There's always a point to pointless learning

5th December 2014 at 00:00
Ford pays for its workers to study whatever they want - and reaps the benefits. Why don't politicians realise that no lesson is wasted?

I have lost count of the times I have heard ministers (or vice-chancellors or college principals) say how much they value community-based adult education. Yet they can't afford to invest much, if any, public money in making provision accessible to all. After all, the forces of globalisation mean that we have to concentrate our narrow budgets on the kinds of study that lead to qualifications, study with easily measurable outcomes that help us to hit targets. Taxpayers don't want to pay for flower-arranging or willow-weaving - or as former education secretary Alan Johnson put it, we need "more plumbing and less pilates".

How, then, can Ford have got it so wrong? For 25 years, the motor company has been paying for staff to engage in learning for its own sake in the belief that this makes good sense for the bottom line as well as for morale.

Ford spent decades at the cutting edge of highly paid, high-productivity manufacturing, but with poor industrial relations and internal demarcation disputes, its wage bargaining process regularly hit the headlines. This culminated in a major strike in 1978 that brought production to a halt at sites across the UK.

The 1987 bargaining round took place in the shadow of redundancies at Ford in the US, as Japanese firms were taking ever-larger shares of the market. As part of severance arrangements offered to US workers, Ford provided funding for learning for personal development. British unions picked up on the idea and argued that it should be introduced for Ford's UK workers. After lengthy negotiations, a sum equivalent to 0.3 per cent of the wage bill was set aide for an Employee Development and Assistance Programme (Edap). The fund was to be used for any kind of learning other than training related to the business, which was strictly the responsibility of management.

Individual Ford workers applied for up to pound;200 a time from a committee comprising representatives of blue-collar and white-collar unions and a manager. The committees were coordinated by a national team, which also had tripartite membership. From the beginning, Edap was a huge success and an example of effective cooperation between management and unions.

Some workers applied to go on weekend courses to find out about running a pub (and apparently returned happily to the production line on Monday after realising how much work was involved). Others learned to drive or took golfing lessons. But soon workers were signing up for Spanish classes to communicate better with colleagues at Ford's plants in Spain, and beginning Open University degrees - also beneficial for work. The popularity of the programme was such that workers even asked to bring in their families for "Teach your daughter maths" classes.

For Ford's management, Edap was a revelation. After it was introduced, absenteeism fell, staff retention increased and industrial relations improved markedly. There was lowered resistance to work-related training and an end to wage bargaining strikes. Ford discovered what every adult educator knows: learning leaks. What you learn in one context you apply in others, and learning itself is the key skill. And although Ford has downsized significantly over recent decades, management and unions alike have held on to the Edap programme.

Accelerating performance

The excitement generated by Edap spread rapidly through the motor industry in the early 1990s. And I can testify to the transferability of the model to other working environments. One of my administrative colleagues asked me why, if the project was such a success, we didn't introduce it at adult education body Niace where I was chief executive. So we did, and found that about half the staff, at all levels of the organisation, took up learning opportunities each year. When I asked whether people would prefer to have the money we spent on the programme in their salary, they overwhelmingly said no. Even when they felt too busy to take part, staff valued the possibility of drawing on a sum dedicated solely to their own personal development, beyond the call of work or family.

None of this should come as a surprise to policymakers. After all, senior managers have for decades gone away to posh hotels to build castles in the air, or other comparable team-building exercises, confident that time spent in convivial learning will have a positive impact on staff performance back at work.

However, the continuing success of Ford's Edap initiative confirms the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development finding that learning something you are passionate about is the key skill - once initial qualifications for labour market entry are secured. Why, then, is it so difficult for public policymakers to mimic Ford and part with the extremely modest funding needed for community-based adult education?

Of course, adult education includes a bewildering variety of learning opportunities, and adults' motives for taking classes are seldom predictable, making it hard to measure outcomes. Yet the evidence of the wider social benefit from such provision is as powerful as the evidence at Ford.

Participation in adult education has a positive effect on health and well-being, as the Government Foresight project on mental well-being recognised. It improves racial tolerance and has positive effects on the educational performance of learners' children. Of course, along the way it also leads to qualifications and employment for many participants.

The challenge the Ford Edap programme continues to pose to government is stark. If a profit-focused firm such as Ford finds value for money in supporting staff to learn what they want, how much greater is the case for government? After all, ministers have a responsibility to secure social welfare and the well-being of all in society just as much as they do to grow the nation's gross domestic product.

Alan Tuckett is president of the International Council for Adult Education, a governor of Cornwall College and former chief executive of Niace


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