Thoughts, feelings, adapting and learning

Dr Jackie Richards

The plan for 2020 was that Peter, my husband, and I would visit family in California. I would continue advising on ageing and older dancers and carry on dancing. 

Zoom! What was that? 

When lockdown happened, I reacted in surprising ways. Covid-19 was not the worry as I knew we would be sensible, follow guidelines and care for each other. We would cope being together and not get on one anothers’ nerves. It would be a shame not socialising, but we would cope. Although on Zoom, dancing, attending Tottenham Community Choir (TTC), and other meetings would be fine. There would be benefits; more time to tidy and unclutter house and garden and return to playing my guitar. Another treat would be to participate in new learning opportunities on-line including Gareth Malone’s new choir. Yes, life would be good during lockdown. I felt blessed and fortunate listening to birdsong, visiting my local park, having more time, no traffic noise and not having financial problems. 

However, Lockdown was not idyllic!  

In the last newsletter I wrote about the fear created from receiving a letter saying I was an extremely vulnerable person on a Government list. What follows are some other effects I experienced during lockdown. 

I was on an emotional rollercoaster. I became more moody, snappy and stroppy. I felt I was a 14-year-old adolescent again with the same raw emotions and feelings. I began contemplating the future; everything was so uncertain.  My recent previous studies and my cancer treatment had taken up lots of energy and time. My involvement with the Age UK London Age Allies project had ended. In future what would I do instead? Should I participate in more projects or should I retire to my garden and travel? How much longer would I dance? What will I become and be? Peter was a caring, loving companion but I needed others’ energy, conversations and discussions and meeting them in person. I realised I was not ready to retire as I still wanted to get involved with others to enable more people to lead meaningful lives and not be stereotyped or marginalised. I wanted to continue dancing and actively participate in the world. 

Unfortunately, attending TTC and Gareth’s choir only lasted a few weeks. I found singing on my own with my computer stressful. Although I could see others in the Gallery, it was not the same as being with them. 

I continued on-line dancing sessions, all the facilitators were excellent, I appreciated the opportunities to learn from them and to continue dancing. New dance sessions became available on-line. However, as weeks went on, I increasingly thought dancing alone in my front room, looking at others on Zoom was weird, lonely and felt unenjoyable. I so want to dance with others again! 

freshly baked buns

Perhaps the biggest surprise has been turning inwards and enjoying solitary learning pursuits. My inner life has benefitted from activities done alone. This has included knitting a beautiful scarf with a complicated pattern requiring concentration, returning to playing my guitar including improving some Classical Spanish pieces and improving my technique. I set aside a time each day to read more fiction and non-fiction. Cooking to creating healthy, delicious, attractive food has been enjoyable. Peter is a grateful recipient! I decided improve my bodyshape and became a member of www.WeightLossResources.co.uk where I concentrate on analysing and noting what I am eating, learning more about portion sizes and relationships between calories and exercise. I have also enjoyed doing a free on-line Open University Maths course! 

Now, lockdown is easing. I am seeing friends and family again. Wonderful! But what will happen next? We can hope for a better future, more fairness and opportunities for all, a new normality without masks and hand sanitiser. Meanwhile, I will carry on knitting and dancing! 

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

The Fashion Trade: Past, Present and Future?

We have a fashion problem. No, I don’t just mean that older women often struggle to find clothes they like/can wear/can afford on the high street. Professor Julia Twigg has written about this – how older women ‘have long been subject to social pressure to tone down, to adopt self-effacing, covered-up styles’, although she says to some extent this might be changing. To me the bigger picture is that the fashion industry is one of the biggest polluters in the world (Lindsay Brown, 2019), using massive quantities of water and producing waste. Did you know that when people return clothes bought online on a ‘try before you buy’ basis, it is common for the returned clothing to end up in landfill? (Harriet Constable,BBC). The drive towards cheaper and cheaper clothes – some worn just once or twice – also means that poorly paid garment workers in low income countries work for long hours in unsafe conditions.

However, many younger people are becoming more active in fighting climate change and recognising that everybody’s well-being is ‘corrupted and compromised by the political and economic systems that promote and support our modern, consumer-focussed lifestyles’ (Extinction Rebellion) I argue that working for change in the way we produce and use clothing is one area where older generations can contribute to thinking differently about what we are doing.

I remember wartime and post-WW2 austerity and make-do-and-mend. Fabrics were in short supply so people had to be inventive: wedding dresses made out of curtains, socks for the troops hand-knitted, clothes and shoes repaired and passed along until they could not be repaired any more. The expectation was for things to last and be cherished, not thrown out after a few wears because ‘fashion’ changed.

So it is encouraging that there has been a move by some young people to shake things up a bit by making businesses that re-use clothes instead of letting them be thrown away (Sarah Butler, 2018, The Guardian). I believe that those of us who are old enough to remember how to improvise, how to alter and adapt clothing, and how to repair and mend, have a lot to offer younger people by sharing these skills. It will be a small contribution to cutting down on the waste of energy and water, but a big contribution to intergenerational understanding and changing how we all think about the clothes that we wear.

Teresa Lefort in conversation with Caroline Holland

Please feedback on this topic. All contributions to the debate gratefully received.

Time to Rethink Adult Education?

Adult education is in crisis: decades of cuts in funding has led to a decline in courses offered for adult learners and around 1.8 million adults per year are not able to access courses to improve their skills (David Hughes, TES, September 2018).

But, unfortunately, the common discourse around adult education is linked to skills for employability and boosting the economy: what about education for the sake of education? Until 2017, I was the head of the Department for International Labour and Trade Union Studies (ILTUS) at Ruskin College, Oxford, an institution founded on the values of education as emancipation for the working class. We actively encouraged adults to study on a wide range of programmes that could, of course, help them to progress in their careers, but, more importantly, to develop critical thinking that can bring about social change.  My oldest student was a man in his 80’s, who had been a success in business but never had the opportunity to study a higher education course. He wasn’t there to improve his chances of getting a better job or promotion in the workplace: he was there to read, listen, think, discuss and debate with the other students (and staff, which was encouraged!)

With the obsession with education and employability, educators find themselves in a situation where everything has to be linked to the chance of the student getting a job at the end: from lesson plans to OFSTED (the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills, which inspects institutions with students up to the age of 18), and organisations such as Advance HE, teaching has become more about ‘social mobility’ through employment than challenging the status quo. Are we there to produce yet another generation of automatons, who accept low paid, low valued work, zero- hour contracts, when they should be challenging the whole concept of the way work is constructed?

There is a light at the end of the tunnel (well, I think so!): The Cooperative University Project. As a founder member of a new educational worker cooperative, the RED Learning Coop: Research, Education and Development for Social Change, I was thrilled for us to be invited to be part of the development of this exciting initiative. In 2012, the Cooperative College in Manchester, started to explore ideas about ‘doing education differently’ and the 2017 Higher Education Act gave the space for alternative providers. So, what is different about a Cooperative University? Well, the vision for a start:

‘Our vision is to develop a new type of university based on social justice and co-operative values and principles which works for the mutual benefit of all.

A Co-operative University will empower students, enhancing their skills to develop new ways of thinking, working, researching and learning for life’ (Cooperative College website, April 2019).

The University is founded on Cooperative Values and Principles:

  • Challenge injustice, inequality and exploitation in all its forms.
  • Recognise that teachers and students have much to learn from each other and should work together to design and develop content and delivery.
  • Be based on a social purpose and political and economic democracy
  • Enhance wellbeing and enable everyone to explore their full range of abilities.
  • Strengthen and grow a different kind of society with co-operative values at its heart

(Cooperative College Website, April 2019).

The first course starts in September 2019, so watch this space!

Tracy Walsh

Founder Member of The RED Learning Cooperative: Research, Education and Development.

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?

Continue reading “Make dedicated learning spaces accessible”