Has community–based learning become the ‘learning arm of community development’, or is it just a way of masking cuts in funding of the more institutionalised forms of provision for adult learning?
Professor Dr. Karen Evans, University of London, Institute of Education, United Kingdom
Community Learning Trusts have been piloted and launched in England in pursuit of practical ways to shape community learning. It is a question of how local people, organisations and providers can work together while finding new ways of sharing and accessing local resources in a context of public funding subsidies that are reducing in real terms year on year. New ways of planning and delivering community-based learning are being tested. They move beyond the previous primary providers of local authorities and general further education colleges to involve a wider range of voluntary, sports, cultural and business organisations. The approach is a variation on ‘doing more with less’.
This landscape for community-based learning in England has been shaped during the 2010-2015 parliament by the development of a range of locally-based models. These models were piloted in the 2012-13 academic year to ‘channel Adult Safeguarded Learning funding and lead the planning of local provision in cities, towns and rural settings’, with Community Learning Trusts beginning full operation in 2013-2014. This initiative built on a national consultation on informal adult learning that ‘endorsed a new, clearer commitment to using the public funding subsidy to support access, and progression in its widest sense, for people who are disadvantaged and who are furthest from learning and therefore least likely to participate’ [i]. The public funding subsidy is about 10% of the adult skills budget, but it represented approximately 20% of adult participation in 2011-12. Funding has remained flat in 2010-14, at a time when the rest of the adult skills budget has been substantially cut.
The benefit of community learning
Community learning covers a range of community-based and outreach learning opportunities designed to help people of different ages and backgrounds get involved in learning activities, with multiple purposes in view. These could be getting a new skill, re-connecting with learning or following an interest. Ulterior purposes are to facilitate a return to learning that can help people better support their children’s learning and well-being or provide an entry point for adults to progress to more formal courses and qualifications.
The policy has recognised critiques of the top down and target-driven approaches of the past. It has acknowledged and used social scientific survey evidence on the outcomes and wider benefits of adult learning. Evidence of the social and economic benefits of lifelong learning, including non-accredited learning, is strengthening all the time [ii]. The emphasis on disadvantaged adults and families is intended to redress biases towards middle class and professional participation and is supported by Centre for Learning and Life Chances in Knowledge Economies and Societies (LLAKES) findings on the links between social cohesion and the distribution of skills and knowledge in the population [iii].
The potential benefits of the Community Learning Trusts themselves have been evidenced through the pilot schemes [iv]. Even in the most disadvantaged localities, where it might be expected that fewer resources can be harnessed, community organisers working with local organisations which have deep involvement and experience in supporting disadvantaged groups can work well. The notion of ‘public value’ is central. And because adult learning is not confined to any one sector and can work through neighbourhood teams, the public value can extend across domains of justice, housing and health commissioning – ‘prescribing learning for health’ is one of the ideas generated. Community–based learning becomes the ‘learning arm of community development’.
Anchoring the strategy
Challenges are also very apparent. It is important not to forget that the primary aim of this government initiative is strategic. Community Learning Trusts are to lead the planning of local provision in cities, towns and rural settings. Key questions for the wider ‘roll out’ are how to make the more promising aspects properly strategic while maximising local responsibility and responsiveness.
Coherence, like consistency, can be a much overrated virtue. It is a question of coherence for what? Coherence in this context is needed to ensure reasonable coverage in access for adults to local provision while maintaining the principle of responsibility and flexibility. Guaranteeing access for adults to a local minimum offer, flexed to local circumstances, has been recommended by the independent Inquiry into the Future of Lifelong Learning, which has advocated entitlements in areas such as health, digital, civic and personal competences as well as employability as part of a long-range vision [v]. Such entitlements have not yet been established. For sustainability, the strategy-making that is much talked about has to be more strongly anchored in stable and accountable organisations in which there is public trust. Anchoring the strategy-making in the Local Authorities, as the democratically accountable agencies that have overarching responsibilities for the well-being of local communities seems the obvious solution. Reinforcing the institutional backbone for adult lifelong learning locally through Further Education colleges could also be combined with efforts to re-invigorate the community engagement of Universities. And the crucial elements of guidance and support and a professionally trained workforce all demand good quality education and training and effective quality assurance systems.
In the policy rhetoric, the Community Learning Trusts are proclaimed to support wider government policies on localism, social justice, stronger families, digital inclusion and social mobility. Yet there is a danger that an emphasis on informal learning and reliance on voluntary effort can end up being used to mask cuts in funding of the more institutionalised forms of provision for adult learning. These community learning developments, while promising, can only work in the longer term when they form part of an intelligent system whereby people at all ages and stages can have local access to learning opportunities that allow them to progress and realise their potential, in ways that do not depend wholly on their mobility and personal resources.
[i] Department for Business Innovation and Skills (December 2011) New Challenges, New Chances. Further Education and Skills System Reform Plan: building a world class skills system, London: BIS.
[ii] Evans,K., Schoon, I. and Weale, M. (2013) Can Lifelong Learning Reshape Life Chances? British Journal of Educational Studies, 61 (1), 25-47.
[iii] LLAKES Research Paper 1: Green, A., Janmaat, J.G. and Han, C. (2009) ‘Regimes of Social Cohesion’ London: Institute of Education.
[iv] Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (2013) Evaluation of Community Learning Trust Pilots: Summary of Key Findings, BIS Research Paper 137.
[v] Schuller, T and Watson, D. (2009) Learning Through Life, Leicester: National Institute of Adult Continuing Education.
Karen Evans is Professor for Lifelong Learning at the Institute of Education, University of London and Research Leader in the UK Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) Centre for Learning and Life Chances in Knowledge Economies and Societies. She was previously Co-Director of the Centre for Excellence is Work-Based Learning (WLE) Centre at the Institute of Education and Professor of Post-Compulsory Education and Director of the Post-Graduate Centre for Professional and Adult Learning at the University of Surrey. Her main fields of research are learning in life and work transitions, and learning in and through the workplace. She has directed 16 major studies of learning and the world of work in Britain and internationally. Books include Improving literacy at work (2011); Learning, work and social responsibility (2009); Improving workplace learning (2006); Reconnection: Countering social exclusion through situated learning (2004); Working to learn (2002); Learning and work in the risk society (2000). She is co-editor of The Sage Handbook of Workplace Learning (2011) and the Second International Handbook of Lifelong Learning (2012). She is an Academician of the Academy of Social Sciences.