Make dedicated learning spaces accessible

Dr John Miles (9th February, 2019)

Last summer in Manchester Professor Chris Phillipson gave a wide-ranging presentation on ‘recreating “spaces” for ageing – the role of education and learning in later life’. He used space in the sense of ‘making room’ – finding the motivation and encouragement for study and learning – but also to refer to the actual places – libraries, museums, arts centres, classrooms – whose future (particularly outside the bigger cities) is under threat. This year is the hundredth anniversary of the Ministry of Reconstruction’s Report on Adult Education which came out in 1919. A new Centennial Commission, supported through the Workers Educational Association, has been established. It sees the anniversary as ‘a vital opportunity to reflect on the needs and possibilities for adult education today and into the century ahead’ and seeks our views. Much has changed in the last twenty years. Education in later life has dropped off the policy agenda and many of the places where it used to be on offer have disappeared. For various reasons the profile of older people in the current revival of interest in further and adult education is unclear. So there is much to do. But, looking ahead, what sort of places might be needed in response to renewed interest from a future government?

In the last decade the emphasis has been on the informal, the convenient and the instantly accessible. Populist distaste for institutions and expertise has undermined the functions of the classroom and downplayed the value of teaching. These losses have been most acutely felt in poorer neighbourhoods and among disadvantaged communities. Away from the self-directed energy of the ever-expanding universities of the third age sustained participation in further and higher education among over-65s is already low and declines further the older we get. Those whose schooling fifty years ago was limited still miss out. There seems little in the way of encouragement for sustained learning or serious study; too many barriers to participation remain in place.

But what might a reinvested adult education service actually look like? Well, it will have to restore respect to the notion of knowledge, learning and education. It should step back from an exaggerated emphasis on personal problem-solving, and rely less on the narrowly-focused objectives that have come from treating learners as customers. It should also advance a citizenship-led ethos to support lifelong learning as a shared public and social responsibility. And while maintaining the participatory emphasis on shared contributions, user-led initiatives and ‘experts by experience’ it should set up a robust framework through which to promote argument, show the importance of social and historical context and help learners examine evidence. It should still offer qualifications.

This need not mean a wholesale return to the static timetables and bureaucratic routines of the AEI of the 1970s. Digital methods, outreach and home-based learning would all need to be integrated. Imaginative use of the internet and Smart TV could join up and greatly enhance contact across interest groups so as to enrich a locality-based model. But there could be no better metaphor for such a strategy than in the use of buildings that are cared for and cared about. Imaginative, attractive, physically and socially accessible premises should be central to a new vision – the current wave of improvisation, ‘meanwhiling‘ in disused public buildings, has been admirable but won’t be enough. And this hub-based model would need a multi-tasking, problem-solving team. The people contracted to run such centres (whether directly employed or not) would need an enthusiasm for the place itself and be able to mix teaching and administration with the ability to provide hands-on practical support to individual learners. They must be properly paid: sessional home tuition, for example, would command travelling expenses. Learning centres will have to be financially stable.

The inclusivity of the new programme would be an essential characteristic. The incidence of disability and chronic illness rises with age. But as recent Canadian studies convincingly show such issues need not deter older people from wanting to learn nor allowed to prevent us from doing so. Some learner-participants might deploy a personalised social care package to enable their attendance. But the system would carry the resources to provide personal care or journey escorts from a common fund. This could have wider implications. A reinvigorated Dial-a-Ride service might provide the template for an expanded system of back-up to groups and individuals. The boldest step would put life-long learning at the centre of a revitalized communalist ethic and practice. The invisible reliance many disabled learners have on partners or family members could be brought into the open with the aim of supporting such care-partners or substituting professional and/or voluntary alternatives as required. There would be a practice of trouble-shooting case-work sustained by and made accountable through cloud-based systems and portable devices. A whole range of services from home improvements advice to demonstrating assistive technology could be co-located.

To do all this a sense of mission must be restored to bring together learners and educators, employers and artists, service-providers and local planners. Professional-volunteer collaboration of a high quality should be taken for granted. The availability of continual back-up training and practice development (e.g. first aid, BSL, anti-racist practice, digital literacy, community languages) would be another essential element. These learning centres would require a model of community governance integrated with a publicly-supported system (the new cooperative movement provides an obvious reference point). Renewed public involvement should aim to end the reliance on competitive organisational independence which has followed from new charity law and arms-length commissioning practices. The high price of continuous ‘innovation’ has been the loss of basic continuity and the marginalisation of mainstream cultural and learning opportunities. As the 1919 commissioners once recognised our relationship with lifelong learning is a vital social and political question. What better way to establish it under new principles than to demonstrate the value of its place and setting?

Dr John Miles is co-convenor of the British Society of Gerontology Special Interest Group in Educational Gerontology and, as a committee member of the Association for Education and Ageing co-founder with Hornsey Pensioners Action Group of the campaign Active Minds – Still Learning.

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