5 national City of Learning proposals

Kensalfield’s place on the national stage

By Mike Barter, Director of Education and Learning, Kensalfield City Council

Follow Mike on Twitter @place4learning

As a city, our work locally will be significantly strengthened if we can build strong partnerships, relationships and networks with those working on shared agendas and with similar intentions, both in lifelong learning specifically, and in the wider educational sphere — regionally, nationally and internationally. We should ensure that we are strongly partnered with bodies such as the various professional institutes, the Campaign for Learning, the Learning and Work Institute, the National Open College Network, Union Learn (organised by the TUC), the National Literacy Trust, the National College for Teaching and Leadership, the Further Education Trust for Leadership, the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Adult Education, the RSA, and the Workers’ Educational Association.

Many of those active in promoting lifelong learning in Kensalfield, including many who helped to develop the ideas in this paper, have excellent access to a rich tapestry of national networks. We need to ensure that we benefit as a city from this access, and that these relationships inform what we do and how we do it. Hosting the kind of education conference or lifelong learning innovation convention suggested above is one way of pulling these networks together but Kensalfield ought also to embrace, and play an active role in, the various established national events designed to champion learning such as Learning at Work Week, the Family Learning Festival and the Festival of Learning (formerly Adult Learners’ Week), and we should volunteer to participate in pilot projects and take up seats on steering groups and advisory panels.
The five proposals set out below relate to action that we can take as both an alliance of partners drawn from all sectors and, specifically, as a city council, working alongside other local authorities, or regionally and nationally focused partners or campaigns such as those cited above. As one of the UK’s smaller cities, we are more (not less) typical of most UK cities and our messages have relevance for many of the country’s larger towns. For this reason, we should not be shy in stepping onto a national stage, so often dominated by a small number of huge conurbations.

1. Support calls for a National Strategy

An important report, commissioned by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Adult Education, Adult Education: Too important to be left to chance, written by Dr. Deidre Hughes and her colleagues at the University of Warwick and launched this summer, called for a cross-departmental “national and regional strategy for adult education, health, employability and wellbeing”, something that bodies like NIACE (one of the founding partners of the Learning and Work Institute) have long called for.

While we should continue to argue for a national strategy that is not simply about “adult education” but focused on lifelong learning for individuals at every stage in the life-course — one that embraces, re-purposes and reinvigorates schooling rather than one that follows it — I would suggest that we, and those we are working with, should be supportive of the concept of a national strategy in this area, and active in the campaign for one.

Devolution agreements will give individual cities and areas, including Kensalfield, greater freedoms, but this must not open up national disparities in practice that fuel inequalities in prioritisation and access. In the tradition of ‘system leadership’, a national strategy, one developed by a plurality of partners rather than imposed by government, can help spread good practice and promote equitable outcomes.

2. Argue for qualification reforms that are “lifelong learning friendly”

We, and our partners, need to campaign for qualification reforms that support our local aspirations, and which work for schools, students and adult learners, especially reluctant learners who are returning tentatively to studying. This means supporting reforms based on the kind of principles highlighted earlier in this document, for instance those that seek to:

  • Put creativity and the cultural sector at the heart of the educational landscape, such that the arts and humanities are seen as a vital aspect of a genuinely broad education.
  • Place outcomes such as the development of character and employability on a par with the gaining of grades, as advocated by Professor Bill Lucas, the Institute of Directors, the RSA and others.
  • Develop the confidence and participation skills of learners of all ages and all circumstances.
  • Place professional, technical and vocational education on a par with academic studies.
  • Widen participation by learners of all ages from disadvantaged and ‘non-traditional’ backgrounds in further education and training and in higher education.
  • Elevate the further education and skills sector and adult and community education to a position where they are considered the equal both of statutory schooling and higher education.

More broadly, I would argue that we — and our partners — need to draw government’s attention to a central tension that arises from the recent reforms to GCSEs and A levels in particular. Moves to raise standards, as measured by levels of attainment amongst school leavers, have led to a move away from continuous assessment and modular examinations, when it is precisely these kind of ‘learn as you go’ and ‘bite-size’ approaches that appeal to tentative and busy adult learners, who may need to feel that they can “dip their toe in the water” without being recorded as a “drop out” a term or two later.

In short, whatever the merits for school students or school standards, recent reforms have had the unintended consequence of making a return to study less attractive to many adult learners. Why? Because, for these time-poor, tentative adults, often with employment and family responsibilities, a two-year course with a ‘high stakes’ examination at the end of it is too risky and threatening a prospect, and — for many — one that didn’t reap benefits during their school years. We need to work with a plethora of partners, locally and nationally, to get this point across.

3. Champion the Citizens’ Curriculum

The Citizens’ Curriculum was originally developed by NIACE as part of a major investigation into lifelong learning led by Tom Schuller and David Watson the best part of a decade ago. They argued for a lifelong entitlement to educational access for those with a range of educational needs. These needs include literacy and numeracy, but go significantly beyond these conventional “basic skills” to address “skills for life and work” such as digital capability, health and wellbeing, and money management. A personalised programme of study, co-constructed with the learner, accompanies this focus, which might be termed ‘Basic Needs Plus’.

In the run up to the last election, NIACE reported that the model “has been successfully tested in 16 community pilots and found to make learning more relevant and engaging, tapping into what motivates people and their ambitions for the future”. We should encourage our partners to support their call for the Citizens’ Curriculum to be rolled out nationally, not least because this would enshrine an educational entitlement for some of our so-called ‘hardest-to-reach’ learners, and benefit residents in our poorest areas, such as Harlesford, Mann Green and Mills Brook. Significantly, it also, offers an approach that offers to do more than address short-falls in basic skills, one that promises to build participation, engagement and citizenship in the process.

4. Support calls for a Career Advancement Service

The proposal from the Learning and Work Institute for a Career Advancement Service targeted at those who are in receipt of benefits, whether they are in work or not, is one we should support as a city council for two reasons: first, because of the recent growth in the number of people in precarious employment situations (the ‘precariat’), for instance on low paid ‘zero-hours’ contracts or in temporary or part-time positions; second, because of the increasing complexity of the labour market and the end of the traditional career ladder, such that the notion that such work is essentially ‘transitional’ or a career starting point is no longer valid for many in these roles. Such a service offers to ‘trip the lock’ and enable these individuals the support and guidance to move beyond their current circumstances.

We need to work with local employers across all sectors on the detail of what such a service needs to look like locally so as to ensure that it meets their (and our) objectives, and we need to continually make the ethical and business case for a well-trained, professionally aspirational and securely employed workforce.

And, of course, given the perspective offered in this paper which places schools at the heart of the lifelong learning agenda, we need to ensure that there is universal access to excellent careers education and guidance and the opportunity for all to engage in high-quality professional and vocational education and work-related learning during the school years — programmes such as those organised by World Skills UK have much to offer in this respect. As a local authority, we are able to exercise some influence here, even if our ‘hold’ over schools is not what it was before the academies age.

5. Focus on types of learner, not types of learning, and incentivise participation

The evidence from research across the lifelong learning landscape is clear: to reiterate a point made earlier, those most likely to benefit from engagement in lifelong learning are often the least likely to do so. Especially, at a time when public finances are tight, we need to think about how we strike an intelligent balance between making learning attractive to all, while targeting provision at those who have hitherto proved reluctant learners.

One approach might be to turn current thinking on its head; rather than targeting our efforts at types of learning (“we need more individuals educated to Level 2, so let’s fund Level 2 provision but not extra-mural studies that individuals might take part in out of interest”), let’s target types of learner while being laissez-faire and permissive (and, in funding terms, supportive) about what they choose to learn. In other words, let’s focus on getting reluctant learners into the system on their terms, not ours, and then gradually ‘nudge’ them towards specific areas once their learner-confidence has developed. A one term short course, with no apparent or overt link to employment might be the ‘taster’ than can draw them back into education and on the track towards signing up for something more substantial, such as a one-year GCSE programme in a core subject. If successful, we should promote this approach nationally.

A second approach, proposed by the Institute of Directors in a recent, well-received report (IOD, 2016), is to look at how we can create financial incentives to engage in learning through the tax and benefits system. As part of this, we could do worse than take another look at ideas like Personal Career Accounts and Education Savings Accounts, which have been compared to the government’s recent ‘Help to Buy’ initiative in the housing market. The Learning and Work Institute talk about a model in which the individual, their employer and the government would contribute to a Personal Career Account that individuals can draw on at key junctures in their career. Internationally, there is precedent for this. In Singapore, the Workforce Development Agency incentivises adult learners seeking career advancement with a range of financial packages. We should look to support both the Institute of Directors and the Learning and Work Institute in pursuing these objectives, and we ought, as a city and as a local authority, to offer to work with them on their further development.

Finally, we should urge government to reconsider the suitability of a loans-based model for FE learner. Asking an 18-year-old to take out a loan to cover fees and the other costs of higher education at least has the merit of a working lifetime to pay it back and the very real prospect that they will enjoy the high lifetime earnings that make repayment likely. Engagement in a further education course as a middle-aged adult offers neither, but is every bit as vital to that individual’s personal and professional growth.


The above, in its totality, represents a significant body of work, but encouraging action on even a modest number of these 20 proposals can lay the foundations for establishing Kensalfield as a City of Learning. Doing so would enable us to redefine our broader civic and local identity as one that has learning at its heart, an identity that will help our people to be more innovative and creative as employees and entrepreneurs, and to engage more effectively as citizens, parents, consumers and neighbours.

Moreover, putting learning ‘front and centre’ in this way would mark us out as a city increasingly defined by our appetite for creativity and innovation in what will continue to be one of the most important areas of social policy: education and lifelong learning.

That would be a legacy that any mayor, but especially our first elected mayor, might be proud of.

Mike Barter
Director, Education and Learning
October 2016

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This article forms a part of the ‘A Place for Learning’ publication

Download a PDF version of the report from the RSA website