Breaking down the barriers

4th April 1997 at 01:00
Charlie McConnell says that after 22 years the need for community education has never been more urgent.

Announcements of the demise of community education in Scotland are to say the least premature. The youth at 22 years (with the formation of local authority community education services in 1975) has come of age. Since reorganisation last year in some cases it now has a partner and changed name. And a positive partnership it is proving. Community education is linked in more than a third of councils with a variety of other sectors from libraries to leisure and recreation and even economic development,with new departments invariably entitled community, or in one case, neighbourhood, services.

For those community educators who have stayed within education departments (the majority), there has also been change, particularly when the education department has merged with leisure and recreation, or where, in less than a handful of cases, one of the three main functions of community education - adult education, community work and youth work - has been transferred. This includes the contracting out of much adult education in Glasgow to colleges and voluntary organisations. Other than Glasgow, the numbers of full-time community educators across Scottish local government have been reduced by fewer than 8 per cent. This is not to breathe a sigh of relief or complacency. There have been significant reductions in funding for part-time and sessional staff, such as adult tutors and youth leaders, and in grants to voluntary organisations. As a result the extent of community education and its capacity to target the educationally disadvantaged is under strain.

The omission from the community education voluntary sector of arrangements for transitional funding with respect to reorganisation (some Pounds 3.5 million has been available for the health and social welfare voluntary sector), together with reductions in kind, such as free access to council facilities, photocopying, and so on, has forced many organisations to cut staff and services. However, lottery funding for youth and adult learning projects is providing some support.

Both the 1995 Scottish Office Circular 695 and the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities' report on community education recognised the three functions delivered by community education: adult education, community work and youth work. Circular 695 will be used as the basis for HMI inspections. In the former Strathclyde, much community work was delivered through the social work department whose professional staff were predominantly community education trained. Several of the 12 successor authorities have since re-emphasised this function within their education or community services departments. In the east, authorities such as Fife, Stirling and Dundee have raised the profile of community work considerably as a central feature of their active citizenship and community governance strategies.

Community education managers across much of Scotland seem to be responding positively to the recent challenge by Douglas Sinclair, Cosla's chief executive, that community educators become more central to the core business of the new councils: social strategy, urban and rural regeneration, local economic development. After 22 years the need for community education has never been more nationally acknowledged. The recent Scottish Skills Forum report sees community education as "pivotal in reaching the 80 per cent of Scots who currently have no involvement in learning after formal education". The Advisory Scottish Council for Education and Training Targets and the Government's lifelong learning strategy and support for collaborative strategies to tackle such issues as crime prevention and drugs give long-deserved recognition to the skills of community educators in engaging with some of the more disadvantaged and excluded.

All of the political parties have made commitments to community education. Labour has indicated a willingness to strengthen the statutory duties upon local authorities to ensure provision. The party has also made a public commitment to getting community schools back on the agenda, highlighting the necessary partnerships between teachers and community educators. Cutting across boundaries has never been more necessary at a time of concern with fragmentation and competition between education and training sectors. Initial apprehension from the community education sector that further education colleges would make predatory moves into what they perceived as their terrain has been confounded with a growing number of colleges adopting community college strategies, working collaboratively with community education and employing professional community educators to manage outreach programmes. This is to be positively welcomed.

When community education was established in the mid-1970s, the chief rationale was a concern to widen participation in learning throughout life, particularly among the more disadvantaged within the community. We cannot afford to have large parts of the Scottish population dependent or unable to meet new challenges in society. Scotland's participation rates in continuing education are among the lowest of OECD countries. It has been argued that this is one reason why our economic competitiveness has lagged behind that of other countries. On both social justice and economic grounds there is a growing recognition by both central and local government of a need to reach out to non-participants and to attract them back into learning and community development.

There has been and continues to be inertia within the Scottish formal education system that ties up to 99 per cent of public expenditure on education within formal school, college and university settings and upon educators trained to work in institutions. The two exceptions, open learning exemplified by the Open University and community education, demonstrate that it is possible to open access to learning opportunities: the former by way of technology and the latter by employing trained outreach educators to work within local communities. Both are essential. Recent evidence published by the Scottish Office confirms that around 13 per cent of the population now regularly participates in local authority community education provision in an average week. That is half a million individuals, a significant increase over the estimated 6 per cent in 1979. And its significance is all the greater as a far higher proportion now come from disadvantaged areas and groups. Add to this other providers such as the voluntary sector and the figure tops a million.

Community education, at its best, has broken many of the barriers. All the more reason to enhance not lessen public investment as part of the much needed push to tackle educational disadvantage and the many related issues facing young people and adults.

* The Scottish Community Education Council, The TES Scotland and the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities are sponsoring a Scottish Campaign for Learning conference on "Poverty: The Real Barrier to Lifelong Learning?" in Glasgow on April 9. Contact Carol Swan on 0131 313 2488.

Charlie McConnell is chief executive of the Scottish Community Education Council.

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