It is time for joined-up thinking on adult education

15 Sep 2018, 5:00

Much of the talk about adult education has been around the devolved budget and whether it’s being spent effectively. With 72 administrators hired to manage the London adult education budget – to the tune of £3 million – these are important questions.

However, less well discussed are the issues of why adult education is often relegated to the very bottom of the pile of government priorities – even within the technical education sector, in which it sits.

Apprenticeships, T-levels and careers strategies are all of vital importance, but the government often seems to overlook one vital complement to young people’s education.
All the research shows that parental education levels correlate with child development – from the earliest days. By the time children arrive at nursery, the disadvantage gap is already well established. And indeed a survey carried out by MORI (2001) revealed that more than two thirds of twelve to sixteen year olds consider that their parents are the strongest learning influence in their lives.

Lack of parental understanding of their children’s education and career choices is often a factor that prevents disadvantaged young people from being aware of and indeed accessing aspirational further and higher education pathways. Aspirational routes into education and employment need to be placed firmly within the world picture of all communities and not left to those with the right social networks or cultural capital.

Role models matter; the very first role models children have are often their carers. However, there seems to be little understanding as to the importance of family influence and the logical next step in redressing inequality, seems often to be missed: investment in good quality flexible adult education that reaches within communities and into homes. This is surprising when the socio-economic factors which the government is so keen to address correlate closely with educational attainment.

Prevents disadvantaged young people from being aware of and indeed accessing aspirational further and higher education pathways

A recent research project carried out by myself and a colleague, Rob Smith of Birmingham City University, illustrated just how much of an impact adult education can have on parents and their children. The transformative power of adult education, including literacy classes, was shown to be a catalyst in breaking the intergenerational cycle of inequality.

For example, Jade a young mother who attended adult literacy classes run by a charitable trust in the north west of England was motivated to attend classes after becoming a mum. These classes raised her aspirations for her future and that of her young son. She also talked at length about how she encouraged other friends in a similar situation to access the classes.

Motherhood was a motivational force for Jade as an adult learner. It is important not to underestimate this affective dimension of the learning experience. Becoming an adult learner enabled Jade to take back agency in the face of poverty and unemployment. For her, there was a relationship between these aspects of her life and her mental well-being. The classes enabled her to reconnect with society more broadly and on a different footing. She acquired agency and a view of a new possible future for her and her son.

Importantly, acquiring adult education and indeed social literacy is about being able to navigate the complexities of different social groups; it’s about being able to move without feeling like a fish out of water between different contexts: home, the classroom, the school on parents’ evening, the doctor’s surgery, the police station with a sense of agency.

Adult education and literacy education can be transformative. It can offer spaces in which individuals and their families can take charge of their own life and widen the possibilities and choices for their future: an enjoyment of learning and success as learners that connects with their lives in the outside world, including through employment.

Clearly, it’s time for a strong drive in policy and funding that recognises that the attainments of young people are intertwined with the achievements of their families and communities. It is time to have some joined-up thinking that places the family at the centre.

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