Will a whole class will have to stay behind?

Social class still determines most people’s life experiences in the UK.

Inequality in wealth, health, social networks and the contrasts between privilege and poverty are marked, as shown in an OECD report of February 2015: Income inequality data update and policies impacting income distribution. The Equality Trust has also published a recent report, The Scale of Economic Inequality in the UK, which shows that:

  • The poorest 20% of society have only 8% of the total income, whereas the top 20% have 41%.
  • The richest 10% of households hold 44% of all wealth. The poorest 50% own just 9.5%.

class

Definitions of social class might have changed over the years, but it is evident that educational experience and achievement is closely linked with people’s likely prosperity and well-being. The Teach First charity’s website explains:

In the UK, the link between low socio-economic background and poor educational attainment is greater than in almost any other developed country.

Educational inequality starts early, before a child even starts school. Figures show a one year gap in ‘school readiness’ between 3-year-olds, and a 15 month gap in vocabulary development between 5-year-olds, in the richest and poorest families.

And the gap doesn’t stop there. It continues and widens throughout school and has an impact throughout a child’s life. At GCSE level, nearly 50% of children claiming free school meals school meals achieve no passes above a D grade.

All of this has a knock-on effect on future earnings – the more you learn, the more you earn. In fact, over the course of a lifetime, a graduate from a Russell Group university will earn on average £371,000 more than someone who left school with fewer than 5 good GCSEs.

Lifelong learning is for everyone, but some have more catching up to do than others and more obstacles in their way. Adult education, including access to part-time learning, has been a proven way to deal with some of this inequality, giving people chances to improve their prospects, whatever their background or previous educational achievement. Family learning can lead parents to more rewarding lives and also break into the cycle of educational disadvantage for their children during their early years of learning,

The benefits of adult learning are well-evidenced but the further and adult education sectors are under seige as consecutive rounds of cuts devastate colleges.

Austerity is blamed.

We had austerity after the second world war, but the response was different. Working-class MPs such as Aneurin Bevan, Manny Shinwell and Bessie Braddock were colourful figures in the post-war Labour government. They championed the rights of working class people and applied their direct experience of life. The welfare state and the NHS were formed during this time of severe economic challenge and the 1944 Education Act introduced free secondary education for all. Several politicians and policy advisors of that era were involved in adult education movements such as the WEA.

So why don’t more of today’s politicians see FE and adult education as priorities? As politics have become more exclusive, is there a widening gulf of understanding between politicians and many of their constituents whose lives and educational experiences are very different from their own? Of course, adult learning has some political support across all political parties. It’s interesting that politicians such as Vince Cable and David Lammy, who have expressed unsolicited support for adult education, cite personal experience of their families benefiting from adult learning.

Working class MPs

A Sutton Trust report, Parliamentary Privilege, from February 2015 assessed the educational background of Parliamentary candidates.

  • Almost a third of new candidates who were set to stand in May’s General Election with a reasonable chance of winning were privately educated.
  • 49% of Conservative candidates and 19% of Labour candidates were privately educated, compared to 7% of the population.
  • 55% of candidates went to Russell Group universities, with 19% attending Oxbridge.

Who is representing people who rely on – or want the chance of fulfillment offered by – further and adult education?

It’s easy to have a pop at politicians and probably unproductive. Being an MP is an unattractive job for many people, with constant, often very personal, public criticism. It must be very disheartening to be a conviction politician in a social media age. We need better channels for constructive dialogue with them, or to use existing channels such as MPs’ surgeries more effectively. Our job is to convince them of the current strategy’s risks and that there is an alternative to cuts. Their job is to understand their constituents’ lives and to work on their behalf to improve them.

The irony of cutting FE courses is that it is likely to halt any fragile progress towards a more classless and equal society. The worst case scenario is that a whole class, already thwarted by their earlier educational and life experiences, will have to stay behind, even though other, more ambitious, approaches have been successful in a previous time of austerity.

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A new culture of night schools?

Writing in the Guardian on 19 June, David Lammy MP proposed that,” A new culture of night schools would transform our workforce”. He said, “We must resurrect the evening classes that once allowed people the chance to progress in jobs, so British firms don’t have to look elsewhere for skilled workers.” You can read the full text of the article here.

His description of how his mother benefited from night classes resonates as another Adult Learners’ Week comes to an end. As ever, the annual celebrations have shone a light on adult learning’s immense value but, despite this, Lammy is frank in his assessment that, “Successive governments, including the one I was a part of, have seriously neglected adult education”.

Some evening classes still exist but the current, savage, funding cuts to adult education go way beyond passive neglect.

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So why have night schools and evening classes declined since the 1980s and early 1990s?

  • Room hire rates for publicly owned buildings have increased significantly since schools, adult education provision and other related services have become decoupled from local authorities.
  • Some potential students and staff feel unsafe travelling after dark, especially if they rely on public transport, which is patchy in many areas outside main working hours.
  • Caring responsibilities, especially a lack of affordable childcare, can stop evening attendance as families are more often geographically dispersed without relatives on hand to help out.
  • Anecdotes at the time even suggested that changing the scheduling of popular TV soaps such as Coronation Street, Eastenders and Emmerdale had an impact on attendance in evening classes. There was a time when Corrie devotees got their fix on Mondays and Wednesdays only. Could  the way we increasingly watch television programmes at times and in formats of our choosing lead to further change and possibility?

Perhaps there is also something more subtle going on.

In showing adult learning’s worth over recent years, have we become too worthy? Is the demand for evening classes declining in part because we aren’t doing enough to stimulate demand from the public? Should we be presenting adult education as – dare I say it? – something more aspirational as well as overtly offering second chances (or delayed first chances)?

There is a risk that potential students see a stigma in joining courses when we present them as a means to correct or improve deficient skills rather than as sources of interest, enjoyment and enlightenment. Not so long ago, self-improvement was something for everyone and night classes were so attractive at the end of the twentieth century that newspaper and magazine agony aunts used to recommend them as places for single people to meet suitable partners with the right attitudes for a happy life.

This is not a suggestion that adult learning advertises alongside dating websites or becomes something frivolous, but that we could do more to raise a positive profile of lifelong learning that builds on people’s existing strengths, interests and ambitions rather than their perceived failures or shortcomings. Indeed, as a head of busy adult education evening centres in the 1980s, I was instructed not to use the term ‘night school’ as the idea of ‘more school’ might put off people whose earlier educational experiences had been poor.

It seems we are faced with a combination of a funding problem and an image problem and must stand up for the benefits of adult learning. Adult Learners’ Week this year has attracted some mainstream media attention such as an article in the Daily Telegraph: Adult Learner’s Week: we must fight for older learners by Kirstie Donnelly and a feature by Paul Kerensa on Chris Evans’ BBC Radio 2 show on 17 June. You can hear a clip here for a limited period. We need much more of this wider publicity for the sector, from people beyond the world of adult education professionals.

David Lammy has made a valuable contribution and links the provision of night classes with debates on immigration, employers’ roles in skills development, taking the discussion beyond the usual frameworks of political consideration of the issues. He is right to do so.

Lammy says, “A new culture of adult education and a new generation of night schools would transform our labour force and our economy. I still have my mother’s City & Guilds certificate. It represents what can be achieved when people have the freedom to learn and fulfill their potential.”

We need to get our message out to the general public and to policy makers that adult education is a good thing for students, their communities and shared prosperity.

Who is speaking up for adult learning?

We are celebrating some fantastic individual and group achievements in inspiring Adult Learners’ Week events and activities across the country. The ALW celebrations show that adult learning is a potent game-changer for many people who wouldn’t otherwise meet their potential. The overall national award winners and their achievements will be announced at a glittering event in London this evening.

You can find out more about Adult Learners’ Week here and by following the #ALW15 and #lovetolearn hashtags on Twitter.

In contrast to the feel-good recognition of achievements, there will be a lobby of Parliament tomorrow as part of the #lovefe campaign to save adult education from proposed 24% cuts to the England lifelong learning budget,

Year after year we show how effective adult learning can be. We present evidence of impact. We share case studies. We rehearse the arguments about needs, skills gaps and international comparisons. We produce academic research. We show social return on investment. We show lives transformed by adult education.

Are we talking to ourselves? Who, other than adult education professionals, is speaking up for the sector?

Talk to ourselve

It’s reported that former Prime Minister Tony Blair once joked that you could hide a declaration of war in a speech about skills and no-one would ever notice it.

An Early Day Motion (866), “Funding for Adult Learning” tabled on 20 October 2010 and sponsored by Frank Dobson, MP presented a strong case. Only 56 pf 650 MPs signed to show their support.

That this House expresses its concern over prospects of severe and disproportionate reductions in funding for adult lifelong learning; notes the public statements in support of the value of adult lifelong learning to individuals, society and the economy made by the Prime Minister and all Ministers in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills; considers that adult education provides a second chance for many who did not do well at school, as well as providing life-changing opportunities for the needs of some of the most disengaged people in society; further notes the general benefits of a diverse range of adult learning, which include significant positive effects on health, work-life balance, work-related hard and soft skills and social mobility, greater community engagement and encouragement of volunteering; further considers that adult learning makes a wider contribution to a wider skills agenda and to economic regeneration and has many direct economic benefits, such as moving people off benefits into work and reducing the burden on the state in many areas including health, social care and justice; and, while acknowledging the need to rebalance investment between government, employers and individuals and to make some reductions in expenditure, calls on the Government to recognise that any decisions about savings must ensure that opportunities for affordable adult education for the less well-off and disadvantaged are not irretrievably damaged and lost.

While we give richly deserved congratulations to Adult Learners’ Week Award winners, we have a task on our hands to protect and develop much-needed opportunities for adults who should have the same, or better, chances to succeed in the future.

We need a few people with megaphone influence and a lot of people other than adult education professionals to get the messages across. Adult Learners’ Week award winners over many years give plenty of examples that adult learning is effective and the WEA can provide lots of statistics and stories as well.

Who will do for adult learning what Elton John has done for AIDS treatment, Jaimie Oliver for school dinners and Joanna Lumley for Gurkhas?

Celebrating adult learning in the North of England

Brilliant award winners were outstanding stars at the Northern England Adult Learners’ Week ceremony in Leeds Civic Hall on Friday 5 June. It was a fitting setting. Built in the 1930s depression, the impressive Civic Hall was a job creation project, providing work and training for adults who would otherwise have been unemployed.

The award winners were:

  • Christine Foskett  – Raising Aspirations Award, sponsored by the HEART partnership
christine_foskett

Christine Foskett

Craven College team (Photo by Lindsey Johnson)

Craven College team (Photo by Lindsey Johnson)

  • Matthew Dobson – Digital Learning Award, sponsored by the BBC
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Matthew Dobson listens to Jane Birch explaining why she nominated him for an award

  • Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI), Cullercoats Station – Employer Award, sponsored by One Awards.
The RNLI group

The RNLI Cullercoats group

  • Jacques Reid – NOCN Learning at Work Award, also sponsored One Awards.
Jacques Reid

Jacques Reid

  • Women’s Health in South Tyneside (WHiST) – Project Award
Representatives of WHiST receive their award

Representatives of WHiST receive their award

Left - Charlie Churlish receives his award from Tom Stannard Right - Lou Mycroft of Northern College with Steve Jones

Left – Charlie Churlish receives his award from Tom Stannard
Right – Lou Mycroft of Northern College with Steve Jones

  • Michaela Sampson – Outstanding Individual Award
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Michaela Sampson

You can read more about the award winners here.

This is the 24th year of Adult Learners’ Week celebrations, led by NIACE, the National Institute of Adult and Continuing Education. There were 1,175 nominations nationally, with 425 nominations being received in the 3 Northern English Regions. The standard was high, giving the selection panel some rich reading and difficult choices. The panel members were:

  • Louise Mycroft from Northern College
  • Paul Amann and Nicola Thorpe from the WEA
  • Tony Norbury from Merseyside Union Learn
  • Maggi Butterworth from Swarthmore Education Centre
  • Janet Golding of Trinity College London
  • Derek Whitehead from Leeds College of Building

It was a privilege to act as Master / Mistress of Ceremonies for the event.

We heard about partnerships, supportive networks and collaboration throughout a day of passion, pride & powerful stories. People described starting points for their own learning or for their students’ journeys – often talking about isolation, lack of confidence, low levels of qualifications and difficult personal circumstances. They have made undreamed-of progress on their learning journeys.

The inspiring success stories and clear evidence of significant returns on investment in adult education came a day after the Chancellor announced the prospect of even more cuts for the FE sector.

People spoke of their fears and frustration about short-sighted funding cuts, especially in light of the “Northern Powerhouse” concept which would depend on high calibre talents and skills. Cutting off the supply instead of investing in adult learning and further education is illogical if we are trying to improve prosperity and lessen inequality.

Tom Stannard of NIACE captured the shared enthusiasm for adult learning in this short video clip.

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Following the theme of investment, there was plenty of evidence that the learning bug is infectious, with successful students talking about using their own growing expertise to ‘give something back’ by acting as teachers and mentors, supporting others to follow their examples.

Presentations by the WEA’s “Inclusion in Rugby” project and the “Bridges to Learning” project, run in partnership by Unison, the Open University and the WEA showed the impact and reach of adult learning in very different settings. Both projects had featured in previous Adult Learners’ Weeks, showing that progress goes on after award ceremonies. They are not the end of people’s learning and development.

Showcase project – Inclusion in Rugby

Flanked by ex-Sports Minister, Gerry Sutcliffe, WEA tutor Mark Goodwin and members of the Bumble Bee Barbarians mixed ability rugby team described the team’s incredible story.

Former Sports Minister and Bumble Bees' Patron, Gerry Sutcliffe, joined Mark Goodwin and Bumbles players in their presentation

Former Sports Minister and Bumble Bees’ Patron, Gerry Sutcliffe, joined Mark Goodwin and Bumbles players in their presentation

Anthony Brooke, who was born with cerebral palsy, was a student in one of Mark’s assertiveness courses. Anthony’s ambition was to play full contact rugby. What followed, including the formation of the Bumble Bees team, has been magical. Mark and the Bumbles worked with Jane Bilton, a WEA Organiser, and were able to set up a class for players with Learning Disabilities – the WEA Inclusion in Rugby Group – aiming to promote disability awareness, social inclusion and equality through rugby.

The players created a promotional training package and presentation designed to encourage the creation of new inclusive teams and the expansion of mixed ability rugby. They have become unstoppable, with prestigious individual and group awards for Anthony, Mark and the Bumbles, television appearances and the formation of IMAS, an International Mixed Ability Sports community interest company.

They are now central to organising the first Mixed Ability Rugby World Tournament in Bradford and are learning how to raise funds. You can find out more (and donate) here.

Showcase Project – “Bridges to Learning”

Moving onto another project with far-reaching results, Anne Hansen and Unison Union Learning Reps (ULRs) showed the “Bridges to Learning” initiative’s impact.

The partnership project involves volunteers who take learning into workplaces. It encourages workers in the health, social care and education sectors to develop in their jobs through taking part in learning and training. Staff and volunteers work with employers to create recognised progression routes for individuals and teams to move forward.

The ULRs spoke enthusiastically about their own learning and how they encourage others to further their education. The statistics they shared were striking, showing the project’s reach and effects.

John Barker and the event organisers from the WEA’s Yorkshire and Humber region showed how a successful celebration can be staged with limited resources and endless patience.

The nominated learners, tutors, employers and projects showed the power and value of lifelong learning. It is precious and potent. Everyone who was present believes that we must stand up for adult learning.

The stories and statistics of success are compelling.