Adult Learners’ Week – celebration and challenge

Adult Learners’ Week this year has seemed even more intense and vibrant than usual, with an almost overwhelming range of activities, stories and examples of personal success. People have gathered to celebrate adults’ educational achievements at local, regional and national award ceremonies. Award winners and nominees have told their amazing stories. Their families, friends and supporters have shown their pride.

Here’s a short film of national award winners.

 

We’re delighted that the WEA in Eastern region, working in partnership with the Unite the Union, won a national award for an ESOL ONline project which has made a real difference to migrant workers’ lives.

Gorete Downey from WEA and Orlando Martins from Unite accept an Award for ESOL ONline

Gorete Downey from WEA and Orlando Martins from Unite the Union accept an Adult Learner’s Week Award for ESOL ONline

Twitter users can also get a sense of what went on during the week by following the hashtag #ALW14.

It has also been Learning Disability Week, with joint celebrations such as this event with WEA students in Plymouth to highlight achievements.

Lord & Lady Mayoress at WEA Plymouth presenting awards to students

Lord & Lady Mayoress at WEA Plymouth presenting awards to students

Policy discussions took place alongside the celebrations with two important manifestos being launched – one from NIACE and one from the WEA. (Click on the highlighted links to read the manifestos)

We need these manifestos more than ever because, although we know that adult learning works, we have also heard Rajay Naik from the Open University reporting that, “In last 18 months we’ve seen a phenomenal decline of 40% in part-time adult education numbers”. Despite knowing that family learning works and seeing compelling evidence during the week of the impact across generations, we have also heard suggestions of fining parents who do not read to their children, punishing adults who have not been served well by their own experience of formal education.

Educational inequality is still very much with us. We need to keep on tackling it. Adult Learners’ Week award winners and other successful students show how much different learning can make, but its potential is not recognised enough by the public or by policy makers.

We have a big job to do before next year’s Adult Learners’ Week to get even more people back into education and to support them into lifelong learning with all its benefits.

Inclusion, sport and a manifesto for adult education

Award-winning sportspeople have had a big impact in the WEA this week.

One of Great Britain’s most successful Paralympians, Tanni Grey-Thompson, gave the WEA’s Annual Lecture on 11 June at Birkbeck University. She seemed disarmingly easy-going as she packed several powerful political points into her speech, talking with unpretentious warmth and wit.

Tanni Grey-Thompson and Ruth Spellman

Tanni Grey-Thompson and Ruth Spellman

She recalled her response to being told as a young woman that her wheelchair was a fire risk in a public building: “I’ve never spontaneously combusted before.” Her anecdotes about being a traveller in a wheelchair were shocking and absurd in equal measure. Her response? “I don’t want special treatment, just the same miserable commute as everyone else.”

Tanni’s commitment to politics for social good and to education as an enabler shone through. This was a very appropriate context for Ruth Spellman, our CEO and General Secretary, to launch the WEA’s Manifesto – “Making a difference to communities throughout the UK”.

The Manifesto includes nine key recommendations:

1. Ensure there is always an opportunity for adults to return to learning
2. Promote equality, opportunity and productivity at work
3. Develop educational opportunities for the most disadvantaged
4. Help people stay active throughout life through health education
5. Reduce health inequalities to give people more control over their own wellbeing
6. Promote tolerance and inclusion through access to English
7. Value lifelong learning so adults of any age can study
8. Help parents become educational role models
9. Value volunteering through a single credible set of measurements

While Tanni was talking in London, members of the Bumble Bees Barbarians mixed ability rugby team were appearing on the BBC’s  Look North regional news programme as it was broadcast from Leeds.

Bumbles_LookNorth

Harry Gration, Amy Garcia, Anthony Brooke, Leon Taylor, Dan Cookson, Martino Corazza. (Photo by Joseph Haskey, WEA)

The Bingley-based Bumble Bees have been awarded the prestigious Rugby Football Union President’s Award for their innovative mixed ability approach to the game and for using rugby as a vehicle for social change. The WEA hasn’t moved into sports management but is working in partnership with the players to promote inclusion and to challenge stereotypes about disability.

WEA tutor Mark Goodwin has worked with the players since a student on another WEA course asked about setting up a rugby team. The educational aspects of the partnership have enabled players with Learning Disabilities to develop skills for describing and presenting their experiences in sport to RFU clubs so that neighbouring teams can get over their “fear factor” of playing against disabled players and mixed ability teams.

The Bumbles have gained in confidence, become accomplished public speakers and taught others about diversity and inclusion. It’s been a win-win process and we’ve all learnt a lot.

Tanni Grey-Thompson said in her lecture that, “If you’re told constantly that you can’t do things you might start to believe it.” She and the Bumbles show what’s possible when people believe that they can do things, but they don’t sugar-coat their messages.

PIAAC and Trojan Horses

The political fallout of the alleged “Trojan Horse” controversy in Birmingham has replaced the results of the European elections in the news headlines. Extremism, mistrust and intolerance are increasingly common threads in reported news.

Meanwhile, few people are commenting on findings from the OECD’s recent PIAAC Report that relate to adult learning and its effects on tolerance, citizenship and social cohesion, although the mainstream media reported on the report’s comparisons of adult literacy and numeracy levels in different countries.

LLinEAn article on Active citizenship and non-work related aspects of PIAAC by Ricarda Motschilnig, published in LLinE, explores these under-reported findings. The full article contains data but the extract below gives a flavour of the author’s commentary.

European societies are becoming more complex, and generally, there are no simple solutions to political problems. Populist parties present simple answers and, in order to be able to see behind these strategies, Europe needs people that can read and understand more complex contexts. This is especially true for the European level and the European institutions. As Europe gets ready for the next European elections, it is in the interest of democracy and European cohesion that we boost the access to adult education.

PIAAC shows that high skills proficiency levels can promote social cohesion and strengthen citizenship, and can deepen social networks. Adult learning may support the development of shared norms, greater trust towards other individuals and the government and more civic co-operation.

Therefore there is a call for an increased awareness of the wider benefits of lifelong learning, which go way beyond the economic and job-benefits, but extend to social and individual benefits, such a social cohesion and active citizenship. Participating in learning activities and increasing skills can provide a stable time framework, a community, a chance for re-orientation, a safe place, a new challenge, social recognition, and end up being an important tool for empowerment. Especially in times of crisis, literacy skills are necessary for tackling economic and societal challenges

Education prepares us for more than work. It has a social purpose that is more important now than ever.

Women overcoming disadvantage through education

We are launching our “WEA Women overcoming disadvantage through education” campaign with a conference in Nottingham this Wednesday, 4 June. It’s at the ICCA, Hucknall Road, Nottingham, NG5 1QZ, with registration at 10.00 am for a 10.30 start and a 4.00 pm finish.

WOD

As well as our own General Secretary and CEO, Ruth Spellman and WEA colleagues, speakers will include:

  • Dr Finn Mackay, feminist activist and WEA Ambassador
  • Dr Anita Franklin from the University of Sheffield
  • Cheryl Turner of NIACE
  • Baroness Frances D’Souza, the Lord Speaker House of Lords

You can find more about the conference here.

The WEA has recognised, included and valued women’s contributions and has improved women’s lives through education for over 110 years, so the campaign is a continuation of a long tradition.

Albert Mansbidge established “An Association to promote the Higher Education of Working Men” in 1903 with his wife Frances, using two shillings and sixpence (12½ pence) from her housekeeping money, but the organisation changed its name to become the “Workers’ Educational Association” in 1905 in response to women’s demands for inclusion. This was before the fight for female suffrage was won. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Emily Wilding Davison was an early WEA activist. She was the suffragette campaigner who died after King George V’s horse trampled over her at the Epsom Derby in 1913.

Writing in the same year as the tragic event at Epsom, Ida Hony, the second WEA’s women’s officer, said,

“Of all the special efforts the WEA is making today, perhaps none is more important than the special effort it is making on behalf of women.”

Mel Lenehan, Regional Education Manager for the WEA in the East Midlands. has shared this short video giving an overview of our women’s education from the Association’s early days to today’s ‘Women Leading Learning’ and ‘Women into Politics’ projects.

 

We are inspired by our past and can learn from it but too much nostalgia can seem indulgent when inequality is still rife and there is so much work to do, so we’re focusing on current and future priorities.

Wednesday’s conference aims to:

  • Define the skills and knowledge needed by learning practitioners to deliver the women’s learning programme model;
  • Identify what difference the women’s learning programme model makes to students and society;
  • Share and consider ways to embed equality, diversity and social purpose education within women’s learning provision.

It’s guaranteed to be a stimulating and stirring get together.

You can email Hanna Liljeberg hliljeberg@wea.org.uk or telephone: 01332 291805 to find out more.

Low pay in employment

Better paid and educated workers are better for the economy and inequality comes with many costs.

Five million UK workers are employed in low-paid jobs and the largest group feeling poverty is made up of families with at least one adult in paid work. Official figures miss out the most exploited workers, who include immigrants, young people and women, working illegally in the ‘underground’ economy.

Most people trapped by in-work poverty have not gone on to better paid jobs in the last ten years but some have been successful and there are good examples of effective workplace learning. These include Unionlearn initiatives and projects such as the longstanding ‘Return to Learn’ programme run by the Workers’ Educational Association and Unison.

Technology and globalisation is altering the labour market so much that planning for current job roles is short-sighted. Microsoft’s founder, Bill Gates, has said that, “Technology over time will reduce demand for jobs, particularly at the lower end of skill set…. I don’t think people have that in their mental model.” Policy debate and planning must move beyond today’s skills for today’s jobs and prepare for a fall in available employment for the people who are furthest from well-paid work.

There are at least three main challenges. Support is needed to help low-paid workers to progress into better paid and more secure jobs. We need to recognise that the pool of adults without secure work is likely to grow, with an impact on the public purse as well as on individual lives. Extended working ages and later entitlement to state pensions reinforce the need for more adult learning. Policy decisions need to address the learning and skills needs of adults who are in the workforce now if we are to tackle these issues.

Future jobs are likely to need digital, technical, creative, research and development skills. Meeting these needs seems a tall order in the wake of recent reports on levels of adult literacy and numeracy as well as on poverty and social mobility. A lack of applicable skills, confidence and prospects will have a knock-on effect on our society, economy and future public spending unless we take action.

Policy makers need to identify the gaps between future skills demands and current levels – and then to work out how we can bridge them. We need to understand the barriers to adult learning and to apply our knowledge of strategies that work. Obstacles include unpredictable work patterns, caring responsibilities and lack of information and networking with people already in education. Financial constraints, including the costs of transport or online connectivity, also deter workers who are paid below a living wage.

Community learning has a particular role in engaging people who are otherwise unlikely to get involved in education and also in campaigning for better working conditions. It acts as a catalyst and a connector as well as having value in its own right. It builds on the understanding that adult learning journeys are complex and individual and that people’s needs, talents, interests, motivation, opportunities and access to learning vary.

Affordable, accessible and relevant community learning encourages adults to take their first steps back into education in their neighbourhood or workplace. It provides essential and flexible support with networks for progression. Community outreach work, learning champions and union learning representatives are all shown to be successful at engaging new learners.

The quality and qualities of teaching, learning and assessment for adults are critical to success. Effective community learning tailors courses to suit adults’ requirements and is run in partnerships so that progression to further learning can be organic. Community Learning Trusts have an important role in this, as should Local Enterprise Partnerships, although community learning’s role as a route to further education is not recognised sufficiently. We need to raise awareness.

Trust, partnership and networks linking policy makers, funders, employers, learning providers and the general public are essential to make sure that no low-paid or unemployed adult is isolated from accessible and attractive learning opportunities.

Joined up adult learning strategies are essential if adults are to know how to join up and can be inspired to continue their learning and development for more rewarding work.

(This article was first published in a special free edition of NIACE’s Adults Learning – “Poverty, work and low pay – The role of skills”. A copy of the full publication can be found at http://shop.niace.org.uk/al-extra-poverty-work-pay.html.)

Who and what is education for?

Eavesdropping on a Twitter conversation this week, I ‘overheard’ this snippet from NIACE’s David Hughes: “Some people think the only need is for education in transition from childhood into work…”

David H tweet

His tweet summed up a view of education that has to be challenged and changed. Of course education is for children and young people and it’s about preparation for work but it’s also about a lot more.

Education is not just for children and young people

Data from the UK’s Office for National Statistics (ONS) shows that approximately 23% of the current population is aged under 19. The biggest growth in the next 20 years is forecast to be in the over 65 age group.

Age distrib

Children’s education and their transitions into work don’t just depend on schools. They also rely on adults who are themselves adapting to parenthood, changing stages of life, relationships and circumstances. These adults should have access to education too, for their sakes and for their children’s, especially if they are among the people who left school with poor levels of skills and confidence.

School leavers will have to adapt to many developments as they grow older. Jobs that exist now will disappear and they will need to adjust to changing demands for new and as yet unknown skills. As England’s last deep coal mines close, marking the end of an era, coal mining will disappear as a job. It will join the list of roles that have become obsolete during my lifetime along with working in typing pools, film processing, type setting and many more employment options.

Changing jobs need new skills

Changing jobs need new skills

Adults who are in the workforce now will need to learn new skills for new jobs. Learning how to be adaptable, resilient and creative will help them to deal with change. Better still, developing critical thinking and problem solving expertise could equip people to shape progress instead of simply responding to it.

People don’t have to work for someone else despite the dominant messages about learning to please employers. They can learn to be self-employed, to work in co-operatives or social enterprises or to become employers themselves. The current narrative for school leavers and adults can be quite limited in its implied ambition.

Education is not just for work

One online calculation about the proportion of a person’s life spent in paid work suggests that someone who works for 40 hours per week from age 18 to age 65 will spend approximately 14% of their life working. That’s a very rough estimate but it gives an indicator of non-working time, including an eventual transition from paid employment into what should be an active, independent and healthy retirement.

The WEA has three educational themes as well as Employability. You can find out more about the four educational themes here. These themes, including Health and Wellbeing, Community Engagement and Culture, reflect a belief that education has social and cultural purposes and not just a narrow economic focus – although there are economic benefits of living in healthy, tolerant and inclusive communities.

There is a strong alignment between these approaches and the “Purpose of Government Supported Community Learning”, which is outlined on page 14 of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills’ 2011 policy paper, “New Challenges, New Chances: Further Education and Skills System Reform Plan“, but not enough recognition beyond the community learning sector.

Education in a civilised society is for collective as well as individual benefit. It should be lifelong, life-wide and full of inspiration and challenge, whatever the student’s age, stage of life or circumstances.

Who and what do you think education is for?

Education, the electoral roll and access to benefits

Should access to benefits and public services depend on inclusion on the Electoral Register? This idea is being considered in the Electoral Register (Access to Public Services) Bill 2013-14, which  is expected to have its second reading debate on 28 February 2014. Did you know about it? There’s a summary of the Bill’s proposals and progress here, with a partial screen shot shown below.

Elec Roll

Democracy has been a hot topic this week, with a new national campaign urging people to ‘Bite the Ballot” and, in twitter-speak, to #takepower. February 5 was designated as National Voter Registration Day, although it’s not too late to register. The WEA supports the Bite the Ballot initiative with enthusiasm as we’ve been committed to education for democracy for over a century. There’s more information on the WEA’s website here, where you can see a short animated step-by-step guide on registering to vote and a film of Dr Finn Mackay talking about the importance of democratic engagement. Finn is a WEA Ambassador, founder of the London Feminist Network and reviver of London Reclaim the Night.

Much of this week’s media debate has been about voter apathy and disillusionment with politics and politicians – but we should be aware of other aspects and impacts of Parliamentary action on voter registration.

Part of the WEA’s educational work and campaigning is to raise awareness and understanding about how Parliament and local government works on our collective behalf, whether we have voted for our elected representatives or not. We put this into practice recently by drawing people’s attention to the Business, Innovation and Skills Select Committee’s Inquiry on adult literacy and numeracy. The WEA’s written response to the Inquiry was based on collated views from students, tutors and others across the Association following some in-class discussions about the Select Committee, its workings and its call for views.

Our involvement in active citizenship and political education over the years has highlighted some of the difficulties that homeless people have in registering to vote if they have no fixed address. We have explored some of the issues that people face if their personal details become relatively easily available online when they join the Electoral Roll and it’s been enlightening to hear testimony from political refugees who have been denied the right to vote and been persecuted by ruling regimes in other countries.

It’s debatable whether we have a functioning democracy if voter registration and the turnout at elections is low and we should make people aware of their rights and responsibilities as citizens. There are many powerful, but not apparently sufficiently compelling, reasons to use the right to vote. People, including the WEA activist and suffragette Emily Wilding Davison, who campaigned and died so we could have this right – but should access to benefits and public services be linked to compulsory registration to vote?

Whether this is ‘Civics’, ‘Active Citizenship’, ‘Practical Political Education’ or any other labelled learning, it’s an important area of education for social purpose that doesn’t receive nearly enough attention in what should be an educated democracy.

Thoughts?

Boris Johnson: Inequality, envy and education

Boris Johnson’s Margaret Thatcher Lecture was always going to be controversial. The Daily Telegraph topped its commentary on it here with the headline, “Boris Johnson: some people are too stupid to get on in life”.

You can read the full text of his lecture here and make your own mind up about his speech.

Johnson used the rather odd metaphor of breakfast cereal to illustrate a theme of inequality, describing cornflakes as rising differentially to the top of a pack when it’s shaken. It’s a strange comparison. It’s quite hard to distinguish one cornflake from another and they really are all in it together when it comes to packaging but, strange symbolism aside, the thrust of his argument was that, “some measure of inequality is essential for the spirit of envy and keeping up with the Joneses that is, like greed, a valuable spur to economic activity.” A silver spoon might have been relevant to his analogy.

In the most provocative part of his lecture Johnson referred to people with low IQs, saying that, “Whatever you may think of the value of IQ tests it is surely relevant to a conversation about equality that as many as 16% of our species have an IQ below 85 while about 2% have an IQ of over 130”. 16% of the UK population is more than 10 million people. That’s a lot of people to write off as “too stupid” to get on in life – although research suggests that using IQ as a single indicator is a massive oversimplification of the spectrum of human cognitive ability anyway. Labelling people in this way is a concern not just for them but for all of us, especially if we are living in a culture of increased envy and personal greed.

Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett’s 2009 book, ‘The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better’, argues that there are “pernicious effects that inequality has on societies: eroding trust, increasing anxiety and illness, (and) encouraging excessive consumption”. Their detailed research suggests that outcomes are significantly worse in more unequal rich countries for each of eleven different health and social issues: physical health, mental health, drug abuse, education, imprisonment, obesity, social mobility, trust and community life, violence, teenage pregnancies and child well-being. These outcomes and their social and economic costs affect people across the wealth spectrum.

It’s too easy to treat the complexities of inequality and social mobility with lazy predictability and Johnson’s lecture has provoked inevitable political posturing. Few would argue that education shouldn’t enable people to be more successful and to lead more fulfilled and useful lives but Wall Street’s fictional Gordon Gekko is an unlikely role model. The ‘why, who, what and how’ questions about education are especially relevant to the debates about educational options for 11-year-olds and children’s subsequent development.

Johnson spoke of the need for “academic competition” and called for a form of grammar school to be re-established along with the return of an assisted places scheme, abolished by Labour in 1997, in which the state paid private school fees for gifted children from less affluent backgrounds.

A feature on the Equality Trust’s website here offers an alternative perspective.

Grammar schools don’t help with … educational inequality because they are designed to help those already doing well at school do better. This educational inequality affects social mobility, because educational performance is predicted by income. There is a straight forward relationship between parental income and cognitive development. Those with lower parental income score lower for cognitive development at an age 3 and the gap increases by age 5. And these scores are a good predictor for earnings in later life. Those higher up the income spectrum can buy their way into better schools either directly by going private or by paying a premium to live closer to a better state school. Where this remains the case it seems greatly misguided to think that improving the results of those who are doing well at school will increase social mobility. Equal opportunity, where the circumstances of a person’s birth are not strong predictors of their outcomes, requires a different sort of education system and a different sort of society.

Grammar schools have given some children better life chances. I’m one of them, but as an adult educator I’ve also worked with people who have only blossomed academically and personally after working hard as adult learners to overcome damaging assessments of their pre-adolescent ability. There’s a lot of focus on children who do well at primary school and how we can help them to do even better but is there a simultaneous call for the reintroduction of secondary modern schools and what’s the plan for the 16%?

What do you think of Johnson’s lecture and the issues that it’s raised?

Remploy update – segregation or unemployment?

The WEA works on the principle that equality, diversity and inclusion are better for everyone and I blogged in August 2012 on The Paralympics, ATOS and Remploy. The blog is here.

At the time I wrote that:

The Government’s rationale for the factory closures is that disabled people shouldn’t be segregated at work.

The test will be what happens to the workers who lose their jobs and whether suitable alternatives really are available in integrated workplaces.

The last three Remploy factories in Blackburn, Sheffield and Neath closed on 31 October ending 60 years of specialist employment for people with a disability. The final closures put 150 more people out of work and marked the end of a decline since the late 1980s when Remploy employed more than 10,000, mostly disabled, people across 94 sites.

Statistics are available now to show what’s happened so far to ex-employees. A feature on page 5, Issue 1352, of Private Eye reports that 1,326 people, two thirds of workers who lost their jobs when the factories closed, are still unemployed or found work and lost it again.

Other online information available on the progress of people who worked in the 48 factories that have already closed, also suggests that the overwhelming majority have not found new jobs, although the detailed statistics are not consistent. Presumably the figures change on a daily basis, so represent snapshots at different times, but they are indicative. They don’t include people affected by the last three factory closures.

  • 2,580 Remploy employees have been made redundant.
  • 1,940 of these employees are disabled.
  • 390 disabled employees have transferred to new employers.

Remploy Employment Services, who are providing support and guidance, have been guaranteed government funding until 2015 but the decision as to who will own it after this point is still being decided.

Some workers in Halifax and Wales have invested their redundancy money in creating new businesses with their former colleagues and still work in segregated workplaces, albeit for themselves. In one case they are even working in the former Remploy factory at Fforestbach.

There’s a fairly balanced commentary here outlining the actions and decisions of successive governments and some of the financial arguments.

This quotation from the ITV News website here summarises the conflicting attitudes behind the decision to close the factories:

For some, it represents a long-overdue progression from paternalistic attitudes towards disability and work; for others an unforgivable betrayal.

Considering the ethics, personal and social impact as well as the economics of segregated employment versus unemployment is important but, whatever it represents to observers and commentators, the situation is a reality for ex-employees and their families as they face an uncertain future.