Adult education: a fundamental good

Brian Creese

Evening classes were once such an unshakeable part of the British landscape. They were the setting for TV and radio sitcoms, editions of the London guide Spotlight used to fly off the shelves on release and the standard advice of 70s ‘Agony Aunts’ – make friends, join an evening class – was the butt of comedians. My own experiences have included learning to touch type, creative writing, car maintenance and pottery. Most of my contemporaries have done evening classes in something, including the near ubiquitous foreign language courses.

But times have changed. In the past few years the headlines have been about falling numbers participating in adult education, a collapse in adult education funding and a collapse of morale.

Back when I was taking part in after work education we were not looking for pieces of paper – although I did get a Pitman’s typing qualification. We were doing these courses to try something out, learn a useful skill, or to be able to talk to the locals on holiday. No doubt some were following the agony aunt advice and were aiming to meet new friends and potential partners.

But it strikes me as sad that since the start of this century, accreditation has become the only game in town. Adult Ed (as we used to call it) has slowly been dragged into the accreditation net, becoming part of the ‘qualifications mania’ that insists on certificating subjects such as dance and music. The prevailing philosophy from all political parties has been that education is not worthwhile unless it leads to a qualification, and that therefore education should not be supported unless it leads to accreditation. No one, it seems to me, will stand up for the idea that education is a ‘general good’.

A European project provides some much needed support for Adult Ed. The Benefits of Lifelong Learning (BeLL) project looked at the individual and social benefits perceived by participants in ‘liberal adult education courses’ in 10 countries. The project produced over 8,500 survey returns, and project teams interviewed more than 80 participants across the participating countries.

The results are striking: adult learners felt that they led healthier lifestyles, had improved wellbeing, had improved their social lives and social networks and were more motivated to continue with learning. Younger participants found the courses acted as stepping stones into adult society, improving their sense of control over their own lives. Older people found that the courses had a cushioning effect, softening some age-related changes associated with retirement. And perhaps most importantly, the lower the participants’ level of education, the stronger the benefits.

An unexpected finding was that these results were not only consistent across the participating countries, but they held regardless of the type of education class being taken. The results were the same for those doing languages, sport or civic education.

Adult education suffers from not being a distinctive sector. It takes place in sixth-form colleges, higher education institutions, FE Colleges, through work-based learning programmes and local authority adult education services. While many courses for over-19s are funded by Government, these tend to be for English, mathematics and vocational subjects leading to qualifications at Level 2 and 3.

Non accredited courses such as those covered by the BeLL report are increasingly hard to find and expensive to participate in. Government, both local and national, appears to have lost sight of the importance of these courses and this report will hopefully provide a reminder of the benefits which used to be taken for granted. There is an echo of that dated agony aunt advice in the finding that adult education classes were one of the few social spaces where you can meet strangers safely, interact with them and make friends. Adult Ed classes are perceived to provide the scaffolding for social cohesion.

There are messages here for many stakeholders, if they are prepared to engage with the study. It provides good evidence for local government, which may need reasons for continuing to support the sector, it should remind central Government that the benefits of adult education go beyond attaining qualifications, and it has particularly strong messages to those that work with mental health or the elderly, particularly in the charitable sector. Adult education really can help people with their mental health and ease older people’s path into retirement.

The sad thing, though is that it takes a European-wide survey with thousands of participants to remind us of something that used to be a self-evident truth. Adult Ed, indeed all education, is a fundamentally good thing; it benefits individuals, their families, society and even employers. It is sad that policy makers and politicians have forgotten this obvious fact. Perhaps in retirement they themselves will reengage with non-accredited education and understand again its importance.

 

Financial literacy is not just about maths: why PISA should rethink its test

Ian Marcouse

One mis-selling scandal after another has highlighted how bad adults are at managing their own financial resources. They trust the wrong people and believe in the wrong advice. The ease with which payday lenders found customers shows the difficulty people have with APR (annual percentage rate) figures. Even taking out a current account is fraught with risk. For young people about to stack up a huge amount of debt at university, financial literacy is vital, if only to avoid their parents’ mistakes.

The UK Government sought to tackle the issue last year by announcing that financial literacy would become a compulsory part of England’s national curriculum – included both in mathematics and citizenship classes. This covers about half the state schools in the country – with academies and free schools allowed to opt out.

Unfortunately, new findings from the OECD suggest that there is virtually no correlation between the amount of time spent teaching financial literacy in classrooms and students’ ability to answer questions on the subject. Nor did it matter much whether financial literacy was taught by teachers of mathematics, economics/business or social sciences.

But could their analysis be misleading?

The OECD’s PISA programme administered a two-hour test to half a million students from 16 countries to try to assess young people’s financial literacy. These countries included the US and China, but not the UK.

The report, published this month, showed a very high correlation between PISA results for mathematics and those for financial literacy. Consequently China (Shanghai) came top by a large margin, while the USA performed below the 16-country average. Bottom came Colombia. According to the PISA findings the most important factor by far was how well the respondents had been taught mathematics.

But these results were not surprising, as the questions were strongly weighted towards numeracy (such as checking the accuracy of an invoice). An alternative explanation might be that this weighting made the correlation with maths results inevitable. If the questions had been focused on a critical approach to financial issues and products, the results may have been different.

The research looked at many variables that might determine student performance at financial literacy. It concluded that the amount of time spent teaching financial literacy had no effect. For example teachers in the United States spend a particularly long time on the topic – to no discernable benefit on test results. Furthermore the quantity of teacher training had little impact on the results. On average about half of all teachers of financial literacy had received some training on the subject – but to no avail. (The quality of the teacher training was not assessed.)

Other variables that proved unimportant included country GDP per capita, gender and social background. More important was direct experience: those with a bank account came out with higher scores than those without.

Specifically the PISA report says, in answer to the question: “What can be done to enhance financial literacy?”

  • Having a bank account is a better predictor of financial literacy than anything you do in the classroom.
  • Teaching financial literacy is a poor predictor of success at financial literacy in these tests
  • Where financial literacy is taught as a separate subject (such as the USA) performance is not strong.
  • Volume of exposure to financial education has no correlation with performance on the tests

From PISA’s viewpoint the findings are clear: teach mathematics in a more conceptual, abstract manner (as in Shanghai) and students will be in a better position to apply their understanding to real contexts. The question remains: is the extremely high correlation between maths and financial literacy simply a result of the construction of the tests? If so, policy makers should take great care about drawing conclusions from PISA’s exercise.

What was the purpose behind such a numerically-driven series of questions? There are many other factors in financial literacy, such as questions about past problems and scandals (Bernard Madoff; Charles Ponzi) plus the pyramid schemes that young adults can often be caught up in. There is the fundamental problem of asymmetric information, in which the seller of financial products knows so much more than the buyer. These issues were not addressed.

This leaves two possibilities: either teaching financial literacy is a waste of time (the PISA conclusion) or perhaps PISA did thorough research based on the wrong questions. In 2015 they will repeat the exercise (and may include Britain this time). Let us hope they think hard about whether they want to repeat the questions.

 

Nicky Morgan: time to read and reflect, consolidate and build consensus

Chris Husbands

There are two sorts of politician. There are those who are so passionate about the obvious rightness of what they are doing that they think that everyone essentially agrees with them, and enthusiastically build a large coalition to get things done. Anyone, believe these politicians, who is not against me is for me. And there are politicians who are so passionate about the obvious rightness of what they believe that they will fight anyone and everyone who disagrees, however insignificantly. Anyone, believe these politicians, who is not for me is against me.

Michael Gove was passionate about education, and looked for enemies who did not share his fundamental beliefs. Over four years, he took on major policy area after major policy area: school governance, school accountability, teacher education and development, curriculum, assessment, school funding, and so on and so on. The complaint of headteacher unions was frequently that he should slow the pace, introduce no more change, allow things to bed down. But this was to miss the point: for Michael Gove, energetic and rapid change was the essence of what he wanted to achieve, and a diminishing band of enthusiastic supporters egged him on.

My guess is that the instruction from the Prime Minister to Nicky Morgan, Michael Gove’s successor, is indeed to calm things down. One in ten female voters – a key demographic for the Conservative party – work in education. News stories of confusion and demoralisation play badly for any workforce and the stakes are too high. So the premium over the next year will be not on policy change but on messaging – on seeking to manage and administer a radically changed education system.

One of the great ironies of Michael Gove’s time as secretary of state is that over substantial tranches of policy he introduced changes for which there was, or could have been, professional support: most teachers have been trained to teach reasonably traditional school subjects; most teachers want to work in classrooms where their own classroom management is unquestioned; most teachers want to take responsibility for innovation and development. But a secretary of state who slimmed down the national curriculum to a more tightly defined academic core, who placed the EBacc at the core of the accountability system, who strengthened guidance on behaviour management and who believed in school autonomy ends as perhaps the most unpopular and derided secretary of state in modern times. Research on system reform is explicit: ultimately, school systems can only be improved by consent, by engaging and supporting teachers in change.

So the key tasks for Nicky Morgan are clear: first, to take the heat out of contentious policy implementation by building bridges to the profession. Of course, Michael Gove was always lavish in his praise of successful school leaders. But the suspicion was always there that these successful school leaders were being singled out because he believed they were the exceptions, not because they were typical of the majority. Ultimately, any chief executive has to believe in the workforce and its capacity to deliver. Nicky Morgan needs to look for allies, not enemies.

Secondly, she will need to use the resources of the Department for Education quietly and inconspicuously to defuse some of the policy confusions that have arisen as (to mix a metaphor) the tectonic plates of education have been tossed into the air. The accountability of free schools; the relationships between academies and local authorities (who retain over two hundred statutory powers in respect of education); the tenuous hold the DfE now has on teacher supply; the difficulties about school place planning in a world where free-school ‘demand’ has replaced local authority supply planning; uncertainties about teaching as a profession given the deregulatory approach of the last four years.

Thirdly, she needs to look outward. The Gove rhetoric was of a failing school system with some bright lights; the OFSTED evidence is of a largely effective school system, in which the great majority of schools are at least good. The big challenges are about the capacity of schools to grapple with huge changes: the long-term impact of technology on education; the role of schools in community and social cohesion; the role of the school in an increasingly unequal society; the challenge of securing both high levels of excellence and high equity; the role of education as a preparation for work at a time of phenomenal change in labour markets; the continuing challenge of literacy and numeracy amongst the lowest attaining 20 per cent of young people.

These challenges are not confined to England – they face education systems across the world. Some are doing better and more effectively in respect of some of the challenges, but none – as any academic or policy researcher will confirm – are meeting all of them.   Almost all of those involved in education think about them, and there are creative contributions from dissenting voices – they can all be listened to.

Nicky Morgan has two huge advantages. The first is that almost whatever the secretary of state does, children arrive at school and teachers teach them: the system goes on working irrespective of government changes. This means that her own interventions can be judicious and thoughtful rather than impulsive. The second is that, curiously enough for someone starting a new job, she has arrived just as most of the workers and clients disappear for their summer break, so she has time to read, talk and think before the new school year.

But then she faces an enormous challenge, because from the first day back in September – everyone will be watching.

How music-making helps people ‘love later life’

Andrea Creech

Age UK has launched a high profile campaign, challenging us to think aboutA how to love later life. Music-making offers a creative and cost-effective response to this challenge.

This view is articulated in our new book, Active Ageing with MusicA, through the voices of later-life community music-makers and supported by a wealth of evidence making a compelling case for the power of music in the lives of older adults. There are currently 10 million people in the UK aged over 65 and that number is forecast to double by 2050.

This extraordinary demographic transition, where we have seen a remarkable increase in the over-nineties, centenarians and even super-centenarians, is a triumph of public health policy and practice, yet also poses one of the major social challenges of the 21st century. As the Director of Age UK has stated, there is a pressing need for creative thinking about how we can help people make the most of a longer later life.

So, what might be so special about music-making in later life? One explanation relates to its holistic nature. In addition to influencing positive mental and physical health, music-making provides a context that promotes independence, personal development and self-expression alongside fellowship and intergenerational solidarity. As one music-maker (aged 80) is quoted: “Music benefits everybody, because of its beauty … It is an uplifting experience. I can’t imagine a life without music … It fulfils a need.” Yet, there is still much to be done before access to the full potential of musical participation might be a reality for our older citizens.

For example, apart from some very valuable practice and research with older people afflicted with dementia and some other age-related conditions, there has been little research that explores fully how music-making may be exploited within a range of community and institutional settings that reach the most vulnerable and frail of our older people. Furthermore, the evidence suggests that musical activities could act as a pathway to sustained or enhanced wellbeing. But   provision must be of a high quality, responding to the diverse needs amongst older cohorts. To this end, there is a need for sustainable professional development and partnership working for musicians and other organisations with a stake in activities for older people. Age UK has laid down the challenge. As we prepare for old age and support our families, friends, and wider community members who have reached the Third and Fourth Ages, we need to find ways to ‘love later life’. Music-making does exactly this, with its potential to reach diverse groups amongst older people, supporting active ageing and touching individual lives in powerful ways.

Déjà vu all over again: the endless loop of education policy

Chris Husbands

Labour’s shadow secretary of state for education, Tristram Hunt, has begun to flesh out details of policy implementation should Labour win the next election. Speaking to Andrew Marr last weekend, he outlined a plan for ‘super teachers’, a new grade of ‘master teacher’.

This would be a new career pathway because, he said, “at the moment too many good teachers are moving out of the classroom and becoming heads”. It’s likely that the next Labour government will “create a new grade of teachers to recognise the best”. The difficulty, however, is that the second quotation is not from Mr Hunt but from the 1997 Labour manifesto, and that the manifesto proposal did, indeed, bear fruit: advanced skills teachers (ASTs) were introduced in 1998.

Advanced skills teachers were intended to support other teachers who were struggling in the classroom, to provide advice on pedagogy, to teach model lessons and to lead the professional development of new and existing teachers in both their own and other schools. Twenty per cent of AST time was meant to be spent on outreach.

As with the Hunt proposal, the intention was to open a career – and reward – route which did not make excellent teachers leave the classroom in order to get ahead. Over the next 13 years, some 4,000 ASTs were designated across the school system – or about one for every five schools.

In 2010, Andy Goodwin and a team from Reading University surveyed their impact. They found that ASTs were “highly motivated” and “talented” teachers, but the “definition and expectation of the role [was]… clearly highly variable and dependent, in large part, on school… priorities as well as the attitudes of the headteacher”.

AST designation fell with the last government in 2010, but in 2011, Dame Sally Coates’s review of teacher standards proposed the development of a new ’master teacher’ designation, again based on outstanding classroom teaching. But this time – and this reflected a finding in the Goodwin review – with a stronger and more explicit focus on subject knowledge. At the time, the proposals were not widely welcomed, since (unlike the AST proposals) they did not come with any dedicated funding, and certainly for some unions, the designation ’master teacher’ was felt to be anachronistic in a largely feminised profession.

There is a debate to be had about how, and how successfully government can introduce a new career grade in a devolved and largely autonomous school system. It has been done – apparently successfully – in Singapore, as Hunt pointed out. But that’s not the main point of this blog post. The point is that we have been here before – twice – in 1998 and 2011. On each occasion, there have been proposals, more or less carefully worked through, to introduce a career grade for highly accomplished teachers.

It would be good to think that policy development might draw on recent experience. And if this blog has some fun at the expense of Tristram Hunt, the same applies to his political opponent. Just a fortnight ago, the Secretary of State began a move towards a more explicit curriculum focus on ‘British values’ without appearing to draw at all on the experiences of either the John Major government or the Blair government in developing a civic focus in the school curriculum.

It would be good to have better informed politicians. It would also be good, however, to have a better education policy process. One of the most engaging reads of this year has been Ivor Crewe and Anthony King’s study The Blunders of Our Governments in which they analyse in careful detail major, expensive and, normally, unnecessary policy errors. In every case, there was an implied cry somewhere in the policy that “this time it’s different”. It rarely is.

 

Reading Recovery: deprived 11-year-olds don’t have to face a bleak future

Julia Douëtil

The latest paper from the Education Endowment Foundation highlights the 25% of 11-year-olds in poverty each year who fail to reach national curriculum level 4, and the devastating impact that is likely to have on each of those children’s future. What if we could reduce that 25% failure rate to, say 7% – in other words, recover three out of four of those potential failures?

The good news is we can.

In 2012 we traced more than 1200 children who, at the age of six, had been identified as being in the very lowest attaining 20% of the age cohort and who had received Reading Recovery to enable them to catch up with their peers. Those children had just completed Key Stage 2 National Assessments and three out of four of them had achieved national curriculum level 4 in reading, and two out of three in writing (page 32).

In the EEF report, Professor Steve Higgins and his Durham University colleagues demonstrate the gap in attainment for children in poverty, and we see the same at entry to Reading Recovery: children entitled to free school meals are typically twice as likely to be among the lowest attaining identified for the programme at age six. At age 11, the gap between those in poverty and their peers attaining National Curriculum Level 4 had reduced to just 7%. At National Curriculum Level 3 the gap was just over 1% as 19 out of 20 of the previously lowest attaining children, those most likely to fail to reach level 3, reached level 3 or above.

The EEF report shows a grudging respect for one-to-one support over group teaching, but the evidence for intensive, high quality early intervention is compelling.

I would go further. If support offered to the lowest attaining six-year-olds is not enabling them to make four or five times the normal rate of progress, to catch up and stay caught up with their peers, we are not trying hard enough.

 

When the national curriculum is not compulsory we need to keep presenting the case for Holocaust education

Andy Pearce

As First World War centenary commemorations become entangled with 70th anniversaries of the Second, it is worth reflecting on the words of Uruguayan writer Mario Benedetti: “Forgetfulness is full of memory”. And the idea that the converse may be true has a particular salience given current trends in contemporary Britain.

We know how the ‘present pasts’ we surround ourselves with are expressions of our politics and preoccupations, and that education systems act as essential conduits in the formation of our collective memory. This is not news to most, and if one needed any reminding, the second round of the ‘battle for the big prize’ which broke out over the recently revised National Curriculum for History was instructive. It was out of the wrangling of 1989-1991 that the Holocaust became a mandatory requirement in England and Wales.

This was a major landmark in the history of our national Holocaust consciousness, laying a foundation for the institutionalisation of cultural memory of the genocide of European Jewry. Since then, the Holocaust has been one of the only constants in the history curriculum and this has undoubtedly been one of the reasons behind its pervasive presence in early 21st Century British culture.

But this development has not followed a progressive, upward trajectory. The incorporation of the Holocaust into the History curriculum has long been undermined by a lack of clarity of purpose and rationale – by both policymakers and teachers. This shortcoming has left teaching and learning open to politicisation and susceptible to cultural fads. In some ways this has tracked what has happened in society more widely, where since the turn of the millennium the Holocaust has been increasingly abstracted and decontextualized: a talisman to which all manner of meanings are affixed by all and sundry.

Fourteen years have passed since the process of institutionalising Holocaust memory was completed by the opening of the Imperial War Museum’s permanent exhibition and the creation of Holocaust Memorial Day. Yet the shapes and hues of our Holocaust consciousness remain contradictory and paradoxical. The incoming Programme of Study for Key Stage 3 History provides an excellent example of this. After an initial framing of the Holocaust as a ‘unique evil’ was rightly dropped, the genocide is now the only compulsory event named under the rubric of “challenges for Britain, Europe and the wider world 1901 to the present day”. Incredibly, given the suffusion of our culture by war commemoration, the First and Second World Wars appear simply as non-statutory content.

However welcome the retention of the Holocaust in the curriculum may be, its positioning raises the real prospect of perpetuating its cultural abstraction. Context, as any historian and history teacher knows, is key and the potential for the Holocaust to be taught without it carries severe implications. It is even more pernicious that because the National Curriculum is not compulsory for academies and free schools, there is no guarantee that students will even encounter the Holocaust within formal education.

Classrooms are not the only places where knowledge and understanding of the past are formulated, of course. But schools are settings where misconceptions can be corrected and inquisitive and critical mind-sets nurtured. Bearing in mind how diffuse the Holocaust is in our society, and the proclivity towards its misrepresentation, it would seem imperative that it feature in all school curricula.

To say that the Holocaust should be taught is not enough: there still needs to be clarity of aim and sound pedagogical purpose. Over the past 20 years an orthodoxy has emerged, with the presumption that education will give students ‘the facts’ to combat Holocaust denial and develop a life-long commitment to ‘never forget’.

These are laudable and worthy intentions, but they are not without complications. As Paulo Friere observed, the constructed nature of knowledge presses against the idea that knowledge is an inert entity that is simply transmitted from teacher to student. In the case of history, substantive knowledge requires conceptual, disciplinary frameworks. Remembering – that is, remembrance tuned in the key of memorialisation – is not something which sits easily with the nature of historical enquiry and independent thinking. Nor, returning to Benedetti, does it prevent forgetting.

Despite the terms of the new National Curriculum and the creation of a Holocaust Commission charged with ‘keeping the memory alive’, the academisation of our education system has created a marketplace where a sophisticated and informed case for teaching and learning about the Holocaust must be made. The Holocaust should be a fixture in our students’ education for a host of reasons, not least because of its capacity to open up those most perennial of questions: just what is education, and what do we want education to do?

Holocaust Consciousness in Contemporary Britain by Andy Pearce has just been published by Routledge. All are welcome to attend the book launch today (July 3) at the IOE.