'Education creates the engaged citizens the UK needs'

Whatever happens on Brexit, citizens must be engaged and politically active through education, says Stephen Evans

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During the current round of Brexit debate, many news bulletins have featured voxpops – asking people on the street what their views are of the situation and potential ways forward. Some people question why we haven’t left already and have no problem with leaving the EU without agreeing a deal. Others think our likely deals look very different to the promises of the referendum campaign and think we should have another vote. And of course there are lots of other views and options too.

What strikes me (apart from most people just wanting it resolved one way or another) is that almost everyone has an opinion. Similar things were said about the Scottish independence referendum and its aftermath – whatever your views on the question at hand, there’s no doubt it increased political engagement.

Looking ahead, the Brexit debate is likely to rumble on for years to come. But beyond that there are so many big issues that require peoples’ engagement as citizens, consumers or both. These include climate change, local community issues, public services, health and well-being and many more.

Engaging through a Citizens’ Assembly

Some are suggesting a Citizens’ Assembly as a way to engage people in informing the next steps of the Brexit process. These involve a group of citizens chosen to be representative of the population, supported by an Advisory Panel to ensure the information presented is independent. They discuss a particular issue, the trade-offs they involve and aim to come to workable recommendations. It is then for politicians to decide how to take these forward. The aim is to get people more involved in the political process, with the expectation this is likely to lead to more buy-in than solutions proposed solely by politicians (particularly where there is no consensus). They have been used in the UK, Canada, Ireland and Australia among others.

I don’t pretend to be an expert in Citizens’ Assemblies nor a particular advocate for them. I raise it here to ask the question of whether these sort of approaches to engage people in national and local issues, combined with adult learning, could help to engage people in them and promote active citizenship?

After all, this is what adult learning at its best does every day. I think of Equal Voices, the 2018 Festival of Learning president's award winner, supporting those from a migrant background to improve their English and use this to engage politically. It’s what so many Workers Educational Association branches do in so many creative ways. I think too of the many college students making a difference in their communities, including using the skills they are gaining on their courses. You can see so many examples, whether in the Tes FE Awards, or Festival of Learning’s 2017 tutor of the year Sabeena Shah supporting her law students at Newham College to run a free legal clinic for local people. 

Making a difference

What difference can all this make? Local adult learning provision can seem a world away from the grand (or not so grand) debates at Westminster. Yet we know that pressure and visibility can help to drive national change. As skills minister Anne Milton put it, it’s the squeaky wheel that gets the oil.

And not all change requires national or even local government to act. The London Living Wage campaign was born out of the work of London Citizens, a collection of community and faith groups that looked at the problem of low pay and resolved to campaign for employers to pay a Living Wage. Today the Living Wage campaign is national and thousands of employers (including Learning and Work Institute) are signed up.

In a previous blog, I mentioned that 2019 marks 100 years since a Ministry of Reconstruction report arguing for a much bigger role for adult learning, including to ensure informed and engaged citizens as the right to vote was extended.

History sometimes repeats, but almost always echoes. The challenges may be different, as are the solutions, but most of them require people to be active citizens and consumers and to advocate for change. Adult learning makes a difference in so many ways. Let’s not forget this one.

Stephen Evans is chief executive of the Learning and Work Institute

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