshire Council consulted residents over its proposed cuts, it found that from a long list of 47 options, the restructuring of CLD was second most disliked. And as Scotland’s Learning Partnership has repeatedly emphasised, the evidence of adult learning’s public benefits is now overwhelming.

CLD has a proud tradition and has been a distinctive part of Scotland’s education provision since the 1970s. It has also provided credibility and a learning infrastructure for ventures into community participation in other policy areas. And as other providers have withdrawn or closed down through earlier budget cuts, so CLD has come to serve as the last major form of public adult learning in Scotland. The next weeks are, then, critical.

The Scottish Government takes a narrow view of adult learning, but at least it takes a view

In May 2014, the Scottish Government launched its Statement of Ambition on Adult Learning. Given its title, it isn’t surprising that the paper was long on generalities and short on specifics; its role was to set out a broad direction of travel, which would be followed by consultation over how best to get there.

The job of handling the next stages was passed over to Education Scotland (ES), a state agency which undertakes teaching inspections and supports quality improvement across the education system (excluding only higher education). ES has convened a strategic forum, and earlier this year it published a set of strategic objectives that were informed by the forum’s discussions.

In practice, the strategic objectives didn’t much move things on from the Statement of Ambition. Since then, the Scottish Government has issued its work programme for 2015-2016, an 88-page document that includes the following commitment:

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Some – and I’m one of them – will think this a rather narrow and unambitious set of goals; while all are necessary and even praiseworthy, they are a long way from the aim of being ‘recognised globally as the most creative and engaged learning society’. But at a time when publicly funded adult learning in Scotland is in freefall, we can take a small crumb of reassurance from this commitment to a basic platform of public provision.

 

Education and social mobility in Scotland

Alan Milburn

Alan Milburn

In a lecture in Edinburgh last week, Alan Milburn spoke about the ways in which education can break what he ‘the link between demography and destiny’. As Chair of the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, Milburn’s views on social mobility are well known in the UK. Basically, he believes that there is barely any movement into or out of different socio-economic classes in Britain, and that this is reducing opportunities for all, as well as damaging the effective workings of our society and economy.

Some may be surprised that any such lecture was needed in Scotland, but they shouldn’t be. As Milburn said, ‘Almost half of senior Scottish judges were educated in private schools compared to just 5% of the population as a whole and the country’s top universities remain dominated by students from better-off backgrounds’. Elitism doesn’t stop at the border.

And this is reflected in our higher education system, with social selection being as marked in Scotland’s universities as in England’s or Wales’s. Milburn also noted the challenges facing colleges in promoting social mobility – though here I would add that we still know virtually nothing systematic about the social and economic effects of Scotland’s distinctive system of short-cycle higher education, which is largely provided in colleges – arguably at the expense of other activities, including vocational training and part time education.

What was more surprising, to me at least, was how low down the pecking order the issue of social mobility is for Scotland’s policy-makers. The Scottish Government has been praised for moving towards an outcomes-based approach to policy monitoring, but the quality of its outcome indicators leaves a lot to be desired.

As Milburn put it, when it comes to child poverty, ‘Under the framework we will know about the proportion of children with low wellbeing scores, who are not eating fruit and vegetables, or playing sport, or who find it easy to talk to their mother – but there is nothing about early childhood development, school readiness, university access or any measure of how poor children do on educational attainment’.

So one starting point for action may well be to look much more systematically at what we know about education and social mobility, particularly where the education is publicly funded. And I would say to Mr Milburn that as well as schools, colleges and universities, we need to think about how social mobility is affected, for better or worse, by adult learning.

Anarchists and work camps in 1930s Britain

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Red Clydeside collection: http://gdl.cdlr.strath.ac.uk/redclyde/

This leaflet comes from the Glasgow Digital Library, a fabulous mine of information and collection of resources for teaching. It must date to around 1933-34, when the Left was campaigning vigorously against what became the 1934 Unemployment Act. The National Government introduced the Act in order to restructure poor relief and bring unemployment benefits under central control. It also contained a clause which combined the old poor law requirement of the ‘work test’ with existing powers to compel claimants to undertake training.

The campaign against the Bill was enormous, and the historian Neil Evans describes it as the most-discussed piece of legislation in inter-war Britain. Most of the agitation was led by the Labour Left (including the Independent Labour Party) and the Communist Party. But others were involved as well.

This flyer was published by a group calling itself the Workers’ Open Forum, a Glasgow-based network launched by the veteran anarchist Guy Aldred. I don’t know much about the Forum, except that it renamed itself as the United Socialist Movement. Aldred, on the other hand, was and is quite well-known. He viewed himself as a Communist-Anarchist, had been imprisoned for anti-imperialist activities in 1907, and was a conscientious objector in the First World War.  A Londoner by birth and upbringing, he had moved to Glasgow where he thought the prospects for building a new movement were strong.

Several work camps recruited men from Glasgow. In 1933-34, Carstairs Instructional Centre was being prepared for closure, and the Ministry of Labour was opening a new camp out on the Cowal peninsula, at Glenbranter. Both camps experienced a number of protests by angry trainees, and both were visited by Harry McShane, one of the NUWM’s Scottish organisers.

By comparison with the Communist Party, and the National Unemployed Workers’ Movement that the CP dominated, Aldred’s group was tiny. Judging by this flyer, the anarchists shared the Communists’ concern with the threat that work camps posed to the integrity of family life; but they placed a much stronger emphasis than the Communists on what they saw as the militaristic role of the British work camps. Interestingly, the Ministry of Labour’s officials were worried about this issue, and always kept the armed forces at arm’s length, to the point of refusing them to publicise recruitment materials within the camps.

Why the Scottish Government is wrong about tuition fees and the EU

>If Scots vote to leave the UK in September, the Scottish Government plans to continue to charging tuition fees for students from England, Wales and Northern Ireland, but not for anyone else in the European Union. I’ve argued before that this is unlikely to happen, and today a former EU Commissioner for Education and Training is quoted as saying that all EU students would have to receive ‘the same treatment’.

Only in Scotland, and only this year, would anyone think this news. The legal position is quite clear. European legislation on free movement of labour – one of the central founding principles of the EU – covers higher education, which is treated legally as a form of vocational training. There have been challenges in the past to the definition of higher education as a form of vocational training, and the courts have always rejected them.

If you’re interested in reading about the origins and rationale of this rather quirky legal status, you can always get a library copy of my now rather dated book on European education policies. But the main consequence was that it allowed the EU to develop a series of mobility schemes and collaborative projects, and still underpins such programmes as Erasmus+.

So under current European law, the Scottish Government must treat all EU citizens equally in respect of access to higher education. Of course, the Government can try to get the law changed, and it might well wish to have higher education redefined as an area of national rather than European competence, but it has not said it will do so. And at present I can’t see how a small, new member state will be able to gather together enough support for the European Commission to change its current stance.

In its White Paper on independence, the Scottish Government effectively says that it will seek an opt-out. It doesn’t use that phrase, of course, which is popularly associated with the Coservative Party. Rather, it says that it will if necessary present an ‘objective justification’ for an exemption, based on the unique and exceptional position of Scotland in relation to other parts of the UK, on the relative size of the rest of the UK, on the fee differential, on our shared land border and common language, on the qualification structure, on the quality of our university sector, and on the high demand for places.

Michael Russell, Scotland's Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning

Michael Russell, Scotland’s Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning

Will this wash? Well, I think it just about possible, but highly unlikely. If accepted, it would open up a massive boîte de Pandore. And here are just a few of the most obvious reasons why.

At the most general level, it runs against current EU policies on higher education, which aim at improving professional mobility by increasing the numbers of students who attend a university in another European country than their own, and aligning the qualifications structures of universities in different European countries. More particularly, it would present a precedent for other countries in similar situations (eg. Denmark/Sweden, Wallonie/France, Netherlands/Flanders, Luxembourg and everyone). It would also annoy the socks off higher education ministers and rectors who have persuaded university staff to teach in English. The practical consequences elsewhere would also be significant, starting with the effects in our neighbouring island of Ireland.

So you can just imagine how other ministers of education will react when Mike Russell, Scotland’s Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning, sets out his plans to the European Council on Education. I would like to be in that room.

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.