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.

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.