Adult education and municipal enterprise: Learning from the 80s

Reading Helen Jackson’s political memoir has been both a joy and an inspiration. It is essentially the story of her political life before becoming an MP, when she rose from activist to senior councillor at a time when local government was an exciting space for experiment and innovation as well as an important source of much-needed public services. Until, that is, the Thatcher government decided that local government needed its wings clipped.

Sheffield, where Helen taught, worked, and raised a family, stood at the centre of several significant developments. Before the mass unemployent of the early 1980s, the City Council was one of a number of radical local authorities that sought to protect and expand public services such as housing and education, and led a number of radical new policies such as South Yorkshire’s much-loved policy of freezing bus fares (I have happy memories of taking my daughter into town at the princely sum of 12p each way).

As unemployment hit hard at the region’s traditional (male) industries in the early 80s, the Council shifted to using its position as an employer and purchaser to promote local employment, promote equality of access to work, and to improve the quality of jobs on offer, while woeking in partnership with an initially reluctant business community to support enterprise and attract new jos. And it was striking how strong a role adult education played in this process.

Helen is well-placed to comment on these developments. As an increasingly vocal champion of women’s rights and advocate of racial justice, and as an influential elected office-holder responsible for the large direct works department, as well as being an educator herself, she is able to give an authoritative account of the part played by adult education in Sheffield’s municipal socialism.

Three of these initiatives are particularly worth mentioning. First is the opening of Northern College, the first residential adult college in the north of England, which stood out for its commitment to a broad conception of social justice which linked class, gender and ethnicity to its educational work, and continues to do important work with adults to this day. Keith Jackson, the College’s first deputy principal, was then Helen’s husband.

While the College partly emerged from the strong tradition of trade union education and industrial day release schemes in South Yorkshire, Helen also points to other important influences in the Workers’ Educational Association and some of the innovative community development work launched by the Home Office in 1969. She notes that the College was an early adopter of free childcare for students, initially funded by an outside grant and later absorbed into the ongoing budget.

Second, Helen describes the pioneering work of the women who challenged gender stereotyping in traditionally male manual crafts. It’s easy now to forget how innovative – and controversial – it was for women to train as garage mechanics or builders, and then work successfully in their new trades. Women from this group went on to train others through further education and through new training programmes for women, as well as helping influence the Council to adopt gender monitoring in its own employment practices.

The third pioneering initiative was the Take Ten scheme of paid educational leave for the Council’s manual workers. As the name implied, Council workers could take a day a week off to attend a tailored course for ten weeks; against expectations, some 270 attended in the first year alone, with priority going to the low-paid and those with no previous qualifications.

There were others. For example, the Council established a Community Work Apprenticeship Scheme, recruiting people from disadvantaged backgrounds to train as community workers rather than relying on the largely white middle class graduates who would otherwise have taken these roles. There’s also the informal learning that informed Helen’s gender politics, among other areas. But that’s probably enough to give a flavour of the book’s account of adult eduction’s contribution to municipal enterprise in the conditions of the 1980s.

It’s striking to work out how much of this thinking and experience was carried over into the early Blair years after 1997, when Helen became Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. Particularly while David Blunkett was Secretary of State for Education, the early Blair government supported and promoted lifelong learning as a vehicle for employability and social justice, in ways that have still to be systematically evaluated; but it is also striking that the Labour governments subsequently back-pedalled on much of this work.

What conclusions do I draw from this? First, the book provides a coherent account of adult learning’s role in promoting social change and civic engagement as well as economic regeneration. Second, it shows how local government can serve as a test-bed for broader strategies – something worth remembering given the devolution of adult education budgets to the English regions.

Third, and most important, it made me wonder why the 1997-99 innovations were so easily overturned. On Helen Jackson’s account, the Sheffield adult education measures were popular as well as effective, so that opposition was eventually overcome. But that wasn’t the experience at national level.

With the benefit of hindsight, I’m not convinced that after 1997 we – the adult learning community – did enough to generate enthusiasm and build support for the new policies. Consequently the Treasury found it easy to persuade later ministers that adult education was all cost and no benefit, and could cheerfully be dismissed as a luxury rather than a national necessity.

Lexicometric methods in the study of lifelong learning

I was recently asked to provide a foreword to a new study of the troubled relationship between lifelong learning research and European education policy. The author, Lisa Breyer, was formerly a colleague at the University of Cologne, and is now a head of department at the Volkshochschule Rhein-Erft. While her book is in German, she has published lexicometric analyses in English on approaches to social justice in adult education and on comparisons of national adult education policies.

Given the widespread use of ‘critical discourse analysis’ in Anglophone research in our field, I was delighted to read and recommend a rather different and – as I see it – more grounded method of analysing the languages of lifelong learning policy. If you want to read more of Lisa’s own work in English then take a look at the two papers I mentioned above. What follows here is an expanded and slightly reworked English language version of my foreword.

Adult education research has to position itself in a field rich with tensions, which is influenced by scholarly theory, educational policy, and practical pedagogic demands. Unlike most academic disciplines, the study of adult education developed out of the field of practice, and was also shaped by policy measures. At the same time, policy actors increasingly support their decisions with reference to research findings and recommendations, all in the name of evidence-based policy. Relatively few studies so far have been concerned with the relationship between and form of the communication process between research and policy.

In our field at least, this book presents a new approach to policy research. Lisa Breyer has gone beyond standard approaches, contributing both to our understanding of policy influence and to our methodological repertoire, as well as provoking reflection on the much-debated relationship between policy and research, by subjecting a corpus of 288 texts from adult education research and education policy covering a 20-year period to lexicometric analysis. Her findings force us to think again about the relations between policy and research.

While much discourse analysis tends to be based on the researcher’s reading of a relatively small number of texts, Dr Breyer uses lexicometric techniques to examine and compare the ways in which the core concepts of „Lebenslanges Lernen“ (lifelong learning) und „Kompetenz“ (skill) feature in systematically selected papers from the European Commission as well as in journal articles by adult education researchers. Her analysis of the findings sheds light on relations between research and policy in adult education, as well as on the differing ways in which researchers and policy-makers understand, use, and contextualise the basic concepts in the field. Indeed, even where there is a shared use of terms like lebenslanges Lernen and Kompetenz, Breyer’s findings show that the very notion of a field of adult education is often understood very differently by policy actors and researchers.

Although some of these patterns will seem familiar to readers, as in the divergence between the economic and employment focus of policy as against the emancipatory and critical values of researchers, the book provides a rich variety of evidence and  a refined analysis of the complexities and nuances that can be found. She also examines the attention that each party pays to the other: while researchers refer explicitly to the European level of policy, policy-makers implicitly privilege comparative survey data as their main source of research evidence while turning to researchers as a source of evidence-based policy. This evolving relationship, Breyer contends, means that it is necessary to redefine the relationship between research and policy.

These reflections complement other research and publications of the DIE, particularly in respect to system and policy. However, the book also serves as a case study in a relatively new method. Breyer has adapted her lexicometric approach to the discipline of adult education research and applied it to a corpus of 288 texts, and concludes that the method allows us to identify patterns and relationships that cannot be shown by analysing a handful of texts. This seems to me to have wider methodological ramifications for comparative educational research in general, as well as for adult education research in particular. I am not aware of any other lexicometric study in adult education of such scale and ambition; and personally I am convinced that she has abundantly demonstrated the potential of this approach, and thus makes an important contribution to our methodological debates.

France’s personal training accounts were a great idea – what is going wrong?

When the French government introduced its personal training account (CPF, compte personnel de formation) scheme in early 2015, it was in the hope of promoting an upsurge in reskilling. Yet according to a recent survey, less than a third of workers have opened up their online account, almost a quarter say they haven’t heard of the scheme, and only 7.2% have benefited from training under the scheme. What has gone wrong?

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First, I should make clear that the survey shows signs of progress. While only 31% said they’d activated their account in the 2018 survey, that is up on a mere 20% in the previous year. Those who benefited have risen from 3.6% last year.

Still, compared with the government’s ambitions, these figures are sobering. They also contrast with the popularity of similar systems elsewhere; whatever you think of the British Individual Learning Accounts, they were certainly widely used. And to me, the idea of time off work to train with costs paid should be pretty appealing.

I don’t know why the CPF has failed so far to take off. It was well-publicised, and it is a reasonably generous scheme. Jobs are changing in France as elsewhere, and ever more will be affected as a result of digitiation, AI, and other tech changes, so upskilling makes sense for enterprises and individuals.

Perhaps it’s just that the accounts are simply unattractive to French workers? Or maybe the scheme is over-bureaucratic? If you know more, please let us all know!

 

 

Germany’s National Strategy for Continuing Education

For the first time, Germany now has a national strategy framework for continuing education. In Germany’s federal system, responsibility for education policy lies with the Länder, who are understandably reluctant to cede ground to the federal government. To date, each Land has developed its own policies for adult learning and education, albeit in consultation with the other Länder as well as with other partners.

In this post, I am summarising the official press release announcing the new strategy. I’ll look at the strategy, and comment on it, next week. Meanwhile, I hope you find this outline useful.

Anja Kurbiczek, Federal Minister for Education and Research

The new federal strategy has been agreed, following protracted negotiations, between the federal education ministry, the Länder, trade unions, employers’ associations, and the federal labour agency. Decisive in creating the new consensus was the shared concern over Germany’s ability to seize the opportunities of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, and in rparticular to adapt to global developments in digitisation.

According to Anja Karliczek, the federal minister for education and research, the new conditions require a pervasive culture of continuing education. “Continuing education in one’s career must in future be part of everyday working life”. More specifically, the government plans to create a digital platform for vocational continuing education, improve the validation of informal learning, and raise significantly the state loans for learners.

The press release is available at https://www.bmbf.de/de/nationale-weiterbildungsstrategie-beschlossen—gemeinsam-fuer-eine-neue-8860.html

Adult learning and social mobility: the state of Britain

The Social Mobility Commission (SMC) has published its most recent ‘state of the nation report‘, in which it concludes that social mobility in England is stalled. It provides evidence to support this claim, and then goes on to consider a number of reasons for this stagnation, with recent changes in the education system being the largest.

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Their analysis encompasses adult learning, where the Commission has a number of criticisms of current policy as well as constructive suggestions for the future. Some of these come in discussions of other educational sectors; their discussion of early years education, for instance, looks at qualifications and career structures for the (overwhelmingly female) workforce, and at the importance of family learning in giving small children a strong start; the section on further education also looks at teacher recruitment issues.

When it comes to adult education and training, the Commission draws heavily on its own study of the adult skills gap, which it issued in January 2019. This showed that the least skilled are the least well placed to access opportunities for upskilling, at a time when the fourth industrial revolution is starting to impact most on the least skilled jobs.

The most highly educated, meanwhile, find it relatively easy to refresh their skills and qualifications. The report notes that this appears to be as true of open education programmes such as MOOCs as it is of more conventional opportunities. The consequences, if things are left as they are, will be that adult learning serves as a block to social mobility rather than an enabler.

And all of this following a period in which, as the Commission notes, ‘almost all forms of adult education are in decline’. They produce figures showing that the UK spends two-thirds of the EU average on adult training, well below that of such comparable economies as Germany and France. They show that regional imbalances increase problems of accessing training, and note that those who are most likely to move between regions are the most advantaged. While the new national retraining scheme for England may have potential, they note that it will need to be both large and highly targeted if it is to have the impact required.

While the SMC has no remit to improve social mobility in Wales and Scotland, it notes that while challenges remain, neither has seen the same stagnation as is evident recently for England. They note that the Scottish Government has reponded to a steep decline in on-the-job training with a £10m in-work training programme, while the Welsh Government’s employment policies include proposals for skills and training.

So far as England is concerned, the SMC’s main recommendation for adult learning is that the Government should follow the action plan set out in the SMC’s report in January 2019, and in particular that it should ‘equalise adult education funding with EU statistical averages and reduce the underspend of its adult education budget through more flexible funding structures’. The new regional combined authorities have powers to achieve greater flexibility, but it will be for national overnment to release additional spending.

Clearly, then, the report offer much to encourage those of us interested in adult learning. Of course it focuses largely on adult learning for or in work, but that is for the obvious reason that our occupations tend to shape our life chances. More seriously, the current obsession with Brexit among politicians of all colours probably means that the SMC’s report will have a marginal influence on policy in the immediate term.

But with several committees of inquiry beavering away currently on lifelong learning policy, the SMC has provided further evidence of the wider benefits and policy importance of adult learning. It also provides fresh food for lobbying and advocacy at local and regional level.

Trump’s Workforce Policy Advisory Board could be a model – except that it is advising Trump

Trump’s creation of American Workforce Policy Advisory Board is being presented as a response to the competitive threat posed by what is sometimes called the Fourth Industrial Revolution. The rapid adoption of digital technologies is now being followed by AI and robotics, and like governments across the old industrial nations, the Trump administration has noticed that the workforce has different skills from those demanded in the new economy.

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The challenge is, as ever, figuring out how to develop the skills that seem to be needed. I say “seem to be” deliberately, as it isn’t at all clear what those skills might be. But again, that is precisely what the new Board is being asked to do: its remit is to propose “ways to encourage the private sector and educational institutions to combat the skills crisis by investing in and increasing demand-driven education, training, and retraining, including training through apprenticeships and work-based learning opportunities”.

The Board will report directly to the White House, through the President’s National Council for the American Worker. Its membership is impressive: as well as co-chairs Ivanka Trump, who is formally described as an adviser to the President, and Wilbur Ross, the US’ Secretary of Commerce, it includes a number of CEOs , a senior trade unionist, representatives of the community colleges and universities, and the director of the Milken Institute, an influential economic think tank.

Ivanka Trump of course represents a second, and possibly more sure, door to the Oval Office. Her public statement on the Board’s launch was revealing, emphasising as she did the goal of “inclusive growth” in which “all Americans can participate in the opportunities created by the booming economy”.

So in some ways, the Board is well-placed to deliver. Its focus is on the supply of skills rather than raising demand, which might require intervention in the running of those corporations that are so well represented among its members. Instead it is likely that the business-dominated Board will concentrate on changes to provision (including, interestingly, apprenticeships).

A supply side focus is of course hardly unique – it is difficult to think of a single government that makes demand-side inteeventions the core of its skills policy. But the US government appears to assume that increasing levels of employment are themselves a signal that it is the remaining jobless and new young workers who need to be fixed, and not the shape of the economy.

Further, most of the key levers of change – whether in provision or demand – do not lie with the federal government. The states are the key public actors, and many have already shown that they are happy to ignore this federal administration.

The bigger problem, though, is of course the nature of that administration. On past experience, both the Advisory Board and the National Council will witness a slew of resignations once they have started reporting, with neither the reports nor resignations having any visible effect on policy. Notoriously, this President’s attention shifts elsewhere. Investing in infrastructure and rejuvenating the old industrial regions formed an under-reported (on this side of the Atlantic at least) part of Trump’s campaign promise. I’d like to think that he might see the Advisory Board’s work as a way of delivering higher skills across the workforce, but I’m not betting on it.

 

Transforming Adult Learning: the case of South Korea

South Korea is a fascinating country for a lot of different reasons. To snatch a few random reasons why I love the place, public transport is fantastic, the food is superb, and you’re never without a view of the mountains. It has high education standards, though these are infamously linked to high stress levels among students. And the fine walled city of Suwon is busy becoming a model learning city.

Now the country is transforming its support for adult learning. Earlier this year, the Ministry of Education announced its fourth Lifelong Learning Plan. Covering the period 2018-22, the Plan envisages

  • a guarantee of lifelong learning rights (including paid training leave and targeted learning vouchers) for every citizen;
  • a focus on lifelong learning in preparation for job change, exploiting the potential of MOOcs and personalised learning;
  • promoting lifelong learning in other areas of life, with stronger local and regional instgitutions and support for civic completence;
  • improving quality, for example through monitoring performance and making better use of participation statistics.

Th use of vouchers was already proposed in the country’s second lifelong learning plan, which set out proposals for a pilot scheme involving 50,000 basic livelihood support recipients aged over 20. What became of the pilot scheme I do not yet know, but I will return to it here if and when I find out.

Broadly, the Plan seems to me strategically focussed, while broad enough to embrace people’s different life areas. Hopefully we’ll be able to see how it develops over time, as there are bound to be interesting lessons for other nations.

Funding adult skills in France: here comes the ‘big bang’

Considerable controversy has surrounded President Macron’s plans for labour reform in France, especially measures designed to promote labour flexibility and limit trade union powers. Less widely reported are parallel interventions to promote skills and learning, but this is where the focus is now moving.

The politician responsible for the labour reforms is Muriel Pénicaud, an experienced human resources manager who became Minister of Labour in May 2017. After completing her first set of labour reforms last year, Pénicaud has turned her attention to training and skills, an area where she (and Macron) believe existing French policies to be antiquated and inefficient.

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“The training system is neither fair nor equitable”: unequal participation

On 5 March, the Minister announced the long-awaited content of her reforms, claiming that they had been ‘largely’ agreed with employers and unions. Above all, there are new arrangements for personal training accounts, or compte personnel de formation: whereas the old system was counted in time, the new entitlement will be calculated in cash, with the funds being collected through the social insurance system. Each individual employee’s account will be credited with €500 a year, capped at a total of €5,000; those with low skills will have a higher sum of €800 a year, capped at €8,000.

Further changes will bring part-time workers into the system, as well as absorbing the congé individuel de formation (CIF) into the CFP. A new tripartite agency, France compétences, will regulate the training costs and scrutinise quality, to avoid the kind of malpractice that dogged the initial foray into learning accounts in England and that has marred the CPF to date.

How much of this will happen is another matter. France’s unions and employers’ associations responded with their own counter-proposals. Pénicaud has initially dismissed these as too modest and conservative, arguing that what was needed was les incremental change than a ‘big bang’ (the French for which turns out to be – yes, big bang) which combined radical reform with a simplification of a complex and inefficient status quo.

Pénicaud’s ‘big bang’ also extends to other areas of skills pilicy. She is in discussion with social partners over how to improve skills levels among the unemployed, and has initiated discussions on an overhaul and expansion of the apprenticeship system. Taken together, these reforms will unsettle relationships not only with the unions buts also with employers’ organisations and France’s powerful regional governments. The outcome is still uncertain, but I’m backing Pénicaud to win.

Training policy – a return to the tripartite system?

Skills featured prominently in the budget debate this year. At least, they did on the Government side of the debate: Philip Hammond, the U.K. Chancellor (or Finance Minister), made skills a central plank in his strategy for improving productivity and growth. The leader and other senior figures in the Labour Party have so far focused on other issues, notably housing, poverty and unemployment, though they may get around to addressing the skills proposals later on. And I will also try to blog on the issues of productivity and skills in the next few days.

Meanwhile I wanted to draw attention to Philip Hammond’s mention of the trade union movement and employers’ representatives. Apparently the Confederation of British Industry and the Trades Union Congress have formed a partnership with the Government over the design of a National Retraining Scheme. It will start relatively modestly, it seems, with investment in digital and construction skills. And it includes continuing support for UnionLearn, which seems to me a good idea.

To be honest, I found myself rather surprised by this section of Hammond’s speech. Three-way partnerships in training policy between state, employers and unions are well established in many European countries, including Germany and the Scandinavian nations. And they were once normal in the U.K., particularly after the 1964 Industrial Training Act set out a national system of tripartite sector-based Industrial Training Boards. Hilary Pemberton argued that this legislation failed to transform deep rooted cultural attitudes, making it easy for the Thatcher Government to do away with it.

Whether Hammond’s National Retraining Scheme will do any better is a moot point. It clearly represents a much more modest form of tripartism than the ITBs, but perhaps this will prove an asset – particularly if the Retraining Scheme is linked firmly with measures to promote skills utilisation. The history is less than promising, but if the Government is able to persist with the Scheme, it might prove very interesting indeed.

Is Ireland heading for an integrated tertiary education policy?

The Republic of Ireland is busy reforming the administration of third level education. Having brought training into the Department of Education and Skills, and bringing training and further education under a single strategic agency (SOLAS), it is now planning to merge the units dealing with third level education – further and higher education to use UK terminology – into one.

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National University of Ireland Galway

Inevitably, this provokes reflection on the potential for an integrated strategy for third level education, encompassing training, further education and higher education. This is certainly compatible with the aims of Ireland’s National Action Plan for Education, though it also goes beyond it.

Objective 3.4 of the Plan is to “Promote high quality learning experiences in Further Education and Training and Higher Education”. It also proposes to “work with further education and training and higher education providers to provide a broader range of flexible opportunities for learners and to support an increase in lifelong learning”.

Ireland’s further and higher education system is widely seen as rather successful by international standards, though it shares with the UK a general cultural preference for higher education over further education, and the high participation rate in the former (54% of 18-20 year olds in 2014) is marked by pronounced socio-economic inequalities. It  is a relatively small country (the Republic’s current population is around 4,640,000) and lines of communication are comparatively short.

A unified tertiary system therefore seems very achievable and, from the outside, it looks potentially desirable. It could help to remedy inequalities, particularly if it could overcome the reluctance of universities to accept credit transfer that has marred Scotland’s somewhat half-hearted attempts at a unified tertiary system. It could help reduce popular prejudices against further education, supporting upskilling while alleviating pressure on higher education places. And it could benefit strategically from the strengths of adult learning in Ireland while broadening the lifelong learning system.

Of course it is one thing to rearrange the civil servants and quite another to develop an effective, integrated policy for all post-school education and training. So I’ll be watching this particular space with interest.

Declaration of Interest: I am an adjunct professor at the Higher Education Research Centre, Dublin City University

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