Adult education – from queues to a “best-kept secret”

I was struck by the contrasts between two tweets in my timeline this morning.

The first showed a photograph of a long line of people queuing for adult education classes in Worcester in 1981. September queues were also an annual feature of adult and community learning in Leeds in the 1980s.

queue

The second tweet provided a link to the Irish Times describing adult education as a “best-kept secret”.

best-kept-secret

What has happened over 35 years that has changed the profile of part-time adult learning from highly desirable and public to only semi-visible? Why has supply and overt demand fallen?

Measuring the number of adult learners can be challenging but all the reliable indicators and reports show a fall in participation. After years of decline, Government figures for 2014/15  show a fall of 7.2% in adult learners taking part in Government-funded community learning courses in just one year.

Online enrolment might have made would-be students less visible than they would have been in the 1980s but the number of adult learners has declined in real terms as those queues have become a nostalgic memory of times gone by.

Certainly changes in technology, online resources, society and the use of leisure time have had an impact on face-to-face collective learning as have savage reductions in public funding and a narrowing curriculum.

Some specialist organisations including City Lit, Fircroft College, Hillcroft College, the Mary Ward Centre, Morley College, Northern College, Ruskin College, the Working Men’s College and the Workers’ Educational Association have continued to offer distinctive adult learning with a broad curriculum but there have been big changes in many local authorities in England.

The 1991 transfer of community learning from local authorities – where it was part of the fabric of public services – to FE colleges was significant as colleges’ funding has been squeezed in subsequent years. University departments of adult and continuing education have also seen big changes and closures. The current campaign to save Vaughan College in Leicester is indicative of developments in recent years.

Public funding for adult education has been slashed by successive governments and there has been an overwhelming focus on courses with direct and immediate links to employability.

We celebrate the Festival of Learning today.

Inspirational award winners will be honoured so it’s timely to reflect on a not-too-distant past when people were eager to learn what they wanted to learn instead of being coaxed into learning what someone else thinks they need.

Has sucking some of the joy out of adult learning contributed to reduced numbers and made it unfashionable? There is masses of evidence to show adult learning’s impact, usually collected to support the case for preserving what’s left of the diminishing supply, but there’s a big job to do in terms of stimulating demand and reinstating a positive image for potential students and the general public.

Adult learning should be accessible, tempting and sought after in a civilised society. The organisations mentioned above form a nucleus of well-regarded community learning and successful students are the best advocates. We should collect and amplify messages from them to spread the word about the joy and fulfilment of learning.

It would be very fitting if today’s Festival of Learning becomes a springboard for this.

 

 

 

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Taking a course or being a learner?

England’s annual Festival of Learning is underway now and will continue throughout May and June. It’s a chance for organisations to showcase and celebrate adult learning and to encourage more people to ‘have a go’. You can find out more here.

The highlight of the NIACE-led Festival will be Adult Learners’ Week from 13-19 June.

ALWAdult Learners’ Weeks have become international events although the timings vary in different countries. As part of the Canadian Adult Learners’ Week, the NWT Literacy Council based in Yellowknife in the North West Territories hosted a guest blog by Jim Stauffer, a Community Adult Educator at Aurora College. His blog considered the difference between ‘taking a course’ and ‘being a learner’. You can read the full text here and or on Jim’s own blog, Way Up North, here. It is well worth reading.

Jim and the NWT Literacy Council have given kind permission for me to share his comparisons. They are:

If I am most concerned with getting the right answer, I am taking a course. If I am not satisfied until I understand how the darn thing works, I am a learner.

If I want to know what I need to do to pass, I am taking a course. If I get excited because something in class touches my “real” life, I am a learner.

If my motivation is to get the certificate, I am taking a course. If my motivation is to become better at something I love doing, I am a learner.

If I attend classes because I can’t get an excused absence, I am taking a course.If class is so interesting that I don’t want to miss anything, I am a learner.

If the best part of the day is going home to my family, I am human. If you wondered what that has to do with anything, it’s just my whimsy intruding.

If I only spend time studying what’s assigned, I am taking a course. If I get side-tracked investigating new ideas that aren’t directly related to assignments, I am probably a learner.

If I only discuss my studies with the instructor and others in my class, I am taking a course. If I can’t shut up about what I’m studying, if I bring it up with my family and friends until they get tired of it, I am definitely a learner.

If the most important part of my writing is punctuation and grammar, I am taking a course. If the most important thing in writing is communicating what’s on my mind, I am a learner.

If my biggest accomplishment is passing the test, I am taking a course. If I can’t wait to put my knowledge into practice, I am a learner.

If the class is too easy for me, but it’s required in the program or job, I might just be taking a course. If I just want to be in school even though the course content is too difficult for me, I still might be a learner.

If I am afraid to make a mistake, I am taking a course. If I give myself the freedom to try-fail-try again, I am a learner.

If I lay awake at night worrying about my grade, I am taking a course. If I lay awake grappling with the subject, I am a learner.

WEA students

It’s refreshing to see this focus on attitudes to complement the emphasis on skills and knowledge in educational debate. It chimes well with the WEA’s efforts to encourage critical action learning.

Imagine a society populated by lifelong learners and how different it would be.