Further Education Matters

At the end of last month, the Government outlined their plans for adult further education.

Excluding funding for apprenticeships, the budget for 2015/16 will be cut by 24 per cent. That’s 24 per cent of the funding for adults who want to gain a better education later in life. Further education was deeply scarred as it was, with a third of its budget already severed since the 2010 election.

The teaching of basic skills such as numeracy and literacy is a key aspect of further adult education, and it’s not as if the UK ranks highly on this front and we don’t need to worry. According to the OECD, it’s quite the opposite and the government is fully aware of the problem.

Its own 2014/15 report on Adult Literacy and Numeracy stresses the importance of these skills both to the economy and to the learners themselves, who are healthier, happier and better off as a result of their improved abilities.

At a personal level literacy lies in the development of self-identity; in our social, cultural and emotional life. In my recent study Learning trajectories, Violence and Empowerment amongst Adult Basic Skills Learners (2013), I explored the learning journeys of adult basic skills learners.  For the male and female learners, returning to education was a means for them to develop their literacy skills and more.

Literacy was very much linked with their subjectivity and how they viewed their self-worth in the public space (for example, work) and private spaces (for example, the home). They wanted to develop their confidence, improve their social and economic positioning and improve their life chances and those of their children. The study confirmed the incredible power of Adult Education to enrich learners’ lives, and importantly offer them choices they never thought possible.

When one of the research participants, Joanne, a single mum with three children, arrived at college, she struggled to read and write. Initially, she sat at the back of the class, lacking confidence and avoiding eye contact. However, after Joanne joined the research group, we began to spend more time together. This allowed us the opportunity to speak in detail about the barriers she had faced and her hopes and aspirations for the future. She described how she had come to college to learn to fill out forms and to become more confident in spelling. However, as Joanne’s confidence increased in both herself and her writing skills, there was a simultaneous shift in aspirations. This was the first time she had planned for the future.

She began to make choices that she previously thought were not for people from her background.

She began to speak about a career rather than a job. After completing a Level 2 course in literacy and numeracy, Joanne progressed onto an access to nursing course, then to university to pass her diploma.

She is now a qualified staff nurse working in the north of England.

Any discussion of basic skills, and its impact in challenging the barriers and inequalities faced by many learners, cannot overlook the vital issue (and what can be a real barrier) of funding.

Basic skills provision needs to continue to be fully funded for all adults, including providing choices of flexible and accessible formal courses together with supporting those with skills at lower levels to engage in informal learning.

Basic skills courses for young and older adults can offer them a crucial second chance of re-engaging with education.