A call to action on adult education

The fourth Global Report on Adult Learning and Education (GRALE 4) is published today by the UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning. Edited by John Field and Ellen Boeren, the report focuses on participation in adult education, highlighting the need for countries to do more to expand and widen participation, notably through increased investment and the development of policies that target the poorest and most vulnerable. Furthermore, it stresses the wide benefits of adult education (a theme of GRALE 3) and its potential contribution to a range of different agendas captured in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its 17 goals. The strong message of the report for the international policy community is that without action on adult education, in the form of better data, renewed political will, increased funding and better targeting of poor and excluded groups, we will not only fail to achieve the Sustainable Development Goal on education (SDG 4) but also jeopardise progress against the others.

Perhaps the most troubling finding of the report is that participation of already marginalised groups is advancing at a slower rate than that of other parts of the population, thus reinforcing deep and already entrenched inequalities. The lowest increases in participation were reported for adults with disabilities, older adults and minority groups. In a range of countries, adult education provision was found to have decreased for vulnerable groups such as adults with disabilities and people living in remote or rural areas. In too many cases, the report says, disadvantaged and vulnerable groups simply do not participate in adult learning and education. The problem is compounded by how little we know about these groups and their engagement with adult education. More than a third of countries reported not knowing the ALE participation rates of minority groups, refugees and migrants, for example. This lack of data represents a significant impediment to engaging vulnerable groups and ensuring provision is designed with their needs in mind. Clearly, we are some way from realising the 2030 Agenda’s ambitious commitment to ‘leave no one behind’ in pursuit of sustainable development.

The funding picture is similarly depressing. Investment is inadequate, not only in low-income countries but also in lower middle income and in high-income countries. Nearly 20 per cent of countries reported spending less than 0.5 per cent of their education budgets on adult learning and education while a further 14 per cent reported spending less than 1 per cent. As the report points out, under-investment hits socially disadvantaged adults the hardest. It also hampers the implementation of new policies and efficient governance practices. Some very limited progress is being made on funding but it is insufficient. Less than a third of countries (28 per cent) reported that ALE spending had increased as a proportion of the education budget since 2015, with 17 per cent reporting a decrease and 41 per cent reporting no progress. Low-income countries were more likely to report a decrease than an increase. Clearly, the stated intention to increase national spending on adult education, reported by almost two-thirds of countries in GRALE 3, has not been translated into action. Adult education remains under-funded and strikingly little is being done to change this.

The report also examines progress in different subject areas (drawing on the three fields of learning set out in UNESCO’s 2015 Recommendation on Adult Learning and Education). It found that while countries reported significant progress in the quality of literacy and basic skills and continuing training and professional development, progress in citizenship education (including liberal, popular and community education) was negligible. Only 2 per cent of 111 responding countries reported progress in developing quality criteria for curricula in citizenship education, for example, and no more than 3 per cent of countries reported improvements against any quality criterion for this field of learning. Participation in adult education for citizenship was also very low compared to the other fields of learning, with progress likewise slower. These are important, if unsurprising, findings. They suggest that citizenship education, so important in promoting democratic values, critical thinking, respect for human rights, solidarity, tolerance and social cohesion, remains very much the poor relation compared to literacy and basic skills and vocational education. Yet the need is urgent. Not only do we need more and better-targeted investment, we need to reconsider what we think is valuable in and about education and recognise that participation has public, social and civic benefits, as well as economic ones.

The UK was among the 46 countries that did not respond to the survey. However, the picture assembled from the 159 countries that did respond will resonate strongly here. Participation in adult education in the UK has been in steep decline for more than a decade, as the annual NIACE/Learning and Work Institute surveys demonstrate. The 2019 survey found that only one in three adults (35 per cent) had taken part in learning in the past three years, the lowest figure recorded since the survey began in 1996. Participation is substantially lower (20 per cent) among people from lower social grades (DE), with 48 per cent of people in social grades AB reporting participation. The gap has widened by three percentage points in the past year. These findings are unsurprising, given the extent to which governments have been prepared to cut adult education funding, on every front. The adult skills budget was cut by 40 per cent between 2010 and 2016, prompting the Association of Colleges to warn that further education provision for adults in the UK could disappear entirely by 2020, while part-time and mature study has also fallen dramatically since the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition introduced its costly reforms to higher education in 2011. Part-time higher education student numbers fell by 56 per cent in just five years from 2010 and there are more than 1 million fewer adults in further education now than there were in 2010.

The scale of these cuts, carried out under the ideological cover of austerity, is remarkable and unprecedented. They have been accompanied by a policy obsession, introduced by Labour and intensified under successive coalition and Conservative governments, with ‘world class skills’, seen as the key to improving Britain’s stagnating productivity levels. This bias has meant a progressive narrowing of the curriculum, at every level of education, while opportunities for adults to study for reasons other than basic skills and employability have shrunk significantly. The result is a crisis not only of provision but of also value. We start from a depressingly low base, both practically and philosophically.

For this reason, I particularly welcome the emphasis given in GRALE 4 to the wider benefits of adult education – civic, democratic, social, personal and community, as well as economic – and its insistence that governments recognise ‘the role of citizenship education in tackling the broader social issues that shape participation in ALE’ and take ‘an integrated, inter-sectoral and inter-ministerial approach to governance’. The high degree of obfuscation, concealment, distortion and downright lying that has characterised the general election campaign makes a compelling case for more political education and a particular focus on media literacy. To quote the 1919 Report, the centenary of which has sparked renewed interest in lifelong learning in the UK, adult education is ‘an inseparable aspect of citizenship’. An ‘uneducated democracy’, it continues, ‘cannot be other than a failure’.

As GRALE 4 also shows, the challenges we face – demographic, technological, democratic and environmental – make a very clear case for more, not less adult education, throughout life and in all the different contexts in which adults learn. Many of these challenges are global, though their weighting varies from country to country. In the UK, they include:

  • low levels of adult skills, particularly at a basic level (as the report of the Centenary Commission on Adult Education notes, 9 million British adults of working age have low basic skills, while people aged between 16 and 25 have on average worse literacy and numeracy skills than those aged 30 to 45);
  • social and economic inequality, both within and between regions, and the tendency for disadvantage to be passed on from one generation to the next;
  • technological change in the workplace and the changing nature of work more generally;
  • the democratic crisis, the decline of the public sphere and the emergence of populism in mainstream politics;
  • climate change and the need to find greener, more sustainable ways of living and working; and
  • demographic change.

Demographic change – the UK’s ageing population – has for some time been the elephant in the room in British education policy debate. Like many other countries in the developed world, the UK will have to fill a much higher proportion of the jobs of the future through retraining the adult population rather than through the recruitment of new school leavers. This means giving adults more opportunities to learn new skills or update existing ones, to remain active and engaged in learning for longer, and to access second-chance education in the community. Yet, against all of these indicators of progress, we have in fact been going backwards, and quite consciously, it seems to me. The UK is not alone in this. GRALE 4 suggests older adults continue to be a low priority in education planning and policy-making in most countries in the world.

The UK, in common with the other United Nations member states that signed up to the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, is committed to ensuring ‘inclusive and equitable quality education’ and promoting ‘lifelong learning opportunities for all’ (SDG 4). There are some signs that, as a country, we are waking up to the value of adult education and lifelong learning. With Brexit looming, there is growing recognition that the UK will have to rely to a greater extent on homegrown skills, and this is reflected in Labour’s plans for free adult education up to Level 3, the Conservatives’ national retraining scheme and the Liberal Democrats’ promise to give every adult a ‘skills wallet’ worth £10,000 to spend on education or training. There have also been party commissions on lifelong learning and, of course, the Centenary Commission on Adult Education, the final report of which argues for ‘universal and lifelong’ access to adult education and sets out a range of recommendations intended not only to increase participation in adult education in all its forms but also to increase the cohesion and cross-sectoral coordination of the work. As commission member, Sir Alan Tuckett, noted recently in the TES:

[T]he first and most critical of the commission’s 18 recommendations is that government should lead in developing a national adult education and lifelong learning strategy that secures the engagement of the whole of government and recognises the vital importance of devolving decision-making.

This is an important principle and relates, again, to a key recommendation of the GRALE report, to promote ‘an integrated, inter-sectoral and inter-ministerial approach to governance to enable Member States to realize the wider benefits of adult education to the greatest extent possible’. The report also acknowledges that devolved decision-making ‘helps to better serve the needs of adults, businesses and stakeholders in the local community’. This reflects a recognition, also present in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, that the SDGs must ‘be addressed in a sensitively holistic way if they are to fulfil their potential to transform the lives of the most vulnerable and excluded people on the planet’. That means understanding the crucial role of adult education in achieving not only SDG 4, but also other key goals recognised in the other 16 SDGs, including those on climate change, poverty, health and wellbeing, gender equality, decent work and economic growth, and sustainable cities and communities. Achieving all of these goals demands an adult population that is informed, adaptable, resilient, creative, willing to learn and prepared to shape change, at home and in their communities, as well as nationally and globally. And this requires a system of lifelong learning capable of delivering ‘holistic, integrated solutions’, that enables all adults to learn throughout their lives, whatever their social background or income, wherever they live or work, whatever life happens to have thrown at them up to now, fostering values and competences fitted to the challenges and complexities of the modern world.

I hope, this time, that adult education will get the kind of sustained and thoughtful policy attention – and funding – it deserves.

 

 

 

 

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