Adult education is in the news, for once. As we seek to rebuild and renew our communities from the ravages of the Covid-19 pandemic, the education of our citizens is seen as a key plank on which the recovery must be constructed. At the same time, and following years of austerity which stripped back services, hitting less affluent areas the hardest, debates around the decentralisation of power and fairer redistribution of resources have coalesced around the devolution of significant budgets to regions, including those for adult education. A white paper on further education attempts to build traction in addressing important challenges for the sector and the economy.
The key driver is economic well-being. We are faced with a crisis which is likely to have a devastating impact on people and communities for many years, in terms of their livelihoods, aspirations and health. Disadvantaged communities face even more challenges in terms of poverty, worklessness, housing insecurity and discrimination. Digital exclusion grows alongside other social and economic divides. An economic approach to tackling these issues is necessary. Regions need control over the resources they require in order to rebuild and renew according to their specific needs.
Within the remit of adult education, this has been manifested in a renewed commitment to providing the skills people need for work – particularly the higher level skills for growth industries such as creative, digital and green tech.
Given the seismic disruption to the economy and consequent loss of jobs in sectors such as hospitality and retail, large numbers of people need opportunities to reskill for emerging growth areas and more resilient sectors, while those without work need to boost their skills and confidence for an increasingly competitive market. West Yorkshire, as with many regions with a legacy of heavy industry, has a ‘skills gap’ at this level.
There are important things to say about this strategy in terms of the role adult education can and should play. Firstly, the focus on higher level skills training provision assumes that there is an untapped resource of adults, commensurate with the ‘skills gap’, who are in a position to fill it. However, 26% of West Yorkshire’s working age population have low or no qualifications1.
The experience of learning providers, particularly those in the voluntary and community sector which target the most disadvantaged members of our communities, is that this skills offer is beyond the reach of large numbers of people.
An emphasis on Level 2 qualifications and higher (the white paper introduces a national entitlement at Level 3) threatens to widen the gap between people who are ready to engage in learning at this level and those who are not.
Such an approach also highlights a wider issue. While channelling resources into a skills offer does not address the chronic underfunding of wider adult education (over 40% reduced since 2010), it also inevitably questions the purpose and value of adult education itself.
In 1919, following the massive turmoil of the First World War, an enquiry into adult education was commissioned by the Ministry of Reconstruction. The Report described adult education as ‘a permanent national necessity’ – not only for the effective renewal of the country, but as a lifelong resource for its citizens. Acknowledging the significance of the Report and its continued relevance in the face of current national and global challenges, a Centenary Commission was established in 2018 to examine the role of adult education in the 20th century and provide a vision for its continued contribution to society and the challenges we face in the coming 100 years.
This review, and consequent vision, testifies to the wide and significant role of adult education. It draws on the first Report’s assertion that
Adult education must not be regarded as a luxury for a few exceptional persons here and there... it is a permanent national necessity, an inseparable aspect of citizenship 2.
And it describes the multiple purposes of adult education, including fostering community and democracy, ensuring a basic level of skills for all, promoting creativity and securing well-being.
Taking the 1919 statement and these purposes together, a persuasive and coherent citizen-led vision for adult education in West Yorkshire can be articulated. One which is inclusive and progressive, purposeful and engaged, broad and ambitious for all the region’s citizens and communities.
What could this look like? Clearly, it can drive renewal through offering opportunities for all adults to improve skills, including for the rapidly changing world of work; but it also plays a central role in other areas fundamental to renewal – civic life, community cohesion and collectivity, health and well-being, arts and creativity, innovation and entrepreneurship, and in an understanding of the value of education itself as a positive, vivifying force for everyone.
Recognising the vital role of adult education, we ask new West Yorkshire mayor to commit themselves to the following:
To be an Adult Learning Champion, advocating for the benefits of wider adult education for social cohesion, better health and well-being, personal achievement, civic engagement and democracy.
To support greater involvement of voluntary and community sector adult learning providers in strategic decision making, not just in skills and employability agendas but across all civic and public realms.
To actively facilitate increased resources to secure transformative opportunities for all West Yorkshire citizens to access learning in their communities, responding to their needs and contributing to wider renewal.
Rob Hindle is an educator and writer, with almost 30 years of experience of working in adult and higher education. A graduate of Leeds University, he works for the WEA across Yorkshire and the Humber. ‘Adult Education for a Citizen-Led West Yorkshire’ is a personal reflection.
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