‘Knowledge is power’: adult education and community development

At the start of the summer I visited a project in Ely, one of the poorest districts in Cardiff and, indeed, in the whole of the UK – an area with a population of 30,000 people but not a single bank. The project was inspirational for me, demonstrating the remarkable resilience and creativity of people faced with odds which, in our unequal and socially immobile society, could understandably be viewed as insurmountable. It also, I felt, offered a powerful illustration of the capacity of adult education to reinvigorate lives and communities – giving people the confidence and know-how to act on their sense of civic duty – and of the difference adult education can make to a range of critical policy agendas, from employability to neighbourhood renewal.

I write in more detail about the project here. Briefly, a group of mums from Ely’s most disadvantaged neighbourhood – an area still scarred by the rioting and petrol bombing of the early 1990s – came together in 2006 to learn IT skills to better support their children through school. They used their IT skills to self-publish their own local newsletter, the Grand Avenue Times, from which the group took its name. More women joined as a result, and, with the support of the local authority adult learning service and a range of other partners, including the Open University and the Workers’ Educational Association, the group put on more courses, using disused rooms at their local school – rooms they renovated using some of the practical and craft skills they had learned.

Some of the women took peer education classes to pass on their new skills to other women, while others became advocates for their community. Members of the group found work as a result of their involvement, others started volunteering, but all of them reported an increased sense of confidence and self-belief, frequently manifested in a desire to make their communities better places in which to live. ‘Knowledge is power’ became the group’s self-consciously assertive slogan. All of the women had a story to tell about how they had reached this point in their lives. One had learned to read and write through her involvement with the group; another overcame depression and weaned herself of anti-depressant drugs. All found learning stimulating and transformational. Yet few, if any, would have had the confidence to take a further education course in a more formal setting.

What does the experience of this group and its members – an experience echoed in the work of community-based education projects across the country – tell us about the role adult education, and community adult education, in particular, can play in responding to the challenges faced by communities like Ely. I think it’s possible to pick out three overarching themes, familiar to community adult educators wherever they work, which position adult educators at the heart of the civic renewal agenda: engagement; developing community capacity and self-reliance; and taking learning outside the classroom.

The Grand Avenue Times (GAT) group had particular success in engaging in learning individuals furthest away from formal education; those often termed ‘hard to reach’. The key to this success was that the project was firmly planted in the immediate environment. It started where people were in their lives, in terms both of location and outlook. It began with things that concerned them, that mattered to them (and what matters more to parents than their children’s futures?). The local authority supported the group, but it came to its meetings with a listening brief, careful always to ask what learning would benefit them before working with partner providers and funders to deliver the courses. It demonstrated that course topic needn’t be a barrier to adult education with a genuine social purpose. The important thing was to begin with what engages and interests people. GAT started with a conversation in a playground about how the mums could better support their children’s learning. Blackburn with Darwen Council’s much-lauded success in engaging Asian men in learning began by getting someone to spend time in a local mosque simply listening to people talk about the learning they were interested in doing. In this case, a swimming class was the hook from which a wide-ranging programme of opportunities developed.

Cardiff’s adult learning service ensured that listening was not a one-off exercise but formed part of an ongoing process, developing genuinely self-directed learning intended to build community capacity and eventual self-reliance. Students were encouraged to think about new courses – new skills they wanted to develop – and what would be good for them as a group to learn. Working as a group proved to be an effective way of building confidence, developing cooperative behaviour and boosting learners’ sense of agency and negotiation skills, while gradually building networks of peer support. The aim from the start was that the group should be self-sustaining, a permanent network within the Ely community, giving local people real voice, real agency, and helping bring about change at grassroots level. Along the way, the group developed its own social enterprise, selling some of the craft work they made on their courses, and undertook a range of initiatives to support and champion local causes. The women took stronger roles in their own families, some reporting that they were now more active participants in their children’s educations. The network of support that developed extended beyond the classroom, with members of the group helping one another through personal difficulties. Often, the women were called upon to act as advocates for other parents in the community.

From the start, as soon as the GAT women were given an opportunity to reflect on what they would like to learn, they made their learning community-focused. They wanted to take their learning out of the classroom and into the community. The desire to use what they were learning to effect change in their community intensified as the group developed, to the point where some of the women trained to be community advocates to take their model of learning into the wider community. Successful learners are an incredibly useful resource, not least because they are very often keen to give something back to their communities, frequently by sharing their experiences and acting as champions for learning. As such, they can be a critical first point of contact for other learners. Often, in deprived areas such as Ely, there is insularity, and resistance to guidance from strangers, however well-intentioned – yet, if it is someone ‘from the street’, people are more likely to listen, to appreciate the difference learning has made to someone else’s life, and to become engaged themselves. The willingness of people in the community to approach GAT members suggests a real though rarely articulated desire for learning and connection.

Satisfying the thirst people in these communities feel for solidarity and connection won’t come from top-down politics – it will only come from the bottom up, and education is crucial in this process. This is increasingly recognised by movements for social change. There has been an explosion of interest in self-directed learning and in the linkage between education and social change. Occupy London’s Tent City University is a great example of a spontaneous educational intervention seen by its organisers as a necessary adjunct to social progress. Elsewhere, the free university movement is looking to revive the extra-mural tradition for a new age. Adult educators need to be at the heart of these developments, keeping social purpose at the core of their approach but also ensuring that the learning on offer is relevant to the lives and concerns of the students, acting as mentor and catalyst for this sort of flourishing of self-organised learning.

This is not to say that adult education alone can tackle the problems facing our most disadvantaged and marginalised communities. The issues they face are far too complex for that. But it does have a clear and critical role to play, in partnership with a range of other agencies, including schools, voluntary and community sector organisations, local authorities, health and social care professionals, youth workers, the careers service and other education providers. As the GAT group demonstrates, this role is far from negligible. Adult learning is often the critical intervention in an individual’s life journey. Stories such as this one demonstrate that people are capable of change, that learning is infectious, and that, given the opportunity, learners will work to make their communities better places in which to live. They show that adult education should feature prominently in any genuinely joined-up thinking about social inclusion and community development.

Why ‘The Learning Age’?

The name of this blog echoes the title of Labour’s 1998 Green Paper, The Learning Age: A renaissance for a new Britain, the foreword to which remains one of the most powerful statements of the wider value of adult education ever made. Certainly, it is the most passionate and expansive vision yet set out by a serving Secretary of State. For me, however, the paper is also a marker for how far political aspiration for the creation of what David Blunkett, then Secretary of State for Education and Employment, termed a ‘learning society’ has declined.

It is worth reminding ourselves of what Mr Blunkett said. Learning, he wrote, was ‘the key to prosperity’, both for individuals and for the nation as a whole, and that was why the government was putting it ‘at the heart of its ambition’. The disappearance of old certainties and the emergence of new jobs and new skills needs meant that the fostering of an ‘enquiring mind’ and the love of learning were ‘essential to our future success’:

To achieve stable and sustainable growth, we will need a well-educated, well-equipped and adaptable labour force. To cope with rapid change and the challenge of the information and communication age, we must ensure that people can return to learning throughout their lives. We cannot rely on a small elite, no matter how highly educated or highly paid. Instead, we need the creativity, enterprise and scholarship of all our people.

As well as securing our economic future, learning has a wider contribution. It helps make ours a civilised society, develops the spiritual side of our lives and promotes active citizenship. Learning enables people to play a full part in their community. It strengthens the family, the neighbourhood and consequently the nation. It helps us fulfil our potential and opens doors to a love of music, art and literature. That is why we value learning for its own sake as well as for the equality of opportunity it brings.

This was stirring stuff and made a strong impression on a sector which had grown used to political neglect and to making the most out of very little in the way of public support. However, while the paper led to a number of important innovations – notably, the University for Industry, the Trade Union Learning Fund and individual learning accounts – by the middle of the next decade Labour’s vision had significantly narrowed.

The welter of new initiatives launched by Mr Blunkett included the creation, in 2001, of the Learning and Skills Council (LSC), a new government agency responsible for the planning and funding for further education in England. It replaced the 72 Training and Enterprise Councils and the Further Education Funding Council. The remit given to the LSC broadly endorsed the vision for adult education set out in The Learning Age. Its 2001–02 grant letter stressed the importance of increasing and widening participation in learning, particularly among ‘disadvantaged’ groups, and urged the provision of ‘more learning opportunities based in the community and voluntary sectors for adults in disadvantaged communities’. But many in the sector were disappointed that the LSC decided not to implement the mooted adult participation target.

It soon became clear that the LSC’s first priority was to meet the skills needs of the economy. At the same time, departmental priorities within the government were becoming increasingly centralised. In 2001, the Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit was established to monitor key priorities around education, health, crime and transport. The unit focused departments’ attention on headline Public Service Agreement (PSA) targets. For adult learning these were: a Skills for Life target; new goals for Level 3 (university entrance and skilled technician level); and, for higher education, a controversial commitment to secure progress towards a 50 per cent participation rate by age 30.

Over time, the effect of the targets was to shift focus away from adult learning in all its complexity and untidiness, towards a narrow set of pre-established outcomes, leading to a constriction in the breadth of adult learning opportunities. The government’s 2003 skills strategy white paper, 21st Century Skills: Realising our Potential, underlined the sea change that was taking place in government policy on lifelong learning. From 2003 the policy was to seek equality and fairness through economic modernisation, with far less emphasis on the importance of widening participation in pursuit of a fair and inclusive society. Work, the argument went, was the most effective route out of poverty, and adult learning’s primary role was to strengthen the UK’s position as one of the world’s leading economies. It was a trend that was to gather pace over the course of the decade, as the expansive vision of The Learning Age was succeeded by the narrower, more utilitarian approach to adult learning that was characteristic of education and skills policy in the later years of New Labour.

By early 2005, despite greatly increased investment in further education narrowly defined, wider adult education was facing a crisis, as funding for learning sitting outside the national qualifications framework was squeezed. A second skills strategy White Paper, Skills: Getting on in business, getting on at work, was published in March 2005. It built on the 2003 strategy and consolidated efforts to put employers’ needs centre stage in the design and delivery of training. It announced the implementation of a National Employer Training Programme to give employers rather than providers the power to determine how public funds were best to be spent to meet business priorities, and launched a new flagship training programme, Train to Gain. In return for free and flexibly funded training, employers were expected to allow employees enough time at work to undertake their studies. The Skills for Life programme was given a new target of 2.25 million adults achieving recognised literacy and numeracy skills by 2010.

Later that year, Sir Andrew Foster published the results of his government-commissioned review of further education. His report, Realising the potential: The future role of further education colleges, called on colleges to focus more sharply on employability and the supply of economically valuable skills. A ‘less equivocal and clearly articulated vision, and a more identifiable “brand”’ would ‘galvanise strategic thinking, stimulate an unswerving passion about quality and transform the sector’s reputation,’ Sir Andrew said. Ruth Kelly, then Secretary of State for Education and Skills, welcomed the report, agreeing that the ‘building of skills’ was the ‘primary purpose’ of further education colleges. The White Paper that followed accepted the main recommendations and established a new mission for the sector: ‘to help people gain the skills and qualifications for employability’.

The following year saw the publication of Prosperity for all in the global economy: world class skills, the much-anticipated final report of the Treasury-commissioned Leitch Review of Skills. The report provided an overview of the UK’s skills landscape and an estimate of the optimal skills mix necessary to maximise economic growth and social justice. It recommended a range of skills targets for 2020, including: 95 per cent of adults to achieve the basic skills of functional literacy and numeracy; exceeding 90 per cent of adults qualified to at least Level 2; 1.9 million additional Level 3 attainments over the period; boosting the number of apprentices to 500,000 a year; and exceeding 40 per cent of adults qualified to Level 4 and above, up from 29 per cent in 2005.

The Leitch review foresaw that responsibility for achieving targets would be shared between government, employers and individuals. The three stakeholders would need to increase action and investment and focus their efforts on economically valuable skills. Leitch recommended that the way forward was to build on existing structures while, at the same time, modifying the system to make it more demand-led and responsive to future market needs. Leitch’s view that driving up qualifications was the critical factor in improving economic productivity was accepted uncritically and taken up enthusiastically by the government.

With public investment focusing narrowly on provision supporting the achievement of national targets, opportunities for adults to learn were narrowing rapidly. NIACE’s 2008 survey of adult participation in learning showed that fewer adults were learning than at any time since Labour came to power in 1997, and, while some of the least skilled were benefiting from the skills strategy, it was clear that the price of this was a decline in the number of adults overall engaged in publicly funded provision. More than 1.4 million adults had been lost in the two years between 2005–05 and 2006–07, with the biggest loss among older learners. The passion of The Learning Age was by this point a fairly distant memory.

The coalition government came into power in May 2010 and Adults Learning published an early interview with the new Prime Minister. David Cameron told readers that learning was not ‘just about consuming chunks of knowledge in order to be able to do a job’ but was also ‘about broadening the mind, giving people self-belief, strengthening the bonds of community’, adding:

Given that my vision for this country is for us all to get involved and play our part in national renewal, I believe adult learning and the way it inspires people is crucially important.

The interview was later quoted in Parliament by new Minister of State for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning John Hayes, who reiterated the government’s commitment to ‘adult and community learning’. Mr Hayes used his first speech in office to explain that adult education ‘brings hope and the promise of a better society founded on social mobility, social justice and social cohesion’. His words echoed the spirit of The Learning Age so powerfully conjured in David Blunkett’s foreword to the 1998 Green Paper.

So, what has come of the coalition’s good intentions? Mr Hayes’ commitment – and that of his Secretary of State Vince Cable – was reflected in the protection of the £210 million Adult Safeguarded Learning budget (which funds personal and community development learning, family literacy, language and numeracy, wider family learning and neighbourhood learning in deprived communities) in the coalition’s first Comprehensive Spending Review in October 2010. Elsewhere, the coalition’s first few months in office saw a significant shift in funding responsibility for education away from the state to the individual. Institutions and local authorities had to manage significant cuts in public funding, while adapting creatively to new priorities, freedoms and responsibilities. The tough spending settlement created a difficult environment for adult learning but there were encouraging signs in the political attention given to the sector by the new government and the promise of new freedoms and flexibilities for providers. It was now widely accepted that Labour had gone too far in imposing top-down controls and centralised accountability in the sector.

Despite these positive signs, and the welcome recognition of the wider value of adult learning, participation in learning has continued to decline. A Unison survey, published on 26 July 2012, revealed ‘the devastating impact government funding cuts are having on learners and staff’, with more than 60 per cent of the 248 further education colleges surveyed reporting that they had had to close courses – ranging from A-levels to part-time adult learning – as a result of budget cuts and changes to funding eligibility rules. The survey also revealed a drop in enrolment figures for this academic year – with nearly 70 per cent of respondents reporting a fall in admissions. And while the government has made a few welcome concessions, the withdrawal of public funding and the planned introduction of further education loans for older learners at Level 3 and above are likely to exacerbate an already troubling set of circumstances.

Elsewhere in the system, key strands of the government’s reform programme appear to undermine rather than support its stated objectives to widen access to education and improve social mobility. There has been some good news – the introduction of HE loans for part-time students, for example, an important step towards levelling the playing field with full-timers, and the emphasis on student voice. But these gains are too often undone by the consequences of other policy interventions – the tripling of tuition fees, the removal of the teaching grant for the humanities and social sciences, and the decision to allow institutions to recruit an unlimited number of students with A-level grades of ABB or above – all moves that will make it harder for students from non-traditional backgrounds to access the sort of university experience their more privileged counterparts take for granted. The impact of these policies can be seen in the decline in full-time HE applications from prospective students over the age of 21 (and in particular in those from applicants aged over 23).

What is needed, now more than ever, I believe, is a strategy for lifelong learning, a stable overarching framework – such as the one Labour promised in 1998 but did not, in the end, deliver. We need a coherent, life-wide plan that recognises that adult education is not an optional extra, but a social, democratic and economic necessity; a system that is genuinely responsive to what adults want to learn and the way in which they wish to study. It is vital that in formulating education policy the government takes into account all aspects of the system that supports adults into learning, including adult and community learning, further and higher education and work-based learning, and recognises their interconnectedness. In this area of policy, perhaps more than any other, it is critical that parts of the system are not viewed in isolation but as part of a wider framework of lifelong learning. Such a framework, I believe, should be a critical part of a vision for national renewal and a key strand of any long-term strategy for recovery.

Achieving a better articulation of the way in which the different elements of the system relate to each other is crucial when it comes to widening participation and improving social mobility – both stated aims of the government. It is critically important that efforts to help people to achieve these ambitions do not fall foul of the unintended consequences of decisions made in other parts of the system. In a society facing unprecedented change – a society struggling for a better sense of itself – education has a vital, but largely unfulfilled, part to play in achieving what Raymond Williams termed the ‘truly radical’ goal of making ‘hope possible rather than despair convincing’. In this blog I hope to make the case for the importance of educational opportunity at every stage of life – particularly for those adults who have had the least previous opportunity and who have benefited least from education – and to demonstrate how coherence across the system can make a difference to policy agendas such as social mobility, citizenship and fair access. Along the way I hope to offer a few thoughts and ideas which might contribute to a sketch for a new vision of a learning age. And I invite others to contribute their ideas too.