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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Knowledge democracy, cognitive justice and social justice

A recent SCUTREA event lasted for just over a couple of hours but provided a little time and space for adult educators and researchers to refresh their thinking and practice. It was a rich experience with learning from different disciplines, experiences and cultures and very relevant to the WEA’s Community Engagement theme. Scotland and Canada featured prominently and the buzz of post-referendum politics was evident in the Edinburgh meeting, with an emphasis on the cultural role of community education in democracy.

Scutrea

Jim Crowther, Budd Hall and Darlene Clover involved us in explorations of community, pedagogy, politics and research, linking academia with practice and communities with political agency. It was fertile ground, explored by too few people in mainstream educational debate.

They used the technique of métissage, which was new to me, to braid interwoven narratives read from researchers’ findings. Three different voices, with changing pitch, pace and language styles kept my attention in a way that an individual reading aloud would not have done.

An audio recording of the métissage is available here, courtesy of the Ragged Project.

These observations and triggers for further critical thought give a taste of the rich pickings from presentations and discussion.

  • Community education played an effective role in the Scottish referendum with a range of activities, hustings and public meetings.
  • Research is critical and cognitive justice is a pre-requisite for social justice.
  • The outcomes of research depend on who originates it, who asks the questions and for whose benefit it is intended.
  • Relationships are at the core of everything that matters.
  • We are all map-makers. Maps have power. They show how we project ourselves onto nature.
  • Good pedagogy motivates local people to act.
  • We need, “Disruptive, persistent educators who are not satisfied with the world the way it is”.
  • “Accumulation of wealth, power and knowledge is through dispossession.” Ancient universities enclosed knowledge within their walls at the same time as land was being taken from people and enclosed. “If you were inside, things were just dandy.”
  • “The concept of knowledge has been stolen.” It does not belong by right to the producers of peer-reviewed journals and paid-for research in the Western world.

There was a lot to pick over in this. The concepts of mapping, power and agency would make an intriguing stimulus for study within adult community learning.

What might we conclude from comparing and contrasting the 1886 map of the British Empire with homeless people’s contemporary map of Newcastle upon Tyne?

Map British Empire 1886

 

Homeless newc

From Lovely JoJo’s ‘People’s Map of the British Isles”

Danny Dorling’s cartogram maps might add another dimension.

Mapping, power and agency was just one fascinating theme out of many that spun out of the event. There was almost too much to think about.

Book recommendations included Learning and Teaching in Community Based Research.

SCUTREA book

This is the summary description:

Community-Based Research, or CBR, is a mix of innovative, participatory approaches that put the community at the heart of the research process. Learning and Teaching Community-Based Research shows that CBR can also operate as an innovative pedagogical practice, engaging community members, research experts, and students.

This collection is an unmatched source of information on the theory and practice of using CBR in a variety of university- and community-based educational settings. Developed at and around the University of Victoria, and with numerous examples of Indigenous-led and Indigenous-focused approaches to CBR, Learning and Teaching Community Based-Research will be of interest to those involved in community outreach, experiential learning, and research in non-university settings, as well as all those interested in the study of teaching and learning.

 

Training accounts and tax relief for learning

A Guardian article this week explored the question, “Funding cuts, policy changes and careers advice: how are colleges faring

The article featured a response from Ruth Spelman:

“We want to start adult learning accounts, to which individuals, employers and individuals could contribute,” explains Ruth Spellman, chief executive of the Workers’ Educational Association. “Getting [adult learners] started is often the most difficult bit so it’s resource intensive.” Given that specialist adult providers need to invest so much upfront to boost confidence and help people overcome false starts, having some certainty that they can actually afford a course – both for the college and the individual involved – is vital to ensure older learners feel able to take advantage of educational opportunities.

Ruth is highlighting one of the issues raised in the WEA’s Manifesto as its second recommendation:

Manifesto rec 2

The WEA calls on employers and the government to help people into work and once there to encourage skills development through training accounts and tax relief for learning. The WEA also calls on central and local government and public agencies to ensure that procurement activities reduce in-work poverty through the promotion of the Living Wage.

This is a summary reminder of all the recommendations in the WEA Manifesto:

manifestrecs

You can download the Manifesto here or read it online in issuu format here.

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.

Lessons will be learnt…..democracy and political education

Last week included the International Day of Democracy and the dramatic climax of Scotland’s independence referendum. Education for citizenship, democracy and social justice has never been more relevant as politicians, commentators and the public rake over recent events and the implications for the future of Scotland, England and the United Kingdom.

Three strong messages have emerged during the Scottish referendum campaign.

  • People are interested in politics when debate is brought alive, involves them and when they can see that their vote can make a real difference.
  • Westminster politicians are seen as remote and disconnected from the public. This is not just a Scottish phenomenon.
  • People don’t trust politicians to keep their promises.

Analysis of the UK Parliament’s make up gives a clue about why Members of Parliament might seem distant from the electorate, as this diagram from “Elitist Britain” shows.

“Lessons will be learnt”, has to become more than just a mantra trotted out when politicians are short of an excuse or explanation. There is a role for adult education to:

  • encourage informed debate of political issues outside the narrow confines of political parties;
  • make sure that voters are not just informed, but are involved and active in exploring how democratic – and non-democratic – political systems work so that they can hold politicians to account;
  • support the development of a new and more inclusive generation of politicians who are more representative of the electorate that they serve.

ConcernWe might find some answers in a return to the principle of representative democracy, with people from communities developing the skills and expertise to stand for election by their local peers. Practical political education can support people to learn about critical thinking, communications, analysis, debating and public speaking skills so that they can become confidently active in democratic decision-making.

The WEA is one of thirty member organisations who have joined together in the “Democracy Matters” alliance to promote practical political education.  This graphic explains our shared aim.

DM

The Scottish electorate has shown that there is an appetite for public debate and exchanges of views about economics, health, education, welfare, equality, employment, energy production, nuclear weapons and the issues that matter to people. They want to influence decisions that affect them and realise that our current political system is neither representative nor fully democratic. Surely a politician elected by  – and from – his or her community to be their advocate will be less remote than a career politician dropped into a safe seat to keep their chosen party in power.

It’s a long time since people have been engaged so fervently in political debate and the turnout in the Scottish referendum gives an opportunity to revitalise our democracy. Can we afford to waste it?

Catching up on adult education news

Getting back into adult education networks after the summer? These links might help in catching up on some useful reading to get back in the groove again.

WEAConf13-58

  • Brian Creese’s contribution to the Institute of Education’s blog, “Adult education: a fundamental good”, is an excellent read. Read it here.
  • Writing on the DEMOS blog, Neil Stevenson argues that ESOL policy needs a re-think. Read it here. The Independent has a commentary on the DEMOS report here.
  • Adult Learners’ Week award winner, Amy King, is becoming an active social media advocate for adult education, tweeting as @GlamChem. You can watch and be inspired by a short film about her here.
  • GCSEs, Class and Inequality are the themes of Paul Stanistreet’s blog here.
  • Research by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills finds that, “Family learning is good for improving adult language and maths skills, but also has a wider impact.” Read BIS research paper 108 here.
  • A recent book by Frank Coffield, Cristina Costa, Walter Müller and John Webber introduces the term Bulimia Academia. You can find out more about the book, “Beyond Bulimic Learning – Improving teaching in further education” here.
  • Finally, in case you missed the WEA Manifesto or want to read it again, you can find the link here.

Any thoughts on issues covered in these links or suggestions of other news we might have missed?

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.)