‘Knowledge is power’: adult education and community development

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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