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.

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New chapters for adult literacy

Being able to read fluently is much more than a ‘functional’ skill, essential as it is for employability, health, democracy and everyday life.

As avid readers ourselves, Ruth Spellman and I really enjoyed getting together with Cathy Rentzenbrink ‎and Jo Dawson of Quick Reads this week. We met to explore how WEA students could benefit from their short books. Big name authors have written them and they are designed to be easy to read. We ended up wanting to read some of them ourselves – because they are appealing and not because we think they might be ‘good for us’.

Hopefully the days when adults learnt to read or improve their understanding of written English using ‘Janet and John’-type children’s books are long gone and there are many imaginative adult literacy programmes and resources. As Sam Shepherd reminds us in his blog here, ESOL students might have studied to a high academic level in their first language. Adults should have learning resources that respect their maturity and don’t patronise them.

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Cathy and Jo promote Quick Reads with a gusto that comes from an obvious love of their work. It’s a mission for them. Cathy captured the mood of our discussion when she said, “We don’t want to suck the joy out of reading.”

For Cathy and Jo – and the WEA – books are part of a rich mix of experience that shapes people’s lives. A lack of accessible books – and art, music, drama and humanities education – can make ‘culture’ exclusive but it is an important part of education and one of the WEA’s four educational themes. (The others are employability, health and wellbeing and community engagement.) Books trigger all sorts of feelings and can help us to experience life in other places, times and cultures. They let us see the world from other people’s points of view and enrich our experience.

Spreading a message about the delight of getting engrossed in a good book is a positive way of encouraging some reticent readers to improve their literacy skills. Popularising reading for entertainment as a regular part of life is a good way of hooking people to become book lovers. Television’s Richard and Judy have introduced many people to contemporary fiction through their Book Club and it’s interesting to see that BBC Radio 2 has a book club too.

The Quick Read books and the Reading Agency’s Six Book Challenge can be used to enhance ESOL or adult literacy courses to improve reading skills. They can also be used as the basis of book clubs that can include people who are building up their confidence in reading. Group discussion of a book gives readers a chance to practise self-expression and to exchange views. They can learn the important messages that readers interpret books in different ways and that it’s OK not to like a book, even if it’s written by a well-known author.

Adults developing their expertise and self-assurance though reading books that grip them can apply their improving skills in work, community and family settings. They can also learn about other people’s lives and thoughts to broaden their own understanding.

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Do you use Quick Reads or the Six Book Challenge in adult education? Have you read any or taken part in the challenge? It would be good to hear your views.

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

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.

Educational Thinkers’ Hall of Fame – Mary Wollstonecraft

Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-97)

Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-97)

It’s hard to imagine what life was like when Mary Wollstonecraft wrote her ground-breaking book, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, published in 1792 – and to understand the leaps of thought that she made as a self-taught woman of her time. Her book has become a landmark document in the development of women’s rights and education. She suggested that culture rather than nature determines many perceptions about gender difference and her work provided a basis for later feminist theory. Her writing was truly remarkable for a woman born in 1759 as the first daughter of an abusive handkerchief weaver from Spitalfields in London.

Showing a strongly independent mind, she refused to accept the inequalities that she experienced between men and women, reasoning that they began with a ‘false system of education’ that valued ‘delicacy’ above all in girls’ development. Women were expected to focus all their attention on being attractive objects for men. She argued that society’s expectations denied women the opportunities available for men to develop their talents and interests. She thought that a tendency to, ‘consider females as women rather than human creatures’, led to inequality and challenged this discrimination throughout her life, writing non-fiction and novels to set out her case.

Her first book was Thoughts on the Education of Daughters but she is best known for writing A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, which called for equal education of women and included a radical proposal for a national schools system to be based on the premise that women are rational beings who are as capable as men in intellectual matters.

She proposed that educated women should have opportunities to take up independent positions and responsibilities in society and that if they failed to make the most of their education then society would have proof of their inadequacies rather than just assuming that they were less intellectually capable than men. Her writing was a challenge to test the hypothesis.

Her two novels, Mary and the unfinished Maria, focused on the self-education of their female characters and aimed to inspire female readers to learn for themselves. Wollstonecraft also wrote a children’s book, ‘Original Stories’ and commented regularly on children’s books as well as contributing educational treatises to the Analytical Review, which she helped to set up with the publisher, Joseph Johnson.

Wollstonecraft opened a school in Newington Green near Hackney in 1784, with her sister Eliza and a friend, Fanny Blood. It was here that she met Richard Price, a minister at the local Dissenting Chapel and his friend, Joseph Priestley, who led a group of men known as Rational Dissenters. She went on to be engaged in radical politics in England and France, where she lived for a time. Influenced by the political upheaval of the French Revolution, she argued that social equality meant removal of the monarchy as well as the church and military hierarchies. Wollstonecraft wrote that, ‘It may then fairly be inferred, that, till society be differently constituted, much cannot be expected from education.’ Her educational and political ideas were hugely controversial with one critic famously describing her as a ‘hyena in petticoats’.

For many years Wollstonecraft’s unconventional personal life overshadowed her writing which gained renewed attention towards the end of the last century. She had two affairs that ended badly – with Henry Fuseli and Gilbert Imlay – before marrying the philosopher William Godwin. She died aged thirty-eight, ten days after giving birth to her second daughter, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, later Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein.

From Mary Wollstonecraft to Malala Yousafzai, how far have we come since 1792?

‘Bedroom tax’ – study the alternative?

Many people living in social housing in the UK are worried about losing benefits as new arrangements are being introduced this week. Welfare reforms will see tenants’ housing benefits cut if they are deemed to have a spare bedroom in their council or housing association home.

Whatever subtle distinctions politicians are making between the notion of a ‘bedroom tax’ or ‘removal of the spare room subsidy’, the proposals will affect an estimated 660,000 working-age tenants in social housing – 31% of existing working-age housing benefit claimants in the social sector. The majority of these people have only one extra bedroom and there’s a reported shortage of single bedroomed accommodation for people to move into.

The Government doesn’t define what the term ‘bedroom’ means, leaving the decisions to landlords. The bedroom tax makes no distinction between a single or a double bedroom. A room either is a bedroom or is not a bedroom.

Here’s an idea to promote lifelong learning and to symbolise educational aspiration. Make sure that all social housing has a study if at all possible, re-designating any bedrooms deemed to be spare as a place for learning in the home. Now that would be a public gesture to support ambition and a culture of self-improvement.

The WEA’s vision is: “A better world – equal, democratic and just; through adult education the WEA challenges and inspires individuals, communities and society.”