Tag Archives: adult education

Disadvantage, inequality and social mobility: It’s not just about schools

‘Our society is stuck in a rut on social mobility,’ writes Institute of Education Director Becky Francis in a blog post published this week. Despite the efforts of successive governments, she writes, ‘the gap between young people from disadvantaged backgrounds and their peers … in education, income, housing, health … continues to yawn’.

Professor Francis cites a wealth of recent evidence to prove her point, including a report from the Education Policy Institute which shows that the most disadvantaged pupils in England are on average more than two full years of learning behind their better-off counterparts by the time they leave secondary school; and statistics from the Department for Education which indicate no improvement in the gap in university entry between those who received free school meals and those who did not in the seven years between 2008-09 and 2014-15. An estimated 24 per cent of pupils who were in receipt of free school meals at 15 had entered higher education by age 19 by 2015-15, compared to 41 per cent of the rest.

This makes for depressing reading, but it is not particularly surprising. While social mobility has been near the top of the political agenda in the UK for some time, efforts to tackle it have been half-hearted, at best, often loading pressure on the education system to turn around problems which are much wider and much more fundamental. This isn’t to say that the problems are insoluble or difficult to comprehend – just that solving them will take a much bigger effort and a much profounder change to the organization of our society than politicians like to pretend. In many cases, I am sorry to say, politicians have offered ‘solutions’, talked about ‘magic bullets’, in the full knowledge that they are nothing the sort. In fact, as they probably well know, the assumptions they accept about the limits of what it is possible to do make meaningful change to social mobility at best highly unlikely, at worst quite impossible. Despite years of overheated rhetoric, rather than narrowing, disparities in income, education and health look set to rise as we enter a further period of needless and self-inflicted austerity.

Professor Francis makes an eloquent case that, from a schools perspective, the key policy change should be ‘to find ways to support and incentivise the quality of teaching in socially disadvantaged neighbourhoods’. This is important. I have direct experience of the difference a really talented, committed teacher can make to students’ lives and aspirations, albeit in a further education context, and I have seen the difference poor teachers can make, from school to higher education. It is clear that successfully incentivizing the best teachers to work in the most deprived schools, by whatever means, will make an important difference to outcomes. And it is evident, as Professor Francis also argues, that early-years interventions are often the most effective and best sustained.

But it is clear too that these, as isolated interventions, will have limited impact. Making a deep and lasting impact requires that we turn around the social and political trends that arrest and make more difficult social progress of this sort. The most obvious of these is the entrenched inequality that has come to characterise our society in past decades. There is a clear correlation between inequality and social mobility: the more unequal a society is the less socially mobile it is. And the UK is among the most unequal societies in the industrialised world. Part of the problem is that the rungs of the ladder have become too distant from one another and the cost of failing and falling down a rung becomes greater and greater. This partly explains why education has become such a high-pressure, high-stakes game, one which middle-class families have become adept at playing, further squeezing the life chances of the children of the less well off. It also helps explain why working-class students are happy to take on heavy debts to access higher education: in the high-stakes, anxiety-ridden education system we have created, the enormous costs of failing make the payment of exorbitant fees – the highest anywhere in the world – appear reasonable. The combination of such profound inequality with a gameable system and the pervasive myth of meritocracy – cultivated by politicians including Prime Minister Theresa May – is incredibly toxic.

Its impact can be readily recognised in the failure of elite universities to widen access to their institutions. A report from the Reform think tank, published this week, showed that England’s leading universities had made ‘incredibly slow’ progress in widening access to students from disadvantaged backgrounds, despite spending hundreds of millions of pounds on interventions which, I suspect, have ,in some cases, had more to do with satisfying the Office for Fair Access than making a genuine difference to their student profile. While, overall, English universities have increased access for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, the progress, predictably enough, has been skewed towards ‘lower- and middle-tier universities’, while the elite institutions live down to their reputation (hugely alienating from the perspective of prospective working-class students) as finishing schools for the already-privileged. The most dramatic gap obtains between private school students and those from state schools. In 2014-15, 65 per cent of independent school students entered a highly selective HEI by age 19, compared to 23 per cent of state school students, a gap of 42 percentage points (the gap was 39 percentage points in 2008-09). The tremendous loss of talent this represents is evidently thought a price worth paying for preserving the privileges of the fortunate few.

The fees regime, introduced by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition in 2010, frequently vaunted as being an agent of fairer access (a myth that can only be maintained by ignoring huge swathes of evidence in favour of the bits you like), has, in fact, been a pretty much unmitigated and indefensible disaster in terms of widening access, not only creating what is effectively a two-tier university system but resulting in a 56 per cent collapse in part-time (mostly mature) student numbers and obliging the Open University, once a genuine agent of progressive social change, to massively inflate its fees, shutting yet further doors in the faces of working-class students. Its overall impact has been to make higher education more expensive for poorer students than for their richer counterparts while making the prospects of an ‘elite’ higher education seem yet more remote for working-class students who, despite the resistance of these institutions to admitting them, generally outperform more privileged counterparts with comparable grades.

It isn’t just mature and part-time higher study that has fallen into steep decline since 2010. Successive governments have made swingeing cuts to further education, and to adult skills, in particular, leading some experts to predict the imminent death of publicly funding adult FE. Only the activism of unions and representative groups, alongside the belated recognition that maybe training our homegrown talent wouldn’t be a bad idea in a post-Brexit, post-free movement Britain, have prevented adult education in FE from disappearing altogether. At the same time, as John Holford noted in a recent article, the narrowing of further education’s mission to a Gradgrind-like economic utilitarianism has made it increasingly difficult for colleges to fulfil their wider remit in their communities. The message to working-class students and prospective students from working-class backgrounds, wherever they study, could not be clearer: stick to what you know and keep your aspirations low. Aspire to a job and leave the joys of a broader, liberal education to those who can afford it. Hardly the stuff of an aspirational, learning society.

This constriction in opportunities for young people and adults has a major impact on the aspirations and achievements of children. As I have argued before, the role of the family is absolutely critical in breaking the intergenerational cycle of poverty. Family learning has a frequently neglected but hugely important role to play in motivating children and adults to learn, creating learning environments within the home and setting an example that can prove infectious. The restoration of funding for adult education should be part of a wider national effort to promote social mobility and combat inequality. This should also include a general increase in levels of investment in education, including in early years and high-level vocational and technical education (which has never been accorded due respect by UK policy-makers), bringing the UK to the level of comparable nations such as France and Germany, and the scrapping of the costly and dysfunctional fees system in higher education. Crucially, theses interventions should be part of a wider national conversation about how we reduce inequality, improve productivity and boost wages while redistributing wealth more fairly. We also need honest politicians who tell us the truth about the challenges we face and don’t spin us yarns about meritocracy and how education alone can overturn entrenched inequality. I don’t think any of this is rocket science. It just suits some of those who like things the way they are to pretend that it is.

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Education in an age of anxiety

We live in worrying times, don’t we? We test our children remorselessly and from an inappropriately early age because we are worried their performance is falling behind international standards. We send them to school earlier and press them harder than do most comparable countries; we also invest significantly less than most of them, citing our worries about money and the escalating debt. We continually reform our national skills strategy because we worry our skills system is less than ‘world class’ and our economy is becoming uncompetitive, putting huge pressure on further education to adapt and deliver on reduced budgets and under constant threat of a clobbering from our oppressive accountability system. And young people accept the reality of huge post-graduation debts because they fear the even greater costs of failing and slipping down the ladder. Wealthy parents spend a fortune gaming the system because they too are beset by the fear of downward social mobility – a grave risk indeed in our appallingly unequal society.

For very many of us, anxiety is the governing principle of our lives. Young people are wracked with anxiety about how they will ever be in a position to buy a house while those who do own their own homes are often weighed down by huge debts, unable to save or to think about retirement and forced, in many cases, to take on multiple jobs just to stay afloat. In some ways, I think Theresa May, in the brief honeymoon period of her dismal premiership, was right to highlight the plight of those ‘just struggling’ to get by. There are very many people out there who are stretching themselves to breaking point to do no more than simply exist. Where Mrs May was wrong, of course, was in thinking that she and her party were the solution to the problem rather than one of its foremost drivers.

It was, after all, her predecessor in power (another child of privilege so unacquainted with failure he couldn’t imagine it happening to him) who so successfully closed down debate about how much we should spend on public services by promoting the idea that overspending on things like health and education caused the financial crisis (and that another was looming – you know, like Greece – should we even think about spending as much on our children’s education as the Germans or the French spend on theirs). And it is her party that has ratcheted up the testing regime in schools, introduced more selection into schools (bad news and another cause of anxiety unless you can afford to rig the system and of course it is a system designed to be rigged), and made education dizzyingly expensive in a way that we are encouraged to think is financially necessary but which, in fact, is out of kilter with the cost of education in all comparable countries.

And somehow, in the midst all of this, we have voted repeatedly to be governed by those with least comprehension of the day-to-day toll of our anxiety-laden lives; a party of privilege and inherited wealth many senior members of which actively despise those at the bottom of the pile and have never experienced the worry of not knowing where the next meal is coming from or how they will afford a new pair of shoes or school uniform for their kids. Theirs is a different world of trust funds, debt-free liberal education, expensive internships, closed networks, risk-free investment and endless opportunities.

Doubtless they believe these opportunities should be available for them and their children – who wouldn’t – but it is equally clear that they do not want them to be available to us or our children. This is clearer nowhere else than in education. Building on the work of the last Labour government, which introduced and increased tuition fees, narrowed the further education curriculum and limited funding for part-time higher education, the governments of Cameron and May have overseen an enhanced vocationalism in FE and skills, cultivated a greater focus on selection (‘choice’) while reducing the overall budget for state-maintained schools, and created a hugely expensive two-tier system of higher education with elite universities, which offer a traditional liberal arts curriculum, dominated by young people who attended expensive private schools, while the rest, driven in part by anxiety about the career risks of non-vocational study, largely go to less prestigious institutions which offer more practical courses related to a job or vocation.

At the same time as countries such as China and Singapore began investing heavily in lifelong learning, recognizing the critical importance of skills renewal among the adult population and the need for education to prepare people not just for a job but for a life, the UK government, set on reducing the size of the state by any means and at any cost, took a wrecking ball to its own once enviably advanced lifelong learning system. The number of part-time students in higher education has fallen for seven consecutive years; last year alone by eight per cent – an overall decline of 61 per cent since 2010, when the coalition government introduced its funding reforms. The vast majority of part-time students, of course, are mature, adults who are already in the workforce who are combining higher study with a job, a family and other financial commitments.

Unsurprisingly, in this era of escalating anxiety, it is those with the most commitments, financial and otherwise, who have found themselves most excluded by the fees hike and the introduction of loans (this seems to have come as a surprise to the architects of the scheme though it was highlighted as a likely consequence, by NIACE and others, as early as 2010). As most part-time mature students tend also to come from less well-off, non-traditional backgrounds, this decline has also had a – largely unreported – impact on the social mix of our universities and on efforts to widen participation. As Claire Callender writes, the fall ‘has been greatest among older students, those wanting to do “bite size” courses, and those with low-level entry qualifications – all typically “widening participation” candidates.’

This shocking decline has caused barely a wrinkle in the brows of successive universities ministers. The present one, Jo Johnson (another politician who has had to claw his way to the top) has done little to suggest he considers the collapse of part-time higher education to be anything more than a minor inconvenience; regrettable, for sure, but a price worth paying to maintain the integrity of our costly and evidently failing higher education funding system. The line seems to be to stress the system’s relative success in increasing the numbers of young people from less-advantaged backgrounds (though the ‘top’ universities remain stubbornly resistant to change, continuing to act as finishing schools for the children of the very wealthy). Of course, this would look like less like success if part-time students were included in the same calculation – and it starts to look like serious failure if we also consider the institutions to which ‘widening participation’ candidates tend to gravitate.

The picture is no rosier in further education, where the government has savagely reduced the adult education budget to the point where usually conservative commentators were warning of its complete disappearance by 2020. Since then the government has attempted to restore some stability to the budget, but the cuts have been eye-watering, limiting the breadth and quantity of opportunity for older learners. In 2016-16 alone 24 per cent of the budget was cut, on top of year-on-year cuts amounting to 35 per cent of the total adult skills budget between 2009 and 2015. The range of provision on offer has narrowed too, reflecting largely discredited government choices about the skills that are economically useful, but also, I suspect, the tendency of people, driven by anxiety, to opt for courses they think will have a direct economic pay-off. Of course, this approach neglected – and continues to neglect – the importance of a range of other crucial skills, which are important in the workplace and in life more generally, such as resilience, creativity, problem-solving and, perhaps most importantly of all, a love of learning. As this year’s OECD Skills Outlook report suggested, the neglect of such skills makes little economic sense and is almost certainly harmful to productivity, where the UK traditionally performs extremely poorly.

Of course, the anxiety which drives people away from education and into compromised choices which do little justice to their real talents and aspirations, is part of a wider anxiety, fed by cuts to public services, rising household debt, growing inequality, pay restraint, insecure work and rising costs of living. For too long, the question of how much we should spend and on what has been off the agenda, as though we were too impoverished a nation to make serious choices about the kind of society we want to belong to. This year’s general election appears to have opened debate a little wider, though it takes place in the face of bitter resistance from the mainstream media and those who control it (who, by and large, whatever their populist pretentions, are rather happy with a status quo that privileges them and stifles the vast majority). My hope is that we can have a serious national conversation about tax and public spending in spite of this.

An Oxfam inequality index ranked the UK 109th in the world for the proportion of its budget it spends on education – behind the likes of Kazakhstan and Cambodia (no disrespect intended to those nations but the UK is evidently a significantly wealthier country with very well-established education institutions and a well-documented need to increase both its productivity and the basic skills of its population). Oxfam’s report also noted that tuition fees in the UK are the highest in the industrialised world, with the burden of student debt disproportionally borne by poorer students. It noted too that UK corporation tax has been cut further and faster than in most other rich countries, ranking the UK’s tax system 96th in terms of commitment to reduce inequality.

The government has approached Brexit without a plan – even for the Brexit negotiations themselves. Sabre-rattling and political posturing are, it turns out, no preparation for lengthy, complex and highly detailed negotiations across a huge array of topics. Little wonder EU counterparts are privately talking with thinly veiled contempt about David Davis and his team. But the government has let us down in a more profound way. It has purposefully stifled debate about the sort of society we can be, while effecting to have no choice about deliberate and ideologically driven decisions about funding which have had a calamitous impact on people’s lives. In doing so, it has denied hope of change or a better life to many thousands of people.

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Breaking the cycle: The case for investing in family learning

The draft Labour party manifesto, leaked last week, included some good ideas on education, such as the setting up of a national education service, which may turn out to be the one really big idea of Labour’s campaign. The draft manifesto also indicated that, if elected, Labour would do more than previous governments to reduce poverty and promote social mobility, introducing measures to redistribute wealth and using taxation to improve education and health services. Nobody would argue that these improvements depend on money alone – it has to be spent intelligently and in a well-evidenced, joined-up way – but equally there is no denying that by international standards we have invested too little and reformed too much in these areas.

There is welcome attention for lifelong learning and the role of continuous training in improving productivity in the leaked document, reflecting not only a growing recognition among policymakers that this has been neglected, but also the hard work of the likes of Gordon Marsden and David Lammy in forcing the issue up the agenda, nationally and within their own party. What I would have liked to have seen – and hope still to see – is some appreciation of the critical role of the family in bridging the gap between education and poverty reduction and, in particular, a commitment to supporting family learning as part of a coherent set of measures to ensure the effectiveness of educational interventions in addressing social issues such as poverty.

Family learning has been long neglected and, unlike lifelong learning, it is still to emerge from the shadowy margins of education policy thinking. But it feels to me, in many ways, an idea whose time has come. It has been shown to have a significant impact on the attainment of the children who take part in it, and an equally significant impact on their parents – whose desire to better support their children at school can be the hook that gets them back into education. A few years ago, I met a group of mums from Ely, one of the poorest districts in Wales, who got involved in family learning at their children’s school and went on to set up their own community projects, including a neighbourhood newspaper. Whereas at the start of their engagement, some had been afraid even to speak to their children’s teachers in the playground, they had become formidable advocates for their kids and for the community in which they lived. This is a very significant achievement but it is far from unusual. There are projects like this around the country, run by passionate educators, which demonstrate the huge difference family learning can make to the confidence, aspiration and achievement of the hardest-to-reach adults and children.

Just as importantly, family learning strengthens the bonds between the generations, encourages mutual respect and creates a more supportive, cooperative home environment. It allows adults to support their children and set them a positive, inspiring example. It shows children that their parents care about learning and about their learning, and it puts education at the heart of family life. It fosters the habit of learning, and a range of associated skills such as persistence, attentiveness and communication, and it bridges the gap between the classroom and the home, ensuring education does not end at the school gate. Research shows that children stand a better chance in life in their parents participate in learning. And, often, family learning is the key motivator for those the greatest distance from educational engagement. As educational interventions go, it is also inexpensive. And certainly it is much less expensive than dealing with the fall-out of blighted lives and frustrated opportunities in communities in which disadvantage is passed on from generation to generation and hope is in vanishingly short supply.

Family learning should be part of a coherent national approach to work, education and disadvantage that includes better support for further education and lifelong learning and steps to improve access to higher education for people from poorer backgrounds, including adults. Labour’s draft manifesto includes some laudable commitments on this score which should be part of a wider national conversation about how we pay for public services, including education, and whether we should look to increase our spending on areas such as education and health where we lag behind comparable countries. One thing that struck me about Emmanuel Macron’s campaign in France was the new French President’s willingness to put such questions in a sensible and straightforward way and his appreciation of the importance of establishing broad appeal. Yes, of course, you can have more of x, but more of x will be costly and will mean more taxation for some in the population – and that is a decision for us all to take together. If only we would capture some of that tone in UK debate about public services. The UK’s strongly pro-austerity, pro-government media acts like an attack dog at the merest suggestion of an increase in spending, slavering dementedly about ‘fantasy economics’ and ‘magic money trees’. Though it masquerades as serious journalism, this is a major impediment to the kind of debate we desperately need to have.

We need a serious national conversation about whether education, wealth and power should be more evenly distributed in our society. We need to ask whether we want the circumstances of a child’s birth to be the primary determinant of their life chances. To ask such questions isn’t Marxism – it is what politics should be about: priorities and how to pay for them. There has been a concerted effort, over many years, to prevent such a conversation taking place. Perhaps now, with an undeniably real (though for many not especially palatable) choice placed before the UK electorate, we can begin to have one. My fear though is that the divisive, tribal nature of British politics (and the entrenched and very powerful interests that like it that way) will prevent it. Long-term, successful change is impossible without a high degree of consensus, and consensus can only be built through open, inclusive democratic dialogue.

Today is the UN’s Day of Families, a day focused, this year, on the role of families and family-related policies in promoting the education and overall wellbeing of their members. We must ask whether we want to be the sort of society that neglects those families who can’t afford to stump up large sums of money for their children’s education – or the sort of society that values all its people and helps them learn to value themselves. Education must be at the heart of such an enterprise, with the role of family learning in bringing generations together and supporting the growth of more resilient and prosperous communities finally, and fully, recognized. The kind of society I dream of belonging to puts people first, no matter what their background, and invests to help them realize their full potential. That means putting families and how they learn and grow at the heart of our thinking. We should see the wellbeing of families and the opportunities they have to learn as inextricably linked.

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It’s the people, stupid

The OECD’s 2017 Skills Outlook report was published this week. It argued that the world has entered a new stage of globalisation in which countries’ capacity to compete in global markets depends on the willingness of governments to invest in the skills and education of their young people and adults and on the quality and level of the education and training provided. It should be read with concern by policymakers and practitioners from all parts of the education sector – everyone, in short, in a position to influence educational outcomes and strategy. For the UK, the message is clear: only by reversing the recent direction of thinking about policy and investing both in the skills of adults and in the provision of a wider, less rigid curriculum can we hope to remain internationally competitive in this brave, and potentially quite ruthless, new world of ‘global value chains’ and increased labour market volatility.

The report uses the language of economic growth, productivity and skills for employment so familiar from the grinding utilitarianism of recent UK education policy. But it arrives at a very different place: one where people matter more than qualifications and competitiveness emerges not from a narrow focus on employability but from the implementation of a wider curriculum which values so-called soft skills such as communication, self-organisation and, critically, a readiness to continue learning throughout life, alongside strong cognitive skills (literacy, numeracy, problem-solving) and more job-specific, routine skills. I hope education policy-makers in the UK will be open to the possibility that, for quite some time now, they have been headed in the wrong direction.

The position of the UK, as described in the report, is mixed. The UK was ranked ninth out of 28 countries for the proportion of 25- to 64-year-olds in education and training – ahead of the likes of Germany and France but behind Finland, Denmark, New Zealand, the United States and Canada. However, the report also notes that the ‘skills characteristics’ of skilled worked ‘struggle to meet the requirements of the technologically advanced sectors’. These skills characteristics, the report says, needed to ‘better align’ with ‘industries’ skills requirements to maintain or deepen specialisation in these industries’. This kind of specialisation is key to participation in what the OECD terms ‘global value chains’ – in which workers from different countries ‘contribute to the design, production, marketing and sales of the same product’. The report suggests a link between increased participation in global value chains and increases in productivity. To spread such productivity gains across the economy, the report says, all firms, including small firms, need workers with a mix of skills, including cognitive and soft skills.

Productivity has, of course, been a major issue for the UK economy for years. It seems a lifetime ago that then Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne dubbed the UK’s low productivity the main economic challenge of this parliament. Two years on, Osborne has stood down as a Member of Parliament and is editing the Evening Standard, the UK is heading out of the European Union and a new Prime Minister has called another General Election, urging voters to strengthen her hand in a negotiation which looks increasingly likely to lead to a hard Brexit. In this incredibly febrile and fast-changing environment, one thing has not changed, however: productivity remains a key challenge for the United Kingdom, perhaps the key challenge when it comes to achieving a prosperous future for the UK. It is well-known that the UK has a long-standing and growing productivity gap with other western economies. The UK’s Office for National Statistics’ most recent estimate (2014) found the UK’s productivity (output per hour) to be 36 percentage points behind that of Germany.

Intelligent investment in education and skills is key both to improving productivity and ensuring global competitiveness and to the prosperity and wellbeing of individuals and communities (there is an argument from social justice every bit as compelling as the economic argument). But in far too many cases, and for far too long, ministers have failed to deliver anything like the step change required. For much of the education sector, and for further education, in particular, a culture of profound policy instability has been established by successive governments. Meanwhile, ministers have invested heavily in poorly judged policy interventions, implemented with scant regard to evidence or research, while reducing expenditure where it has been most needed, particularly on adult skills and education. Despite two decades of relentless policy focus on FE and skills, the UK continues to perform poorly in terms of literacy and numeracy skills, while, as the report shows, failing to supply the skills demanded in technologically advanced sectors. The UK has for some time been dependent on the supply of skilled individuals, most from Europe, to plug some of the gaps in the skills of its population. With Brexit looming, the UK is going to have to rely much more heavily on homegrown talent and this should prompt a major rethink of priorities in education.

Adult participation in education, which the government should be prioritising in an ageing society in which 90 per cent of the 2025 workforce is already employed, has been in steep decline. The adult skills budget has borne the brunt of cuts to further education, falling by 40 per cent since 2010, while part-time student numbers have collapsed by 56 per cent in just five years – an unsurprising outcome of huge fee increases and the offer of loans to groups known to be debt averse. At the same time, the adult curriculum has narrowed, focusing ever more rigidly on a very limited understanding of the skills required for employment. The government has been incredibly slow in recognising the growing importance of lifelong learning and the skills and talent of its own people. It remains to be seen whether the resurgence of interest in lifelong learning amounts to anything more than a few lonely straws in the wind.

This is a terribly depressing picture but an unsurprising one. For some time now, our political class has seemed perversely indifferent to the political and economic reality in which it finds itself. UK politics has been conducted in a bubble in which concocted fears prompt fake outrage and dominate policy discourse, while real specters loom unnoticed on every side. The government’s decision to reject the Lords HE Bill amendment to remove students from the net migration target is one of many recent policy interventions which reflect this. Likewise, the appalling and unwarranted decision to prioritise the creation of a new generation of grammar schools, which will further reduce opportunities for the poor and disadvantaged and ensure that more of our best talents go unfulfilled, reinstating a system that saw many thousands of children branded as failures at age 11. A recent study in Kent showed that grammars ‘understate the true academic abilities’ of poorer children. This, again, is not a surprising finding given that selection is not intended to promote social mobility – it is about ensuring that privilege is passed on and the poor know their place and stay in it.

All of this is evidence of a government not only impervious to evidence, but indifferent to the real needs of people struggling to keep their lives and families together – people who want not more selection and competition but the guarantee of a good education for their children no matter where they live or how much they earn. This is not a fantasy – it is a reality for many advanced countries around the world (the report gives some examples). Yet the UK government, which could attempt to legislate for the good of all, prefers to see most state schools, including very many excellent ones, struggle for survival, while throwing money at pet projects which benefit only a minority. We are further than ever from the sort of fairly funded, genuinely coherent national education system we need.

It is evident that a change of direction is needed but there is little prospect of one, at least in the short- or medium-term. Even if a future government came to power with a different approach to the current (and, in all likelihood, next) one and a genuine commitment to fair access, equality of opportunity and lifelong learning for all, it would find it challenging to replace the infrastructure of adult education and civic society which this government and its predecessor have done so recklessly dismantled. The waste of human potential, now accepted by most mainstream politicians as inevitable, is appalling and wrong. It is wrong because it does not have to be this way. We could do things differently, we could be the sort of society which values everyone equally and which offers the chance of a decent education to everyone, irrespective of background. The fact that we don’t and have no intention of doing so is not only an indictment of our political class and culture, it is also evidence that we are failing to nourish, care for or fully value what the OECD rightly identifies as our most important asset: our people.

Investment in people’s education is where this starts. We need more of it and we need to do it more intelligently, taking seriously the evidence of what works and what doesn’t. As the OECD’s report makes clear, investing in people and their skills has a direct pay-off in terms of economic and social outcomes, and is the key factor in supporting countries’ success in global markets. It is also indicative of a decent and civilized society. Low wages and long working hours are no recipe for economic or civic renewal, certainly not if we want a fair, flourishing and vibrant democracy in which a person’s future is not determined by the circumstances of their birth. My worry is that we are no longer prepared to aim that high.

 

 

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Learning, thinking and resistance

Describing news that you don’t like as ‘fake’, as UK Home Secretary Amber Rudd did at the weekend in an attempt to avoid answering a question, is a dangerous step for a politician to take. For one thing, it shows a reckless attitude to the truth; for another, a preference for closing down unwelcome or difficult debate rather than engaging with it. It also undermines people’s faith in probably the main and most reliable source of information about their world for entirely frivolous reasons. Clearly, there is a lot of ‘news’ out there that doesn’t deserve the name, much of it emanating from Rupert Murdoch’s tawdry empire (ironically, now courted by the opponents of ‘fake news’ on both sides of the Atlantic). But there are also many sources of news which consciously attempt to be fair, balanced and accurate. The news Rudd was troubled by – a report that the government would take only 350 unaccompanied child refugees from Syria under the so-called Dubs scheme – was not only from a reputable source; it was also accurate.

Of course, the UK government is very familiar with fake news and is an unapologetic source of it. Since 2010 it has very cleverly and effectively established a kind of alternative political reality in which it governs: an exaggerated and distorted narrative of political and economic events devised to justify or obscure extreme political decisions, including savage cuts to public services, the devastation of major cultural institutions such as the public library service and the deliberate abandonment of parts of the education system, which the public might otherwise find unpalatable. The problem with governing through this sort of systematic distortion of the truth is, as Hannah Arendt pointed out in an interview in the New York Review of Books, that ‘lies, by their very nature, have to be changed, and a lying government has constantly to rewrite its own history … you get not only one lie [but] a great number of lies, depending on how the political wind blows’. A people ‘that can no longer believe anything’, Arendt continues, ‘cannot make up its mind. It is deprived not only of its capacity to act but also of its capacity to think and judge. And with such a people you can then do as you please.’ If the media has failed its public, it has been not in making up the news – though undoubtedly it has sometimes done that – but in failing to offer more than mere balance between opposing views. In a world of competing versions of the truth, where views are privileged over facts and the media offers no compass with which to navigate these confusing waters, it is little wonder people prefer, increasingly, to invest in narratives that are emotionally rather than intellectually persuasive.

I was thinking about Hannah Arendt having re-read Jon Nixon’s 2015 Times Higher piece on Arendt on the train this morning. It’s a really interesting short essay which seems to me now, as it did when I first read it, hugely relevant to those who see the traditions of adult education and continuing education as worth reviving. Arendt’s work, Nixon writes ‘is a reminder of the urgent need for us to learn to think together’; something without which ‘there can be no informed judgement, no moral agency and no possibility of collective action – no “care of the world”.’ Education, in Arendt’s words, is the point at which ‘we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it’. It offers us, Nixon says, ‘a protected space within which to think against the grain of received opinion: a space to question and challenge, to imagine the world from different standpoints and perspectives, to reflect upon ourselves in relation to others and, in so doing, to understand what it means to “assume responsibility”’. Arendt’s work, he concludes, reminds us ‘that education is a public good: that the more we participate in it, the greater its potential contribution to the wellbeing of society as a whole and the vibrancy of the body politic’.

Nixon’s argument is addressed to universities, which, he contends, have a responsibility to create spaces in which members of the academic community can ‘question and challenge’, without predetermined outcomes or artificial barriers to thought. I couldn’t agree more with this. But I think a university’s responsibility is wider. It is not only students and academics who have a need to think critically but the wider community too and that, to my mind, is a crucial part of the mission of higher education, one that has been neglected to the point that many institutions have forgotten that it exists or, indeed, that, in many cases, it is part of their founding missions. The past few decades have seen a collapse in university lifelong learning, with many universities closing their departments (most recently, the Vaughan Centre for Lifelong Learning, which was closed by the University of Leicester in a manner that did the university little credit). But it is these departments which have, for much of the twentieth century and some of the present one, offered people precisely the kinds of spaces Arendt was talking about – safe places where people could question and critique, challenge and be challenged; sites which, in the first decades of the last century, acted almost as a training ground for early generations of socialist MPs. They broke down boundaries, between institutions and their communities, lecturers and students, while stimulating local and national democratic life. Often these departments were also drivers of wider innovations within higher education, prompting both new curriculum developments and new thinking about how learning could be delivered. They built intellectual and cultural capital within working communities while also fostering empathy and civic concern.

Universities have an obligation to mean something in the lives of the communities in which they operate – and that has to be more than as a source of employment. They should not simply be finishing schools for the children of the wealthy, populated by academics whose lives and interests rarely intersect with those of their near neighbours. They should be actively reaching out to the communities that have disappeared from our political and cultural life, except, largely, as objects of ridicule. They should be in permanent listening mode, listening hardest to those who have the least voice. They should be challenging political narratives that exclude their concerns, or which blow up certain concerns (immigration, for example) at the expense of others which have far greater impact on their lives (supply of affordable housing or cuts to funding for health care). And, of course, they do all of these things, to an extent. Too often, though, it is down to the initiative of individual academics, often those willing to put in a shift at the margins of their work to make universities’ historic ‘third mission’ meaningful. The institutions themselves could, in many cases, do much, much more to challenge and be different, to create spaces here people can learn and think together, where the ideas of academics can be deepened with the experience of their community neighbours, and where people can have serious, unconstrained discussions about how best to live. As Arendt suggests, one of the casualties of a dishonest politics is a sense of hope. Not knowing what to believe saps agency, disempowers those at the bottom of the pile and, worst of all, removes hope. We are a society badly in need of a lot more hope.

Arendt believed that the ability to think, question and be reflective must be an essential component of any meaningful democratic change. If we, as a society, are serious about the democratic project, we need to create more spaces in which this is possible, starting small and local, where most meaningful social change begins. Key to facilitating such spaces, Arendt felt, was to ensure dialogue was genuinely open and not at all constrained. That means trusting people and being prepared to put up with answers you disagree with. The point is, once you open up a conversation, you don’t know where it will lead. If we want to involve people in politics, we have to give people the space in which to do politics, and that means giving them the opportunity to think substantive thoughts about substantive questions, including those considered off the mainstream agenda. People are more wary of experts than they are weary of them. They want to be able to engage and challenge them, not feel bullied by them. People want reasons to hope, a way out of the trap they find themselves in. Thinking and learning are inescapable parts of this and universities have a big role to play, as part of a wider, more democratic and cohesive tertiary sector. It’s time they revived their civic mission. I hope this role is not neglected as new thinking begins to reshape the lifelong learning landscape. If we are not ambitious about our futures now, I do genuinely fear for the kinds of futures we might have.

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Lifelong learning – an idea whose time has finally come?

Political interest in adult education is experiencing one of its periodic spikes. Time will tell whether the interest is sustained or whether, as has so often been the case, it amounts to little more than a rhetorical flourish, a knowing half-nod to the changing zeitgeist rather than an attempt to capture it. Brexit, of course, is the unknown quantity with the potential to change the game and make lifelong learning a genuinely pivotal component of mainstream political thinking in the UK. A dawning (and, frankly, rather belated) appreciation of its far-reaching implications is the likely driver of this latest shift in perception.

The government’s green paper on the development of a new industrial strategy makes much of the role of adult skills in post-Brexit economic renewal and demonstrates a rare awareness of the need to ensure better articulation between the demand for skills and their supply. This has been a niggling issue with UK skills policy for decades, with successive skills strategies seemingly concocted in a sealed civil service laboratory, some distance from the stubborn and not always particularly agreeable realities of British economic life. The result, too often, was training for training’s sake and a pretty shoddy return on public investment. Fortunately for the dozens of journeyman politicians who have passed through this territory, tolerance of failure in this neglected area of policy has tended to be high. Only a handful – John Hayes and Vince Cable notable among them – have offered any vision or sense of a wider role for FE and skills, and that in spite of a largely uncomprehending civil service (one short-sighted civil servant famously suggested to Cable that all public funding for FE be withdrawn to meet the department’s budget reduction target).

The new industrial strategy is an opportunity to change all this. It includes skills as one of 10 ‘pillars’ which will drive growth and raise productivity. The green paper highlights a number of ‘key issues’ concerning skills which, it says, we need, as a country, to address. These are: poor levels of basic skills, particularly among younger adults; a shortage of high-skilled technicians below graduate level; skills shortages in sectors that depend on science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM); skills shortages specific to certain sectors, which force some employers to look overseas to fill certain vacancies; the poor quality of careers advice; and ‘the accelerating pace of technological change’ which ‘means there is a growing challenge with lifelong learning: supporting people to up-skill and re-skill across their working lives’. People, the green paper continues, are ‘living and working longer’ at the same time as ‘training across working life is going down’, particularly among older workers and low to medium-skilled groups (those, it notes, whose jobs are most likely to be replaced by technology in the next two decades).

To meet these challenges, the green paper proposes a number of actions to improve basic skills (including by reviewing current policy and supporting further education colleges in becoming ‘centres of excellence’ in maths and English), build a new system of technical education (with clearer routes, better teaching and institutes of technology in every region), boost STEM skills, and raise skills levels in other poor-performing areas. It also undertakes to publish a ‘comprehensive careers strategy’ and to ‘explore ambitious new approaches to encouraging lifelong learning, which could include assessing changes to the costs people face to make them less daunting; improving outreach to people where industries are changing; and providing better information’.

There are some good ideas here, as well as some welcome notes of realism. The government’s willingness to review the effectiveness of current policy on lifelong learning and skills is encouraging and should act as a prompt to membership and advocacy groups to make their strongest case. However, we should not allow ministers to play down the scale of the task or to obscure the role played by government policy in creating the problems the green paper describes. Putting skills at the heart of the UK’s industrial strategy will require more than a review of policy effectiveness and a willingness to embrace new approaches. It will mean the effective reversal of decades of political neglect and under-funding of adult education, with substantial investment to restore the huge gaps in our lifelong learning infrastructure that have emerged as a result of austerity politics (a catastrophic and costly failure which is being quietly swept under the carpet – not unlike the equally calamitous political career of its chief architect, David Cameron). The latest figures in both further education and higher education confirm the damage done.

In further education, there is some good news for the government, in that it is on target to meet its target of three million new apprenticeship starts by the end of this parliament (with almost 900,000 new apprenticeships in 2015-16). However, the latest data also show that participation in learning other than apprenticeships in England is in sharp decline. There are 800,000 fewer adults in FE (excluding apprenticeships) than there were in 2011-12, with some 300,000 fewer adults on English or maths courses. The proportion of unemployed adults taking part in learning had also fallen sharply. This trend in participation is the direct result of cuts to funding for adult skills, with the government, in 2015 alone, cutting as much as 24 per cent from the adult further education budget. At the same time, funding for ESOL provision has been savagely cut – by 60 per cent since 2009 – again, denying opportunities to learn to adults who are desperate to do so. As if this were not bad enough, the sector has been given little chance to adapt to straitened circumstances, with funding cuts accompanied by near constant reform, experimentation and ministerial churn. There is limited policy memory in further education and little scope for leaders, struggling to adapt to curriculum and funding changes while meeting the requirements of an overbearing accountability system, to think about how to respond creatively to the challenges they face.

In higher education in England, the numbers are just as dramatic, and the challenge equally stark. The latest figures confirm the ongoing decline in part-time higher education. According to a House of Commons Library Briefing, total part-time entrants to HE have fallen by 45 per cent since 2009-10, with mature learners combining study with work forming the vast majority. This is the result, principally, of the introduction of loans and the rise in tuition fees. New data on student nursing enrolments confirm the lack of enthusiasm for loans (or debt) among older learners, with applications falling by 23 per cent (29 per cent for those aged over 21) since grants were converted into loans to support the provision of more places. Moreover, applications to full-time undergraduate courses by over-25s fell by 18 per cent in the last year, confirming a general trend of dwindling participation in HE among adults. Overall, the higher education system is becoming less diverse, less accessible to older adults and less relevant to the challenges of modern society. All of this, it should be added, has been an entirely predictable result of the policies adopted by the government.

These are all trends which must be not only halted but thrown decisively into reverse if the government is to achieve its ambitions and lifelong learning is really to help deliver the step change in growth and productivity the green paper sets out as its objective. A cohesive industrial strategy, with an ‘ambitious new approach to encouraging lifelong learning’ at its heart, is a big step in the right direction. But it will require a major shift in culture to deliver it, with ministers and civil servants looking beyond schools and elite universities, recognising that education is for adults too, and making a long-term commitment to supporting it. As Ruth Spellman, Chief Executive of the Workers’ Educational Association, has argued this week, a national strategy for lifelong learning would not be a bad place to start.

 

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Lifelong learning and the Sustainable Development Goals

On 15 September 2015, member states attending the United Nations Sustainable Development Summit in New York adopted a new set of goals to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure prosperity for all as part of a new sustainable development agenda. They were the result of an extensive consultation which involved not only governments, but public and private sectors and non-governmental organisations. The 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and 169 associated targets commit signatory countries to making specific progress on issues such as climate change, gender equality and education by 2030. The SDGs came into force a year ago this month.

The UK is one of 193 nation states to have signed up to the agreement, and was initially one of the leading national players, taking a key role in the formulation of some of the goals. However, by the end of negotiations, it was one of the least enthusiastic with former Prime Minister David Cameron keen to reduce the number of commitments. The UK’s interpretation of the goals has been largely focused on support for less developed countries, with responsibility for implementation falling on the shoulders of the Secretary of State for International Development. The International Development Committee last year described the government’s response to the SDGs as ‘insufficient for a country which led on their development as being universal and applicable to all’, highlighting ‘a worrying lack of engagement in, or ownership of, the SDGs by departments across Government’.

While the government, in its response to the committee’s report, undertook to ensure all secretaries of state and senior officials engage with the SDGs, the lack of progress to date is concerning since achievement of the goals depends very largely on active engagement and commitment across government departments. One of the most useful aspects of the SDGs, to my mind, is their insistence on cross-sectoral solutions and their recognition that progress against one cannot be made without due consideration of the rest.

Sustainable Development Goal 4 is of particular importance to adult educators and other advocates of lifelong learning since in enjoins UN member states to: ‘Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all’. It commits participating countries to ‘promoting quality lifelong learning opportunities for all, in all settings and at all levels of education’. These, of course, are crucial ambitions in their own right. As the Framework for Action for the implementation of Goal 4 recognizes, there is an urgent need for a new vision for education that is ‘holistic, ambitious and aspirational, leaving no one behind’. The urgency stems from a cocktail of factors, including demographic and environmental change, skills shortages in many countries, increasing automation and rapidly advancing technology. No-one, wherever they live in the world, can anymore expect to flourish in the world by relying simply on the skills they acquired at school.

But education, and lifelong learning in particular, have a special, wider role, too, in virtue of their contribution to a range of other sustainable development agendas, such as poverty, gender equality, health and wellbeing, and the environment. The Framework for Action acknowledges this, noting that education is ‘a main driver of development and in achieving the other proposed SDGs’. Promoting lifelong learning within the framework of the 2030 agenda implies a cross-sectoral effort which recognizes the interdependence of learning and key concerns around environmental protection, economic growth and social and cultural development. I would argue that the inter-sectoral relevance of lifelong learning makes it the key factor in delivering the sustainable development agenda. No government serious about these ambitions can afford to ignore it.

The 2030 agenda represents an important advocacy opportunity – the chance to demonstrate the wider, inter-sectoral, relevance of lifelong learning, its crucial contribution to a range of agendas, and its essential role in accelerating progress towards all the UN Sustainable Development Goals. For these goals to be reached, a concerted effort must be made to promote good-quality lifelong learning opportunities for all, wherever they learn and at whatever level, and to highlight the wider relevance of lifelong learning. As ever, we must find new, relevant and imaginative ways in which to make our case. In doing so, we also contribute to the wider task of communicating the Sustainable Development Goals more widely and encouraging governments to take greater ownership of them.

It shouldn’t need saying that this is not just a concern for developing countries. The UK is a case in point. Where other developed countries, such as China, have increased investment in lifelong learning, recognizing its importance in giving citizens the skills and attributes they need to flourish in work environments characterized by constant change and upheaval, the UK government had dramatically reduced investment. Since 2010 it has overseen the collapse of part-time higher education (which for the most part engages adults already in work), the almost complete destruction of university lifelong learning, the disappearance of much local authority adult learning provision (as well as of supporting infrastructure such as public libraries), and dramatic cuts to the adult skills budget in further education. Many now predict that the adult skills budget will disappear altogether by the end of the next parliament. MP David Lammy last week told the UK parliament that this budget had been cut by 40 per cent in real terms between 2010 and 2015, with a 10.8 per cent reduction in 2014-15 alone. By any measure, we are some way from the provision of ‘quality lifelong learning opportunities for all, in all settings and at all levels of education’.

The UK, of course, has led the way in research on the wider benefits of learning, notably through the groundbreaking work of the Centre for Research on the Wider Benefits of Learning, at the University of London, and the numerous outputs of NIACE’s 2009 inquiry into lifelong learning, including the influential Learning Through Life, written by Tom Schuller and David Watson. There is much material out there to support efforts to demonstrate the wider relevance and benefits of lifelong learning, and to support advocacy efforts to highlight this wider value and move the provision of quality lifelong learning opportunities for all up the policy agenda. All departments of government in the UK should understand that they have a responsibility with respect to the SDGs. They should also be encouraged to appreciate the inter-sectoral role and reach of lifelong learning in helping deliver them. There is a strong lifelong learning tradition in the UK, even if cuts to public investment have greatly weakened the infrastructure.

Understanding these connections can help us develop a cohesive approach to tackling these issues. Nothing less than a comprehensive strategy for implementation of the goals – with lifelong learning, I would suggest, at its heart – will be necessary in ensuring their success. To date, however, there is little evidence that the goals are being taken seriously in the highest levels of government in the UK, still less that there is an appreciation among ministers and senior civil servants of the potential of lifelong learning. As the year progresses, I hope to use this blog to highlight some of the ways in which lifelong learning can contribute to wider agendas related to the 17 SDGs and to contribute to the ongoing conversation about its wider role and value. I hope also to demonstrate the potential of the goals as a tool in national-level advocacy. Ultimately, it is only the engagement and activism of citizens that will prompt politicians to take ownership of this agenda.

The 17 Sustainable Development Goals are:

1) End poverty in all its forms everywhere

2) End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture

3) Ensure healthy lives and promote wellbeing for all at all ages

4) Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all

5) Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls

6) Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all

7) Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all

8) Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment, and decent work for all

9) Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialisation, and foster innovation

10) Reduce inequality within and among countries

11) Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable

12) Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns

13) Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts

14) Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development

15) Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification and halt and reverse land degradation, and halt biodiversity loss

16) Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels

17) Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalise the global partnership for sustainable development

 

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“We wanted to change the world without a revolution”

I recall interviewing the historian of adult education John Harrison a decade or so ago. Looking back on his own career and those of his contemporaries, Richard Hoggart and Raymond Williams, he reflected that their aim, as adult educators, had been to “change the world without recourse to a revolution”. His remark, for me, neatly encapsulated the radical aims of the British adult education movement for much of the twentieth century – as well as its rejection of the more incendiary aims of the Marxist left accurately described by Hoggart as “middle class”. As Hoggart realised, Marxism never really caught the imagination of the British working class, whose radicalism took a more moderate, less violent form (Hoggart could make reading poetry seem a radical act – which, of course, it can be).

Those aspirations have fallen away somewhat as adult education has become to a large extent depoliticized and increasingly a tool of economic strategy, with adult educators chasing funding intended to support economic growth and promote employability, usually rather narrowly conceived. There is a tradition in the movement of interpreting these aims rather loosely in order to preserve at least part of its social purpose intent but this has become difficult to sustain in the face of the mass institutional vandalism of several generations of politicians (or both colours) who know the price of everything but see the value of nothing. The cultural infrastructure that enabled Britain to become a global leader in social purpose adult education with a focus on second-chance learners – the libraries, the departments of continuing education, the specialist institutions, the residential colleges, the programmes of part-time higher education, the local authority, adult education services – took many decades to build up and will not be reconstituted in many, many more.

These traditions are often in my mind these days, both because of the decline in the quality and subtlety of thought and ideas among what these days I suppose we might call the moderate left and because of the near-contempt shown by many current left-leaning thinkers and commentators (most of whom would, I guess, place themselves on the radical left) for the people whose interests they claim to have at heart but who, in reality, they appear to blame for most of the things they think are wrong in society: the working class (a similar contempt, I should add, is in evidence in the rhetoric of the right, though it is expressed more in its naked distortion of intent and its use of Orwellian double think, which reached its apogee under David Cameron and is being cheerfully continued by his unelected successor, Theresa May). It is as far as you could imagine from the thoughtful, compassionate and informed ideas of those radical left thinkers who cut their teeth in the adult education movement and knew first-hand the people and communities they wrote about and taught in. Most so-called progressive thinking now takes place in a rarefied space most working people know nothing about and which means absolutely nothing to them.

I read an interview with Alan Tuckett in which he drew a contrast between the significant role played by adult education in the build up to the 1975 referendum on entering the common market and the negligible role it played in the run-up to Britain’s decision to leave the EU – the result, he said, of a gradual shift in focus from political and social education and towards finance and administration. He remained, however, typically hopeful that adult education would find another way to push its roots through the cracks in our broken social and educational infrastructure. I suppose he is right to argue that we cannot go back to the past. Perhaps new and emerging social movements, many of which have used and reshaped traditional approaches to adult education, offer some hope. What troubles me, I suppose, is the huge divide that has opened up between working-class communities and progressive social and political movements and thinking. It is a gap that will not be bridged by any amount of name-calling or finger-pointing.

While I agree with Alan that adult education must, if it is to survive, find new ways to be relevant and useful, I think its traditions still have something important to teach us about how to bridge this divide. The Hoggarts, Williams and Harrisons of this world were, for me, genuinely radical because they took their ideas into the heart of working-class communities (communities, quite often, very like the ones in which they grew up) and saw themselves not as imparters of a gift but rather as learners themselves who took as much, if not more, from the students with whom they opened up a dialogue. We often hear about teachers who inspired students to be the people they became. But I have been just as struck over the years by the stories teachers have told me about their inspirational students. The important thing about the kinds of classes taught by Hoggart and Williams, and the Workers’ Educational Association approach more generally, is that they were seen as a kind of platform for negotiation or co-creation. The curriculum was not enforced, it was agreed. What the tutor brought to the classroom was just the start – the students took it somewhere else. That is what makes them so radical and still today, very often, such incredibly exciting places to be. It wouldn’t hurt the left to try listening for a change.

More than that, in our divided, post-trust society, I see in adult education a chance to span all kinds of divides; social, economic, cultural, religious or linguistic. It creates spaces in which prejudices are challenged, ideas are changed and wounds healed. That seems to me so very relevant to the issues we face today. We may not be able to rekindle “this great movement of ours” from the ashes in which it currently smolders, but its vision of slow, grassroots change, fueled by education with an unabashed social and civic purpose, remains, to my mind, our best hope of achieving something different to and better than the austere, unequal and socially disjointed vision that is the best that our politicians can offer.

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Hope and other casualties: An open letter to Theresa May

Dear Mrs May,

Your recent uncontested appointment as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and leader of the Conservative Party was widely welcomed, I suspect even among those who traditionally support other, more progressive political parties. Certainly, you presented a far more credible, calmer, more moderate and thoughtful leadership option than any of the other real or putative candidates. This feeling was encouraged by comments you made during your brief leadership campaign and in your first days as PM. You promised to fight the ‘burning injustices’ which mean that people born poor die earlier and that people who attend state school are far less likely to reach the top professions. This, I must admit, was music to my ears. I believed you were reaching out beyond the liberal wing of your own party to a wider constituency, politically and geographically, and I took at face value your determination to improve the lot of ‘ordinary working class families’ who have little job security and ‘worry about the cost of living and the quality of the local school’. This is close to my heart too.

It is, I suppose, rather early to form a judgement about your leadership but I must say that your early policy interventions fall some way short of delivering on this promise. In fact, they seem to me likely to make the lives of ‘ordinary working class families’ significantly harder, if implemented. I am thinking, in particular, of your policy on grammar schools, your largely unexamined enthusiasm for faith schools, the proposed cuts to 16-18 apprenticeship funding and the scrapping of maintenance grants. Together, they suggest not a new government full of new ideas and renewed social purpose but rather a tired, short-sighted administration with little option but to brush away the cobwebs and open up the policy drawer labelled ‘rubbish old ideas which have been tried before and failed utterly’. You can probably imagine how disappointed I feel right now. Nevertheless, I believe you were in good faith in your early pronouncements and I suspect you are the sort of leader who is unafraid to change her mind or think again, where the evidence demands it. Certainly, I hope so. With that in mind, I humbly offer three policy suggestions, all quite plausible and readily achievable, which will make a genuine difference to the lives and educational hopes of those whom you fear, quite correctly, have been ‘left behind’ by recent governments hell-bent on slashing the state, squeezing education funding and introducing a market in education.

End selection and scrap private school tax breaks

The first suggestion concerns your much-discussed plan to create more grammar schools. This is a tough one, personally, for you, I know. It is a policy you have enthusiastically championed and which is close to your heart. But it is also a dangerous and stupidly divisive policy, which will see new generations of young people labelled as failures (except, of course, those from middle class families who are unwilling to send their children to a school labelled second or third rate and can afford to send them to private school instead). I understand you went to a grammar school yourself so perhaps you do not fully appreciate the stigma still carried by those who failed their 11-plus and attended secondary modern school, notwithstanding their subsequent achievements. Children, as any teacher will tell you (and you should definitely consider listening to them – they know a lot of useful stuff), develop at different rates. Not everyone’s talents, academic or technical skills, or temperament have emerged fully aged 11. My own academic ability, such as it is, did not become apparent until sometime after I had left school. I was considered a difficult, disruptive pupil but, looking back, I think the problem was that I never really found in school education anything to engage me or that I was interested in. I suspect I would have found it much harder to subsequently work my way through university to postgraduate study and teaching had I had to carry about with me (not physically, of course, it’s much more permanent than that) certificated proof of my own lack of talent and ability.

The evidence, as you must surely know, tells us that in areas where selection takes place poorer pupils fare less well. When you think about it, this stands to reason. Selective schools overwhelmingly benefit middle-class children whose parents know the system and can afford to hire someone to coach them through the entrance exam (the prevalence of such coaching is reflected in the tendency of working-class university entrants to outperform middle-class counterparts with the same A-level scores). They disproportionately harm children from poorer families for whom private schooling isn’t an option and who will have to cope with larger class sizes, and poorer, less well-qualified and less-experienced teachers. The OECD’s head of education, Andreas Schleicher, confirmed this, noting that ‘any kind of one-off test is likely to favour social background over true academic potential … academic selection becomes social selection’. Evidence gathered by the OECD suggests that grammar schools are likely to benefit wealthy families without raising overall standards. This isn’t a big surprise as grammar schools were devised as a second tier in a three-tier education system modelled on existing social distinctions, with private schools at the top and secondary modern schools at the bottom. The upshot of this was a system which routinely wrote off the educational prospects of the majority of children and sent many of them into the world with barely adequate basic literacy and numeracy skills. The system was scrapped because it became clear that it was both cruel and unfair and unequal to the new demands of modern society and the emerging knowledge economy. Do you really think it is equal to the profound social and economic challenges our country faces today?

To introduce a policy in full knowledge of the harm it will do to the majority of pupils, at the same time as cutting college funding for 16-18-year-old apprentices, is not the sort of leadership I would expect from a PM committed to making the lives and life chances of disadvantaged children better. I am equally baffled by your plans to expand faith schools – a policy, once again, out of step both with the reality of life in modern society and the nature of the challenges we face as a society, which include breaking down, rather than cementing, patterns of segregation and discrimination. Allowing faith schools to be entirely composed of children whose parents are of a particular faith is unlikely to promote community cohesion. It does little for social mobility either since, as the Sutton Trust has shown, faith schools tend to select pupils from more affluent backgrounds. The lifting of the requirement that faith schools keep at least half of their places open to local children, regardless of their parents’ religion, is an extremely retrograde step that deserves much greater public scrutiny than it has thus far received.

All of this, to me, speaks not only of a lack of ideas but also of a lack of aspiration. It does not strike me as beyond reasonable ambition that we establish a good school in every neighbourhood, offering a good education to every child. As Mr Schleicher said, what we need is not more grammars or faith schools but ‘more schools that are more demanding and more rigorous’. And that shouldn’t mean more tests – we already test, measure and monitor far too much – it should mean a more flexible, but rigorous and purposeful curriculum, shaped by real need and sensitive to the different characters and life trajectories of young people, delivered by teachers trusted to do what they are best at and funded fairly and adequately, across the board. To increase funding for state schools the government could consider removing the charitable status currently enjoyed by private schools, which grants them highly favourable tax status.

Personally, I would like to see private schools scrapped altogether. They represent an overwhelmingly malign, though rarely remarked upon, distorting factor on our education system and on society more widely; great for a minority, very bad indeed for the rest. Nevertheless, I recognise that much of your core support and many of your Conservative parliamentary colleagues have benefited from this and will be extremely resistant to vote for the ending of a system which ensures the privilege they have enjoyed is passed on to their offspring. You have already suggested that private schools must do more to keep their tax breaks. That should be welcomed. The hard question for you is why institutions designed to benefit a small, already-privileged section of society at the expense of everyone else should be subsidised out of the public purse at all. Removing tax breaks while investing in ‘more demanding and more rigorous’ state schools would be a very useful first step to improving social mobility. You should definitely consider it.

Scrap A-levels and ensure all high-achieving students, whether academic or vocational, have equally good educational and career options

This is another suggestion which has been debated before but defeated by the sort of opposition you would be likely to face within your own party if you sought to remove the charitable status of private schools. There continues to be much talk about achieving parity of esteem between vocational and academic education but not much will be achieved by talk alone. One of your predecessors, Tony Blair, had a golden opportunity to do something meaningful about this when Sir Mike Tomlinson published his review of the English examination system in 2004. Tomlinson proposed incorporating existing qualifications, including A-levels and GCSEs, into an overarching diploma which would ensure all students pass the core skills of literacy, numeracy and ICT, while also stretching the most able students. Importantly, the diploma represented a unified framework of achievement and qualifications with four levels into which all existing exams, vocational and academic, could be incorporated (with A-levels and GCSEs phased out over 10 years). One upshot of this was that all those who achieved a level 4 diploma would have gained a qualification of equal standing, irrespective of whether they were taking an academic or vocational route. Had Tomlinson’s reforms been implemented in full, A-levels and GCSEs would now be a thing of the past. In terms of achieving the long sought-after parity of esteem between academic and vocational, this, really, was the moment. Unhappily, despite almost universal approval for the proposed reforms, Mr Blair chose not to implement them in full, fearful of the backlash from those who wished the A-level ‘gold standard’ (imagine the headlines in the Daily Mail!), which had served them and their children so well, to remain. Retaining A-levels, rather sadly, was Mr Blair’s red line, supported at the time by your own party, despite the prescient warnings from teachers that the diplomas were bound to fail if A-levels and GCSEs were not scrapped. It effectively short-circuited the most promising reform of the school examination system in England in several decades.

So, we continue to wrangle endlessly with the issue of parity of esteem while defending the outmoded qualifications system that ensures it can never properly happen. The neat division between vocational and academic has not been fit for the world we live in for quite some time. Like much else in our education system, it is fit only for a world in which, to quote David Cameron, young people are divided into ‘sheep and goats’ at an early age. A single, unified qualifications system would help bridge the divide, while allowing students to mix their options and move across as well up the ladder. For the moment, we continue to commission review after review considering vocational and technical education in splendid isolation, as though the other working parts of the machine to which it belongs have no bearing on its function or operation.

The latest, led by Lord Sainsbury, also sought to address technical education’s poor-relation status and, like Tomlinson, suggested a number of routes with a common core of English, maths and digital skills, as well as specialisation leading to a skilled profession. However, as with other reforms of this sort, the binary divide between vocational and academic remains outwith its remit, as does our two-caste system of educational attainment. We need bold and radical political leaders prepared to break with the past and tackle endemic problems in the system as a whole, rather than treating issues to do with vocational education as somehow separate and disconnected. It has become fashionable to dismiss the issue of parity of esteem of vocational and academic qualifications as irrelevant or insoluble. I don’t believe it is either. A recent survey by the Association of Accounting Technicians suggested that older adults attach more value to vocational education than young people. This should be of concern to a government committed to using vocational learning as a route to better employment prospects for young people, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Creating clear, accessible, relevant, high-prestige vocational routes is critical both to social mobility and to promoting the development of the kinds of higher-level technical skills we can hopefully agree the UK economy needs.

Restore funding and policy support to adult education

You may know that much of the UK’s adult education system has been destroyed by funding cuts in recent decades, a process that began under New Labour but which was taken to new levels under your immediate predecessor. Mr Cameron oversaw swingeing cuts to adult further education, leading the Association of Colleges to suggest it could become a thing of the past by 2020, and a collapse in part-time higher education, precipitated by the introduction of loans and the escalation in tuition fees. The adult skills budget has been cut by 40 per cent since 2010 (including a 24 per cent cut in one year alone), with recent government figures indicating an 11 per cent drop in the number of adult learners in further education between 2013-14 and 2014-15. At the same time, the University Association for Lifelong Learning says that the number of mature and part-time students at university has fallen by 40 per cent since 2012, while most university centres for lifelong learning, which have traditionally supported adult learners in accessing higher study and provided a link between HE institutions and their communities, have been closed down. Vaughan Centre for Lifelong Learning, at the University of Leicester, appears set to be the next to close, despite a brilliant campaign involving staff and learners which highlighted the huge value of university lifelong learning to communities such as Leicester’s (you can read about it here). The question I would put to you is whether this seems to you to be a sensible response to the challenges of declining social mobility and demographic change.

Politicians of all parties agree that we need to up-skill the working-age population, yet public investment in adult further education and skills continues to fall. They talk about social mobility, yet overlook the hugely important catalytic effect adult education can have on the lives of adults and their families, particularly those who are ‘just managing’ or ‘left behind’. It is well understood that the biggest influence on the educational attainment of children is that of their parents. Closing down opportunities for adults to access learning is not only bad for them as individuals and the wider economy, which increasingly requires people to retrain and upskill throughout their lives, it also limits the life prospects of their children. Adult education has a range of wider benefits too, including improved health and wellbeing, increased tolerance and greater civic engagement. There are also, of course, major social and economic costs to not addressing the poor literacy, numeracy and technical skills of many UK adults. The All-Party Parliamentary Group for Adult Education has called for a new national and regional strategy for adult education. I think this is overdue. The value of adult education needs to be clearly understood and defended, if it is not to be the top of the list when budgets are cut. To allow provision to dwindle away in a policy vacuum is not only short-sighted, it demonstrates callous indifference to the hopes and aspirations of thousands of families across the country.

You, as Prime Minister, have an opportunity to change all of this, and I hope you will. The early signs, however, are not particularly encouraging, to say the least. If you are serious about helping those who are ‘left behind’, you should scrap your plans to expand selection, in its various forms, and instead invest in ensuring there is a good maintained school in every neighbourhood. Your promise to prioritise those who are struggling and have been ‘left behind’ is, I must tell you, wholly incompatible with a commitment to expanding grammar schools. You should also reverse cuts to 16-18 apprenticeships – likely to prove hugely damaging to social mobility – and you should look instead to improve the standing and status of both technical and vocational education and adult education, so often the poor relations of the English education system. I do not believe that we can any more, as a society, afford to neglect and stifle the talents and abilities of so many – the vast majority – of our population. That this has been allowed to happen for so long, at such huge human cost, is cause for shame. Turning things around will require a huge, concerted effort over many years, and it will involve the wholesale transformation of our education system, not just tinkering around the edges. It will, perhaps above all, require a brave, radical Prime Minister who believes in a fair chance for everyone and is not afraid to make new enemies, even among her old friends. As Raymond Williams wrote, ‘to be truly radical is to make hope possible rather than despair convincing’. If you could make ‘hope possible’ for those you rightly identify as ‘left behind’ you will have achieved something truly radical and transformational. But you won’t get there by under-investing in adult and vocational education or by expanding educational selection.

Yours sincerely,

Paul Stanistreet

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‘Reading the past, writing the future’: Adult literacy in the UK

It is 50 years since UNESCO first proclaimed 8 September International Literacy Day. In that time, thinking about literacy in the UK has changed profoundly. Despite growing interest in the achievement of universal literacy in international politics, and a gathering appreciation that this matters to adults as well as to children, it wasn’t until the 1970s that politicians here began to appreciate that adult literacy was an important social issue for developed countries, including the UK. That is not to say that adult basic education has not been a long-standing part of the British adult education movement. It was a major concern of adult educators throughout the nineteenth century. However, with the advent of universal compulsory primary education, adult literacy faded somewhat to the background, both as a concern of the liberal establishment and as a focus of the adult education movement. The attention of the movement in the first half of the twentieth century shifted sharply to opening up higher forms of learning to working-class adults.

By and large, the British system of education was content to allow a large proportion of pupils to leave school with limited literacy skills and just as limited life chances. It codified this approach through a system of selection at 11 years of age which effectively labelled (‘tattooed’ might be better, given how hard many have found it to erase the perceived stigma) the majority of children, who went to secondary modern schools, as educational failures with little potential for learning, while giving those who made it to grammar school greatly enhanced chances of progressing in education and in life (little wonder those who attended grammar schools speak so highly of them!). The social cost of educational selection and inequity began to emerge clearly during the 1970s. The number and scale of adult basic literacy courses delivered by local authorities and voluntary groups had been growing steadily, leading to calls from adult educators, and from the British Association of Settlements, in particular, for a national adult literacy campaign. Gerry Fowler, then Minister of State for Education and science, in 1974 released £1 million for the Right to Read campaign, to be administered by the Adult Literacy Resource Agency (ALRA), set up by the National Institute of Adult Education (later NIACE and now the Learning and Work Institute). This money supported a huge expansion of local authority adult literacy provision, as well as special development projects and new resource materials. The BBC supported the campaign through a series of programmes, first shown in 1975, intended to raise awareness of adult literacy and signpost people with poor literacy to appropriate provision.

The campaign marked the start of a perceptible shift in government thinking about adult learning towards adult basic education, though, increasingly, this was framed in terms of economic necessity rather than human rights and dignity (with an attendant increase in central government interest and control). Provision continued to grow, supported by ALRA and its subsequent incarnations, with continuing government support channelled through local education authorities, which had developed significant expertise in the area and were prepared to be radical, creative and highly innovative in their approach to delivery. However, the 1992 Further and Higher Education Act reduced the role of local authorities and directed funding for vocational and basic education through FE colleges, now free from local authority control. The Act cemented the divide between vocational and qualification-bearing courses and adult education for personal and community interest, satisfaction and growth, and precipitated an abrupt decline in local authority adult education. Although, through fierce, intelligent campaigning, NIACE and other groups secured a commitment from government to retain a statutory duty for local authorities to provide ‘other’ adult education, it wasn’t possible to arrest this decline once the vocational/non-vocational divide was set in legislation and funding for the latter began to be squeezed. Although adult basic skills continued to attract significant policy attention, the Act in some respects marked the end of a golden age of innovation and enterprise around adult basic education.

New Labour briefly promised a new dawn for adult education, with David Blunkett’s The Learning Age Green Paper appearing to return to a more comprehensive view of the value and purposes of adult learning, calling for a culture of lifelong learning for all and a ‘learning society’. However, within a few years, this wider, more expansive vision was supplanted by a narrower, more utilitarian approach to policymaking on education. The 1999 Moser report urged the government to ‘tackle the vast basic skills problem’ in the UK, reporting that as many as 20 per cent of adults in the country lacked functional basic skills. The government’s response was the Skills for Life strategy, which set a target to improve the basic skills levels of 2.25 million adults between 2001, when the strategy was launched, and 2010. The strategy came to symbolise the growing prominence of basic skills in the government’s post-16 education policy. It was followed by a new skills strategy (2003), which emphasised the government’s intent to pursue equality and fairness through economic modernisation and underscored its increasing distrust of provision which could not be understood in narrowly economistic terms. A second skills strategy white paper, published in 2005, consolidated this move, while the 2006 Leith report on skills set a new target of 95 per cent of adults achieving the basic skills of functional literacy and numeracy by 2020. The government, seemingly convinced that major productivity gains could be engineered simply through supply-side interventions, took up Leitch’s naive view that driving up qualifications was the critical factor in improving economic productivity.

Despite these interventions, we appear still to be some way off the ‘world class’ skills system promised by Leitch. The OECD’s 2013 international adult skills survey found England to be the only country in the developed world where 55–65 year olds are more literate and numerate that young adults aged between 16 and 24. Out of 24 nations, England’s young adults ranked 22nd for literacy and 21st for numeracy. The OECD’s 2016 survey report, Building Skills for All: A review of England, said that 9 million adults of working age in England (more than a quarter of the working population) had low literacy or numeracy skills or both, while one-third of those aged 16-19 had low basic skills (three times more than the best-performing countries). It urged an improvement in the standard of basic schooling, an increase in basic skills standards at upper-secondary level and the greater use of evidence to guide adult literacy interventions. An analysis by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, published last week, similarly reported that five million adults lack basic reading, writing and numeracy skills essential to everyday life and to securing employment. The picture JRF painted was of large numbers of people let down by the education system with little chance to improve their skills and lives – what new PM Theresa May has described as the ‘left behind’. Huge numbers of young people were entering adulthood without the skills to get by, it said, while those who wanted to improve their skills as adults encountered an offer more focused on gaining qualifications than on positive life outcomes such as securing work or progressing to further education and training.

JRF calls for a renewed drive to ensure all adults meet all basic skills needs (including digital skills) by 2030, arguing for more learning in community settings and in the workplace and more online learning. It also suggests, quite rightly, that learning should be relevant to the everyday lives and concerns of learners. The report chimes with growing concerns among the political class that years of austerity and ministerial indifference have created an underclass of people struggling to get by who feel they have little or no stake in the mainstream political life of the country – people who find it hard not only to see how things can get any better but also, more dangerously, how they can get any worse. As JRF argue, education must play a key role in a joined up strategy to reach these people and lift them out of poverty and civic disaffection. Localism, and the devolution of the adult education budget, may represent an opportunity to make these interventions both more meaningful to learners and more relevant to other local social and economic policy aims. However, the attenuation of local authority expertise in adult basic education and the huge pressures currently being brought to bear on colleges in terms of area reviews and a welter of other reforms such as the Sainsbury review, apprenticeship reform and machinery of government changes (not to mention Brexit, which has huge implications for FE) must raise serious questions about local capacity to respond to the massive expectations currently placed at the door of the devolution agenda. Centralisation and the hollowing out of local government have seriously diminished local-level capacity to respond to this new agenda (though it should be added that one of the tensions at its heart is the government’s reluctance to take its hands of the levers of power – localism, to coin a phrase, must mean localism).

Against this backdrop, the swingeing cuts to the adult education budget, introduced by the government since 2010, appear, to put it mildly, exceedingly short-sighted. And while the current stability in funding levels is welcome it is far from clear that FE is where it needs to be to respond positively to the latest wave of reform, while also rising to the country’s seemingly intractable adult basic skills challenge. It is clear, however, that we cannot get to where we want to be by focusing purely on early years and basic education at school (hugely important though these are). Children learn best when they have the support and interest of their parents and when their parents are able to inspire and motive their children through their own example. And securing a future for one’s children is often the key motivator in getting adults back into learning. Had New Labour had the courage to retain its focus on lifelong learning for all rather than insisting on a dodgy distinction between vocational and non-vocational and adopting a narrow focus on employability, we might by now be surveying a very different scene. The overarching theme of International Literacy Day 2016 is ‘Reading the past, writing the future’. This seems highly appropriate. Failure to learn the right lessons from the past can lead us to repeat its mistakes, as new PM Theresa May seems set to do over grammar schools. However you try to dress it up, grammar schools are not ‘inclusive’ and they do not promote social mobility. However, they do, quite clearly, benefit disproportionately the already well-heeled. For those ‘left behind’, the enduring legacy of grammar schools is one of disaffection and stigmatism, low expectations and reduced life chances – a lost generation of people denied the chance to write their own futures. If they are the answer, Theresa May must be asking a very different question. I wonder what it is.

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