Community education – a new sort of cradle to grave?

Dr John Miles

Older learners don’t feature much in the recent report from the Centenary Commission on Adult Education. (1)  Moreover, it’s unlikely that the report’s strategic recommendations will attract much government support – despite a reference to the ‘civic’ responsibility of universities and colleges in the Conservative manifesto. So where should we direct our attention?

Focus 3 of the Commission’s report – ‘fostering community, democracy and dialogue’ – includes a recommendation for a locally administered ‘Community Learning Account’ of £50 million. Even if no funds are made available this Focus reflects an important strand of debate during the Commission’s year of operation. There have been a number of initiatives to widen the scope of democracy in recent years, in some of which older citizens (like Eileen Conn at Peckham Vision) are playing a prominent role. So far the work being developed around social isolation and ageing in boroughs like Camden or the Greater Manchester region has not crossed over into this wider sphere but there seems no reason why it should not. An excellent chapter by Marion Barnes, ‘Old Age and Caring Democracy’, in a new book on government provides us with a useful template here. (2)  And as we learned at the Ransackers’ AGM some academics are looking beyond the participation of older people in their research to joint-working which can accomplish socially useful goals determined with older people at community level.

What the Commission wants to see is community education and further education – supported by universities – playing a fuller part in community development. From the older citizens’ perspective community education could involve a wide range of issues: from an age-friendly environment, collaborating to make social care socially cohesive and blending the analogue and the digital to the knowledge, skills and confidence needed to engage with bureaucratic and planning authorities of all kinds. I made a couple of suggestions along these lines in my submission to the Commission. For example, to support proposals for local citizen assemblies, I suggested basing them within further education colleges, both to develop relevant training {for all ages) and to engage younger adults more effectively  – an intergenerational strategy which older people should support. Then at the recent Special Interest Group for Educational Gerontology event in Nottingham (attended by older activists from Long Eaton who provide It Help locally) I proposed that Older Peoples Forums might provide a good recruiting ground for citizenship education courses. Lastly, and most ambitiously, I’ve fantasised a life-course approach developing in slow motion. Children in primary schools spend a good deal of time now working in teams, nominating representatives to school council, discussing climate change and so-on. We need a structure where today’s ten year-olds are enabled to stay in touch with such structures throughout their lives – from secondary school, higher education, working and later life – establishing a cross-community inter-disciplinary framework in an unstable and dangerous world. Let’s start now.

(1) Commision Report

(2) Marion Barnes, (2019) ‘Old Age and Caring Democracy’ in, Henry Tam (ed), Whose Government is it? – The Renewal of State-Citizen Cooperation

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