Why building the capacity for lifelong learning can’t wait until school’s over!

Thursday 4th March 2021

WEA

Has the pandemic offered us the opportunity to build a new and stronger strategic partnership between the compulsory and post-compulsory phases?

It is proving a long road from lockdown, one full of twists, bumps and turns: the original shut down, the gradual softening of this, the autumnal shift from “Eat Out To Help Out” to “Drink Up and Get Out”, the delayed circuit breakers that came only after the nation had filled their fridges for Christmas, to the current lockdown, and, now, the prospect of its easing with the vaccine roll-out and the publication of the government’s roadmap. Still, it’s hard to not be cautious with our hope.

And, throughout this journey, schools and education have been hot topics, trending on social media and making the news daily.

During this time, we’ve seen schooling and education conflated in a way that irritates those working in post compulsory settings. In short, too little attention has been given to those involved in further and higher education (other than the quarantining in university halls of ‘freshers’ in mid-autumn). FE and Adult Education have hardly had a mention, leaving a host of educators and what they provide ignored or forgotten, and implying that lifelong learning is somehow separate to that learning undertaken during the school years.

My question is, can we use the pandemic to grow a stronger partnership between the compulsory stages of education and the post-compulsory phases? Can we bridge this divide? Can we build models of lifelong learning that are, well, lifelong, embracing schooling along the journey rather than following it?

People, Place and Purpose

My exploration of how the schooling system has coped during the crisis has led me to embark on the writing of what is now two books, Lessons From Lockdown: the educational legacy of COVID-19 (2021), published by Routledge last month, and Bubble Schools: the long road from lockdown (forthcoming). A final book, in what is set to become a lockdown trilogy, provisionally entitled Post-pandemic Learning: the case for re-schooling society, is intended to set out a broader all age, all phase analysis, will follow in due course.

The first book, Lessons from Lockdown, tracks the early experiences of lockdown through to the end of August 2020, and identifies three key lockdown-inspired (or, at least lockdown-enforced) changes that I want to explore further here:

The engagement of parents and other family members in supporting the learning of children and young people during lockdown
The sites in which learning takes place
The broader discussions about the purpose of learning and the future needs of learners.
Simplified, these might be referred to as ‘People’, ‘Place’ and ‘Purpose’.

The shifts in these areas have profound implications and could lead to new opportunities for compulsory and post-compulsory education professionals to work together.

Let’s begin with ’People’; after all, what’s the purpose of an education system, if it’s not to benefit the learners at the heart of it?

People

In my research for both Lessons From Lockdown and Bubble Schools, which picks up the story of lockdown from September 2020 and tracks this through to the end of this academic year, one of the key themes and reasons for optimism is the evidence of a new relationship between teachers and parents.

In our focus groups and one-to-one interviews with teachers, school leaders and other education professionals, they all spoke of a new warmth in their relationship with parents.

It was clear there was a deeper understanding of the diversity of circumstances in which children and young people lived, and the recognition of a further opportunity to work more closely together.

Parents, for their part – many speaking as reluctant, conscripted home tutors – often talked of their admiration for teachers, as they grappled with some of the challenges that are the ordinary stuff of the classroom.

Parents also spoke of their challenges with subject knowledge, especially in their efforts to support older children in either the foothills or closing stages of GCSE or A level.

For some, this was a struggle, for others a chance to engage with learning, perhaps for the first time since their own school days.

This reveals a number of opportunities for all involved in post-16 learning. For starters,
can post-16 providers use the knowledge gaps revealed in home schooling, and the renewed exposure to learning, to motivate those that might not have considered adult education to do so – and in effect encourage a stronger culture of lifelong learning that more buy into?

Place

Another oversimplification has been talk of school ‘closures’. School buildings might be closed, but teaching and learning has continued online. In Bubble Schools I refer to schools as being recast as virtual multi-site communities.

Anybody who has worked or studied in a multi-site school or college will be familiar with the challenges that comes with this – not least the spread and separation of staff.

However, some parts of the education sector are used to this and some of the richest experience of this kind of distributed, multi-site, blended provision rests in areas like adult and community learning, and in organisations like the Open University.

A strong message from the research carried out for Lessons From Lockdown is that many schools are determined to retain and build on some of the key strategies and methodologies developed, and sometimes forced upon them, during the disruption wrought by the virus.

Again, this opens up various questions, particularly as to whether there can be more collaboration across the education phases – especially where community and further education providers are further along the line in providing blended provision. Might they be well placed to support and combine their resources with those in the school and pre-school phases to create an education system that truly supports lifelong learning?

Purpose

This leads nicely to my third and final point: the purpose of education. COVID-19 has caused us to reflect on the purpose of schooling and, specifically, of schools.

My research for both Lessons From Lockdown and Bubble Schools suggests a new recognition of the multiple purposes of schooling – teaching and educating, yes, but far more than this: school’s a vital space for children and young people to develop their social skills and self-confidence, it supports the day-to-day employment of parents, and acts as a community hub for parents, thereby enabling the development of the kind of personal resilience and support networks that are vital for parental, family and community wellbeing.

But lockdown poses much broader questions about the purpose of education itself, questions that in some sense those involved in the development and delivery of non-vocational and non-accredited courses, have spent a professional lifetime addressing.

One such question concerns the lack of genuine breadth in the school curriculum, which many believe is increasingly focused only on academic subjects, over assessed and based, typically, on a single mode of examination, the GCSE.

This, in turn, produces a curriculum that is insufficiently focused on, or supportive of, the vocational (or professional) domain; the work-related curriculum remains one onto which far too many young people fall, rather than one they positively opt into with the right knowledge and support.

Further, the school curriculum, and the National Curriculum, around which it is constructed, is insufficiently concerned with the personal and social development of young people, as individuals, as social beings and as citizens, at least in the stated curriculum, where PSHE and Citizenship Education usually have no more than a marginal place, at best.

Some of these issues talk directly to the expertise of those in post-compulsory settings; moreover, they demand that the long overdue discussion about educational purpose is an all-sector one, not one reserved for those in schools, or those in any other setting.

Skills for Jobs: a chink of light or a lack of ambition?

Given the recent publication of a new Skills for Jobs White Paper focused on post compulsory provision that the government claims will “revolutionise post-16 education, reshape the training landscape and help the nation build back better” (DFE, 2021), the hope ought to be that these and other reforms will be even more ambitious.

Skills for jobs? Yes. But, with employment likely to be less stable, work playing a lesser role in the lives of many (if not all) and careers increasingly fluid and multiple, education – compulsory and post-compulsory – needs to be for much, much more than just the workplace.

Children entering Reception Class this autumn will need to be prepared for a world that is ever-changing; they will need a new agility and adaptability, they will find their careers in industries that don’t yet exist, and they will need to engage in learning as a lifelong, life-wide project.

This promises a transformation in the purpose and form of statutory schooling; those in the post-compulsory phase may be best placed to offer the guidance and support that their school-based colleagues will surely both need and welcome.

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Lessons From Lockdown
For too long, changes to the education system have been driven by political considerations, short -term difficulties and even, at times, nostalgia. Lessons From Lockdown sets out why this piecemeal approach to reform needs stop and provides an invaluable contribution to the debate that now must take place.
Rosemary Bennet
Former Education Editor, The Times