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Expert opinion from IOE, UCL's Faculty of Education and Society


Will adult learning keep its sharp focus on employment and qualifications or can it become an ‘inseparable aspect of citizenship’?

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 12 December 2019


Jay Derrick.

Exactly 100 years ago, it was argued in the 1919 Report, published by the Government Ministry for Reconstruction after World War 1, that Adult Education was essential for a confident, fair and democratic society. Its central recommendation was:

‘Adult education must not be regarded as a luxury for a few exceptional persons here and there… but a permanent national necessity, an inseparable aspect of citizenship, and therefore should be both universal and lifelong’.

Three separate Commissions on Lifelong Learning have published their reports in the last few weeks, and a fourth, a Parliamentary Inquiry, published its oral and written evidence in October.

The timing of these reports – by the Labour Party, the Liberal Democrats, and also a politically-independent Centenary Commission, is striking. Rates of participation in learning activities among adults have fallen dramatically over the last decade, and the decline is sharpest among those who have benefitted least from their schooling


The Holy Grail of e-learning: the quest continues

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 23 September 2015

Brian Creese, National Research and Development Centre for Adult Literacy and Numeracy (NRDC). 
Sometimes something is just too easy. I was really surprised when taking a short break in Valencia earlier this year to discover that the Cathedral there housed the Holy Grail. Here was I thinking that this was one of the great and mythical mysteries of western civilisation and all the time I had simply neglected to look in the right Cathedral. Suffice it to say that despite the great amount of circumstantial evidence provided, I remain somewhat sceptical that the vessel in Valencia Cathedral was actually the one Jesus used at the Last Supper.
I had a similar feeling when I saw a headline on my regular FE News email a few weeks ago, “15 hours of e-learning can increase Functional Skills attainment by 9%”.
Successful e-learning for over-16s in English and maths is something of a Holy Grail for this (and previous) governments. Advocating e-learning is just so tempting. How can we get more young people through English and maths qualifications (more…)

GCSE Grade C: too much and yet too little for older students

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 21 October 2014

Brian Creese
For most of my years working in and around FE and Adult education I have not spent too much time thinking about GCSEs. Although GCSE re-sits account for a large cohort in the 16-18 sector, we at the IOE’s NRDC (National Research and Development Centre for Adult Literacy and Numeracy) have spent more time with the Skills for Life qualifications and working to develop and then bed in Functional Skills.
But following Alison Wolf’s report published in the early years of the current administration, GCSEs are the only game in town. I recently attended a consultation at BIS concerning the new English and Mathematics GCSEs and their impact on post-16 education. As I am sure regular Blog readers will know, there are changes to the content of both mathematics and English GCSE exams and these will be introduced for 16-18 year olds from 2016/17. Alongside this, all 16-18 students without A*-C English or mathematics now have to study for GCSE or an approved ‘stepping stone’ qualification. By 2020, the ‘ambition’ is for all adults (who now seem to be those over 19) to be on a GCSE path. As the DfE/BIS puts it ‘GCSEs are as right for adults as they are for (more…)

Adult education: a fundamental good

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 30 July 2014

Brian Creese
Evening classes were once such an unshakeable part of the British landscape. They were the setting for TV and radio sitcoms, editions of the London guide Spotlight used to fly off the shelves on release and the standard advice of 70s ‘Agony Aunts’ – make friends, join an evening class – was the butt of comedians. My own experiences have included learning to touch type, creative writing, car maintenance and pottery. Most of my contemporaries have done evening classes in something, including the near ubiquitous foreign language courses.
But times have changed. In the past few years the headlines have been about falling numbers participating in adult education, a collapse in adult education funding and a collapse of morale.
Back when I was taking part in after work education we were not looking for pieces of paper – although I did get a Pitman’s typing qualification. We were doing these courses to try something out, learn a useful skill, or to be able to talk to the locals on holiday. No doubt some were following the agony aunt advice and were aiming to meet new friends and potential partners.
But it strikes me as sad that since the start of this century, accreditation has become the only game in town. Adult Ed (as we used to call it) has slowly been dragged into the accreditation net, becoming part of the ‘qualifications mania’ that insists on certificating subjects such as dance and music. The prevailing philosophy from all political parties has been that education is not worthwhile unless it leads to a qualification, and that therefore education should not be supported unless it leads to accreditation. No one, it seems to me, will stand up for the idea that education is a ‘general good’.
A European project provides some much needed support for Adult Ed. The Benefits of Lifelong Learning (BeLL) project looked at the individual and social benefits perceived by participants in ‘liberal adult education courses’ in 10 countries. The project produced over 8,500 survey returns, and project teams interviewed more than 80 participants across the participating countries.
The results are striking: adult learners felt that they led healthier lifestyles, had improved wellbeing, had improved their social lives and social networks and were more motivated to continue with learning. Younger participants found the courses acted as stepping stones into adult society, improving their sense of control over their own lives. Older people found that the courses had a cushioning effect, softening some age-related changes associated with retirement. And perhaps most importantly, the lower the participants’ level of education, the stronger the benefits.
An unexpected finding was that these results were not only consistent across the participating countries, but they held regardless of the type of education class being taken. The results were the same for those doing languages, sport or civic education.
Adult education suffers from not being a distinctive sector. It takes place in sixth-form colleges, higher education institutions, FE Colleges, through work-based learning programmes and local authority adult education services. While many courses for over-19s are funded by Government, these tend to be for English, mathematics and vocational subjects leading to qualifications at Level 2 and 3.
Non accredited courses such as those covered by the BeLL report are increasingly hard to find and expensive to participate in. Government, both local and national, appears to have lost sight of the importance of these courses and this report will hopefully provide a reminder of the benefits which used to be taken for granted. There is an echo of that dated agony aunt advice in the finding that adult education classes were one of the few social spaces where you can meet strangers safely, interact with them and make friends. Adult Ed classes are perceived to provide the scaffolding for social cohesion.
There are messages here for many stakeholders, if they are prepared to engage with the study. It provides good evidence for local government, which may need reasons for continuing to support the sector, it should remind central Government that the benefits of adult education go beyond attaining qualifications, and it has particularly strong messages to those that work with mental health or the elderly, particularly in the charitable sector. Adult education really can help people with their mental health and ease older people’s path into retirement.
The sad thing, though is that it takes a European-wide survey with thousands of participants to remind us of something that used to be a self-evident truth. Adult Ed, indeed all education, is a fundamentally good thing; it benefits individuals, their families, society and even employers. It is sad that policy makers and politicians have forgotten this obvious fact. Perhaps in retirement they themselves will reengage with non-accredited education and understand again its importance.

Are basic skills and benefits a motivational combination?

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 29 January 2014

Brian Creese, NRDC (National Research and Development Centre for Adult Literacy and Numeracy)
After three years away from the front line of government policy, adult literacy and numeracy practitioners suddenly had the spotlights turned on them again last week.
Was I the only one taken aback when Rachel Reeves, using a speech to the IPPR think-tank, announced that the next Labour Government would make it “a new requirement for jobseekers to take training if they do not meet basic standards of maths, English and IT – training they will be required to take up alongside their jobsearch, or lose their benefits”? Suddenly the light is shining very brightly at post-16 literacy and numeracy provision.
Let us leave aside the politics of the proposal, so the questions of where the money is going to come from, how long the courses will be, how will they will be monitored and assessed can be sidestepped (though it is understandable that both the Association of Colleges and teaching unions’ first reactions were to ask about the funding). Instead, I would like to spend a moment or two considering the educational benefits of this approach.
It is likely that many of the cohort of learners to be picked up by this initiative will be people who are no strangers to English and mathematics classes. How are we going to get through to them this time what all the years of compulsory school have failed to achieve? A good start is that if we assume they receive no benefits if they don’t turn up for sessions, attendance is likely to be reasonably good. But is that sufficient? Is just ‘turning up’ enough?
We do not know who will deliver these courses and what the qualification will be. But if the courses are going to follow the adult skills curriculum, rather than the GCSE one, and are taught by FE teachers used to working with adults and who will assume they have an amount of knowledge already – rather than just starting from scratch yet again – this will certainly have a positive impact.
But as all teachers know, motivation is the fundamental issue. Does the learner doing this course really want to achieve this time round? If they do, then their likelihood of success will be raised significantly. If they are just there because they have to be, I think it unlikely that this initiative will make a great deal of difference.
That said, learners doing basic skills because they ‘have to’ can achieve impressively. This was our surprise finding when doing a three-year longitudinal study into basic skills and the armed forces. The young men and women we were following, who came from all three forces, were just those who hadn’t really enjoyed or succeeded at school. Yet when the ‘literacy and numeracy’ moment in their training arrived, they trooped off to do two or three weeks of intensive study…. and succeeded.
I was initially sceptical. One tutor told me she couldn’t remember the last time anyone had failed Level 1 literacy, another talked of those failing numeracy as barely a handful out of hundreds. Wherever we went the story was the same; achievement rates that most FE Colleges could only dream of. Our conclusion was that even if the rookie ratings, soldiers and airmen didn’t necessarily care about the qualification themselves, they knew the Services did. They knew they were expected to pass and that they needed the qualification for promotion. So they went to the lessons, did the work and passed the test.
So interested were BIS in this finding that our colleagues at NIACE, in cooperation with The Manchester College, have since organised a pilot scheme in a group of prisons, running short, intensive sessions on literacy and numeracy. Results suggest that in numeracy at least, success rates have improved significantly in that most difficult of contexts.
I don’t think it is just ‘having to turn up’ however, that is the key; otherwise compulsory education would lead to everyone getting their eight A*s at GCSE. The important thing for me is expectations; if teachers and tutors, parents and peers expect a learner to pass, if employers are going to value the award, then their chances of doing so are that much improved.
So while the success of this policy is likely to depend on the type of course on offer and who teaches it, the key will be whether the Job Seekers’ Allowance claimants believe the qualification they are doing will help them get a job, and whether those around them believe they can succeed.

Why government should provide more funding for older learners

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 23 January 2014

Andrew Jenkins, IOE, and Tarani Chandola, University of Manchester
Health in Britain, including life expectancy, has continued to improve in recent years, yet health inequalities have not only persisted, but widened. Those who are best off financially have the best health too. Evidence from the US has suggested that as little as 20% of the influences on health may be to do with clinical care and quality of care. Health behaviours account for a further 30% of influences and the physical environment for just 10%, while socio-economic factors have the largest impact on health – 40% of all influences. However, the wide range and inter-relatedness of socio-economic factors makes it hard to focus on just one factor to reduce health inequalities.
The British Academy has just published a collection of opinion pieces on health inequalities written by social scientists: “If you could do one thing…” Nine local actions to reduce health inequalities. Each of the authors has produced an article drawing on the evidence base for their particular field, identifying policy interventions which they think should be introduced to improve the health of the local population and reduce health inequalities.
In our chapter, we consider the scope of further and adult education for reducing social inequalities in health. Adult education practitioners have long been aware of the power that learning can have in transforming individual life paths. There is growing statistical evidence to support this, showing associations between participation in various types of adult learning and improvements in wellbeing, health, and health-related behaviours. A good deal of this evidence has been obtained by researchers using the rich data available in birth cohort studies. These data sources enable the researcher to understand the relationships between sequences of learning events and health outcomes through time.
However, the benefits of learning at individual-level do not necessarily imply that investment in education will reduce health inequality. For example, if additional investment in post-compulsory learning is heavily weighted towards higher education among young adults, this would probably be of disproportionate benefit to middle class young people. The long-term impact of such an intervention could then be to increase inequalities in health rather than reducing them. Similarly, funding for training programmes that were only available to those in work would run the risk of increasing inequalities between the unemployed and the employed.
Bearing these complexities in mind, we recommend three key interventions. Firstly, there is a strong case for the provision of financial support to those without any educational qualifications to attend further and adult education institutions and obtain qualifications.  Secondly, adult learning for people who leave school without any qualifications should focus on key literacy and numeracy skills, the lack of which acts as a major barrier to obtaining employment. A policy which concentrates on learning for such economically disadvantaged groups is unlikely to suffer from the risk of increasing inequalities in health. Thirdly, as the NIACE-sponsored Inquiry into the Future of Lifelong Learning argued, there is a good case for the education budget to provide more support for older learners. Adult learning could contribute to a healthy and active old age.
Unfortunately, policy in recent years has tended to focus on young people doing full-time courses while funding for other forms of learning has been cut back. Increasing the financial barriers for adult learners will be felt particularly acutely among the socially disadvantaged and there is a real concern that this will have detrimental consequences for health equality.
This post first appeared on the NIACE blog

OECD Skills Survey: the adult learning perspective

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 11 November 2013

Brian Creese & colleagues from NRDC (National Research and Development Centre for adult literacy, language and numeracy)
The results of last month’s OECD Survey received considerable coverage in the UK media. However, despite it being a survey of adult skills, with a focus on lifelong learning and the skills of the workforce, the reporting has focused entirely on schools:
Schools go backwards (Daily Mail)

OECD: English school leavers ‘among least literate and numerate in the developed world (Daily Telegraph)
England’s young people near bottom of global league table for basic skills (The Guardian)
The slightly hysterical reactions appear to have been sparked off by the finding that not only are England’s 16 to 24-year-olds falling behind their Asian and European counterparts in literacy and numeracy but that, as the Daily Mail put it: “England  is the only developed country producing school leavers who are worse at maths and reading than their grandparents.” Overall England came 22nd out of 24 countries for the reading skills of its young people and 21st for maths. These are worrying figures. However, the focus placed on schools by the media and by politicians alike misses the point that improving schools will not help those who are beyond school age.
So what does the report actually say? It suggests that the skills levels nations require to compete in the global economy continue to rise, that adults lose their skills with time unless they actually use them, that immigrants do not magically learn the home language without help and that in all countries surveyed, at least 10% of adults lack the most basic of computer skills.
In the UK social background has a major impact on adults’ basic skills. Poor skills are associated with poor outcomes in most measures of wellbeing, as well as in income. It doesn’t have to be that way. Countries such as Austria, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden manage to combine above average performance in the survey with high levels of social equality.
For those of us who work with adult learners, the report’s key recommendations reiterate what we already know about the need to foster lifelong, skills-oriented learning. In order to continue to compete in a changing environment, lifelong learning must be made accessible to all. This, the report suggests, requires concerted engagement with Government, employers and employees as well as parents and students for adults to be able to constantly improve and update their skills over the lifecourse in order to maximise their economic and social outcomes.
Promoting education to all adults is vital for the economic and social future or our nation, but since those most likely to undertake more education are those who had the highest levels of education in the first place, Governments need to pursue active and positive steps to encourage those with poorer skills to re-enter education as adults in order to escape from the vicious cycle of low skills leading to low income. However, the survey also makes it clear that lifelong learning opportunities are relevant to workers in both high and low-skilled occupations and regardless of their level of initial education.
However good our schools become there will always be a need for adult education. Not everyone can succeed at school and even those who do will need to learn new skills and maintain those that they have. It’s easy for the media to blame schools and those who set schools policy for England’s poor performance in international comparative surveys; it’s much harder to develop effective adult skills policies that provide us with a competitive workforce and address issues of social justice.

Learning: a cost effective intervention for a healthier old age

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 10 December 2012

Andrew Jenkins
We live in an ageing society.  On current estimates the European population aged over 60 will continue to grow by about 2 million people a year over the next couple of decades and by 2060 over 65s will make up some 30% of the European population.  Finding ways to minimise the resulting strain on pension and healthcare systems is a major long-term challenge for policy-makers.
But older adults can also be considered a resource to society so the idea of active ageing must be central in addressing demographic change. Active ageing means growing old in good health and as a full member of society: having the opportunity to continue to participate in paid or voluntary work, remaining independent in daily life and involved as citizens. Older people have much to contribute to society and in turn will enjoy a better quality of life if they are able to do so. The EU’s designation of 2012 as the European Year of Active Ageing and Solidarity between Generations underscores this point.
So, if the objective is to maintain the wellbeing of individuals as they age, what is the contribution that participation in learning can make? Research has been growing on this topic but has been skewed towards small scale qualitative studies which, while of much interest and value, are not readily generalisable. Our study “Learning and Wellbeing Trajectories Among Older Adults in England” (pdf) aimed to strengthen the evidence base by drawing on quantitative data.
Using  data from the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (ELSA),  a large-scale, nationally-representative survey of older adults, we focused on people in their 50s and 60s, and related a measure of their wellbeing to participation in several types of learning.
The most striking finding was that it was consistently the non-vocational and relatively informal types of learning (such as music/arts groups and evening classes) which were associated with increases in wellbeing, rather than formal, more vocationally-oriented education and training courses.
Quantitative studies also have the advantage of yielding precise estimates of the magnitude of effects.  As people grew older, their wellbeing gradually declined.  But the measured impact of participation in (non-vocational) learning was at least sufficient to offset this gradual decline in wellbeing as people became older. Another way of expressing these results is that the boost to wellbeing delivered by engagement in learning was about one-quarter of the size of moving from the bottom to the middle of the wealth distribution. These estimates, then, show very clearly that learning participation has a useful role to play as a contributor to the wellbeing of older adults.
Of course, quantitative studies of this type do not tell us very much about the reasons why participation in non-vocational learning affected the wellbeing of older adults while vocational courses did not. But previous, qualitative evidence, can help to fill that gap. It seems plausible that vocational courses would only have benefits in the longer term and only when they led on to more satisfying work or promotion. Participation in non-vocational learning activities such as music or arts groups or evening classes, on the other hand, would be more likely to be undertaken because of their intrinsic enjoyment or possibly because of opportunities for getting out and socialising. These are important reasons for learning at older ages. Older adults often appreciated learning because it helped them to be receptive to new ideas, to improve understanding and maintain a positive outlook.  Opportunities for increased social participation, for meeting up and studying with friends and the forming of new networks, were also important factors.
In general, it is not at all easy to think of policy instruments which can make an effective contribution to active ageing. If learning can play even a small part in contributing to good health and wellbeing, or helping people to live independent lives for longer, then providing relevant and interesting courses for older adults is a remarkably cheap and cost-effective intervention.
Despite the accumulating evidence of the benefits of learning for older adults in England, rates of participation in adult education have tended to decline in recent years. Some of this decline may be blamed on the recession – people having less money to spend on learning. But the decline has occurred primarily because of deliberate changes in adult education policy. Since 2004  – that is under both Labour and Conservative/Liberal governments – the policy has been to reduce the amount of money available for short courses and other unaccredited types of learning in order to concentate funding on longer-term, qualification-bearing courses aimed at 16-24 year olds.
It was no great surprise then, that when the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills recently, and rather belatedly, published the results of the 2010 National Adult Learning Survey (pdf) it showed some sharp declines in both non-formal learning (taught classes not leading to qualifications) and informal learning (involving self-study to improve knowledge). Indeed it was found that participation in learning had declined across almost all age groups with the exception of 16-19 year olds, with the decline being most noticeable among those aged 60 and over. This was a significant reversal of rising participation rates shown by earlier surveys.
Policies  channelling public funds towards accredited and vocational learning carries the risk that other forms of learning, and any benefits which derive from them, will be neglected.  Yet, in our ageing society, if adult learning can play a role in maintaining the health and wellbeing of older citizens then there must be a strong case for the state to invest in it.