'We need to build a learning society'

Adult learners' success stories help to engage politicians, policymakers and employers, writes Stephen Evans

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I’m pleased to see more attention on adult education in recent weeks. The hook for this is the centenary of a Ministry of Reconstruction report setting out why adult education is essential not just to our economy, but also to our society. This is something the Learning and Work Institute will be involved in across 2019.

Looking at the fractured nature of political debate today and the big questions we face about the future of our country, it’s difficult not to see the parallels with the UK today.

Learning as an adult is essential to our economy – both helping individuals in their careers and supporting businesses to thrive and grow. But it’s far more than that. It’s also about health and wellbeing, personal goals and fulfilment, and civic engagement.

I’ve seen this range of benefits first hand in meeting the Festival of Learning winners. Running for more than 25 years, the festival is about celebrating the best in adult learning and inspiring more adults to learn.

Engaging the community

That includes last year’s president’s award winner Equal Voices, a project which supports those from migrant backgrounds to improve their English and use that to engage in the community, for example developing asks of candidates at local mayoral hustings. It includes our learning for health winner, Frank McCann. A former professional photographer, adult education helped him regain skills lost after a heart attack, ultimately exhibiting a collection of his photographs. Our 2017 president’s award winner, Talk English, involved Manchester Adult Education Service bringing together local residents and recent migrants to improve English skills but also get to know each other. The project also helped Manchester Adult Education Service claim the award for contribution to the local community at the Tes Fe Awards 2017.

Nominations for the Festival of Learning 2019 close on 12 February. We want to hear about inspiring individuals, amazing tutors, engaged employers, and transformative projects. Their achievements deserve to be celebrated. But their stories help to engage politicians, policymakers, employers and others.

What strikes me about so many of the winners is not just the impact learning has had on them, but also that they have gone on to further learning and to help others. That includes social impact award winner Ursula Stone, whose participation on a floristry course led to her creating the Flower Bank. This teaches young offenders to take unwanted supermarket flowers into beautiful designs for the local community.

Learning and impact

I could go on, there are so many examples covering almost every type of learning and every type of impact and aspect of life you can think of. And yet it seems like we’ve spent almost a decade going backwards. Participation by adults in publicly-funded learning has fallen by one million in that time and the Learning and Work Institute’s annual survey shows the number of adults saying they take part in any form of learning now at its lowest in 20 years.

It would be easy to be downhearted and fear we can’t do anything to change things. But now is the time to say enough and work to reverse these declines.

How do we do that? We need changes in policy and funding, and facts and figures are important in making those happen. The Augar Review and spending review will be central to this, along with engaging local government. But we need to change the culture and win hearts and minds too. The stories of how adult learning has helped change lives can help us do that, as well as inspiring people, employers and other stakeholders.

It’s good that there’s a renewed focus on adult learning. Let’s make sure we celebrate its impact. Ultimately, we need to build a learning society.

Stephen Evans is chief executive of the Learning and Work Institute

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