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Adult education in a cold climate

I have been reading Darren McGarvey’s book Poverty Safari and was much struck by his description of a prison education class: a rap workshop he gave to a group of women prisoners interned at a young offenders’ institution in Scotland. The prison setting has its own unique challenges for educators, of course, and the thematic focus of the class was unusual, but there is a great deal in McGarvey’s account that educators will recognise, from the anxious, fumbling introductions, as he tries to connect with his students and find some common ground, to the challenge of dealing with vulnerable and risk-averse adults who are unused to their skills and abilities being recognized or valued.

What particularly resonated with me was what he had to say about trust. The students he encounters in such settings are often reluctant to share. They can be ashamed or embarrassed, doubtful of their own abilities and quick to see fault in themselves if things don’t go well. Building trust is critical but can take time. Many prisoners, McGarvey notes, are survivors of physical, emotional, or sexual abuse, often at the hands of people supposed to care for them. They do not open up easily. McGarvey describes how he attempts to establish his authenticity, sharing experiences to which they can readily relate (he performs an autobiographical song ‘laden with the imagery and language of lower class communities’) and showing them that he is who he says he is. These women are used to imposters putting on a persona of some sort to win them over and are good at spotting it when it happens.

At the end of the class, a student ‘casually’ mentions the death of her parents and sister from ‘fake street Valium’, then describes how she ended up in prison by taking the blame for something her boyfriend did. In the coming weeks she tells this story several times, testing the water, perhaps, and slowly peeling off the layers of her armour. Finally, in the fourth week, she begins to cry, the first time, she says, that she has done so in front of her fellow prisoners. She is consoled by the other women in the group. McGarvey delicately and thoughtfully describes this remarkable, potentially transformative moment that could not have happened without the trust he had carefully established with and among his students.

McGarvey is not blind to the harmful and destructive behaviour that has led most of these women to prison, nor is he forgetful of the victims of their crimes, but he recognises too that their crimes began somewhere, very often with some act of violence or abuse of which they were victim. Their problems are often acute, deep-seated, and complex, and solutions, however well-intentioned, will only work if they acknowledge this complexity. Even with an appropriately nuanced approach, it can be difficult, since people who have experienced abuse or violence often construct multiple barriers, blocks in the road by which they hope to protect themselves but which, in the end, prevent them getting out, trapped by their own defences. It is possible to break these barriers down, but it takes time and care and sensitivity and listening and interest and love. Often, students require not just second chances, but third, fourth and fifth chances too. Trust must cut both ways.

That is where adult education comes in. I mean, primarily, the non-formal kind of adult education that doesn’t necessarily lead to a qualification or a job (at least not in any direct way), that is about the individual rather than the acquisition of a certificate. Often, it is to such spaces that adults the furthest distance from the safety of a job and a nice home and a family and all the rest come to begin to build or rebuild their confidence, courage, and capacity. A large proportion of participants in local authority adult community education in England, for example, are considered ‘hard to reach’ and live in some of the country’s most deprived wards. They include the long-term unemployed, people from ‘vulnerable’ families, people with substance issues and young people who are not in education, employment, or training (NEETs) – people whose support needs demand coordinated intervention and the engagement of different services.

Working effectively in such environments is, as McGarvey shows, about trust. It is about creating a safe space, usually in a familiar local place. It is about giving people time and opportunity. Often, people will take numerous classes, giving little of themselves at first before finding a way to contribute, to be themselves with others. It is also about respect. Your view and experience matter. It isn’t only the students who learn. The tutor does too. And the outcome of the class is not pre-determined. It is co-created, in a collaborative, largely democratic way. This can be a shock for students who have been told, repeatedly, and in different ways, that they are stupid or lazy. In so many cases, school education fails young people by confirming what they, in their darkest moments, think of themselves.

I want to say that adult education has an important part to play in engaging such people and helping them achieve their true potential, but it is much more than that. I want to make a bigger claim, because it is not just one service among others but acts as a kind of glue, the connective tissue holding the other services in place, giving the learner the means to orient themselves, to make sense of where they are and to find out what they want to do. There is enormous transformative potential in this. It offers people who have had a terrible school experience, often compounded by a tough home environment, who know the odds have been deliberately and painstakingly stacked against them, a bit of hope and a chance to be heard.

Rochdale Borough Council offers one example of the difference adult education can make in an area of highly complex need and disadvantage. It was one of the areas I focused on in a report I wrote for the Local Government Association (LGA) a few years ago (with support from HOLEX, the professional body for adult community education, and LEAFEA, the national adult education network). What made Rochdale especially interesting (among much great practice) was how it put learning at the heart of a ‘place-based’ approach that involved not only educators but also housing officers, police, healthcare workers, and mental health, drug and alcohol services working together as part of one multi-agency ‘place team’. The teams, composed differently depending on the needs of a local area, are based in places of learning in the community, giving learners both the chance to access the services they need and the opportunity to learn ‘normally’ in a regular class with other adults from the community. Helen Chicot, Place Integration Lead at Rochdale Borough Council, put it this way:

We see the work of the educator as being very broad and we train housing officers, police community support officers, and so on, to see themselves as educators so they are embedding that concept of learning into all their practice. We think that is what makes the difference. If there is a silver bullet for complex dependency and vulnerability, it is learning.

The local authority estimates that for every £1 spent in the programme there was a £4 return in terms of reduced police callouts, preventing children going into care and reduced calls on ambulance and doctor’s services. It also reports increased demand for preventative services, reduced instances of domestic violence and increased employment.

Is this sort of provision, then, something that should be airily dismissed (‘holiday Spanish’, anyone?) or dispensed with altogether when times are hard (when, surely, it is most needed)? It is indicative of our generally dysfunctional approach to education that we do not adequately recognise the value of non-formal community adult education or understand its relationship to wider policy goals to do with employment, economic productivity, and social inclusion. But it is also an indictment of what we value in educational terms, the economistic rubric we apply in assessing the value of any intervention. Where within this narrow frame would we put the Ely woman who was frightened to speak to her daughter’s teachers but who, through adult education, became the leader of the school’s parent action group. Or the Edinburgh woman whose son fell to his death from a faulty high-rise window but who put herself back together through education and became a tenants’ rights activist. These are just two of the hundreds of incredible stories I have heard over the years to which we, in public policy terms, struggle to attach value.

Our failure as a society to recognise this value is reflected in terms of public support. Government spending on adult education has fallen by more than half in England since 2010, leading the LGA to estimate that the government would need to at least double the adult education budget, from £1.5 billion to £3 billion, to reverse the 3.8 million drop in learner numbers since 2010. And that would still be too little to restore the sector to where it was 20 years ago. There have been some welcome moves in the direction of devolution – since 2019, around half of the adult education budget has been devolved to mayoral combined authorities and the government plans to accelerate this process, though in ways that raise questions about coherence and fragmentation – but there is little prospect of funding returning to anything like the levels of the past. What funding exists is increasingly directed towards employability, with government increasing the funding rate for priority courses linked to employability and introducing new employment-related objectives for community learning. With so little ambition or fresh thinking it is no wonder that adult education numbers have been declining at every level and in every sector, including adult community education. The impact of these cuts has been felt hardest in poorer, more marginalised communities. Disadvantaged adults remain twice as likely to not participate in education than their counterparts in wealthier areas, helping perpetuate disadvantage across generations. It is sometimes difficult to say whether this is an unintended consequence of policy or its aim.

A new Learning and Work Institute report focuses on the long-term economic inactivity of adults in disadvantaged parts of the country, noting that it has risen through the pandemic with 600,000 more adults (the largest proportion being the over 50s) unable to work for health or family reasons or because they have chosen to retire early. It highlights both the economic impact of these trends and the need for policy solutions that are flexible and sensitive to need and offer support and incentives for people to enter or re-enter the labour market. It is certainly right to say that increasing regulation and expanding the role of Job Centre Plus will not be enough. But I think we need to go further than is envisaged in the report and recognise than long-term worklessness is just one aspect of a complex concatenation of issues facing deprived communities that can only be addressed through an integrated place-based approach which acknowledges not only the importance of learning for work and employability but the wider value of learning in a community. As Simon Parkinson, Chief Executive of the WEA, has argued, a narrow focus on skills for employment is likely to prove counterproductive. The government’s plan to ‘re-orientate the vision for non-qualification provision’ towards employment is yet more evidence of a moribund system that can do no better than repeat the mistakes of the past, in some half-baked parody of Nietzschean recurrence.

A recent report from the Centre for Social Justice makes the case for adult community education as a contributor to economic growth and productivity. Noting, as the LWI report also does, the imbalance of opportunity between different parts of the country, the report highlights the role of adult education in getting people in the poorest areas on the first rung of the employment ladder, enabling them to take a first step into learning. It aims to ‘demystify’ the ‘false divide between adult education which is focused on work outcomes and community learning’, showing how community learning is ‘intertwined with work-related learning’. This is true, of course, in a sense, since adult community education often provides adults with a route to further education and work. But it is only part of the story (albeit an important one). Adult community education has a range of other benefits that make it worth investing in, from increased health and wellbeing to active citizenship. The latter seems to me to be especially important since a key aim of adult education is to empower learners, to foster critical thinking and democratic values, to make them fully paid-up members of the awkward squad. I have met hundreds of adult learners who have used what they have learned as a stepping-stone to employment. But I have met as many who have used adult education as a platform to engage with others in making their communities better places in which to live. We talk as though this kind of benefit doesn’t matter.

We are living in exceptionally difficult times, the age of the ‘polycrisis’ in which catastrophic global events such as climate change, the war in Ukraine and the COVID-19 pandemic intersect with profound local and regional problems, such as health and educational inequality, demographic change, and the erosion of democracy. We need smart, comprehensive place-based interventions at the points at which these crises intersect most acutely. Some of this work must aim to help people into work but it cannot afford to be as narrow as this. Many adults are so far from being ready to work that a focus on employment would be off-putting and alienating. But we should remember too that health and wellbeing, increased independence and self-reliance, social cohesion and connection, citizenship, personal development, and community empowerment are also worthy outcomes that policy should support. In this age of extremes, we do not just need more workers, or even better workers. We need critical thinkers, activists, collaborators and social entrepreneurs – people who can build up their communities from within. We need people who can contribute to a future in which work is less important, where community building is given equal status with economic growth and productivity and trumps private-sector profiteering. Communities across Britain are at breaking point. People everywhere are hurting. It seems silly to think we can simply train them better or to suppose that work is the answer to all their problems. Increasingly, it is not even guaranteed to lift them out of poverty – far from it, in fact. We should stop doing things we know don’t work. Maybe trust and collaboration could succeed where discipline and finger-pointing have failed?

Rizwan Ahmed
Rizwan Ahmed
AuditStudent.com, founded by Rizwan Ahmed, is an educational platform dedicated to empowering students and professionals in the all fields of life. Discover comprehensive resources and expert guidance to excel in the dynamic education industry.


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