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 And as other providers have withdrawn or closed down through earlier budget cuts, so CLD has come to serve as the last major form of public adult learning in Scotland.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.

Democracy requires lifelong education and critical thinking

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Congratulations to the Southern Region of the Workers Educational Association for organising what looks like a terrific conference on education and democracy. Democratic education was, as Stephen Roberts’ centenary history confirms, a preoccupation that ran like a thread through the WEA’s activities, and I’m delighted to see it addressed in this way, with some pointed questions and sparky speakers to fire up the debate.

Linden West is a friend and we’ve worked and written together, so you can take what I say with a pinch of salt. He has a background in the WEA; his latest book (nothing if not ambitious) tackles racism, fundamentalism, Islamophobia and de-industrialisation in the context of democratic education; you can find the details here.

I’m equally interested in hearing what Hilda Kean has to say. Again, she has a background in adult education, and stood up in public to attack Ruskin College’s decision to trash its own archives. She is a leading exponent of the public history movement, and is well known for her histories of animals, including work for the BBC on animals in wartime.

This could, and should, be a really important event which shapes discussions not only around the WEA, but over the future of adult learning in the UK more generally. I have nothing against Tonbridge, but why leave it there? Can’t the WEA nationally turn it into a travelling roadshow, igniting debates elsewhere?

Class prejudice, social surveys and adult education: a WW2 example

In 1946, a 27-year-old lieutenant colonel published an article in the Sociological Review on the educational values of ‘Local Survey Courses’.The aim of these courses was ‘to stimulate human interests and arouse awareness of the locality and its social problems’ among women members of the armed forces.

The background, reported Lt-Col Hardiman, was the discovery that the British Army discussion materials designed to give the troops a better idea of what they were fighting for proved completely unsuitable for the women: ‘On account of the profound ignorance of many of the recruits, talks were incomprehensible to them and discussions desultory’.

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The solution to this problem, Lt-Col Hardiman wrote, was to replace talks by study visits to places of local interest such as the town hall or a housing scheme. But because the students were unable to interpret what they saww, they were ‘passive’ and ‘acquired little or no positive knowledge’.

Only by providing a structured questionnaire, and training study group leaders in how best to prompt the subsequent discussions, would the students produce ‘practically useful results’. And because the courses produced practical results, and involved active learning in co-operative groups, they were ‘more productive of social attitudes and social skills needed in modern affairs than the orthodox methods of schooling’.

Clearly, the article is riddled with upper class condescension, and even contempt, for the working class women (mostly young) who joined the women’s services. But should we dismiss it as nothing more than an expression of unthinking class prejudice, of a kind that no serious sociology journal could contemplate publishing today?

Or should we see class relations in past times as a product of context, even as part of a history of socialisation? Margaret Hardiman, born in India to a businessman father and privately educated, was the product of an exclusive social milieu. Before the Second World War, a bright young woman from such a background would have had very little personal contact with working class women. Interaction with shop assistants, maid servants or waitresses was bounded by clear rules and reinforced by training and disciplinary measures.

What the War did was to push the classes together –  and this could be a shock for all those involved. I’ve written elsewhere about some aspects of adult education during the Second World War ( if you’re interested, you can read more here), and what is clear to me is how far the main adult education movements in the War were shaped by these gendered personal encounters between the classes.

In Hardiman’s case, we can also see the interplay of elite background with higher education and career: she graduated from the LSE in 1939 and then joined the Auxiliary Territorial Service before serving under the army veteran and socialist educationalist George Wigg in the Army Education Corps.

After the War she went on to become an anthropologist at the LSE and the University of Ghana. She seems to have been highly regarded in developing countries as well as at home. While some of her youthful social attitudes will strike us as dated and patronising, I’m still pleased to come across an article that helps us understand better the role of women in army education during WW2.

 

Can you promote social mobility without supporting adult learning?

Last December, the Government invited Universities UK to lead an investigation into improving social mobility through higher education. UUK duly created an advisory group on social mobility, chaired by its chief executive Nicola Dandridge, which aims to deliver its report to the Government, outlining a series of strategic goals for 2020, in May 2016.

The advisory group has now held its first meeting. It started by defining its remit, which is now probably rather broader than the Government initially intended. It has decided to explore not just who gets in to university, but also how they get on at university, and what happens to them after they graduate. This reflects a growing awareness that non-traditional students are not only disadvantaged at point of entry, but continue to be penalised throughout the student life cycle and beyond.

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Published record of the Advisory Group’s first meeting

The group also decided that it needed to consider ‘all underrepresented groups in higher education, including mature and part-time students’. Again, there is some evidence that mature and part-time students face continuing penalties beyond graduation, though this is an area that requires futher research. And of course, mature and part-time students are more likely to be parents themselves, whose commitment to lifelong learning provides a model for their children.

What the net effect of this is on social mobility, though, is largely unknown, not least because part-time and mature learners tend to be most numerous in those universities which have the least prestigious images. Nevertheless, I expect and hope to see some strong proposals around mature and part-time study, both of which have declined significantly in recent years.

The advisory group proper includes a number of people who have experience and expertise in adult and part-time learning, including Professor Les Ebdon, Director of the Office for Fair Access; Professor Geoff Layer, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Wolverhampton; Peter Horrocks, Vice-Chancellor of The Open University; and Prof Mary Stuart, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Lincoln.

The practitioner reference group, chaired by Mary Stuart, also includes a number of members with adult education backgrounds, notably Nadira Mirza, Director of Student Success at the University of Bradford and Treasurer of the Universities Association of Lifelong Learning. While it is harder to spot similar expertise among the researcher reference group, they are bound to be concerned over the absence of much systematic analysis of post-graduation outcomes for mature and part-time learners.

Of course, the report is only of direct relevance to England, though the problems it is tackling are equally relevant in Scotland and Wales. Even in England, the Government may not be delighted that the UUK group has widened its remit in this way, and institutional managers may also try to resist any shift of focus away from the most low-maintenance groups of students (namely young entrants straight from school). Clearly there is still a lot left to play for.

To answer my own question, it is perfectly conceivable to develop policies for social mobility that do not involve adult learning. My own view is that this would be short-sighted, and that targeted support for second and third chance learning is a good way of promoting fairer access to top positions. So far, the signs are promising.

Cracking the class ceiling: where next for Scotland?

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From the chair’s foreword

The Commission on Widening Access has just published its final report. You can read a copy here. Chaired by Ruth Silver, a highly respected former college principal who has considerable experience in adult and further education, the Commission listed 34 recommendations, which it describes as adding up to “a system wide plan to achieve equal access within a generation”.

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Dame Ruth Silver

Overall, I’d say that the Commission’s recommendations are as ambitious as this overall aim suggests. It focuses particularly on the massive socio-economic inequalities that characterise higher education participation in Scotland (I’m assuming I don’t need to dwell on the inequalities in other countries). It starts by calling on the Scottish Government to appoint a Commissioner for Fair Access, whose remit will among other things include responsibility for a ‘more substantial evidence base’ than exists at present.

This sounds to me as though the Commission thinks that OFFA (the Office for Fair Access) has on the whole worked well as an advocate for promoting wider access in England, though for tactical reasons this may be something to mutter quietly north of the border. However, the proposed Scottish Commissioner would have greater powers to work with schools and other pre-16 providers than OFFA, allowing a sharper strategic focus and helping avoid suplication.

The Commission also tackles one of the great challenges in ensuring equity in Scottish higher education: the problem of articulation. In its interim report, the Commission praised the expansion of higher education provision in colleges as a sunstantial contribution to wider access. The problem comes when students try to transfer from a college to university: the Commission estimate that 84% of transfers involved only five universities, with the most selective universities admitting few students and recognising less credit.

This is a problem of long standing, and it is a significant block on social mobility. I was delighted to see a strongly-worded recommendation, urging the Scottish Funding Council to “seek more demanding articulation targets from those universities that have not traditionally been significant players”.

It also makes a number of recommendations about admissions criteria and procedures that will be widely welcomed by advocates of wider access, but will be less popular among academics and managers in the more selective universities. In a move that will provoke horror from some senior managers, the Commission proposes that the SFC should make more use of existing regulatory powers to drive wider access, and urges the Scottish Government to publish data on fair access.

The Commission also recognised that the stratified nature of Scottish higher education has consequences for graduate destinations. Essentially, those who enter the most selective forms of higher education are far the most likely to enter elite professions; those who complete short cyle higher education in a non-university context are the least likely. The report also notes that the least advantaged students are also less likely, on average, to complete their qualification.

Unfortunately, it seems that the Commission was unable to consider inequalities in outcomes for graduates from disadvantaged backgrounds in any depth. Its final recommendation invites the new Commissioner to “consider what futher work is required to support equal outcomes after study for those from disadvantaged backgrounds or with a care experience”.

My initial reaction, then, is that the Commission has done a pretty decent job. I have some reservations about key gaps – for example, the lack of explicit attention to ethnicity and gender. The remit – as you can see above – was narrowly focussed on children’s life chances, with no acknowledgement of second chance learners. But on the whole, I think Ruth Silver and her colleagues have delivered an important and challenging agenda for equity and mobility in Scotland, in a report that should be of interest way beyond our borders.

What will happen next is, of course, a matter for the Scottish Government. Angela Constance, the minister responsible for education and lifelong learning, has broadly welcomed the report (while patting herself and her Government on the back, both for their past achievments, and for appointing the Commission in the first place). Her official statement concluded with the following sentence:

I am very grateful to Dame Ruth Silver and the Commissioners for the considerable time, effort and engagement they have put into producing this ’Blueprint for Fairness’. Their recommendations are bold and thoughtful and fit well with ongoing work around closing the attainment gap and developing the young workforce.

This reads to me as though adult learning still has no part to play in the Scottish Government’s strategy for wider access, which is disappointing, if not very surprising. But the Scottish Government has already faced down the more conservative-minded leaders in the higher education sector in demanding reforms to governance, so I am hopeful that they will go at least some way to tackling the social class inequalities and injustice that this report has highlighted. And if you want to monitor developments, you could do much worse than follow the well-informed and analytical blog of Lucy Hunter Blackburn, here.

 

 

The collapse of adult learning in Scotland – a government response 

I wrote last week about Scottish Funding Council data showing further decline in part-time student numbers in colleges. The learners whose courses have been cut are overwhelmingly adults, and a majority are female. Now the Scottish Government, in the form of the Minister for Skills and Training, has explained that this is part of a strategy to remove courses of low quality or of no particular benefit.

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Scotsman, 16 January 2016

You will, unfortunately, search in vain on the Scottish Government website for evidence to support this statement. I am not aware of any serious evidence that the lost part-time adult courses were of low quality, or that they had no real long term benefits. On the other hand there are quite a few inpection reports praising the quality of part-time college courses, and there is plenty of research showing that these courses have tangible benefits for learners.

Still, I am pleased that the Minister at least saw fit to justify her government’s decisions, even if the justification is utterly unconvincing. I welcome it as a sign that at long last we might have at least the semblance of a debate on the future of adult learning in Scotland.

 

 

Funding adult learning in Scotland: the non-formal sector

Neil Findlay, Member of the Scottish Parliament

Neil Findlay, Member of the Scottish Parliament

Neil Findlay, Member of the Scottish Parliament for Lothian, is an inveterate poser of written parliamentary questions. In contrast to the debating chamber, where ministers typically score smarty-pants points off any MSP who challenges them, written questions must be answered. And fortunately, Neil Findlay – a member of the Cross-Parliamentary Group on Adult Learning, is interested in adult learning – presumably because he thinks it an area where the Government is vulnerable.

So far this year he has posed four questions about adult learning, four of them concerning funding. They include this one on Government funding for ‘non-formal adult learning’. Overall, it looks at first sight as though Government has been relatively gentle on this part of the sector. Looking more closely, though, this budget has not changed in cash terms since 2005, and a ten-year standstill in cash terms represents a significant cut in real terms.

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Incidentally, I ought to make it clear that I have not written this post as a supporter of Mr Findlay’s party, which is Labour. Those who have read earlier posts on the blog know that already, but I don’t think party allegiance counts in this context – adult learning should matter to MSPs from all parties.