Since his election at the end of last year, more than a few thousand words have been written about what the election of Mark Drakeford as First Minister will mean for the style and substance of government: a return to the traditions of progressive universalism? a substantive policy difference on key decisions like the M4 relief road? a different approach to decision making and collective responsibility?
In contrast, these next few hundred words are focused on the potential of just twenty-seven words in the Progressive Agreement signed by Mark Drakeford and Kirsty Williams in December 2018:
‘Explore how we can deliver a new Welsh right to lifelong learning, investing in the skills people need throughout their lives, for individual, societal and economic benefit.’
Just twenty-seven words, but they open the door to the possibility of a new approach to lifelong learning across Wales and the chance to reverse a decade of decline in participation and opportunity.
As, arguably, the Cinderella of Cinderella services, adult education has too often sat outside the mainstream of education policy. Dismissive and clumsy characterisations of what adult education is and what it is for mean we have too often sold short the potential of lifelong learning. If we are honest, even those working within the sector have been guilty of pessimism over what is possible and of limiting the ambition we have.
Just like Rick Astley or the Spice Girls, lifelong learning was big in the 90s and is back on a comeback tour. It is back in political fashion and we have a short window of opportunity in which to act. One half of the equation is to be noisier about funding and demand more political attention. The other half is to articulate our own vision for change and for what a new ‘right’ could look like.
To resuscitate lifelong learning in Wales, we need to build the kind of momentum we are now seeing in relation to the school curriculum. Specifically, we need to link the purpose of adult education and lifelong learning to those purposes that underpin the proposed new school reforms:
- ambitious, capable learners, ready to learn throughout their lives;
- enterprising, creative contributors, ready to play a full part in life and work;
- ethical, informed citizens of Wales and the world;
- healthy, confident individuals, ready to lead fulfilling lives as valued members of society.
Creating ambitious, capable learners or ethical, informed citizens of the world isn’t a process which ends at 16, 18 or 21. It is a lifelong process that needs to be sustained, with prior learning topped up and new knowledge acquired. Ultimately, the success of the new school age curriculum will depend not just on the opportunities in compulsory education but also on how this progress can be sustained into later life.
The purposes of the new school reforms might be hard to argue with, but that doesn’t mean they don’t represent something significant. They are the potential basis around which to build a new right to lifelong learning, to develop a vision that goes beyond simple skills acquisition for work and to help people gain the tools they need to participate in civic and democratic life, strengthen intergenerational and community relationships, and improve and sustain good health and well-being.
By applying the purposes of the new school reforms to lifelong learning, allied to the Well-Being of Future Generations Act, we can unlock the full potential of adult education. They will frame adult learning in language policy-makers and politicians will understand and provide an important continuum for provision at all ages that can be embedded into the work of the proposed new post-compulsory education commission when it is established. The Beveridge Report and the 1945 Labour Government created a cradle to the grave welfare state. By applying the purposes to lifelong learning we can do the same for education in Wales too.
Arguably, we need this new focus more than ever. lifelong learning can be the key to unlocking the solutions for the big challenges we face today: how can we learn to manage our own health better? how can we equip citizens to engage in democratic life and navigate their way through the age of populism? where can individuals turn to learn about our climate emergency and how they can help build more sustainable communities? Lifelong learning can also be a place where communities and people come together, helping to bridge the divide in our increasingly polarised society.
Work on this kind of vision was piloted in 2015 through the recommendation to develop an Adult Learning Framework built around the four purposes. Momentum has stalled since then, but now is the opportunity to ride on the coattails of the pace and scale of reform in the school system and to grab our own piece of political spotlight. We have a political window in which to act and we need multiple voices articulating the kind of change and the scale of new investment we need.
The outcome we need is recognition of the value of lifelong learning that supports our individual and collective wealth, health and well-being and which seeks to bridge the divides between generations and communities. It requires a flexible system with multiple entry points to learning throughout people’s lives. Linking a right to lifelong learning with the purposes of the school age reform is an important first step.
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