Space Week and challenging stereotypes

It’s Space Week and a good launchpad for challenging stereotypes in education, career choices and the media. This tweeted picture shows Indian scientists who have just launched a successful mission to Mars. It’s a simple reality check to show what some scientists look like outside films and television dramas.

WomenmarsThe Indian women in the photograph follow in the footsteps of Maria Mitchell (1818 – 1889), the first American woman to work as a professional astronomer. She discovered Comet C/1847_T1 on 1 October, 1847.

Maria Mitchell set an example as the first woman elected as a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1848 and as a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1850. She was also one of the first women elected to the American Philosophical Society in 1869.

Mitchell’s other achievements included becoming the first professor of astronomy at Vassar College in 1865, teaching there until 1888 and becoming Director of the Vassar College Observatory. She was a pioneer in many ways and insisted on a pay rise when she found out that her salary was lower than less experienced male professors – and she got it.

Maria Mitchell

Maria Mitchell

What gave Maria Mitchell the self-assurance to be a trail blazer and what does her experience teach us?

She grew up in the Quaker religion which embraces principles of equality. Her parents believed that boys and girls were intellectual equals and should benefit from educational opportunities regardless of their gender. She was not held back by limited aspirations. This shaped her life and achievements. As an educator, she also challenged the segregation of students on the grounds of race or ethnicity even though that was the accepted practice at the time.

Maria Mitchell and the Indian scientists show that women can have careers that are out of this world – but sexism remains, as illustrated by last month’s media interviews with Russian cosmonaut Yelena Serova. This extract from the Guardian on 25 September shows the level of questioning that she faced:

Serova has been barraged with questions focusing on her gender and how she will manage to bond with her 11-year-old daughter while she is away. She even offered to give a demonstration of washing her hair in space.

But her patience appeared to run out at a pre-launch press conference in Baikonur on Wednesday when a journalist asked her to comment again on how she would look after her hair aboard the International Space Station and whether she would keep her current style.

“Can I ask a question, too: aren’t you interested in the hair styles of my colleagues?” she said at the televised news conference, flanked by the male astronauts who will accompany her.

She stressed: “My flight is my job. I feel a huge responsibility towards the people who taught and trained us and I want to tell them: we won’t let you down!”

Education, equality and career expectations should not be limited by gender or other outdated stereotypes. This is an issue recognised by the UK Parliament’s Science and Technology Committee. You can read their latest report on Women in Scientific Careers here.

Adult Learning in Europe and beyond

The launch of EPALE, the Electronic Platform for Adult Learning in Europeand the forthcoming elections for the European Parliament mean that it’s timely to think about adult education beyond national borders.


EPALE is the latest development in the European Union’s long-term commitment to promoting high quality adult learning in Europe and will be open to teachers, trainers and volunteers, as well as policy-makers, researchers and academics involved in adult learning.

The link to EPALE is here. It’s a good launchpad for browsing through resources and links, including information about the Education, Audiovisual and Culture Executive Agency which funds EPALE.


The European Association for the Education of Adults is taking action to keep raising awareness of adult learning as the elections approach. They have contacted candidates who are standing for election as Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) from different European Union (EU) countries to ask them about their views on adult education and non-formal adult learning. They are publishing candidates’ answers here.

It’s against this background that the International Learning Times Conference will take place in Edinburgh on 12-14 May. The Conference, “will bring together researchers, adult educators, policy makers, adult learners and employers to improve and strengthen partnership working across Europe”, and, “to explore and investigate a range of policies, tools and techniques that support the EU’s Agenda”.

You can find out more about the Conference here.

Do you think that people are generally aware of EU policy, funding, tools and support for adult learning? What more could or should be done to promote collaborative work across Europe and beyond? How does European-level activity relate to UNESCO and lifelong learning?

The reach of social media and the connections between adult educators across the world is one of the benefits of blogging, tweeting and online networks. Colleagues from different continents are finding common cause, sharing interests, concerns and a wealth of expertise. How can we harness this energy for the benefit of adult learners now and in the future by applying globally informed thinking and resources to make a difference at local levels?

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?

Family Learning – 10 top tips from adult and community learning

The NIACE-led independent Inquiry into Family Learning has shone a light on an important aspect of education that has been in the shadows for too long. Family learning is a positive and proven way to tackle educational inequality across generations so it’s good to see that NIACE and Ofsted are now calling for examples of good practice and that the Family Learning Works report is inspiring action instead of gathering dust after its publication.

Family learning - activity

The WEA has a long and successful tradition of working with schools, children’s centres, parents and carers. As a national organisation covering England and Scotland, we work at strategic levels but are also embedded in neighbourhoods.

Ten tips

  1. Develop local networks around each school. Contacts are not enough. Nurture relationships.
  2. Stay in the community for the long haul. Don’t do one project and move on.
  3. Talk with teachers and head teachers about making parents and carers welcome in schools. Work together to deal with concerns about school security and safeguarding.
  4. Agree ground rules for all relationships to avoid misunderstandings or inappropriate behaviour by anyone.
  5. Negotiate the curriculum and learning outcomes so that they are relevant and appealing.
  6. Don’t stereotype or patronise people or make assumptions that might limit their learning.
  7. Enlist successful adult learners as role models and community learning champions to engage others and show what’s possible.
  8. Celebrate achievements of parents, carers and children!
  9. Inspire parents and carers to keep learning, to take the next steps and to motivate their children.
  10. Collaborate. We all need to keep learning and improving.

Our top tips for working with parents and carers in family learning reflect the networked and supportive approaches that we use in general adult and community learning practice. Good quality teaching, learning and assessment are at the core but learning activities are set in a wider context and don’t take place in isolation. They need groundwork, learning support and pointers for moving on.

Do you agree with the list or have you got other ideas?

What works in your practice and what can we learn from, or teach, other sectors?

You can find more about the NIACE and Ofsted joint project on illuminating excellent practice in Family Learning here.

List of UK FE and adult education tweeters

Like most busy people I don’t have time to read all the tweets in my timeline every day, but I find it very useful to have quick scrolls through lists and hashtag searches to pick up relevant snippets. There’s a handy list of people who tweet about FE and adult education here and the author has done a grand job in collating the list. It’s not obvious who has done all the work and I don’t want to blow anyone’s cover but I hope they’ll take a bow .

There was a little flurry of interest after I tweeted the link on Friday evening, with others adding more suggestions, so I’ve created a new twitter list here.

Inclusion isn’t an endorsement and the list isn’t comprehensive. Please let me know if I should add you or anyone else to the list and apologies to people who aren’t listed yet.

I found the FE Culture Blogspot link via #UKFEchat, an interesting drop-in twitter discussion held on Thursday evenings. You can find more information about #UKFEchat here or by searching for the hashtag on twitter. It took me a while to notice the ‘Top/ All / People you follow’ option, which gives different search results. Sarah Simons (@MrsSarahSimons) oversees the chats and gives people a warm welcome when they join in.


There’s also a list of tweeters from the WEA at:

This includes staff, tutors, volunteers, ambassadors and students, mostly tweeting in a personal capacity.

Finally, there’s a list of tweeters from NIACE at:

(For less experienced tweeters, just open any of the live twitter links shown in blue or purple above and click the ‘subscribe’ button as shown below to create direct access to an extra customised timeline featuring tweets from listed people.)


John Fortune and the WEA

There have been many well-deserved tributes to John Fortune, the esteemed satirist, who died yesterday. You can hear a podcast of his 2004 interview on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs here.


This broadcast led to a memorable event for the WEA in the following year, as the Guardian’s FE Diary reported:

Fortunate coincidence

When John Fortune, a recent Desert Island Discs castaway, revealed that had he not got a better offer from Peter Cook, he would have ended up a tutor with the Workers’ Educational Association, Tim Arnold, an official with the WEA, grabbed his cue and contacted him. Fortune readily agreed to give a satire masterclass with WEA students during adult learners’ week. His subject at the event, on May 25 in London, will be the government’s approach to funding FE provision.

With touching good humour, John accepted a standard WEA tutor’s contract to teach the session to a packed ‘class’ of eager students at the Abbey Community Centre in Westminster, London, on a warm May evening in 2005. He organised group work and encouraged people to use their knowledge, experience and imagination to develop barbed and witty commentaries on adult education policy and funding before acting as an inspired Master of Ceremonies for a collective and very funny cabaret-style performance.

He was generous with his time and talent on that occasion and in showing his continued respect and affection for the WEA – feelings that were returned in great measure. In an era where celebrities are too often seen as shallow and self-obsessed, it was reassuring to see someone in the public eye behaving with integrity and humility as well as great intellect and talent.

He will be missed.

Wider Benefits of Adult Learning

Tom Stannard had an excellent article published in the Guardian last week. He wrote that, “By investing in adult education, we can create stronger communities”, and that, “Lifelong learning can boost local economies and reduce the number of people using the most costly public services.” It’s well worth reading his article here.

Research from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) supports his argument. The Department published a research paper on the Review and Update of Research into the Wider Benefits of Adult Learning just over a year ago.

BIS Research

You can read the full report here. The overall results were as follows:

Mental health and wellbeing

  • Improvements in reported life satisfaction and happiness
  • Improvements in self-confidence (especially for formal learning) (This is more than twice the impact of being employed.) 
  • Improvements in own perception of self worth
  • Reductions in self-reported depression
  • Increases in satisfaction with social life
  • Increases in satisfaction with use of one’s leisure time

Physical health

  • Reductions in the number of visits to a GP (This is about one-seventh of the impact of being employed.) 
  • Improvements in self-reported overall health satisfaction (This is about half of the impact of being employed.) 

Family and parenting

  • Increases in the probability that the children in the household speak more frequently with the mother about serious issues

Civic participation

  • Increases in trade union membership (especially for formal adult learning)
  • Greater involvement in voluntary work (for formal learning only)

Attitudes and behaviours

  • Greater desire to find a better job (especially for informal learning)
  • Improved financial expectations (especially for formal learning)

BIS followed up this research report with a Community Learning Learner Survey in March 2013. The WEA’s own research is aligned with the methodology that BIS used in the Community Learning survey and an Executive  Summary report shows that our courses also make a positive difference. We have also carried out ‘Pound Plus’ research to show the value that we add to funding.


The authors of last November’s BIS research report suggested that it would,”be useful to assess budgetary impacts of these outcomes e.g. NHS expenditure”, and it would seem sensible that the funding equation for adult and community learning should balance the investment with the impact, the value added and the savings to other public service budgets.

Adult education is an investment that pays dividends in terms of economic as well as social benefits.

What’s the point of reflective practice?

As educators we put a lot into what we do. We think, we question, we plan, we learn, we teach and we reflect. Praxis, the cycle of reflection, practice, reflection and improved practice is fundamental to good teaching, learning and assessment and most outstanding teachers are expert learners who continue to develop their subject expertise and their professional practice.

So far, so good, but the big question is, “What difference does all this make to students?” In other words, “What’s the point?”

The WEA context

The Workers’ Educational Association works exclusively with adult learners so we have to consider all sorts of starting points, personal circumstances, educational experiences, barriers and motivations and to tailor our practice so that they can have the best possible learning experiences. Our professional development is about our learning to improve their learning through our teaching and planning.

The WEA’s teaching, learning and assessment happens in a complex networked organisation supported by many volunteers, with a democratic membership structure and elected governance. We work at community levels across England and Scotland, as part of a wider international family of Workers’ Educational Associations. We run part-time courses, working flexibly and adapting to locally identified situations and partnerships. Without campuses and with very few of our own learning centres, we’re very mobile and adaptable. We try to turn the ‘hard to reach’ cliché on its head by recognising that most educational opportunities for adults are hard to reach and so taking our courses to them.

Our dispersed model of working brings advantages and challenges as we work to bring our vision and values to life through our classroom practice, which is rarely in dedicated WEA classrooms and more usually in hired rooms in community-based venues where people can feel more at home.

Proof of the pudding

The logistics alone give us a lot to think about, but the practicalities are ‘backroom’ issues. What matters most is the difference that we make to our students and the difference that their learning makes to their lives. That’s where reflective practice is essential and where we have to balance our thinking about what we put into teaching, learning and assessment with the crucial matter of what our students gain from it. As we’re committed to education for social purpose, we’re also interested in the wider effects on their friends, families and communities.

This short film shows the impact of WEA learning and our tutors’ expertise:

WEA leaders and managers use data to help us to reflect, shape and improve what we do, but we’re a ‘head and heart’ organisation that combines our use of statistics with a constant stream of students’ stories that inspire and motivate us.

Here are 2 short films of students telling their stories about family learning.

These are examples of what drives us and our professional practice in teaching and learning.


Educational Thinkers’ Hall of Fame – Sir Ken Robinson

Sir Ken Robinson divides opinion. His stint as a castaway on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs last week prompted a wave of responses from educators. You can hear the broadcast online here or download a podcast here.

As a contemporary thinker and communicator, Sir Ken has a comprehensive website here. His biography says that:

Sir Ken Robinson, PhD is an internationally recognized leader in the development of creativity, innovation and human resources in education and in business. He is also one of the world’s leading speakers on these topics, with a profound impact on audiences everywhere.

You can get a flavour of his thinking in this RSA video.

RSA animate

Some commentators claim that he’s an ego-driven self publicist, popularising his arguments through charm and persuasion. Others see him as a brilliant creative visionary who can save education from a system that isn’t working for far too many people. Of course, neither of these extremes of opinion is mutually exclusive and both are simplistic. One is about assumed motivation – and it can only ever be assumed – and personality and the other is about promoting a single approach to teaching and learning.

I heard him talk to a comparatively small audience several years ago. There was no doubting his charisma but his arguments, to educators and policy makers, were also very compelling. The quote below is typical and especially relevant to adult and community learning, where we often work with people who didn’t flourish or find their skills and confidence before they left school.

“We have to go from what is essentially an industrial model of education, a manufacturing model, which is based on linearity and conformity and batching people. We have to move to a model that is based more on principles of agriculture. We have to recognize that human flourishing is not a mechanical process; it’s an organic process. And you cannot predict the outcome of human development. All you can do, like a farmer, is create the conditions under which they will begin to flourish.”

How do we decide on the validity of his theses and respond to the counter claims of his critics?

I’m with John Dewey on this. We all filter evidence through the lens of our personal experience. I’ve read and listened to some of the pros and cons relating to Sir Ken’s approaches and tried to be objective but personal experience of learning and teaching tells me that he talks good sense. Are people suspicious because he does so with such panache? Being a good communicator isn’t the same as dumbing down.

What do you think about the RSA video and Sir Ken’s vision for creativity in education?

Picturing adult and community learning’s impact

One of the shopping bags that I used at the supermarket yesterday has an image taken from a postcard that the WEA used a few years ago as part of our campaigning activities. It struck me that its message is still very relevant following last week’s launch of Family Learning Works and celebration of European Social Fund Community Learning Grants in Manchester.


The image reinforces the message that modest funds can make a big difference to individuals, families, communities and society. It also gives a subtle nod to the WEA’s deep and longstanding roots in communities and our network of branches.

Statistics and stories of achievement and the distance travelled by people who benefited from the ESF Community Learning Grants programme show evidence of this, as does the research presented by the Independent Inquiry into Family Learning. These were the focus of the last two blogs here.

Evidence from projects supported by the Community Learning Innovation Fund tell a similar story and there’s a quick video summary showing the impact of WEA work last year at Our Pound Plus research at adds further evidence.

Are any other past campaigns that are still relevant? Perhaps we should revive a few.