The annual Festival of Learning Awards are a high point of the year in our sector. They shine a spotlight on the work of teachers and students of any age who are involved in learning. I obviously have a vested interest in this area, being both a teacher in adult education (among other areas) and a student of it as well (I’m doing an Open University degree, I have regular singing lessons, I’m learning how to box, I go to yoga, I take my dog to training classes and I bloody love a book club).
But I don't think that’s why I enjoy this event so much. I love it because it gets my possibility-muscles twitching. I leave thinking: "Come on, Sarah, decide what you want to do next and crack on." It reminds me that education is power. And I don't mean that in a trite motivational-poster way, the words printed over a rolling landscape or a lovely beach. I mean real power.
Tes FE Podcast: Meet the FoL Award winners
Revealed: The Festival of Learning award winners
Lifelong learning changes lives
Choice, agency and control over our own lives, even when they sometimes go off track. The award winners are a testament to the power of education and I was lucky enough to chat with some of them shorty after them receiving their awards.
Even if you work in education, it’s easy to let lifelong learning slip into the realms of "what other people do". And let’s face it, if you're overworked, underpaid and feeling unappreciated, as many people in the education game are, then it’s totally understandable to get home from work and be sick of the sight of anything perceived as educational, never mind engaging in some learning yourself.
There are a number of reasons why learning can drop off the list of "fun things to do" for teachers.
Paying to access education
It’s easy to shift to a mindset where any learning is considered CPD and, therefore, rather than paying to access it, believing one should be paid for accessing it. Of course, learning stuff that only relates to the job you're in now and you can't pop in your toolkit to use elsewhere is, without doubt, something that should be considered work and remunerated accordingly.
As a sessional teacher, the list of online courses I'm expected to complete in order to be considered for sessional hours always gets my wild up. So I have to frame it as a means of "increasing my transferrable skills" in order to stop me repeatedly telling employers to shove it.
Time is a giant factor, too, and relentless busyness plagues most of us. Enrolling on a course or even learning something more informally is a time commitment. Especially when a new true crime documentary appears on Netflix or a must-watch David Attenborough pops up on the BBC.
That said, another factor that stops people from notionally signing up to the idea of lifelong learning is not realising that they’re already doing it. It’s about how you define learning. It doesn't have to have a certificate at the end. How many documentaries have you watched? How many times have you watched something on the telly that says "based on a true story" at the beginning and then hopped straight onto Google after – and not just to raise your eyebrows at how much better looking the actors playing the real-life characters are.
I've been lost down all sorts of accidental research rabbit holes after a really good docu-drama on everything from American civil rights to extinct bird species. Telly learning can be vitally important. Think of how that image of the sea looking like carrier bag soup changed understanding of the pollution crisis and altered the environmental agenda. In future, dolphins everywhere will have Lord Attenborough to thank for ensuring that they didn't get a bunged up blow-hole.
Some of my most inspiring teachers, probably wouldn't describe themselves as teachers. My fat-club leader is a force to be reckoned with and is doing great things for public health. The people who run the dog-training groups I occasionally drag my whippet around have excellent teaching skills and have taught me a lot about the concept of behaviour management, not just from what they teach, but how they teach it. Being part of a group on Twitter or Facebook can have a great influence: I'm a big fan of "Fashion Forward Bitch", a sweary group of outspoken women who share their eccentric fashion choices, champion each other’s individual style, and will only tolerate constructive criticism. I’ve grown in confidence since getting involved with those fabulous foul-mouthed broads.
Lifelong learning can be a serious business, giving lots of people the means to rescue themselves from a life they feel cheated by. Lifelong learning can also be a gentle tool of empowerment that subtly alters lives by adding laughter, or a sense of community, or gradual layers personal growth. That’s the beauty of lifelong learning. You can choose your own adventure.
Sarah Simons works in colleges and adult community education in the East Midlands and is the director of UKFEchat. She tweets @MrsSarahSimons