In an article in the TES, Lifelong learning transforms lives, Andreas Schleicher, the OECD’s Director for Education & Skills, argues that in our fast-changing and unpredictable world, adult learning is key. He sets out four points for change – and supports the Centenary Commission’s proposal for a learning centre in every town.
Writing in The Guardian, Bank of England chief economist Andy Haldane calls for a more and better vocational and lifelong education to ‘meet the skills challenge facing the UK economy and limit the long-term scarring to it’: ‘the only way of immunising against economic long Covid will be through a skills programme every bit as large-scale, sure-footed and front-loaded’. Read his Guardian article here.
Andy Haldane contributed a preface to the Centenary Commission’s report praising its ‘compelling recommendations for transforming and embedding adult education’. You can read the report and his preface here.
As we complete a year since the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown began, William Tyler reflects on his growing online skills. William spent his professional life in adult education, retiring as Principal of The City Lit, London, in 1995. He is also a freelance historian. Awarded an MBE for services to adult education, William has been particularly involved with older learners, chairing a Council of Europe Working Party on the subject, and completing an MPhil degree in educational gerontology.
All those of us who have spent our professional lives advocating educational gerontology need no reminder that you can teach an old dog new tricks.
This time last year I hadn’t heard of Zoom, let alone given a lecture via it. Now, I am almost a veteran.
On a personal note, I have found Zooming a marvellous additional arrow in Adult Education’s quiver, and moreover it may allow me in five years time to continue teaching into my ninth decade.
My very first history class for JW3 (London’s Jewish Community Centre, offering a full programme of adult education courses), on Zoom saw me in a mild state of panic. The lecture was delivered in a rather hesitant and self-conscious way.
However, I persevered, buoyed by supportive comments from the students, the majority of whom I had known for a number of years. The students, aged 60+ to 90+, were as nervous and as unsure of using this new medium for study as I was. It was good to share our concerns in a 15 minute open chat before the class began. We soon realised how important these classes were to all of us, providing a fixed point in the week when everything else seemed to have been cast adrift in a new Covid world.
The first point, therefore, to note about Zooming is that it enhanced, rather than diminished, the social aspect of Adult Education. Not always in the past has this role of Adult Education been fully appreciated, either by political decision makers or budget holders.
has some definite educational benefits for older learners. No longer should Adult Education be
restricted to those able to access it physically, but can now be made available
to those who are prevented from attending either by lack of provision in their
area or through their physical or financial inability to travel to a
class. Earlier attempts made by Adult
Education to meet these issues have by and large been a story of failure. No longer need that be the case.
second lesson, therefore, learned from zooming is universality of provision. The challenge will be to utilise this new
knowledge and technology. A regional
college hub, for example, will not be limited by student travelling distance
thus enabling it to reach those who otherwise would be deprived of
provision. Such an advantage need not be
limited to England alone but can reach out internationally.
The other Zooming I have been involved with has been the delivery of history lectures to an international audience via the Lockdown University initiative of The Kirscher Institute. This initiative has opened up even more possibilities. There is now the possibility of team teaching by tutors based in different countries. Thus a study of The American War of Independence could be co-tutored from The States and from England, or the consequences of The French Revolution by co tutors from France and Britain. The possibilities are endless.
third lesson learned from the experience of the Lockdown University is that class
size is no longer limited. My webinar
audiences for the Lockdown University have risen to 1,500.
As well as the tutor, as said above, the students have had to learn zoom, and soon became proficient enough to use chat rooms with confidence and to provide intriguing backgrounds, ranging from a picture relevant to the topic under discussion to one student who appears before a background of France’s greatest gardens. Many have been grateful to grandchildren showing them the ropes. A wonderful example of inter-generational teaching and learning. It also show that learning by exploration still has a role to play as an androgogical tool.
Two further points learnt by this rookie zooming tutor:-
Synopses of classes, posted on tutor’s blog, have proved very popular, and interestingly as a revision aid after the class rather than as planned a pre-course handout. Book lists have proved even more popular than normal, leading to a series of additional reading suggestions, fiction as well as non-fiction, posted on the blog.
E-mails between students and tutor have helped keep people in touch and led to both sides gaining new insights. I was sent, after a lecture on The Second World War in The Far East, a copy of a letter from a member of a student’s family to his brother giving a first hand and contemporary account of Japanese cannibalism.
However, as any adult educator will attest nothing can replace the face to face interaction between student and tutor. I have always emphasised that Adult Education is theatre not cinema. So the new challenge is how do we build this aspect in when we return to a new normal, in which we have learnt the advantages of Zooming?
Well, we can look to the past and seek to re-invent the short residential experience offered to adult students. Sadly there is today a mere shadow of what was once a widely distributed system of short term residential colleges, LEA, University, and Independent. Linking the idea of residential back up to Zooming, with the possibility of international Zooming, reminds me that in the 1960s Kingsgate College in Kent hosted an Anglo-French Summer School for students drawn from the Paris WEA and Kent WEA. Old ideas can be refreshed to meet new demands.
I finish, therefore, as all adult educators should, with a comment from a student, ‘Thanks for helping to keep me sane and motivated this last year.’ I thoroughly re-endorse that sentiment from my own perspective. Zooming has been a lifesaver for many older tutors and learners alike.
The WEA allows me to catch up on areas of history and culture that I neglected during my working life. When I saw the course on the History of Drag with Caroline Baylis-Green, I quickly signed up. I’ve always been intrigued by drag. My father was into amateur dramatics and I wanted to know what makes these performers tick.
The Zoom sessions allowed us to interact with some drag artists, which was very exciting. I was nervous about joining. Would I be accepted in the group? What would they think of me wanting to find out more about them? Happily, everybody was extremely welcoming. Drag artists are quite self-opinionated people who care a lot about how they are seen. Besides, Zoom brings a degree of distance and protection – in the same way that a uniform gives you more confidence to ask questions you might not ask as ‘yourself’.
Caroline was excellent. She didn’t push anything very hard
at first, but made us think a lot about what we were looking at. I previously
thought drag was about men dressing up as women, like they did in Shakespeare’s
day. But that was more necessity, as men had to play the female part. Today, drag
has evolved into a real art form. It’s highly skilled, and it’s quite an
expensive interest too. The makeup is absolutely exquisite. Their clothes and physiques
are immaculate. The whole ethos of drag is a wonderful way of expressing how
they’re feeling, which comes very much from within. You can’t make yourself do
this unless it comes right from inside you.
Queens use drag as a leisure part of their normal lives –
they are delightful folk spending a considerable amount of money on their
clothes, make up, wigs and general presentation to bring the very best to their
I’ve always been interested in computers and tried to keep
up to date, so the transition to Zoom was straightforward. I was able to
continue to volunteer at a local hospice, which got me out the front door and
gave me a link to my past career. But as lockdown has continued, so the
incarceration has become more of a dirge for me and my friends. The physical
interaction of a coffee morning is hard to replace.
The WEA has helped enormously. They really pulled their finger out, right at the start, and put on a mass of courses across the board, which has given us something to hold onto. I’ve appreciated their support immensely.
Following Monday’s Guardian editorial, today it carries letters on the importance of adult education from Richard Taylor, Donald Hawthorn, Professor David Latchman, Dee Thomas, Lesli Wilson, Kevin Ward, Eva Tutchell, John Boaler, and Rose Harvie.
There have also been hundreds of responses to the editorial. You can read them here.
In this blog, Julie Nugent and Clare Hatton explain the West Midlands Combined Authority’s skills and adult learning response to the pandemic.
Coronavirus hit in March 2020 it presented our region, like others across the
country, with new social and economic challenges. Research suggested that the
West Midlands could be the hardest-hit region – and indeed we have seen levels
of unemployment spike.
residents, young people and BAME communities have suffered the most. We have
also seen an unprecedented surge in the number of adults requiring retraining
and upskilling as they navigate a new job market during, and post
Yet we feel
we were well prepared to respond to the crisis. At the start of the 2019/20
academic year, the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) took ownership of
the £126 million Adult Education Budget (AEB) for the West Midlands. This was
in an effort to align skills delivery with the wider economic strategy for the
region, ensuring more people were able to get into jobs, had accessible
opportunities to build skills, and could develop career opportunities through
strong and inclusive further education (FE) and skills provision.
impact of the pandemic is far from over, we have been able to adapt swiftly to
become flexible and receptive to the challenges we face. Our recovery plans
involved working closely with employers, businesses, governmental bodies,
charities, and educators to monitor the landscape and stay ahead of the curve.
Doing this has allowed us to create and tailor programmes that provide the
right level of training, across key sectors, to help get people back into
employment as quickly as possible.
Midlands is the largest regional economy in the UK, with a labour market of
national significance. Yet as a region, it faces challenges in relation to high
levels of unemployment, low productivity, a shortage of skills and limited
social mobility. However, recognising the need for greater insight to identify
the causes and address these issues, at the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA),
we set out in 2019 to deliver a better match between the skills of the people
in the region and the current and future needs of businesses, to accelerate
productivity and deliver economic growth.
It wasn’t long
before our strategy was showing real promise. By the end of 2019, the
employment rate in the region was at a record high, with 75.5 per cent (2.82
million) of people in work. Productivity was improving at a faster rate than
the national average, and the working age population was more qualified than
ever before. The training funded through the WMCA was delivering even more
economic impact for the region with provision increasingly focused on getting
people into jobs, on delivering higher level skills and developing our pilot
programmes alongside employers, providers and job centres to ensure courses
equipped people with the skills they needed to fill their recruitment gaps.
regional skills plan has been central to this success; understanding the needs
of the region, forming partnerships and adding value were central to driving this
meaningful and lasting change. As part of this, we have worked closely
alongside various key stakeholders including Local Authorities, Local
Enterprise Partnerships, TUC, Colleges, Universities, training providers, Adult
and Community Learning organisations and the voluntary sector, to build on the
work they are already undertaking and create robust, and high-quality education
and training for the diverse communities we serve. We have also forged strong
employer relationships to identify the skills needed to help them grow and
thrive both now and, in the future, and ensure we have provision that is fit
for purpose and gets people into jobs.
with the pandemic
we know there are recruitment and skills shortages in construction, advanced
manufacturing and engineering, business, and professional services as well as
digital skills. Therefore, we have been focusing on these areas to match the
demand with the newly acquired skills gained by those seeking employment and
currently spends around 72 per cent of its adult education budget on unemployed
adults, with a large portion of this attributed to basic level English and
maths training. However, assessing recent events and the needs emerging from
this crisis, we now have a mixed pool of adults and skilled professionals
looking for new jobs or wanting to start their own businesses. Therefore, in
the absence of any additional funding, we have adapted our FE provision needs to
meet these new demands and provide accessible, engaging and skill-appropriate
allocating the AEB, we need to be fluid with our funding to meet the demands of
the local economy and react accordingly to the ever-changing landscape. For us,
this has meant working closely with colleges and businesses to identify the
provision needed and provide the most suitable training to fill the employment
gaps. This doesn’t just span sector-based skills either, but also includes accessible
training for workplace wellbeing, in order to support the wider employee health
and wellbeing agenda and help employers with productivity and engagement
also impacted the way training is delivered, and we have seen a greater shift
to online delivery and blended learning options to provide a greater access to
skills. We have also created new training opportunities through our free sector
work-based programmes which provide a clear roadmap to help people get back on
track, particularly if they are unemployed, have been furloughed or are worried
about their current employment prospects.
Gateway programme provides formal, job entry construction training through
both online provision and practical onsite experience with Tier 1 employers and
their supply chain. It has so far helped over 2,000 residents over two years,
with over 50 per cent of those securing skilled career opportunities within a
matter of weeks of completion. Since Covid-19, we have had to adapt the
programme and shift to online training which has not only provided a bridge for people to build skills and
experience without having to physically be on-site or in the classroom, but
also presented a timely opportunity for the construction workforce to continue
adapting to new ways of working. For example, new technological developments,
such as GPS machine controls, are entering the construction industry –
demonstrating a need for workers to continually evolve with the sector
regardless of Covid-19.
Our community learning
providers have risen to the challenge of supporting people with the skills they
need to prepare them for work but also for life – digital skills so they can
access services and support children with home schooling and wrap around
support to ensure people remain connected to support their mental health.
Keeping communities and residents engaged in learning through the pandemic is
critical to ensure they are supported with their goals.
education is critical in safeguarding the region’s employment opportunities and
supporting our economic recovery, providing people with the training and skills
required to thrive in the workplace. Crucial to this success has been our investment
and commitment into a place-based approach to FE and skills, working closely
alongside employers to deliver exactly what they need, while adapting to the
working together and reacting swiftly and effectively to regional demands and a
diverse audience, we believe we have a clear roadmap to navigate the pandemic,
reboot our economy and accelerate growth in key sectors.
Dr Julie Nugent is Director of Skills and Productivity at the West Midlands Combined Authority. She has held a range of senior roles across government and further education, with particular expertise in financing further education, having developed new funding systems for the Skills Funding Agency and the Learning and Skills Council. Julie has worked in the Black Country and in Birmingham – strengthening her understanding of skills in improving economic competitiveness and people’s life chances. Recently Julie led on the West Midlands negotiations with Government securing the first Skills Deal in the country with additional investment of £100 million to develop the region’s skills.
Clare Hatton is Head of Skills Delivery at the West Midlands Combined Authority, leading on the delivery of the WMCA’s skills portfolio. This includes the recently-devolved £130m Adult Education Budget and a range of pilot initiatives including digital retraining, and employment support pilots. She works with regional partners to shape support for skills and employment aligned to priority growth sectors, particularly those targeted through the Local Industrial Strategy, driving up skill levels to secure sustainable employment, enhance skills and improve productivity. Previously, Clare worked for the Learning and Skills Council in senior policy roles, for PWC in their public sector practice supporting a range of national and government clients, and spent four years working in the senior leadership team at City College Coventry.
On 13th March 2021, The Economist published a letter from Professor Jonathan Michie, Centenary Commission joint secretary, in response to its leader (‘How to make sparks fly’, 27th February 27th – published online as ‘Lessons from Britain’s pandemic on promoting innovation‘). The Economist‘s content is behind a paywall. This is the text of Jonathan’s letter:
Your ingredients for innovation include “good education” (“How to make sparks fly”, February 27th). Quite so. “Good” should mean broad based, crossing disciplinary ranges, and lifelong. This needs stressing, as governments too often take a narrow view, emphasising skills training, STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), and education ending at age 18 or 21. When Britain faced its ultimate STEM-based challenge, breaking the Nazi codes at Bletchley, which included developing the world’s first digital programmable computer, researchers were recruited from across the disciplinary spectrum.
In 1919 the British Ministry of Reconstruction’s report on adult educationurged “good education” so that the newly extended electorate could think critically and weigh evidence. It also had the foresight to warn that unknown industries and technologies were on the horizon, so it was no use just training workers for today’s skills. A workforce had to have the capabilities to make the most of new technologies as they emerged.
The Bank of England’s chief economist argued 100 years later, in a centenary report on adult education, that “the education system of tomorrow needs to span the generational spectrum—young to old—and the skills spectrum—cognitive to vocational to interpersonal.”
JONATHAN MICHIE Professor of innovation and knowledge exchange University of Oxford
Once again we have a skills for jobs white paper. Once again it calls for employers to be at the heart of shaping further education in the system. Once again there is nothing on offer to address how best to foster active citizenship, creativity, and the mental well-being of people. Unlike Theresa May’s Industry White Paper there is no recognition that to meet the vastly different needs faced by people living in Redruth or Barrow in Furness, Southend or Sunderland the key to economic prosperity and tor further education policy and practice can only be forged in dialogue with the communities served, as well as with employers.
There is no place in the current vision for the wider
educational role of the further education sector. Schools and universities celebrate learning
with vocational applications, but they also teach philosophy, ethics, art and
music – the tools needed for active citizens.
Only FE is denied this breadth.
And so yet again, and despite the welter of advice government has
received, adult community education is left to wither.
No, what we get is a faith in the power of central oversight
– an ever more finely sharpened system of accountability to oversee staff
struggling with inadequate budgets. The
stick, but no carrots. There is like every White Paper since 1991 a touching
reliance on employers – who themselves train and develop staff less than any of
their European competitors with woeful consequences for productivity – to shape
the answers to our needs.
There are of course things to like – like the delayed access
to Lifelong Learning Loans for anyone without a level 3 qualification. But as we wait for 2025 where are the routes
from fragile jobs in the gig economy to the sunny uplands of secure employment?
Where is the adult guidance system? Where
are the first steps for people to re-engage, the outreach programmes that start
from where potential participants are.
Yet again this is a centralist fantasy, without adequate
resourcing. What a damp squib!
You don’t need to go much further than the title of the government’s new white paper, Skills for Jobs, to realise how narrow its view of adult and further education is. Gavin Williamson says he looking for a revolution: the white paper only recycles tired old formulas. For decades, being “employer-led” has been governments’ “silver bullet” for further education. Where has it got us?
With an economy like ours, employer-led skills policies can
be the problem, not the solution.
The white paper mentions employers and their needs 243 times
– but employees only twice, and then only as providing a “pipeline” of
“job-ready” employees. Employees – workers, people – need to shape policy too.
It says nothing about the importance of further and adult education to the wider lives of people and local communities.
As we grapple with the COVID crisis, we have learned how important
emotional and psychological resilience are. Research shows adult education is great
for mental health and community cohesion. What has the white paper to say on
The pandemic has left the economy reeling. Unemployment and
poverty ramp up. Even before COVID, the future of many people’s working lives
looked bleak with skilled jobs threatened by the rise of the robots and artificial
intelligence. More and more people are stuck in “gig economy” jobs, which give little
opportunity for learning new skills. The white paper says nothing – and does
nothing – about the changing nature of the labour market or the rise of the gig
“Wherever you are in your career,” says the white paper, it is “… skills that you need to be successful”. “Success” in life involves much more than a good job with good pay. It involves living in a strong community, with good relationships, family and friends, good health and enriching pastimes. We must have rich lifelong learning in all areas of our lives, and for lives in all areas – even those where jobs – good or bad – will continue to be scarce.
Across the world, democracy is in peril. Social media encourage
polarisation, incivility and anger. Dialogue and deliberation lie at the heart
of adult education. What does the white paper say anything about adult education’s
role in strengthening democracy and civil society? Nothing.
In most areas of education, the government worries about social mobility. Our society is deeply unequal. Inequalities have deepened in recent years: the pandemic is making the poor poorer and the rich richer. Does the white paper say anything about social mobility, inequality, social exclusion? It does not. It proposes, to be sure, a new National Skills Fund “to support adults to upskill and reskill” – but this is focussed on level 3. What about those below level 3? And what about education to address other dimensions of inequality?
Recent years have seen a cascade of interventions by the FE Commissioner as colleges stagger under the pressure of ever-tighter financial constraints and often absurd government funding rules. The white paper says there will be streamlining of funding regimes and improved accountability. What this will mean in practice remains to be seen. It doesn’t seem to mean colleges’ governing bodies being more accountable to their local communities. It is about “communicating a clear Government position on what constitutes good leadership”, developing “a framework of skills and competencies … for college corporation board members”, new “powers for the Secretary of State for Education to intervene locally to close or set up college corporations, bring about changes to membership or composition of governing bodies or review leadership”, and the like. Hardly a revolution in governance. And centralisation, rather than localisation or devolution of powers.
“Build back better” is the government’s mantra – and who disagrees?
But to build back better we need education throughout life which enriches people
not only by getting them a job, but by helping them build and shape better