Informal and non-formal learning: a smart investment

This article was first published in the current edition of NIACE’s Adults Learning journal. It’s a bumper edition and well worth reading for news and opinions about different aspects of adult education.

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Everyone learns throughout their life but everyone has their own personal experience of learning. The most badly off people in our society are very often the people who have benefitted the least from formal education.

Research shows that less formal learning can be a key for adults to improve their health and wellbeing, confidence, self-esteem, relationships in their communities and readiness for work. Access to good quality informal and non-formal learning is a powerful tool to address various types of inequality. It contributes to society by reducing pressure on other support services. It makes economic sense and is a matter of social justice.

A ‘one size fits all’ model of linear educational progression through childhood, adolescence and young adulthood is not enough to support a population with longer average life expectancy. Adults need to adjust to technological, social and economic change. Formal education is not enough to deal with skills gaps in adult literacy and numeracy and the impact of poverty on individuals, families and communities. It is not enough to create a vibrant national culture of lifelong learning and an active democracy. We need flexible, negotiable, high quality, locally accessible and affordable options for adult learning.

Formal education or ‘more school’ is a daunting prospect for people who feel alienated from learning. Many messages reinforce their anxiety and deter them from education. Ideas such as punishing parents who have poor literacy levels for not reading to their own children add insult to injustice and perpetuate educational inequality. We need the alternative, complementary and proven models that community and family learning can provide.

People who are labelled as ‘hard to reach’ often see formal education as hard to enter and pointless for them. Community networks can create supported pathways to make sure that no-one is written off without chances to return to learning. Research into the wider benefits of community learning shows that it improves the lives of people who might otherwise be excluded from education, including people who have not been in recent employment, education or training, people with disabilities, ex-offenders and people from marginalised groups. It can also top up education for people who have learnt successfully in the past.

WEA students learning together

WEA students learning together

A non-formal approach in a compassionate, negotiated learning environment can – and does – lead hesitant adults back into more formal education by building their confidence, self-belief and motivation. Such approaches are especially important at a time when people have difficulty in finding secure and sustainable jobs, when there are concerns about health inequalities and when portrayals of extremism threaten community cohesion.

The potency of informal and non-formal learning can be overlooked in policy debates on education.

In practice there is a spectrum of learning activity from the informal to the formal, with individual learning pathways. Non-formal and informal community learning are essential parts of the mix and complement formal schooling, further education, higher education and training.  Community learning’s agility and responsiveness can provide links between the different educational sectors and also between many policy areas, agencies and the communities that they serve. Informal and non-formal adult learning can create local solutions to neighbourhood problems and can introduce people into taking a full and positive role in their community.

Community education and family learning contribute to a learning society that spans different generations. The recent Family Learning Works report arising from a NIACE-led Inquiry into Family Learning provides powerful evidence of intergenerational learning’s impact. Parents, carers and grandparents who are active learners improve school children’s attainment, while non-formal learning also helps people to remain more active and independent into old age. Impact research from Community Learning Trusts, projects supported by the Community Learning Innovation Fund and the Workers’ Educational Association (WEA) provides statistical evidence to back up many individual case studies and stories of achievement.

Many of those who work in non-formal and community learning are skilled at seeing connections, linking the curriculum to community priorities and interests, linking learners to opportunities for progression, linking volunteers to local activities, linking partners who can make things happen by working together and linking adult learning to policy areas such health, justice, employment, arts, communities, local government, culture and the media.

WEA Manifesto

WEA Manifesto

Community learning is a diverse sector. Organisations of all sizes, including many in the third sector and trade unions, offer informal and non-formal education. The Workers’ Educational Association (WEA) and other adult learning organisations locate their work in the wider policy, social and economic environment, as shown in a separate, complementary manifesto that the WEA has launched. It makes nine specific recommendations to promote connections between different types of learning and policy areas, including:

  • Auto-enrolling workers at all levels into ‘Training and Development Accounts’
  • Making the Living Wage and universal training and development minimum requirements in all public sector contract procurement and tender specifications (including subcontractors)
  • Requiring Health & Wellbeing Boards to include health education in their strategic plans to reduce health inequality
  • Introducing education/training vouchers for parents in receipt of child benefit when their first child starts Year 7
  • A Minister with lead responsibility for family learning in England
  • A requirement that  all universities, colleges and schools publish Community Access Policies to make education assets and infrastructure accessible through partnerships to all adults

The cost-benefits of community learning are substantial for a relatively modest investment. The NIACE and WEA manifestos are timely.

Ann Walker,

Director for Education, WEA

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About Ann Walker
Adult education and lifelong learning specialist and campaigner. LinkedIn: http://linkd.in/1GI0QK1

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