A new skills agenda for Europe – or a drearily familiar shopping list?

The European Commission prearing to publish a position paper entitled A New Skills Agenda for Europe. Due to appear in late May, the paper is concerned with ‘promoting skills’, including the mutual recognition of qualifications, supporting vocational training and higher education, and ‘reaping the full potential of digital jobs’.

Will the content live up to its title – that is, will it really be ‘new’? Judging by the minutes of the Education Council, much of it will be familiar stuff. It will focus entirely on skills supply, with little or no discussion of how to raise the demand for and utilisation of those skills. Employability will be everything; don’t expect any creative thinking about skills for other areas of life. There could be a brief nod in the direction of equity and inclusion, and there will certainly be much rhetorical excitement about the growth potential of the digital economy.

Finally, because responsibility for skills lies largely with member states, several of whom are worried about ‘competency creep’ in the field of education policy, the Commission will largely confine itself to urging other people to do things, few of which will be innovative. So far, then, so familiar.

New Picture (1)

Minutes of the European Council, 24 February 2016

Possibly there will be one new feature, compared with past policy papers on skills. The New Skills Agenda is highly likely to refer to the skills and the integration of refugees. Germany’s experience in the last year suggests that refugee integration into the labour market is proving slower than anticipated, partly because of language difficulties, but also because fewer refugees than anticipated hold recognised qualifications.

If my analysis is right, the energy has drained out of the ‘social Europe’project that was embodied during the 1980s by Jacques Delors. But neither are the largely Right or Centre-Right figures who dominate today’s Commission capable of producing creative and imaginative approaches to the skills and knowledge of Europe’s population, whether established or new. I find it hard to see the new paper making much of a splash, but I’d be delighted to be proved wrong when it is published in May.


The European Commission’s thinking on lifelong learning

New PictureThe European Commission has recently published two documents that offer us insights into its thinking on lifelong learning. First, it has issued its Education and Training Monitor for 2015; ostensibly a ‘state of the art’ report, the Monitor also provides insights into the  EC’s current priorities. Second, the Commission has agreed a Communication on its Work Programme for 2016, concentrating on what it calls ‘the big things where citizens expect Europe to make a difference’; one of these ‘big things’, it seems, is skills.

What do these documents together tell us about the Commission’s thinking? Well, it seems reasonable to start by saying that learning and skills are a rather greater priority for the European Commission than they are for most of the member states. Both of the documents also confirm the continuing importance of gender equity in the Commission’s thinking about the labour market. Beyond that, though, the two papers differ in purpose and scope.

To some extent, the Monitor treats adult learners as peripheral. Most of it is devoted to schools, higher education and initial vocational training, with adult basic education and upskilling being classed as examples of the need to modernise vocational education and training systems. Apprenticeships are seen as something for young people, in which learning at school and work are combined, while e-learning and MOOCs are treated primarily as a sub-set of higher education.

So far so familiar. But four pages of the Monitor are devoted to adult learning, focusing on participation rates and the benefits of learning. It asserts – reasonably enough – that there are ‘clear social and economic benefits to engaging adults in continuing learning activities’.

On participation, the Commission notes that in 2009 the member states set a target for 2020 of 15% of working age adults participating in learning during a given four-week period; the current rate stands at 10.7%, with only six member states (Denmark, Sweden, Finland, France, the Netherlands and the UK) reaching the 2020 target.

From the 2015 Monitor

From the 2015 Monitor

The Commission concludes that the weak evidence of progress implies ‘a rethink of adult learning policies’. It then draws on an as-yet-unpublished meta-study of the effectiveness of particular adult learning interventions, which are ranked according to the strength of the evidence. The most effective, according to this exercise, are public co-financing of employer training, aligning provision with skills forecasting, and targeting funding on provision for the disadvantaged and difficult to engage groups.

Quite how the Commission will persuade member states to rethink their adult learning policies is unclear. It can pull some levers – including publishing comparative benchmarking reports like the Monitor – but education is a responsibility of national governments, and at European level it is dealt with under the so-called ‘open method of co-ordination’. This effectively leaves it to the member state to decide whether they take any notice of European-level policies or not – which is why the 2020 targets will be missed.

On the other hand, the Commission does have powers over vocational training. The 2016 Work Programme is going to include a ‘New Skills Agenda’, which takes an explicitly human capital approach to investing in skills throughout life in order to improve competitiveness. This includes raising participation in the labour market by women, but otherwise the new agenda is nebulous in the extreme.

From the 2016 Work Programme

From the 2016 Work Programme

The European Commission has a long record of interest in adult learning. Perhaps its most influential intervention was the European Year of Lifelong Learning, a largely symbolic gesture which nevertheless reached out to governments, providers and other actors such as trade unions and voluntary associations. Much of the excitement that surrounded the European Year has evaporated, as has the social democratic vision of Europe that was associated with its then president, Jacque Delors.

In current circumstances, it probably shouldn’t surprise us to find that the Commission’s view of adult learning is an instrumental and impoverished one. Nevertheless, the fact that the Commission is debating adult learning and skills offers opportunities for advocacy and a chance to try and broaden out the terms of debate.

Sneering at adult learners – why do we let them get away with it?

Adult learning is in crisis across the UK. While demand appears to be as high as ever, and the wider public case is as strong as ever, all four governments are busily cutting direct and indirect funding for provision. And when pressed to justify the cuts, it seems that they simply can’t help themselves from deriding adult learners.

Here’s a case from this morning’s newspapers. Asked about a collapse in part-time information technology courses, the minister responsible said

there has been a deprioritisation in the range of computing courses that are about things such as how to work a mouse and how to organise your calendar at Christmas.

Leave aside that wonderful word ‘deprioritisation’, and reflect for a moment on the idea that adult courses in IT are about no more than organising your Christmas calendar. Just take five seconds to think about why ‘organising your Christmas calendar’ might help to engage some hesitant learners – and then spend another five seconds thinking about who such a course might appeal to.

I’m sure you’re ahead of me, but here’s one example. A study by Age UK found that whilst 13 per cent of the adult population in the UK have never used the Internet, the over-65s comprise over 75 per cent of this excluded group – almost 5 million people. Then add to that the overwhelming evidence of the benefits of learning for older adults.

It’s easy to show that these are silly comments, throw-away remarks that are designed to belittle adult learners and those who support them. But enough. What is important is that sneering at adult learners is so commonplace.

Alan Johnson, when Labour’s education secretary, justified cuts in 2006 by saying that we needed ‘more plumbing, less pilates; subsidised precision engineering, not over-subsidised flower arranging’. John Denham, then Labour’s minister for higher education, defended his government’s 2008 cuts by describing adult education as little more than ‘holiday Spanish’ (only among the Brits would learning a foreign language be seen as frippery). The Coalition’s skills minister Matthew Hancock, also justifying cuts in 2014, jeered at ‘qualifications in coaching angling, aerial balloon displays and self-tanning’.

This discourse of derision has a long history in our field. Alan Tuckett used to recall his days organising an adult centre in Brighton, when a local Tory councillor tried to dismiss its courses as ‘tap-dancing on the rates’. Our early days at Northern College – where working class people came to study – heard cries of ‘the Kremlin on the hill’. And needless to say, similar jibes faced the men and women who created our adult education institutions.

So what can we do about it? To start off, we can benefit from building a different relationship with policy makers, based on dialogue and reason. And that might mean that we in turn start to treat policy makers as people who are trying to get something done, in conditions that they understand better than we do. Speaking truth to power is an easy slogan, but we need to creat platforms for exchange rather than just shouting from our studies.

This doesn’t mean accepting insults that are designed to dismiss us before we even get in the room. In the short term, we need to rebut each and every small-minded jibe. We might even indulge in the occasional cheap shot ourselves – for example, I cant help pointing out that our dismissive Scottish minister was educated at public expense for four years in one of Scotland’s ancient universities.

In the longer term, we need to make a concerted effort to explain the benefits of adult learning, and put policy-makers in situations where they engage directly with adult learners. We have a small mountain of robust evidence on the economic, social and health benefits of adult learning; let’s get it in front of the widest possible audience. And let’s sit policy makers down with learners who can explain exactly why learning how to manage a calendar on a lap top might be an important first step back.


Four scenarios for the future of adult education in Britain

From SaveAdultEd.org

From SaveAdultEd.org

There is a pervasive sense of crisis around British adult education. Public funding for adult learning has been slashed, and on this issue at least there are few differences between Scotland, England and Wales. And the decline began well before the Coalition came to power, let alone before George Osborne announced his plans for massive savings from education and training: Ruth Kelly was cutting adult education in 2006.

But at least New Labour had provided new funding for adult learning in the first place, and supported important new initiatives, even if they did pull back later. Now, though, there is little left to cut.

Local councils in England provide minimal adult education, with a heavy focus on basic skills provision; the picture is more variable in Scotland, where some councils maintain most of their adult provision while others have all but withdrawn. Colleges in all three British nations have been told to reduce part-time adult provision and focus on school-leavers and full-time provision. Only a dozen universities still have a department or centre for adult education.

According to Caroline Lucas*, Member of Parliament for Brighton and Hove, “It’s no exaggeration to say that the very existence of adult education is in jeopardy”. I think she exaggerates, but it is true to say that public provision has been slashed, and what is left is likely to be cut further.

At the same time, none of the pressures that created the debate around lifelong learning have gone away, so at some stage in the future there will be new debates, though probably the terms will have changed. And so will the context: many people still want to learn, and quite a few have to learn, regardless of what the government provides. What, then, is the most likely future?

What follows is speculative, less an attempt to predict the future than to think through the possibilities. One of these is that the various campaigns to save adult learning will succeed, that policy-makers will rediscover their love for lifelong learning, and that we will see a return to the levels of funding that existing under the first Blair government. We have strong collective voices for the sector in many European countries, including England and Wales, but not in Northern Ireland where the Assembly shut down the main independent voices.

This, though, has to be a strategy for the long haul. Winning over the policy-makers will take organisation, persistence and patience. After all, it was Labour’s Alan Johnston who derided adult learners as Pilates addicts, Labour’s John Denham who jeered at subsidies for ‘holiday Spanish’. And it will also require a broad coalition of influential allies, just as the older movement for public adult education relied on the support of the trade unions, co-operatives, women’s institutes and churches.

The second possibility is that a strong voluntary adult education movement will emerge and replace part at least of the state sector. The signs here are rather encouraging: the University of the Third Age movement appears to be thriving, and its local associations manage to run a lively programme of classes and events over the whole UK with little or no support from the state. If older adults can build a national self-help movement, why shouldn’t other groups do so?

I’m a great admirer of the U3As, but they do have limits. As a social capital researcher it comes as no surprise to me that its membership largely comprises the like-minded. Not only are they mostly well-educated and drawn from comfortable middle class occupations; the movement is also overwhelmingly white. The risk, then, is that other groups are simply ‘frozen out’ – or indeed exclude themselves – from the U3A.

And while older people have managed to created a sustainable network-type association, other interest groups don’t seem to have done so. There may be sudden collective rushes to the internet when some issue or other comes to the top of the political agenda, but there isn’t much sign of any more sustained and organised framework for supporting collective learning.

A third scenario is privatization. De facto, this is more or less what is happening anyway in the UK – and not just in the UK. The main European research journal on adult learning is putting together a special issue on marketisation and commodification. Eila Heikkila, in her recent overview of adult learning in Finland, noted that the reduction in public funding had helped to create a much more competitive sector, where providers had an interest in differentiating their offer, and thus widening learner choice. Policy-makers may well find this an attractive message.

The difficulty with this scenario is that a market-led system will almost certainly face massive quality problems, at least at its margins, and will gear provision towards profitability rather than any wider social or economic need. At the very least, then, the state is likely to seek at least a minimal role in securing training for groups such as school-leavers or the unemployed, in whom there is a wider political interest. Beyond that, the market will certainly meet the needs of many adult learners, these will be the relatively affluent and well-educated. It probably won’t reach many of the 25 % of EU adults who have completed no formal education beyond lower secondary education.

My fourth scenario is a hybrid future. Public adult learning will continue, but it will adapt and change, particularly through the adoption of digital and mobile technologies. This implies a weaker role for local face-to-face providers, who will increasingly concentrate on those whom new technologies find ‘hard-to-reach’: migrants, refugees, the long-term unemployed, learners with special needs. Public providers will forge partnerships with voluntary and commercial providers, particularly in areas such as workplace learning. While voluntary providers will develop programmes for specific interest groups, commercial providers will sell places on study tours, heritage weekends, bespoke professional qualifications, and so on.

Of these, I find the hybrid model most likely. It will involve some continuing public provision with sporadic attempts at government steering, but will be increasingly dispersed and at least partially privatised. I find it difficult to see how this rather fragmentary and often competitive world will produce anything like a social movement approach, but perhaps that is slightly pessimistic? On the other hand, while I don’t see much sign of an emerging social movement in the real world, there is nothing to stop us taking the long view, and trying to build one.

* I need to declare an interest: I am a member of the Green Party, which Caroline Lucas represents

Apprenticeships: hats off to the stubborn geeks

What a mess we’ve made of apprenticeships. The Select Committee on Business, Industry and Skills  found that a sizeable minority of apprentices receive no training whatsoever; the system is riddled with conflicts of interest, often unreported and largely unresolved; profit levels appear to be inflated by government grants; some employers simply badge existing training as an apprenticeship in order to claim funding; the system involves de facto age discrimination, with no apparent rationale, as well as gender discrimination in some trades. Worse, the uneven quality of training has damaged public perceptions of apprenticeship schemes in general.

None of this will come as a surprise to anyone who has followed the online debate over the last two year. But it should do. If you relied on mainstream press and broadcasting media, you’d be forgiven for thinking that apprenticeships were something from the past, inherited from the medieval craft guilds, and unsuited to a dynamic modern economy.

And it is true that the apprenticeship system that operated until the 1980s was flawed. Lads followed dads, excluding many women and immigrants; whether a particular craft was included or not was often a matter of historical accident (and workforce gendering); and craft status often became a pawn in collective bargaining, bedding rigidities into a system that should indeed have been modernised as industry and skills requirements changed.

But instead of modernising apprenticeships, the Thatcher government chose to smash them. In place of backward-looking, time-served, tripartite apprenticeships it promoted the go-ahead standards-based competency model of the National Vocational Qualifications system. Apprenticeship systems survived in small pockets, but for the most part they vanished as employers took advantage of the economic and policy climate to replace them with short, cheap training schemes.

By contrast, a number of other European countries opted to try and modernise their apprenticeship systems. They retained the principle of social partnership, seeking to work out the problems of modernisation through consultation and negotiation. And they tried to introduce new forms of apprenticeship to match the new, flexible forms of work practices that were required for European industry to survive.

The result was by no means perfect. Gender segregation often survived, with young women dominating apprenticeships in traditional female areas and males dominating in engineering and IT. Flexibility was sometimes insufficiently developed, as shown most notably in Germany’s attempt to impose a (western) model of apprenticeship on the very different labour market of the former East Germany. It is still far too difficult for adults to upskill or reskill through modified apprenticeship schemes.

But these were and are seen as reasons for reforming a high quality pathway to highly skilled labour. Hilary Steedman’s report for the International Labour Organisation identifies a number of features of successful apprenticeship schemes that, she shows, have helped reduce youth unemployment and maintain labour quality.

But what interests me particularly is that none of this is new. Campaigners and researchers have blogged repeatedly on the topic, and there has been sustained coverage in the redoubtable FE Week, a small, new, specialist magazine. Academics like Lorna Unwin and Alison Fuller have written and spoken about the policy flaws. Think tanks and the National Audit Office got involved. And while trade unions have generally been quiet, individuals like Tom Wilson of UnionLearn have raised tough questions about the treatment of this particularly vulnerable group of workers.

Yet the mainstream press has had little to say about what appears to be another sorry chapter in the long story of Britain’s problem with vocational skills. Hats off, then, to the handful of stubborn geeky buggers who have worked hard to raise concern over what is obviously an important issue, but not sexy, fashionable or high status enough.

Now we move on to the much tougher task of building an apprenticeship system that is fit for purpose. The Select Committee’s recommendations cover eight pages. So far the Skills Minister, Matthew Hancock, has issued a bland statement affirming the value of apprenticeships and promising to look at improvements. FE Week will no doubt be watching.

Hilary Steedman’s report for the ILO is at: http://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/—ed_emp/—ifp_skills/documents/genericdocument/wcms_190188.pdf

The Select Committee’s report is at: http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201213/cmselect/cmbis/83/83.pdf

More on NALS 2010 – firing a shotgun at both feet?

My previous blog looked at the huge decline in participation in adult learning recorded by the National Adult Learning Survey. My quick analysis showed that while overall participation fell by 11% from the level of 80% recorded in 2005, it had fallen faster and further for some groups than others. Essentially, I showed that policy makers had decided to penalise older learners and the least educated, and had also undermined the role of adult learning in promoting social mobility. 

This blog turns to the ways in which different types of learning have been eroded by recent government policies. After the Leitch Review of skills, the Labour Government in 2007 decided to concentrate public funding on vocational skills and on courses leading to a Level 2 qualification. This policy has been continued by the Coalition and has also been adopted by the Nationalist Government in Scotland. 

NALS shows that in practice, this narrow policy goal has failed. Since 2005, participation in courses leading to qualifications has fallen by 7%, and participation in skills-related courses has fallen by 6%. The number learning for professional development has fallen by 10%. They couldn’t even get this right – by attacking the lifelong learning system, in effect, successive governments have managed to erode the vocational training that they claimed to be endorsing and prioritising. 

Future intentions have also been damaged. The proportion who say they are not likely to take future job-related learning has increased by 9% since 2005, while the proportion who are ‘very likely’ to do so fell by 14%. 

Unsurprisingly, cost emerges as a major issue. While the two surveys are not directly comparable, the price paid by most learners in 2010 was considerably higher than in 2005, and the proportion of people who identified price as an obstacle was also much larger. Again, this reflects Labour policies, including the abolition (in England) of Individual Learning Accounts and the attack on those adult and further education courses that did not meet Ministers’ policy priorities. 

Finally, it is interesting to compare the NALS results with Geoff Mason’s study of the Labour Force Survey. Mason reported a growth in participation between 1999 and 2002, followed by a decline from 2003 to 2009; this included a decline in vocational training over the same period. While this is broadly consistent with NALS, Mason’s more detailed analysis was not so easily squared with NALS. In particular, he found that older workers’ participation (50-59) stayed constant, nor did he find above-average falls for the least well qualified. 

These surveys are conducted in different ways, so it is not surprising that they produce different results. It would be good to see an independent researcher taking a closer look at the NALS dataset, to ask a more – and more detailed – questions about the trends between 2005 and 2010. At present, though, it looks to me like a clear story of policy failure.

The NALS report is at: www.bis.gov.uk/assets/biscore/further-education-skills/docs/n/12-p164-national-adult-learner-survey-2010.pdf

Geoff Mason’s study is at: http://www.llakes.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/10/GM-paper-15-online.pdf