Polish tale shows power of combined thought

13th July 2001 at 01:00
I have always been attracted to stories which involve an imaginative reworking of the scenery. A good illustration was offered at the further education chaplains' conference in York. The event opened with a blessing, a prayer and an inspiring story - we were told about a group of Quakers doing relief work in some villages in rural Poland at the end of the first world war.

The food distributed by the Quakers was critical to the survival of the starving villagers, whose conditions were desperate. One of the relief workers caught typhoid - and died. Local by-laws prohibited burial of anyone other than a Catholic in the local cemetery, and despite popular protest, it proved necessary for the worker to be buried outside the cemetery, because the official interpretation of the by-laws proved inflexible.

At the request of the local villagers, the worker was buried just next to the cemetery, as a mark of respect. On the day after the funeral, the relief workers found that their friend's grave was now in the cemetery, since the villagers had, overnight, repositioned the fence to include him.

After the chaplains' event I drove to Taplow where the Learning and Skills Development Agency were hosting an international seminar on stimulating demand. Sofia Valdivieso Gomez from the Canary Islands, joint director of UNESCO's adult participation study, gave a paper entitled: "Just when we understand the rules they change them". It reminded us that the forces that change the rules are not always benign and learning friendly.

The current policy context offers plenty of opportunities for imaginative reworking of dominant themes. You can see it in the way the Government's adult basic skills strategy has built on the work of the Moser Committee. It has subtly reworked Moser's agenda, to include provision for adults who speak English as a second or subsequent language, and adults with learning difficulties. Of course, we still have national tests and the target numbers that make the Treasury comfortable. But there is a gathering recognition that literacy, and particularly numeracy, will only be strengthened for many thousands of adults if they are embedded in context for people pursuing other studies.

That will involve different roles for specialist literacy and numeracy staff, who will need to combine specialist teaching with learning support for tutors and students across the curriculum. It will also involve everyone who teaches adults acquiring a basic understanding of how to support learners trying to strengthen literacy and numeracy. The teacher's portfolio of skills will need to include basic skills as a competence, just as they all need to understand how to foster equal opportunities, and how to secure health and safety at work.

Moser had little or nothing to say about writing, but it seems to me that a focus on learning literacy through writing would reconnect the basic skills curriculum to wider adult studies. My experience of the literacy campaign of the 1970s and early 1980s is that the intellectual ferment and sense of shared achievement was fostered by powerful student voices. Revitalising student writing is one curriculum focus the new Learning and Skills Council might usefully explore.

The Learning and Skills Council will need to reframe existing ways of doing things if it is to make learning accessible to those whose exclusion was so clearly described in the Social Exclusion Unit's Skills Policy Action Team report. Reframe, but not too quickly - since institutions need enough security to be able to respond to new challenges.

Given the scale of the task facing the council - nationally and locally - I have, so far, been impressed with its pragmatism and openness. I am delighted that work is being done to identify sound data sources to enable the council to adopt an adult participation target. The National Institute of Adult Continuing Education expects to work with the council, the Department for Education and Skills and others to make sure the measures adopted are fit for this purpose.

There is a long way to go, however. One of the hardest challenges facing a funding system focused on individual achievement is to develop mechanisms which will recognise that what groups of people learn together is greater than the sum of what they learn alone.

This is, of course, at the heart of community learning. Developing the capacity to solve problems together - the confidence and imagination to move the cemetery fence overnight - produces outcomes easy for us to see. But how can we assess the process of learning that went into them? That is a real challenge for the next 12 months.

Alan Tuckett is director of the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education

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