On educating adults – colleges for older learners?

This arrived recently

Which I’ve digitised here – and reminds me, I need to stop spending so much on old books and pamphlets! (I’ve just ordered two more books so as to follow this blogpost up).

Out of all of the places I’ve studied since the age of 18, I can’t think of a single institution or place where I’ve ever felt that this was a place that I could thrive in. Subjects, teachers, fellow learners, buildings, location, access, you name it. Even in the workplace for training sessions and workshops, I can’t recall ever having a sense of liking the place I was learning in.

“Why does this matter?”

One of the few things our otherwise seldom-to-be-seen headmaster from secondary school said to us in one of the very few assemblies he oversaw, he told us our generation would not have jobs for life and that we would be switching careers and retraining. One of the very-old-school, it was one of the few things he got right as the broken education system hurtled towards the rubble of 18 years of Tory cuts to public services. The impact of those cuts utterly destroyed the once mighty Cambridge Conservative Association, who in my first 20 years of life went from holding the parliamentary seat and running the city council, to losing both the parliamentary seat and nearly every single council seat within the city.

“Why does that matter?”

Because the legacy of those decades is still with us today.

“Careful with comparing the situation of today with things in the mid-1990s. The internet was in its infancy back them for a start.”

One of the things I remember discussing when I did basic adult teacher training at Cambridge Regional College in 2011 was the importance of location and building. We were all teaching at a level 3/A-level equivalent for whatever our specialist chosen subject was. Several of the participants re-enforced the point that many of their learners had really negative experiences of school and so the prospect of learning in an institution that even so much as hinted of being like school would be enough to stop them from enrolling.

Learning in a soulless office block or a building designed for older teenagers

Back in 2001 The Guardian ran a competition called The School We’d Like. It was an incredible piece of journalism where the newspaper invited school children from all over the country to design their ideal school. Recall that this was at a time when ministers were about to undertake a massive school building programme in the face of 20 years of underinvestment from the previous two prime ministers. (It was also before most of us found out about the scandal of the Private Finance Initiative).

So successful was the competition that they ran it again in 2011 for a new generation. What was striking on both occasions was how seriously the children went about their tasks. Credit to the teachers and assistants as well – for what the children came up with wasn’t a wish-list for junk food 24/7 with no homework. Rather it was one that made the past few generations of politicians, developers, financiers, and urban planners look around and ask how and why they had failed so many children.

“So what would a similar exercise produce if you were asking adults to design their ideal place of learning?

It wouldn’t be an anonymous office block on the edge of town, or tucked away on a city centre side street. Stereotypically this is something that for me characterises too many of the private learning institutions in UK university cities that target overseas audiences. Cambridge has more than its fair share of them – in particular those that are awkwardly crammed into Victorian town houses. But then municipal authorities don’t have any powers to balance out the different industries that their cities can hold. Hence in a place like Cambridge there is an oversupply of private colleges relative to the population of the city – which has a detrimental impact on the supply of affordable homes, something made much worse by ministerial planning policy that exempts student housing developments from providing affordable housing.

“But that’s not the same as the places that provide say office skills training courses – is it?”

The principles are similar: Are the buildings fit for purpose? Are they located in a place that is suitable for the learners, the staff, and the people that live in the town/city? I was one of those foreign students in the mid-2000s when I went to Vienna to do a German language course after doing a GCSE German evening class. My aim was to use it to prepare for an A-level German the following September. In December I was transferred down to London with the civil service and had to abandon it. Again, the similarities and differences between how the German-speaking world did things, and how the UK does things, was striking.

Not all needs are the same for all adult learners – especially for parents and carers

The sort of building and location I might have in mind is not necessarily suitable for say a single parent in a long hours, low paid job looking to improve their vocational skills- which again might not be suitable for an affluent empty-nest couple looking for a leisure course – which again might not be suitable for someone in poor health wanting to start on the road to improving their fitness. Can you cram all of these functions into the same institution onto the same site?

What should the 21st Century offer be in a post-Covid 19 world where we’re heading straight into a global climate crisis?

For a start, the options that are available to learners today are on a completely different level to what was available a quarter of a century ago. In 1995 the concept of having an encyclopaedia stored on a Compact Disc was mind-blowing. I remember as a teenager wondering why Encarta (remember that?) could store multiple volumes of paper-volumes onto a single disc, yet that same disc could only hold a dozen or so songs of music.

Fast forward to today and lessons are now delivered online as a matter of routine – though not without difficulty for individuals and institutions as they struggled to respond to the restrictions brought in to deal with the pandemic. The multimedia offer, the TedTalks, the online debating platforms, the gaming platforms are now all relevant. How does teaching design, building design, urban design and location account for all of this?

Training for work? Learning for pleasure? Activities for fun? Exercise for health?

There are a host of new parameters to take into account of here – not least the ’15 minute city’ concept of being within a 15min walking or cycling distance of everything you need for your day-to-day needs.

One thing I’ll never be able to fully appreciate is having to manage competing demands – something the US President-elect Biden wrote to his staff about when he became Vice-President to Obama in 2008 – the note dated November 2014.

It’s a shame more employers don’t have a similar attitude.

My point being that for learners with such big pressures on their time, the last thing they want is to spend any more time than necessary on site, or travelling to/from the site. Alternatively someone like me would more likely benefit from being able to do other activities on site rather than going to an office block, doing a workshop, then going off home again. Or even spending a whole day of intense learning every month or so – something unfortunately I’m no longer capable of.

An adult community college as an anchor building.

This isn’t a new concept – certainly not in the villages that surround Cambridge. In the face of persistent underfunding, Henry Morris, the Secretary of Education in the old Cambridge County Council, came up with the concept of village colleges. To this day, many of them still combine provision of secondary education for older children with community evening classes for adults.

What is fundamentally lacking in party political circles is any drive either to expand the village college concept or to expand the adult education concept that Birkbeck University of London, and CityLit offer by the bucketload. The mindset of ministers is to view education through the narrow prism of vocational training and very basic skills training for those that did not or could not learn them through normal schooling. Successive ministers presented the funding as a false choice between funding basic skills for people in poor communities vs subsidising things like yoga and pottery for the affluent middle classes who did not need subsidising.

Art, drama, music and sport as activities to support the growth of strong communities

The scale and pace of housing building in and around Cambridge means the slow organic formation of communities of centuries gone by doesn’t happen – did it ever or is it a myth? One of the patterns of Cambridge’s urban design is that in the historical town centre, the very old churches and chapels are incredibly close together. How they were sustained for so long is beyond me – and it remains a struggle to this day. The further out of town you go and the gaps between the religious buildings starts to lengthen until you get to some of the newbuild housing estates where there are no religious buildings at all. Instead you have a bland identikit multipurpose hall that…could be anything. And all too often they are far too small for all but the smallest of public performances.

Are we building the learning, activity, and rehearsal space for new community groups to flourish in? Are developers building the outstanding and awe-inspiring public performance & exhibition spaces where people aspire to showcase their work in? If not, why not? Are we building just for a neighbourhood, an area of town, for the city, for a county, for a region? (Mindful that data for The Junction unexpectedly revealed a large number of the ticket-buying public were traveling across county boundaries to get to shows).

This is something I hope to come back to in a future blogpost because as it turns out it is an issue that covers so many different things, from urban design, to party politics, to national planning policy. And more.

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