msbm-article-UK Adult Education

ADULT EDUCATION IN THE UK IS IN A WORRYING CONDITION

Today, in Britain, one in four adults has the reading age of a 10-year-old – meaning that young people have no better skills than their grandparents

The state of adult and continuing education was put under a stark spotlight in Cambridge a few weekends ago, when the city played host to the 2013 WEA Conference in its 110th year.

The energy and commitment of the delegates was overpowering. Yet, we were tempered by some sobering messages from such luminaries as Baroness Joan Bakewell of Birkbeck College and Cambridge’s own Professor of Adult and Continuing Education, Richard Taylor.

The theme – “Building Communities in Challenging Times” – combined two of the most critical topics facing the sector today. That is to say, the environment in which it operates, and the methods of reaching the people it should be.

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There is little doubt about the challenging times. Adult education in the UK is in a worrying condition. In terms of numeracy, the latest OECD survey ranks us 21st out of the 24 countries canvassed, and 22nd for literacy.

Today, in Britain, one in four adults has the reading age of a 10-year-old – meaning that young people have no better skills than their grandparents. Despite the furore surrounding the university fee increase, the new £9,000 annual level seems not to have made a huge impact on the number of applicants at undergraduate level.

On the other hand, since 2010, there has been a catastrophic 40 per cent drop in those opting to pursue continuing or part-time education.

Commenting on these figures, Baroness Bakewell made the unsettling comparison with Eastern attitudes, which have informed people like Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani girl shot by the Taliban, who are literally prepared to die for the right to education.

“What is it,” Bakewell said, “that is blocking the excitement of a child’s learning experience from flowing and continuing into adulthood and wider society? Where is it written that education must end when you have a job?”

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The WEA, whose Reading branch is one of the most active, has an important role in pressing for change, according to Professor Richard Taylor. “We live in an unhealthy, exclusivist culture, defined too much in utilitarian and vocational terms,” he said.  “While this has its place, education means much more.  We need to resurrect a social, political and moral culture – and education is the only way to do this.”  “In the Thatcher and Blair years,” he went on, “the idea of community was usurped.  Communities have now become exclusive groupings; we talk of the ‘business’ community or the ‘academic’ community – and not of the wider, broader community of locality or generations.”

Many of these concepts have implications for the way teaching is actually delivered. Rather than doggedly transferring knowledge from A to B, tutors were encouraged in the conference to devise courses where all the participants think and do things in a different way. People should also feel they can seek out information without being told to, and to make a creative space from which outreaching links are made.

Social history, for example, might require knowledge of garment making, or family history a facility with IT skills; a love of food might inform environmental study; the nurturing of flowers might expand to production to improve the local economy.

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“Learning creates opportunities,” said Baroness Bakewell.  “It is not just a means of getting rich, but rather a route to an adequate living and doing fulfilling work in the community.  And you don’t need to look far to find society’s real needs – the elderly, the lonely, those in prison.”

Despite the stories of graduates haring for the City or the Law Courts, the most popular career for university leavers is in fact teaching. We owe it to these people, as well as to ourselves, to help create a society where our eyes are opened by life-long learning, instead of trudging blindly along in a form of suicidal abstraction.

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Source: http://www.getreading.co.uk/news/news-opinion/getlearning-adult-education-uk-worrying-6256849