Courting the community

29th September 2000 at 01:00
Lifelong learning must be based on an educated partnership between a range

of interests, says Joyce Connon

THE dilemma for community education is that it must show what the service can contribute to the policy agenda priorities of social inclusion, active citizenship and lifelong learning, but the outcomes and impact of its work are never easy to demonstrate not least because of the time they take.

Services need to be able to measure more effectively, quantitatively and qualitatively what they do. If community-based adult educators can't always identify student qualifications gains or destinations as other sectors of education can, they need to show they are winning an important long game in stimulating a demand for learning in a way that other sectors can't and with groups of people others don't reach.

If youth workers and community workers can't immediately prove different lifestyle choices are being made, can they show that people engage in learning and investigate options, in an informal but structured and rigorous way, which in the longer run can raise aspirations and expectations? Poverty of aspiration should be as serious a concern as it was to the postwar Government.

The ministerial report Communities Learn Through Change and the follow-up Circular 499 have refocused community education and presented it with new challenges. At national level, how the profession responds to change is being monitored by a joint working party. The initiatives set up to support the change: a national training programme from Community Learning Scotland, a review of pre-qualifying training and the development of LEAPS, a new evaluation system for community education, will all take time to trickle down.

The principal concern of community education managers for the past year was to establish partnerships with all statutory and voluntary agencies with an interest in community education, and to work with them to create community learning strategies and plans. With the best will in the world cross-sectoral partnerships take time to mature. Organisational partnerships are dependent on the individual representatives hitting it off, and those at the top giving wholehearted endorsement. Without that, the diversity of organisational cultures and perspectives will create insurmountable barriers instead of a positive creative tension and the drawing in of different strengths, expertise and resources.

Fraser Patrick, neighbourhood services manager for Dundee Council, speaking at the recent Community Learning 2000 conference, commented on the rush to formalise partnerships, suggesting that they need to grow as they do in life through common interest, courtship and foreplay before formalising the union This made me think of some long engagements between the Workers' Educational Association and prospective partners and many happy marriages which for better or worse saw us through such changes as local government reorganisation with thankfully few divorces.

Voluntary and statutory agencies in community education are at the heart of the most complex range of partnerships, with communities, with funders and with other sectors. If partnership is to be more than a paper exercise, the planning process must be opened up. If community involvement is to be more than a nod through, we must invest in appropriate learning programmes.

The test question for any partnership is: "What happened that would not have happened if the partnership did not exist?" From the perspective of the WEA, an organisation which has been beating the drum for lifelong learning to create a healthy, participative democracy and a fairer society for almost a century, I believe that the themes of community education, activity citizenship, social inclusion and lifelong learning (even with the given priority of basic skills development) are inextricably connected.

Communities that are struggling against injustice and exclusion know what needs to be done, but they may need to develop the skills and confidence to release that knowledge and insight. Without adequate core skills a person can't participate in a complex democratic society and is more threatened with exclusion from social, cultural, political and economic life. Literacy work and core skills development, delivered through issue-based community learning, have proved effective.

Our workplace learning courses offered in partnership with trade unions, particularly the Unison return to learn programme, have illustrated the benefits of the issues-based approach. Backed up by the right infrastructure and resources, the values and processes of community education applied by a skilled adult educator can make an impact on all the themes.

The learning process must be lifelong, and the themes must not be compartmentalised into separate boxes. Just as we all need to continue to develop our vocational and core skills, we also need to be continually developing our understanding of society and its ever changing moral, social, economic and other issues.

Joyce Connon is Scottish secretary of the Workers' Educational Association and chair of Learning Link Scotland. The WEA's Celebrating Learning conference on the diversity of lifelong learning, which arises from the association's millennium festivities project funded by the National Lottery Charities Board, takes place on October 6 at Murrayfield Stadium in Edinburgh. Contact Roberta Downes at the WEA (0141 221 0003).

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