Local Democracy Week (15-19 October) is the annual national celebration and exploration of past, present and future democracy in local areas. I argue that universities, colleges and independent adult learning and training providers, as well as local authorities, should be more involved in taking a lead in promoting this in their local area for the following three main reasons:
1) Most of the fastest growing community initiatives are based around a week of events (like Adult Learners’ Week) attracting a wide variety of partner organisations and volunteers to a common cause. Take Parliament Week which was started last November with 40 diverse partners. One year on, it has doubled and at no national cost as most of the resources to power events comes from the partners. When traditional organisations are facing austerity and a tightening of funding, the ability of these new formations to grow creativity, flexibility and dynamism is worth engaging with. Given the ability of colleges and universities to work in their communities and our long track record of working with partners, this approach provides a whole new set of partners who can bring new perspectives into the revitalisation of our curriculum and our approach to inclusion.
2) It helps transform some of the more sterile debates about adult learning. This month I’ve been reading David Priestland’s new (and recommended) book – Merchant, Soldier, Sage; A new history of power – and it has reminded me how significant the struggle between the ideology and language of different ‘castes’ has affected the recent history of adult learning. The rise of the merchant caste has led to an obsession with ‘who pays’ for adult learning and Priestland warns of the dangers of any one caste being too dominant. Arguably, adult learning has thrived in a balance between an old paternalistic caste of philanthropists like Carnegie with a sage caste public sector ethos (best illustrated in the golden age of the ‘sage’ post second world war).
3) It helps us better balance our concerns over the production of wider benefits of learning with an appreciation of how reciprocal some of these points are. Whilst participation in adult learning is very likely to improve mental health resilience and/or recovery and to lead to greater self-confidence, we also benefit from the good health of our learners (it would be interesting to know how many learners drop out of accredited courses due to their ill health or that of a relative – my own anecdotal sense is that this is a big reason for drop out). Participation in adult learning is indicative that you are less likely to commit any sort of crime but it is important to remember that adult learning benefits from the reduction in crime and anti-social behaviour that can often keep learners in their own homes too afraid to come out and take part in evening classes. All of this we owe to the umbrella of democratic government both nationally and locally. So whilst taking part in adult learning may encourage more people to engage with politics we should also remember that adult learning, even across Europe, is not always so well-served.
If we really care about local democracy then, it is far too important to be left to the ‘back-pages’ of local government websites. A twenty-four hour survey of local government websites (on 21 August) found that only 2.3% of people looked at the local democracy content on the ten sample websites and the vast majority of them moved on quickly with only 198 people (0.285%) actually engaging with the information. As I quoted in an article in ‘Adults Learning’ in 2010, Stewart Ranson and John Stewart argued back in the 1990s that for democracy to thrive it needs to be linked into learning so that “individuals continue to develop their capacities, institutions be enabled to respond openly and imaginatively to change, and the differences within and between communities become a source for reflective understanding.” For me, that is a more important mission as a provider of adult learning in all its various forms than simply selling courses.
Chris Minter (BD PGCE MA Ed) is an independent NIACE member after ten years of leading local authority services. During that time he has been at the forefront of integrating frontline skills and employment support services, as part of the award winning Work Highcross Partnership and developing strong links with national and district Jobcentre Plus. Previous experience has included a stint as Director of Safer and Stronger Communities working with police, magistrates and probation on issues such as Integrated Offender Management and Community Justice. He also worked with GPs and employers as chair of the Leicestershire Fit for Work service. Chris is vice-chair of the Educational Centres Association and works closely with Democracy Matters on issues such as Local Democracy Week.