Tea-timely reminder of power of collaboration;Opinion

22nd October 1999 at 01:00
THERE IS a small wicker basket, full of peppermint tea, on my desk. It is the kind of thing you might buy as a gift for an aunt. Indeed, it is a product for the tourist market, and is sold exclusively at the Taj Mahal and its associated hotels. The basket was given to me by Christine Nathan at a UNESCO adult learning conference in Manila, as a reminder of the scale of the challenge facing adult learners in many places.

Christine is an impressive person. She is general secretary of the building workers and allied trades union in India, an organisation with 20 million members. She is also general secretary of BanBandhu, a coalition of non-governmental organisations that supports tribal people living in India's forests.

The peppermint tea is one of the products that previously unwaged forest workers have developed and now market direct, cutting out middlemen. It represents the end of a long learning journey - supporting the workers by understanding their situation in working unwaged for landlords and middlemen; fighting local administrations for the right to receive a return on their labour; resisting violence and intimidation; resisting loan schemes that trap them in poverty; building confidence, and learning about the market. The role of support workers - adult education development workers by another name - was critical to the success of the initiative. This was recognised by angry landlords in Chandraphur, who saw the educators as a threat to their supply of free labour. They reacted by killing and cutting up one worker and leaving pieces of the corpse at the edges of the forest.

It is easy to forget what a dangerous business learning can be, when it challenges existing power relations. The story sets our own concerns in context, too. Still, in the Green Paper The Learning Age, David Blunkett recognised that many of our institutions resulted from people's courage, co-operation and their imagination in overcoming their problems. He saw the need for us to rebuild the confidence to trust our collective imagination, to address the new challenges for our society to be productive and inclusive. This is not a primary focus of the White Paper Learning to Succeed, which attempts to reconcile the tension between widening participation and narrowing measures of gains in quality by focusing on structures and procedures. This week workers in consumer and producer co-operatives asked me: "What will these structural changes do to help revitalise learning for citizenship, or to regenerate our communities?"

The White Paper has strengths. It proposes a structure in which strategic planning can happen nationally, sub-regionally and locally. But power and decisionmaking has to flow from the expressed demands of local communities, as well as from the top downwards. That will only be achieved if the local arrangements are sorted out creatively. The experience of the best local learning partnerships over the past year show that strategic planners, with cash in their pocket, can co-operate to improve the mesh of learning support at local levels. But many voluntary sector agencies and small providers feel excluded from those initiatives. The role of the partnerships proposed in the White Paper is different, and provides the chance for providers of all sorts to collaborate. There will still be a need for the partnerships to offer the local Learning and Skills Councils strategic advice, and partnerships will need an effective planning mechanism to develop this. They will also need new forums to engage voluntary and community sector providers.

No single representative can speak for the voluntary sector's overlapping interests, without the support of a consultative forum. For learners, too, there will be a need for imaginative mechanisms to help them to shape the system, building on this September's Adult Learners' Forum. Planners addressing these questions could do worse than to look at the strategies developed earlier this century by the Women's Co-operative Guild, led by Margaret Llewellyn Davies, to engage a mass membership in meaningful debate, and to capture the complexity of their views on the great questions of the day. Mutuality has, perhaps, more to offer than the market in ensuring that the learning society we want to create has a place for everyone.

The renewal of organisational forums is a major theme in Charles Leadbeater's book Living on Thin Air. One chapter makes an interesting case for adult learning. He celebrates Delia Smith's recipes, showing how the consumer (learner) provides the last stage in the production process, turning the recipe into a chocolate cake - much less messy and less risky than making and marketing cakes. Of course, in a weightless economy, media exposure matters. That surely is the main case for the University for Industry.

Still, I can't help thinking that the basket of tea is more eloquent than a recipe could be.

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

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