Tag Archives: learning and work institute

NIACE: the end of an era?

Today NIACE (the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education) holds its AGM, at which it is likely to approve its formal merger with the Centre for Economic and Social Inclusion (CESI) and a new title to”The National Learning and Work Institute”.
I have been involved with NIACE for 35 years, 19 of them on the staff, and at different times have led its research programme, work on work related learning, higher education, older learners.
I am going to the AGM today, if only to make a last plea for the things which are not in the current strategic plan. This is not intended to be a grumpy contribution from the old days – of course the old aspirations were often poorly reflected in reality, but I fear we may be abandoning even the aspiration, in pursuit of a narrower and more instrumental agenda.
The title may be a small issue, but it is hugely symbolic for NIACE’s supporters, and for the wider world. Most people will assume that “Learning and Work” means learning related to paid employment, and look no further. They might be right. I find it ironic that after years of championing work related adult learning, when the organisation was looking in other directions, I am now on the other side
I have four major concerns:
1. The “Life and Society” theme of the new Strategic Plan is the non work-related area, but it is very narrowly defined – it is only about families and a set of basic/minimum skills for citizenship (both entirely worthy causes). We seem to have lost a vast territory (culture, meaning and identity, political and citizenship, health and fitness, fun). Where do people fit who are not in families ( a lot of older people), and what are we doing about active citizenship and political engagement for those who have the basic skills of the “citizen’s curriculum”? Have we abandoned what the WEA and many Extramural Departments used to stand for? Of the Delors four pillars, what happened to “learning to live together”, and “learning to be”? What happened to earning to empower people to change the world, not just their earnings?
2. The increasing focus on the youngest adults mirrors the BIS agenda but ignores the most rapidly growing group of the population – the 48% who are over 50, whose opportunities have been dramatically reduced in recent years (as Schuller & Watson pointed out – 3% of the spend on 33% of the population). In this context I find the proposal to turn “Mid-life Career Review” into “Career Review” – which is what the National Careers Service already is – deeply depressing. We are losing the lifecourse perspective altogether;
3. How is NIACE engaging with the growing raft of informal education (how does NIACE relate to U3A and its 300,000 learners? Or to Men’s Sheds? What do we know about the implications of the growth of online learning – especially among older people?)
4. The Inquiry into the Future for Lifelong Learning in 2009 set out to map a long term strategic future for lifelong learning. If I look at the IFLL recommendations, NIACE has done important things about several of them, but I think that today’s vote is likely to sign the death knell for the first three – the four life stage model, balancing resources across the lifecourse, and building a set of entitlements. For me that is abandoning some of the essence of what NIACE has been about for the 35 years I have been involved with it
It may well be that a lot of work is going on that I don’t know about in these areas, in which case it would have been good to publicise it more.
It may be that a decision has been made that work in these areas is not fundable, or not a priority. I have not seen a business plan which argues this, but it may well exist, in which case perhaps we should try to find other homes for our concerns.
It may be a reflection of the culture of BIS, which has been assiduously opposed to many of these things at least since the days when I worked inside it (despite the heroic efforts of a small group of civil servants, and occasional Ministers). But we always prided ourselves in not being enslaved to the policy agenda of Government. Also, the BIS agenda is not always shared by our Parliamentary friends, who have always been useful allies.
To conclude – I fear that the merger (which supports some important causes which we all share), and the change of title, represent a major shift of emphasis. I would like to be reassured today!