Lifelong learning must ‘increase in scale’, & ‘expand in scope’, says Bank of England’s chief economist

Writing in The Guardian, Bank of England chief economist Andy Haldane calls for a more and better vocational and lifelong education to ‘meet the skills challenge facing the UK economy and limit the long-term scarring to it’: ‘the only way of immunising against economic long Covid will be through a skills programme every bit as large-scale, sure-footed and front-loaded’. Read his Guardian article here.

Andy Haldane contributed a preface to the Centenary Commission’s report praising its ‘compelling recommendations for transforming and embedding adult education’. You can read the report and his preface here.

Zooming in Adult Education

As we complete a year since the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown began, William Tyler reflects on his growing online skills. William spent his professional life in adult education, retiring as Principal of The City Lit, London, in 1995.  He is also a freelance historian. Awarded an MBE for services to adult education, William has been particularly involved with older learners, chairing a Council of Europe Working Party on the subject, and completing an MPhil degree in educational gerontology.

All those of us who have spent our professional lives advocating educational gerontology need no reminder that you can teach an old dog new tricks.

This time last year I hadn’t heard of Zoom, let alone given a lecture via it.  Now, I am almost a veteran. 

On a personal note, I have found Zooming a marvellous additional arrow in Adult Education’s quiver, and moreover it may allow me in five years time to continue teaching into my ninth decade.

My very first history class for JW3 (London’s Jewish Community Centre, offering a full programme of adult education courses), on Zoom saw me in a mild state of panic.  The lecture was delivered in a rather hesitant and self-conscious way.

However, I persevered, buoyed by supportive comments from the students, the majority of whom I had known for a number of years.  The students, aged 60+ to 90+, were as nervous and as unsure of using this new medium for study as I was.  It was good to share our concerns in a 15 minute open chat before the class began.  We soon realised how important these classes were to all of us, providing a fixed point in the week when everything else seemed to have been cast adrift in a new Covid world. 

The first point, therefore, to note about Zooming is that it enhanced, rather than diminished, the social aspect of Adult Education.  Not always in the past has this role of Adult Education been fully appreciated, either by political decision makers or budget holders. 

Zooming has some definite educational benefits for older learners.  No longer should Adult Education be restricted to those able to access it physically, but can now be made available to those who are prevented from attending either by lack of provision in their area or through their physical or financial inability to travel to a class.  Earlier attempts made by Adult Education to meet these issues have by and large been a story of failure.  No longer need that be the case.  

The second lesson, therefore, learned from zooming is universality of provision.  The challenge will be to utilise this new knowledge and technology.  A regional college hub, for example, will not be limited by student travelling distance thus enabling it to reach those who otherwise would be deprived of provision.  Such an advantage need not be limited to England alone but can reach out internationally. 

The other Zooming I have been involved with has been the delivery of history lectures to an international audience via the Lockdown University initiative of The Kirscher Institute.  This initiative has opened up even more possibilities.  There is now the possibility of team teaching by tutors based in different countries.  Thus a study of The American War of Independence could be co-tutored from The States and from England, or the consequences of The French Revolution by co tutors from France and Britain.  The possibilities are endless. 

The third lesson learned from the experience of the Lockdown University is that class size is no longer limited.  My webinar audiences for the Lockdown University have risen to 1,500.

As well as the tutor, as said above, the students have had to learn zoom, and soon became proficient enough to use chat rooms with confidence and to provide intriguing backgrounds, ranging from a picture relevant to the topic under discussion to one student who appears before a background of France’s greatest gardens.  Many have been grateful to grandchildren showing them the ropes.  A wonderful example of inter-generational teaching and learning.  It also show that learning by exploration still has a role to play as an androgogical tool.

Two further points learnt by this rookie zooming tutor:-

  • Synopses of classes, posted on tutor’s blog, have proved very popular, and interestingly as a revision aid after the class rather than as planned a pre-course handout.  Book lists have proved even more popular than normal, leading to a series of additional reading suggestions, fiction as well as non-fiction, posted on the blog. 
  • E-mails between students and tutor have helped keep people in touch and led to both sides gaining new insights.  I was sent, after a lecture on The Second World War in The Far East, a copy of a letter from a member of a student’s family to his brother giving a first hand and contemporary account of Japanese cannibalism.

However, as any adult educator will attest nothing can replace the face to face interaction between student and tutor.  I have always emphasised that Adult Education is theatre not cinema.  So the new challenge is how do we build this aspect in when we return to a new normal, in which we have learnt the advantages of Zooming?

Well, we can look to the past and seek to re-invent the short residential experience offered to adult students.  Sadly there is today a mere shadow of what was once a widely distributed system of short term residential colleges, LEA, University, and Independent.  Linking the idea of residential back up to Zooming, with the possibility of international Zooming, reminds me that in the 1960s Kingsgate College in Kent hosted an Anglo-French Summer School for students drawn from the Paris WEA and Kent WEA.  Old ideas can be refreshed to meet new demands.

I finish, therefore, as all adult educators should, with a comment from a student, ‘Thanks for helping to keep me sane and motivated this last year.’   I thoroughly re-endorse that sentiment from my own perspective.  Zooming has been a lifesaver for many older tutors and learners alike.

When lockdown becomes a drag…

… do a course with the WEA!, says Gillian Evans

Retired nurse Gillian Evans has relished the opportunity to keep learning on Zoom during the pandemic.

The WEA allows me to catch up on areas of history and culture that I neglected during my working life. When I saw the course on the History of Drag with Caroline Baylis-Green, I quickly signed up. I’ve always been intrigued by drag. My father was into amateur dramatics and I wanted to know what makes these performers tick.

The Zoom sessions allowed us to interact with some drag artists, which was very exciting. I was nervous about joining. Would I be accepted in the group? What would they think of me wanting to find out more about them? Happily, everybody was extremely welcoming. Drag artists are quite self-opinionated people who care a lot about how they are seen. Besides, Zoom brings a degree of distance and protection – in the same way that a uniform gives you more confidence to ask questions you might not ask as ‘yourself’.

Caroline was excellent. She didn’t push anything very hard at first, but made us think a lot about what we were looking at. I previously thought drag was about men dressing up as women, like they did in Shakespeare’s day. But that was more necessity, as men had to play the female part. Today, drag has evolved into a real art form. It’s highly skilled, and it’s quite an expensive interest too. The makeup is absolutely exquisite. Their clothes and physiques are immaculate. The whole ethos of drag is a wonderful way of expressing how they’re feeling, which comes very much from within. You can’t make yourself do this unless it comes right from inside you.

Queens use drag as a leisure part of their normal lives – they are delightful folk spending a considerable amount of money on their clothes, make up, wigs and general presentation to bring the very best to their audiences.

I’ve always been interested in computers and tried to keep up to date, so the transition to Zoom was straightforward. I was able to continue to volunteer at a local hospice, which got me out the front door and gave me a link to my past career. But as lockdown has continued, so the incarceration has become more of a dirge for me and my friends. The physical interaction of a coffee morning is hard to replace.

The WEA has helped enormously. They really pulled their finger out, right at the start, and put on a mass of courses across the board, which has given us something to hold onto. I’ve appreciated their support immensely.

Further Education & Skills: a place-based response to Covid

In this blog, Julie Nugent and Clare Hatton explain the West Midlands Combined Authority’s skills and adult learning response to the pandemic.

When Coronavirus hit in March 2020 it presented our region, like others across the country, with new social and economic challenges. Research suggested that the West Midlands could be the hardest-hit region – and indeed we have seen levels of unemployment spike.

Disadvantaged residents, young people and BAME communities have suffered the most. We have also seen an unprecedented surge in the number of adults requiring retraining and upskilling as they navigate a new job market during, and post Covid-19. 

A solid foundation

Yet we feel we were well prepared to respond to the crisis. At the start of the 2019/20 academic year, the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) took ownership of the £126 million Adult Education Budget (AEB) for the West Midlands. This was in an effort to align skills delivery with the wider economic strategy for the region, ensuring more people were able to get into jobs, had accessible opportunities to build skills, and could develop career opportunities through strong and inclusive further education (FE) and skills provision.

While the impact of the pandemic is far from over, we have been able to adapt swiftly to become flexible and receptive to the challenges we face. Our recovery plans involved working closely with employers, businesses, governmental bodies, charities, and educators to monitor the landscape and stay ahead of the curve. Doing this has allowed us to create and tailor programmes that provide the right level of training, across key sectors, to help get people back into employment as quickly as possible.

Challenges

The West Midlands is the largest regional economy in the UK, with a labour market of national significance. Yet as a region, it faces challenges in relation to high levels of unemployment, low productivity, a shortage of skills and limited social mobility. However, recognising the need for greater insight to identify the causes and address these issues, at the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA), we set out in 2019 to deliver a better match between the skills of the people in the region and the current and future needs of businesses, to accelerate productivity and deliver economic growth.

It wasn’t long before our strategy was showing real promise. By the end of 2019, the employment rate in the region was at a record high, with 75.5 per cent (2.82 million) of people in work. Productivity was improving at a faster rate than the national average, and the working age population was more qualified than ever before. The training funded through the WMCA was delivering even more economic impact for the region with provision increasingly focused on getting people into jobs, on delivering higher level skills and developing our pilot programmes alongside employers, providers and job centres to ensure courses equipped people with the skills they needed to fill their recruitment gaps.

Our WMCA regional skills plan has been central to this success; understanding the needs of the region, forming partnerships and adding value were central to driving this meaningful and lasting change. As part of this, we have worked closely alongside various key stakeholders including Local Authorities, Local Enterprise Partnerships, TUC, Colleges, Universities, training providers, Adult and Community Learning organisations and the voluntary sector, to build on the work they are already undertaking and create robust, and high-quality education and training for the diverse communities we serve. We have also forged strong employer relationships to identify the skills needed to help them grow and thrive both now and, in the future, and ensure we have provision that is fit for purpose and gets people into jobs.

Dealing with the pandemic

For example, we know there are recruitment and skills shortages in construction, advanced manufacturing and engineering, business, and professional services as well as digital skills. Therefore, we have been focusing on these areas to match the demand with the newly acquired skills gained by those seeking employment and retraining.  

The WMCA currently spends around 72 per cent of its adult education budget on unemployed adults, with a large portion of this attributed to basic level English and maths training. However, assessing recent events and the needs emerging from this crisis, we now have a mixed pool of adults and skilled professionals looking for new jobs or wanting to start their own businesses. Therefore, in the absence of any additional funding, we have adapted our FE provision needs to meet these new demands and provide accessible, engaging and skill-appropriate content.

When allocating the AEB, we need to be fluid with our funding to meet the demands of the local economy and react accordingly to the ever-changing landscape. For us, this has meant working closely with colleges and businesses to identify the provision needed and provide the most suitable training to fill the employment gaps. This doesn’t just span sector-based skills either, but also includes accessible training for workplace wellbeing, in order to support the wider employee health and wellbeing agenda and help employers with productivity and engagement levels.  

Covid-19 has also impacted the way training is delivered, and we have seen a greater shift to online delivery and blended learning options to provide a greater access to skills. We have also created new training opportunities through our free sector work-based programmes which provide a clear roadmap to help people get back on track, particularly if they are unemployed, have been furloughed or are worried about their current employment prospects.

Our Construction Gateway programme provides formal, job entry construction training through both online provision and practical onsite experience with Tier 1 employers and their supply chain. It has so far helped over 2,000 residents over two years, with over 50 per cent of those securing skilled career opportunities within a matter of weeks of completion. Since Covid-19, we have had to adapt the programme and shift to online training which has not only provided a bridge for people to build skills and experience without having to physically be on-site or in the classroom, but also presented a timely opportunity for the construction workforce to continue adapting to new ways of working. For example, new technological developments, such as GPS machine controls, are entering the construction industry – demonstrating a need for workers to continually evolve with the sector regardless of Covid-19.

Our community learning providers have risen to the challenge of supporting people with the skills they need to prepare them for work but also for life – digital skills so they can access services and support children with home schooling and wrap around support to ensure people remain connected to support their mental health. Keeping communities and residents engaged in learning through the pandemic is critical to ensure they are supported with their goals.

Looking ahead

Further education is critical in safeguarding the region’s employment opportunities and supporting our economic recovery, providing people with the training and skills required to thrive in the workplace. Crucial to this success has been our investment and commitment into a place-based approach to FE and skills, working closely alongside employers to deliver exactly what they need, while adapting to the changing landscape. By working together and reacting swiftly and effectively to regional demands and a diverse audience, we believe we have a clear roadmap to navigate the pandemic, reboot our economy and accelerate growth in key sectors.

Dr Julie Nugent is Director of Skills and Productivity at the West Midlands Combined Authority. She has held a range of senior roles across government and further education, with particular expertise in financing further education, having developed new funding systems for the Skills Funding Agency and the Learning and Skills Council. Julie has worked in the Black Country and in Birmingham – strengthening her understanding of skills in improving economic competitiveness and people’s life chances. Recently Julie led on the West Midlands negotiations with Government securing the first Skills Deal in the country with additional investment of £100 million to develop the region’s skills.

Clare Hatton is Head of Skills Delivery at the West Midlands Combined Authority, leading on the delivery of the WMCA’s skills portfolio. This includes the recently-devolved £130m Adult Education Budget and a range of pilot initiatives including digital retraining, and employment support pilots.  She works with regional partners to shape support for skills and employment aligned to priority growth sectors, particularly those targeted through the Local Industrial Strategy, driving up skill levels to secure sustainable employment, enhance skills and improve productivity. Previously, Clare worked for the Learning and Skills Council in senior policy roles, for PWC in their public sector practice supporting a range of national and government clients, and spent four years working in the senior leadership team at City College Coventry.

Adult education & innovation

On 13th March 2021, The Economist published a letter from Professor Jonathan Michie, Centenary Commission joint secretary, in response to its leader (‘How to make sparks fly’, 27th February 27th – published online as ‘Lessons from Britain’s pandemic on promoting innovation‘). The Economist‘s content is behind a paywall. This is the text of Jonathan’s letter:

Your ingredients for innovation include “good education” (“How to make sparks fly”, February 27th). Quite so. “Good” should mean broad based, crossing disciplinary ranges, and lifelong. This needs stressing, as governments too often take a narrow view, emphasising skills training, STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), and education ending at age 18 or 21. When Britain faced its ultimate STEM-based challenge, breaking the Nazi codes at Bletchley, which included developing the world’s first digital programmable computer, researchers were recruited from across the disciplinary spectrum.

In 1919 the British Ministry of Reconstruction’s report on adult education urged “good education” so that the newly extended electorate could think critically and weigh evidence. It also had the foresight to warn that unknown industries and technologies were on the horizon, so it was no use just training workers for today’s skills. A workforce had to have the capabilities to make the most of new technologies as they emerged.

The Bank of England’s chief economist argued 100 years later, in a centenary report on adult education, that “the education system of tomorrow needs to span the generational spectrum—young to old—and the skills spectrum—cognitive to vocational to interpersonal.”

JONATHAN MICHIE
Professor of innovation and knowledge exchange
University of Oxford

A New Passion for Lifelong Learning?

Calls for a new movement to persuade Government to put adult education at the heart of its plans to rebuild were heard last night at the second of the Centenary Commission’s ‘Build Back Bolder’ campaign launch gatherings.

The gathering was chaired by the former House of Commons Speaker John Bercow and the panellists were Lord (Karan) Bilimoria, President of the Confederation of British Industry, Robert Halfon, MP, Chair of the House of Commons Education Committee, Sir Alan Tuckett, Vice Chair of the Centenary Commission on Adult Education and former Chief Executive of the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education, and Baroness (Alison) Wolf, Sir Roy Griffiths Professor of Public Sector Management, Kings College, London and advisor to the Prime Minister on Further Education policy.


Baroness Wolf said there had been a ‘disappearance’ of broad adult education under successive Governments:

“I have to say it’s not just this Government,” she said. But all governments needed to address the need for lifelong learning as opposed to training: “It’s all very well to get rich, what are you getting rich for? So you  train in order to get rich, in order to pay more taxes, to train to get richer. At what point do you actually use any of this to do stuff that makes you into a better and more rounded human being?

“Obviously people have to have good jobs. We have to make the economy prosperous. But what about education? Should we be thinking about it more specifically?” she asked.

Long-term decline

Robert Halfon said participation in adult education had fallen to its lowest level in 23 years, with 38 per cent of adults not participating in any learning since leaving full-time education. That rose to almost half of the poorest in society, he said.

“The fourth Industrial Revolution may represent opportunities, but only if people are trained and reskilled now,” he said. “Of course the Government is doing some good things -the Skills for Jobs White Paper, the Lifetime Skills guarantee. But what we do need is an ambitious long-term funding settlement for adult education, and what I’d like to see and am passionate about is a Community Learning Centre in every town.”

Lord Bilimoria said the CBI had welcomed the Prime Minister’s initiatives to solve urgent skills challenges which had arisen in the pandemic, but more needed to be done.  

“Nine out of ten employees will need to reskill by 2030 at an additional cost of £13 billion, and Covid of course is accelerating the change in the way we work. We must use this momentum to drive a national rescaling effort,” he said.

Sir Alan Tuckett said a major issue was the top-down approach of Governments to adult education:

“Why does the Government want to limit it to those courses if approves?” he asked.  “People need to do that for themselves. Time after time we are told employers should be at the heart of the new strategy – my feeling is we’ve done that year after year. So what I want to see is a national strategy, locally determined,” he said.

John Bercow said all the speakers had displayed a passion for the topic, and that should be harnessed.

“I have felt that these webinars this week have been infused with a passion for an adult education and lifelong learning renaissance in this country. Transforming the immediate sense of excitement into something that is durable, tangible and effective requires statecraft, allocation of resources and considerable persistence, so there is a long way to go. But I hope that people who have taken part have felt genuinely energized by the experience.

“In the name both of upskilling and more importantly of human enrichment it is something that should endure and be a resonant feature of our lives, from cradle to grave,” he said.

You can watch the webinar here.

Build Back Bolder campaign launch: senior figures call for a new approach

Adult education must be pushed up the political agenda so it cannot be ignored, the former House of Commons Speaker John Bercow said last night at the launch event of the Centenary Commission’s Build Back Bolder campaign.

Chairing a webinar with the Commission’s chair Dame Helen Ghosh, former Secretary of State for Education David Blunkett, Oxford historian Professor Selina Todd and Helen Chicot, who spearheaded innovative approaches to lifelong learning in Rochdale, Mr Bercow said the panel had displayed a shared sense of passion on the issue.

“Whatever your politics I get a sense that there is a very proper impatience to better; a  mission to ensure a kind of crystallization of ideas about where we go next,” he said.

“I think we all feel very strongly about it.  I always think that you have to catapult a thing from the back of a decision-makers mind to the front of her or his mind and keep it there, “ he said.

Dame Helen Ghosh said there was great resonance between today’s issues and those facing the original Commission on Adult Education in 1919.

“ The 1919 report was a wonderful thing: It had in it the words we used for our title:  that adult education was a ‘permanent national necessity and an essential aspect of citizenship -universal and lifelong. Both the Brexit debate and now the pandemic have shown we live in a society sadly full of inequalities, and people who have been left behind. So every citizen needs to be engaged,” she said.

Taking control of lives

Lord Blunkett said that for many people lifelong learning was not a second chance, but a first chance: “Being able to take control of their own lives when technological change has overcome them, the ability to cope with rapid social and cultural change, makes adult learning absolutely crucial.

“ I’m afraid adult learning has taken a hell of a hit – between 2001 and 2011, 14 million people took up life skills or basic skills, often just learning to read and to write and to add up: the literacy part of that was the most successful. It dropped by a half from 2016 to last year with the pandemic,” he said. “We’ve never needed as we need it today the ability of people to be able to adapt to new circumstances to find that they have talent; the ability of people to be able to see that they have new opportunities as old ones disappear,” he said.

Professor Todd said that on International Women’s Day the need to make women’s education a priority should be a focus.

“In the early 1960s the Robbins report pointed out that in an advanced society we should want everyone to have an advanced education,” she said. “That’s never been truer than today: to get through this crisis, to get through the climate emergency, to work out how we negotiate with automation, we need new solutions and new people at the top,” she said.

Learning to trust

Helen Chicot said Rochdale’s experience in the last year had been instructive:

“We’ve had more time in lockdown than anywhere else, and the relationship between communities and institutions has changed for the better,” she said.  “Complete clarity of purpose in our communities has meant that we’ve learned to trust each other. Learning is such an important part of cohesion and reducing inequality, and clearly that’s a complex issue.

“Trust – being able to go to a class, to a safe space where we can become confident in what we know and share that with others – that’s why learning is important now for adults. if we’re lucky we can be confident  that we can start to take those steps, and we know who we can ask for help. if we’re really lucky someone helps us to take action to find out how to do those things – because as things currently stand it’s only if we’re lucky that we can learn,” she said.

You can watch the webinar here. The webinar was supported by the University of Nottingham Policy Engagement Fund. A second webinar will take place on Wednesday March 10 – for more details click here: https://www.tickettailor.com/events/educationmediacentre/489908