Towards a Citizens’ Curriculum

July 30, 2014, by Alex Stevenson. filed under Uncategorized; No Comments.

What kind of adult learning opportunities would engage and support the most disadvantaged people, in a range of settings and circumstances? What kinds of adult learning could empower adults to take greater control over their lives, bringing personal, family, social and economic benefits? According to a recent NIACE scoping study, part of the answer might be a ‘life skills / citizens’ curriculum’ approach.

Funded by the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, NIACE has been building on Learning Through Life, the ground-breaking report of NIACE’s Inquiry into the Future for Lifelong Learning, to establish how its recommendation of a citizens’ curriculum approach might work in practice.

A couple of clarifications to start with: by ‘citizens’, we simply refer to adult (and young adult) learners. And we’re not talking about the kind of curriculum that involves a heavy, spiral-bound volume setting out predetermined content that may or may not be relevant to the needs and interests of adult learners.

Broadly speaking, a life skills / citizens’ curriculum approach involves developing learners’ language, literacy and numeracy skills in an interlinked way, alongside and within other life skills, which include health, civic, digital and financial capabilities. Our scoping study suggests that a citizens’ curriculum approach is locally-led, determined by the needs and interests of learners in a particular context or setting. Crucially, learners are meaningfully involved in shaping and designing the curriculum content, with the support of practitioners where needed.

Our scoping study found that many learning providers are beginning to adopt elements of this approach, and other enablers, such as resources and accreditation options – where appropriate – are in many cases already available. Despite this, we also identified that some aspects of the current adult learning landscape may restrict take-up of a true citizens’ curriculum approach – the lack of flexibility around funding and qualifications, and the support needed for informal learning, for example.

Over the coming year, NIACE hopes to pilot and evaluate a life skills / citizens’ curriculum approach in a range of contexts, including learning opportunities for families, for homeless adults, for recent migrants, and for ex-offenders. Our manifesto for the 2015 General Election identifies a number of priority actions which, if introduced, would further support the adoption of a citizens’ curriculum approach – a review of the funding system, personal skills accounts and more support for informal learning would all be beneficial in bringing about a true citizens’ curriculum approach.

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Addressing complacency around accessing education

July 14, 2014, by Susannah Chambers. filed under Uncategorized; No Comments.
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“What did you do at school today?” The resounding silence will be all too familiar to many parents and carers with school-aged children in the UK. There are many reasons why children may not be able to answer this question. Most likely, though, that silence is not for the same reason as those associated with Malala Day.

Today’s Malala Day is an event organised in support of the UN Secretary-General’s Global Education First Initiative. It is a call for the voices of children everywhere to be heard, to insist on the importance of education in spite of those who may try to prevent access to it, and has the goal of seeing all children (particularly girls) in school and learning by 2015.

The circumstances which led to Malala Yousafzai becoming a household name – being shot by the Taliban, alongside two other girls, on her way to school – was a truly global story, shocking people all over the world.

However, has the core message of the right to access education – the actual principle behind Malala’s response to this attack – reached the consciousness of those who were rightly outraged and horrified by this story? And what parallels, if any, can be made with our society and rights to an education in the UK?

In terms of children accessing education, it does seem rather unlikely that most attending our schools embrace the learning opportunities presented each day with unbridled vim. Children in the UK may be considered relatively ‘privileged’ in comparison with many other countries in that schooling is considered an entitlement. Of course, within that sense of entitlement there are still those that face barriers to accessing education. However, rarely to the degree that children like Malala continue to face.

Just because there is less risk of loss of life in our everyday experience of education, however, there is no excuse for society to be complacent about the importance of all children accessing education. This is something directly addressed through family learning courses where support is given for parents/carers and children to develop skills which improve their understanding of and access to education. NIACE’s recent Inquiry into family learning in England and Wales shows how crucial it is for children to read with their families, to have behaviour modelled by parents/carers confident in their own skills, to have ready access to books and access to interactions that prepare them for engaging with education on their journey as lifelong learners.

Malala Day reminds us of the gross unfairness of differences in access to education across the globe for a variety of reasons out of the direct control of children. Or so it would seem until you see an orator of Malala’s skill delivering that message around taking ownership. It reminds us that differences in access to education are not just across geographical boundaries between countries. Barriers can take many forms.

Parental expectations of children, whether linked to gender, religion, socio-economic class or a range of other factors, are a powerful force in challenging views around accessing education. Family learning providers, for example, are well placed to support families and inform society of why access to education is important, the impact it can have and why it is something worth arguing for. Perhaps those families will cherish more their ability to ask that question, “What did you do at school today?”

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Give young adult carers the same chances as other young people

July 11, 2014, by Carol Taylor. filed under Uncategorized; No Comments.

Last week I had the privilege and pleasure of joining many students at the University of Nottingham’s Open Days. Specifically, Open Days for young people who are careers i.e. care for someone, usually a family member, for a substantial amount of time whilst also attending school or college.

For me, the day was one of hope, despondency and at times, despair.

Hope, because I met many enthusiastic young people, full of their dreams, eager to talk about what they wanted to do and wanted to be. Who can fail to be engaged when a young woman tells you she wants to get into politics or has a place at University to study music, or when a young man outlines his plans to be a social worker so that he can make life better for careers like himself?

Despondency, because these brilliant young people had so many issues that needed to be addressed. Funding of course was one of them, but on top of the loan and debt issues there is so much more for these young people – when you are in full time education as a carer you lose your Carers Allowance, so how on earth do you make the decision to take on £27,000 worth of debt AND deprive your family of an income stream they may rely on? For some families this allowance makes the difference between existing and living a fairly normal life. And being a carer itself costs money – more phone calls to make sure all is OK at home and more trips home if you live away to take on some of your share of the caring.

And despair listening to the stories told time and time again of teachers not knowing, and seemingly not caring, about the difficulties of caring. Of a young woman whose mum has multiple sclerosis, who has to phone home from school three times a day, who has to accompany her mum to hospital, who often misses school and homework through caring for 30 hours a week, who was told by her teacher: “I don’t believe you it’s only another excuse”. Of Job Centres who can’t deal with the calls on their time which means they miss appointments. Of college staff who wouldn’t give an extension to a young man whose dad had had a complete psychotic breakdown in front of the younger children.

But most distressing to me was listening to young people who had come to terms with the cost, probable debt, and time implications of HE, who were on track to get good grades despite missing school, whose biggest dilemma was about where to go to University. Some talked of families saying “it’s your life , you have to go and do what you want” and how they are now worrying incessantly about who would do the caring…maybe their younger brother, but how could they ask an eleven year old to do that? Then there were those who told me the one they cared for, usually a parent, had said, or implied, that they wouldn’t cope if their child left them to be cared for by someone else. How does an 18 year old deal with their mum saying “I will die if you leave me”? What a profound emotional dilemma. What happens to the young woman who wanted to do music, whose choices were limited to Universities 200 miles away? Or the young man who knows that getting away would give him something of a normal life?

Young people who find themselves in this position need holistic and ongoing life and career guidance to enable them to make the best decisions for themselves and their families. They need support to deal with the guilt they feel, that whatever decision they make someone will suffer. And they need help with more practical issues that arise, including financial advice, information on their rights, and how to deal with being a carer at University.

There are more than 300,000 young people aged 16-24 actively caring for someone at home. They save the public purse at least £1 billion each year. We must do everything we can to enable them to fulfil their potential, to still be an active carer and to have the sort of experience we want every young adult to have at University. It’s a public disgrace that we helpfully ‘forget’ about these young people, so we don’t have to offer them the support they need. Why doesn’t every FE and HE institution look at its policies and pledge to make a difference?

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Adult Learners’ Week events in Stoke Golding

, by Guest Blogger. filed under Uncategorized; 2 Comments / Comment on this.
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Adult Learners’ Week 2014 was bigger and better than ever – as the culmination of a two-month long Festival of Learning, it saw over 4,000 learning events and tasters take place across England and Wales. Steve Smithers – a member of a small planning team in Stoke Golding – shares an insight into the range of events held in just one small village, showcasing what can be achieved when passion and dedication are abundant.

Steve Smithers with the Adult Learners' Week planning group in Stoke Golding

Steve Smithers with the Adult Learners’ Week planning group in Stoke Golding

Stoke Golding, a village on the South Western edge of Leicestershire and home to approximately 900 people, has many claims to fame. Most significantly as “The Birth Place of the Tudor Dynasty” as King Henry VII received his blessings in the church after defeating Richard III in the Battle of Bosworth, and most recently having hosted Adult Learners’ Week events for the second year running.

The villagers were first introduced to Adult Learners’ Week in 2013 by my partner – long term adult learning practitioner and champion, and former ESOL expert at NIACE – Chris Taylor. Although Chris sadly passed away this January, her enthusiasm was infectious and a village resident approached me to help organise events for 2014. Others who had been involved last year were enthusiastic, Chris’s notes from 2013 were precise and clear, NIACE agreed to support us, and so planning for Adult Learners’ Week 2014 started in earnest.

We set up a small planning group which worked closely together to organise no less than 20 interesting learning events that catered to over 200 people with a wide range of creative and practical interests. Below are just some examples of those events.

Arts and Crafts

Our Willow Weaving session facilitated by Tom Hare – village resident and internationally respected Willow Weaver – taught participants how to construct an object from willow. In just 2.5 hours we proudly made fine Obelisk-type plant supports to enhance our gardens. We also held a well-attended session on drawing and painting flowers, as well as a mixed craft session which was expertly led by the Women’s Institute.

Willow Weaving

Willow Weaving

Mental Wellbeing and Physical Fitness

Learning can help improve people’s mental wellbeing and because Bridge is said to stimulate the brain and keep the mind clear well into old age, we ran a Bridge for Beginners class. Singing is also good for the soul and our session held at the Methodist Church has inspired attendees to enquire about continuing to sing in the choir and meeting regularly. We also organised some popular physical fitness activities like learning to dance Burlesque and a Pilates taster class.

Food and Drink

For some reason, one of our most popular events was an evening of wine tasting! Keith Morton from ‘Wine 2 You’ led the session with his wife, explaining the characteristics of different grapes and the science behind wine production. There was also a high demand for our cupcake decorating class, led by expert Ali Waterer, which taught participants how to make an impressive cupcake bouquet.

Wine Tasting

Wine Tasting

Practical and Academic Sessions

We also held a range of practical and academic sessions to cater for everyone and to help people gain the skills they need to get on in life. We had a great event that got mums reading with their children and signing up to the local library and our IT class gave people invaluable skills they can use both at work and at home. A local, retired teacher also gave up her time to teach people conversational French and history buffs had the chance to find out all manner of interesting information about Scotland and St. Margaret’s Church. Last, but not least, we also provided a certificated Basic First Aid course run by St. John’s Ambulance.

I was truly inspired by the enjoyment expressed by all of those who participated and got a taste of the magic of adult learning that had motivated Chris so much in her career. These wonderful events really seemed to spark the imaginations of our local residents, helping them discover different interests, forge new friendships, gain important skills for work and home, and giving them the confidence to pursue further learning opportunities. I hope we can have the same success for Adult Learners’ Week 2015!

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A job may not keep you from poverty but level 3 skills will

June 27, 2014, by Rob Gray. filed under Uncategorized; No Comments.
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Three announcements made last week illustrate why skills provision at level 3 for unemployed adults is vital if we are to avoid rising inequality.

Findings of an extensive survey carried out by the Poverty and Social Exclusion project published last Thursday show that:

  • More than 500,000 children live in families who cannot afford to feed them properly.
  • Around 1.5 million children live in households that cannot afford to heat their home.
  • Around 5.5 million adults go without essential clothing.

It would be wrong to assume that an improving economy would eradicate these issues as more people find work. According to research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, over half of the UK’s 13 million people in poverty are in working families. Naturally, this has led to calls for higher wages and a living wage for all. This could help, however, it would require a lot of political courage to commit in this way to ensuring a fairer society. It would require challenging the now long-standing dogma that the lowest paid must accept low pay to keep the UK’s economy competitive. It would require everyone else i.e. better paid employees, owners and share holders to accept that they must take less. Of the three main parties, Labour has gone furthest with a plan to offer firms a 12-month tax break in 2016 if they agree to pay the living wage. But none of the three main parties has gone as far as saying they would make the living wage the minimum wage.

It is therefore important that individuals do all they can to help themselves. In fact the system demands it. For some time now, since the introduction of skills conditionality, jobseekers have been mandated to address any skills needs that act as a barrier to their employment. Ed Miliband went further last week with his announcement that a future Labour Government will remove eligibility for Job Seekers Allowance from young people aged 18 to 21 and replace it with an allowance dependent upon their participation in training towards attainment of skills at level 3. Not all jobs require level 3 skills, but many jobs that keep people out of poverty do.

BIS research shows that there is an average 20% wage gain from possessing a BTEC level 3, 16% for RSA level 3, and 10% for NVQ level 3, compared to similar individuals qualified to level 2. However, skills provision for unemployed adults is currently focused on helping people gain skills only up to level 2. Ed Milliband’s announcement implies a recognition that gaining level 2 skills may help people to get a job, but may not be enough to avoid poverty. This begs the question, why were unemployed people aged over 24 stripped of their public funding entitlement by the Coalition Government for level 3 provision? The only way unemployed people aged above 24 can now acquire funding for level 3 provision is to take out an Advanced Learning Loan, which in their financially insecure circumstances they may be understandably reluctant to do.

BIS has just published a consultation on expanding and simplifying the system for Advanced Learning Loans. Within the consultation BIS outlines its interest in learning of any problems encountered with the current level 3 loan arrangements for unemployed adults, presumably because any issues would be exacerbated if loans were to be extended to 19 to 23 year olds and to level 2 provision. Clearly funding constraints are an issue here, which underlines the necessity of NIACE’s recent call in its manifesto Skills for Prosperity: Building Sustainable Recovery for All for a major, independent review into the long term skills needs and funding issues facing the UK over the next 20 years.

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