Levelling Up Adult Community Education

The House of Commons Education Select Committee recently called for better data on adult community learning. Dr Sue Pember, Centenary Commissioner and Policy Director for HOLEX (the professional body for adult education services, centres and institutions), has responded with an important report, Levelling Up Adult Community Education: What does the data tell us?

The report pinpoints the 10,000 places in England from which adult education is delivered, shows where little adult education is offered, reports on where there is a ‘delivery imbalance’, demonstrates that public money goes to learners from the most deprived areas, details the initial impact of Covid-19 on adult education learners, and shows that we need a new annual injection of £5.2 billion to fund a basic and intermediate skills levelling-up plan.

UK ministers accused of ‘settling scores’ by axing union adult learning fund

In an important article in The Guardian, Centenary Commissioner Melissa Benn (in conversation above with vice chair, Sir Alan Tuckett) shows how valuable the Union Learning Fund has been for mature students – especially from disadvantaged backgrounds. Despite this, and despite opposition from across the political spectrum, government ministers seem determined to end it. Read Melissa’s powerful article here.

‘Skills for Jobs’: What about skills for life?

Centenary Commission on Adult Education responds to government’s Skills for Jobs white paper

The Government’s Skills White Paper focuses too narrowly on the needs of employers and fails to address even more pressing needs across the whole of society, the Centenary Commission on Adult Education says today.

Dame Helen Ghosh, Chair of the commission and Master of Balliol College, Oxford, says:

“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 communities.

Professor John Holford, Joint Secretary to the commission, says the White Paper is a missed opportunity to focus on deeper needs exacerbated by Covid-19:

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 this? Nothing.

In his foreword to the White Paper the Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, says his proposals are “about fulfilment and enrichment on a personal level.”

Yet the White Paper contains no mention of the deeper psychological and social learning needs which have been thrown into relief by Covid-19, and the creative ways in which adult learning can respond to them.

The pandemic has left the economy reeling, with unemployment and poverty ramping up,” Professor Holford says. “Even before Covid, the future of many people’s working lives looked bleak, with skilled jobs threatened by the rise of 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 economy.

The document contains no mention of the potential mental health and psychological benefits of lifelong learning and no mention of creativity. It does not cover the wider needs of communities struggling to counteract loneliness and isolation. And while it mentions employers and their needs 243 times it mentions employees just twice – both times in relation to providing a ‘pipeline’ of ‘job-ready’ employees.

Sir Alan Tuckett, the commission’s Vice-Chair, says:

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.

Read more of John Holford’s thoughts on the white paper here, and more of Alan Tuckett’s here.

Williamson’s Folly

Sir Alan Tuckett, Centenary Commission vice chair, offers some trenchant views on Gavin Williamson’s white paper, Skills for jobs: lifelong learning for opportunity and growth

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!

‘Skills for Jobs’ or Education for Life?

Professor John Holford, Centenary Commission joint secretary, reflects on the government’s white paper, Skills for jobs: lifelong learning for opportunity and growth.

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 this? Nothing.

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 economy.

“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 communities.

“Adult & Community Education gives residents a first, second, third or even fourth chance to access learning”

Two leading councillors, Sir Richard Leese (Labour), leader of Manchester City Council, and Kevin Bentley (Conservative), deputy leader of Essex County Council, write about Adult Community Education in Local Government First, the Local Government Association’s magazine. Kevin Bentley also chairs the LGA’s People & Places Board.

Skills investment, they say, “must include local ACE services”. “Councillors have a vital advocacy role in making their local adult and community education services the best they can be”. Read their article here.

Centenary Commission welcomes hard-hitting House of Commons Education Committee report

Centenary Commission leaders have welcomed an important and hard-hitting new report from the all-party House of Commons Education Committee.

Dame Helen Ghosh, Chair of the 2019 Centenary Commission on Adult Education, said:

‘I’m delighted that the House of Commons Education Select Committee’s important report echoes so many of our Centenary Commission recommendations.  Like us, they see an ambitious national strategy for adult education as the essential foundation for action, and the reintroduction of Individual Learning Accounts as the way to empower people to meet their individual needs at home and at work, throughout life.  Like us too they believe that communities must be at the heart of decision making,  recommending a community learning centre in every town. That needs in our view to be backed up with Community Learning Accounts so that local groups can identify and build their own provision.   And if we are to “build back” a better society post-COVID through lifelong-learning,  then significantly increased funding across the board is essential, to match the opportunity and the ambition”.

Professor John Holford, joint secretary to the Centenary Commission, who gave evidence to the Select Committee said:

‘The Select Committee’s call for a national strategy is spot on. Adult education brings massive benefits to individuals and communities, and the fall in provision and participation over the last decade has been a self-imposed catastrophe and a national disgrace.

‘We need to make sure our adult education provision enables us to meet the great challenges of our times. Our failures in the Covid19 pandemic show how we need a collective understanding of the crises and challenges that will confront us over the next few decades – economic recovery, climate change, migration, homelessness and poverty. Learning together throughout our lives, and as communities which think through problems carefully and collectively, is essential.

‘The Select Committee is right to point to many current failings. It is right to question whether the DfE “fully grasps the value and purpose of community learning”, to say that a “vision or strategic approach for boosting this vital area of lifelong learning” is lacking on the DfE’s part, and to call on the government to reverse its disastrous decision to end the Union Learning Fund. As it rightly says,  “Unless this decision is reversed, we will see the brakes put on workplace learning which will harm workers, employers and productivity.”

The Select Committee’s summary, with links to the report itself, is here. The committee refers to the 1919 Ministry of Reconstruction’s vision of adult education as ‘a permanent national necessity, an inseparable aspect of citizenship’ which should be ‘both universal and lifelong’. It adds: ‘Today, we believe an ambition on a similar scale is needed.’

Centenary Commission vice-chair Sir Alan Tuckett retires (again)

Sir Alan Tuckett, the Centenary Commission’s vice-chair (pictured above, with our chair, Dame Helen Ghosh) has just retired again – this time, as Professor of Education at the University of Wolverhampton. You can read a fascinating interview with him here.

Alan has, of course, retired before: most notably, from NIACE, the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education, which he led very successfully from 1988 until 2011. At NIACE, he famously started Adult Learners’ Week – which has now spread to over fifty countries. He also backed the Adult Participation in Learning survey.

Alan also has a wealth of committee experience – he was vice chair to Bob Fryer on Department the for Education & Employment advisory group that wrote the two “Fryer Reports” (1997 and 1999), and commissioned Tom Schuller and Sir David Watson’s Inquiry into the Future for Lifelong Learning (2009). He was also responsible for innumerable NIACE policy reports.

Fortunately, Alan continues to be an active advocate of adult education, and supporter of the Centenary Commission’s work.