Transforming Adult Community Education for a New Era

Dr. Susan Pember CBE, Policy Director, Holex, and Dr. Fiona Aldridge, Head of Insight, West Midlands Combined Authority, reflect on the ETF innovation workshop on transforming adult community education they led at the start of March.

The HOLEX-led ETF Innovation Workshop held on 1 March was a dynamic gathering of learning organisation participants, Mayoral Combined Authorities (MCA) and Greater London Authority (GLA) officials and educators dedicated to transforming adult community education in England. The event, which was funded by the Department for Education (DfE), was organised to explore how the new changes to adult community education could be utilised to meet the skills and wellbeing needs of the nation. The event sparked vibrant discussions on customising learning experiences for a diverse society and highlighted practical ways forward.

Rethinking adult community education: call to action

The keynote speaker, Principal/Chief Executive of City Lit, Mark Malcolmson CBE, set the tone for the event with a compelling address on the transformative potential of adult community education. Advocating for a shift from a defensive posture to a positive approach, the speaker emphasised the need for us all to communicate a clear and bold narrative on the potential of adult education to contribute to societal development. Participants were urged to explore the fragile but wonderful ecosystem of community learning, emphasising the importance of reaching the hardest-to-reach communities.

The presentation highlighted the effort made by City Lit in creating specialised communities within online classes, and urged community learning colleagues across the country to identify and build on their own local heritage in crafting creative and diverse curricula.

Facilitating questions about how City Lit has gained an Ofsted ‘Outstanding’ and how staff were supported, it was explained that a whole college effort was needed, with inspectors looking for consistency of quality in all offerings. Suggestions were made for establishing centres in each area, referencing recommendations from an Adult Education Select Committee report.

To get the best out of these changes, participants asked for changes to the RARPA reporting system, to be better empowered to deliver and tell the story of the benefits of adult education, and for support to ensure staff are aware and understand the changes, ensuring Ofsted are briefed and understand these changes.

Unveiling the size of the issue

Shedding light on significant challenges, another participant emphasised how adult community education can play a critical role in supporting inclusive economic growth and addressing labour market shortages by assisting the economically inactive into work or meaningful community/family activity.

Participants looked at the data and the size of the problem. They considered the different interlocking issues; productivity will not be improved if the nation’s skills level is not improved, skills levels won’t be improved unless people’s basic skills are raised, and participation in learning will not increase if people’s mental health is not improved. Urgency was stressed in prioritising economically inactive individuals, while at the same time, through adult education, improving people’s wellbeing.

Furthermore, the need for a comprehensive Lifelong Learning Strategy was emphasised, highlighting the opportunity for learning organisations to contribute to preserving endangered heritage crafts, aligning with the government’s commitment to the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage agreement.

Tailored learning in the spotlight

The Department for Education introduced the next stage of shifting from community to tailored learning with a focus on flexibility and outcomes recording, proposing that instead of them producing the guidance on the exploratory notes of the new changes, it should be sector-driven guidance. This new proposal would bring the sector learning organisations and MCAs/GLA to work together to produce a meaningful document that suits the needs of the different actors in the system.

To compensate for the collection of extra reporting data, DfE explained, they were removing the requirement to do Pound Plus, but did expect learning organisations to have a fees and charging policy. Concerns from participants about Ofsted’s understanding of the new outcomes and purposes of adult community education prompted assurances of ongoing communication with the regulatory body.

Interpreting the data

Explaining that DfE now makes all data collected from the Individual Learner Record (ILR) available for benchmarking, another participant presented comprehensive data on various aspects of adult and community learning. This data unveiled the magnitude of the challenges and opportunities within the sector.

Following the data presentation, participants engaged in discussions on maximising the potential of tailored learning. Common themes were determined, ranging from changing government perceptions about community learning to exploring financial values for social impact.

Place-based learning

Exploring how community education services could support the infrastructure needed for place-based learning, participants emphasised collaboration with wider local services. There were group discussions on the infrastructure needed to support tailored learning. Participants suggested practical ways forward such as joining up services, jointly determining priorities, ensuring their feet were on the ground to proactively encourage residents into learning, data sharing, no wrong door and a communal use of buildings.

Next steps: sustaining the momentum

The workshop concluded with discussions on sustaining the momentum generated during the event. Various participants proposed initiatives such as taking up the DfE offer of creating shared sector guidance, regular gatherings, and establishing peer networks for ongoing collaboration.

The workshop provided a platform for thought leaders, educators, and policymakers to collectively shape the future of adult community education. The insights shared and initiatives proposed reflected a commitment to fostering inclusive, tailored, and impactful learning experiences for diverse communities. As the sector navigates the evolving educational landscape, the collaborative spirit ignited at this workshop serves as a beacon of hope and progress.