Low pay in employment

Better paid and educated workers are better for the economy and inequality comes with many costs.

Five million UK workers are employed in low-paid jobs and the largest group feeling poverty is made up of families with at least one adult in paid work. Official figures miss out the most exploited workers, who include immigrants, young people and women, working illegally in the ‘underground’ economy.

Most people trapped by in-work poverty have not gone on to better paid jobs in the last ten years but some have been successful and there are good examples of effective workplace learning. These include Unionlearn initiatives and projects such as the longstanding ‘Return to Learn’ programme run by the Workers’ Educational Association and Unison.

Technology and globalisation is altering the labour market so much that planning for current job roles is short-sighted. Microsoft’s founder, Bill Gates, has said that, “Technology over time will reduce demand for jobs, particularly at the lower end of skill set…. I don’t think people have that in their mental model.” Policy debate and planning must move beyond today’s skills for today’s jobs and prepare for a fall in available employment for the people who are furthest from well-paid work.

There are at least three main challenges. Support is needed to help low-paid workers to progress into better paid and more secure jobs. We need to recognise that the pool of adults without secure work is likely to grow, with an impact on the public purse as well as on individual lives. Extended working ages and later entitlement to state pensions reinforce the need for more adult learning. Policy decisions need to address the learning and skills needs of adults who are in the workforce now if we are to tackle these issues.

Future jobs are likely to need digital, technical, creative, research and development skills. Meeting these needs seems a tall order in the wake of recent reports on levels of adult literacy and numeracy as well as on poverty and social mobility. A lack of applicable skills, confidence and prospects will have a knock-on effect on our society, economy and future public spending unless we take action.

Policy makers need to identify the gaps between future skills demands and current levels – and then to work out how we can bridge them. We need to understand the barriers to adult learning and to apply our knowledge of strategies that work. Obstacles include unpredictable work patterns, caring responsibilities and lack of information and networking with people already in education. Financial constraints, including the costs of transport or online connectivity, also deter workers who are paid below a living wage.

Community learning has a particular role in engaging people who are otherwise unlikely to get involved in education and also in campaigning for better working conditions. It acts as a catalyst and a connector as well as having value in its own right. It builds on the understanding that adult learning journeys are complex and individual and that people’s needs, talents, interests, motivation, opportunities and access to learning vary.

Affordable, accessible and relevant community learning encourages adults to take their first steps back into education in their neighbourhood or workplace. It provides essential and flexible support with networks for progression. Community outreach work, learning champions and union learning representatives are all shown to be successful at engaging new learners.

The quality and qualities of teaching, learning and assessment for adults are critical to success. Effective community learning tailors courses to suit adults’ requirements and is run in partnerships so that progression to further learning can be organic. Community Learning Trusts have an important role in this, as should Local Enterprise Partnerships, although community learning’s role as a route to further education is not recognised sufficiently. We need to raise awareness.

Trust, partnership and networks linking policy makers, funders, employers, learning providers and the general public are essential to make sure that no low-paid or unemployed adult is isolated from accessible and attractive learning opportunities.

Joined up adult learning strategies are essential if adults are to know how to join up and can be inspired to continue their learning and development for more rewarding work.

This article was first published in a special free edition of NIACE’s Adults Learning – “Poverty, work and low pay – The role of skills”. A copy of the full publication can be found at http://shop.niace.org.uk/al-extra-poverty-work-pay.html


Why maths matters

This week has seen the launch of the National Numeracy Challenge, which aims to show millions of people that they can do something to improve their everyday maths skills and give them the help needed to get there.

According to research from Pro Bono Economics, low levels of adult numeracy skills are costing the British economy £20bn per year, or about 1.3 per cent of the UK’s GDP. Government figures show that over 8 million adults have the skills roughly equivalent to 7 to 9 year-olds or younger. Rather than improving, the situation may be getting worse – the OECD says that England is the only country in the developed world where adults aged 55 to 65 perform better than 16 to 24 year olds in numeracy.

National Numeracy and its partners, which include the WEA, Nationwide Building Society, TUC unionlearn and many others, are determined to help people improve their maths skills and address the UK’s numeracy deficit.

Being numerate goes beyond just ‘doing sums’ – it means having the confidence to use numbers and maths in everyday life. The WEA runs numeracy classes for thousands of people across England and Scotland and we know it can be a daunting prospect for our students. They say they want to help their children with homework, progress their careers, get a job or just understand their bills, but lack the confidence and skills to do it.

Making that leap into a class is a major achievement in itself. The WEA is fortunate as we can bring maths classes into communities rather than behind college walls and our student-centred teaching methods make it easier for students who lack confidence to get better at maths. But we know that there are still many people that are being held back by poor maths skills and we all need to do more to increase the numbers who are doing something about it.

This is why the National Numeracy Challenge is an important. By enabling people in the privacy of their own homes to honestly assess their level of maths, it is a first step in helping them recognise that there may be a problem with their numeracy skills. The Challenge assesses practical problems so it’s not off-putting for people beginning their journey to better skills. This makes it very accessible and we will be taking the Challenge to our students and members to encourage more people to try out their maths skills and supporting National Numeracy in its objective of lifting one million people out of the poor numeracy trap over the next five years.

Alongside the Challenge, a new All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Maths and Numeracy has also been launched. This will provide a forum for debate to ensure parliamentarians are well-informed and to share effective ways to resolve the numeracy deficit by learning lessons from our overseas competitors alongside the role of both employers and teachers in addressing the problem. Liz Truss MP, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Education and Childcare and Barry Sheerman MP spoke at the launch, with both emphasising the need for long term solutions to the lack of maths skills in the UK.

I was particularly struck by the importance of parents gaining confidence in maths so they can help their children. It reminded me of three students from Basildon who I interviewed last year, Tammy Spriggs, Lisa Harrington and Janine Ginno, who all took numeracy as well as other courses. They show what a difference improving their maths skills made to their own confidence and their children.

So please take the test here and try out your skills whatever you think your level is. You may be surprised by the results.


Christine Lagarde and the challenges of the 21st Century

For this year’s Dimbleby Lecture broadcast on the BBC, Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund, Christine Lagarde, used the relationship between 1914 and 2014 to draw parallels between the apocalyptic events which shaped the twentieth century and the recent global meltdown.

She described the events of 1914 as the harbinger of thirty years of economic and political upheaval and disaster. Technology, instead of offering solutions and uplifting the human spirit, was used to crush both freedom of thought and action. Men, women and children – indeed whole nations – were mobilized to destroy each other.

Lagarde went on to argue that the 1944 Bretton Woods agreement was an economic and political watershed. The 44 Allied nations were determined to build a lasting peace and to forge institutions which would be robust in both creating and defending a new world order in which cooperation would rule the day.

Because of this common vision, we have seen seven decades of relative peace and growing prosperity, economic and financial stability with diseases eradicated, child mortality decreased and hundreds of millions lifted out of poverty. The dismal predictions of Thomas Malthus that world population growth would reduce any net increase in economic welfare proved to be largely unsubstantiated.

Flash forward to 2014 and we are coming out of the deepest recession in modern memory. We are living through a time of change every bit as momentous as that of our forefathers. We are moving from the industrial age to the hyper-connected digital age. But will we pass the test in terms of securing the same degree of international collaboration? In response, Lagarde has called for a new multilateralism for the 21st century.

There are some grounds for optimism. The sheer interconnectedness of countries through global supply chains and financial links means that we all have a stake in maintaining stability. Three billion people are connected via the internet, three million e mails are sent per second and the mobile mindset is established everywhere. The highest rates of mobile penetration are in Africa and Asia. Therefore there is a much greater degree of awareness of other cultures, and a much more aware population with a sense of world developments beyond their village, community and country. This brings a whole new meaning to David Attenborough assertion that the fundamental difference between man and the rest of the animal kingdom is our ability to communicate.
Other grounds for optimism include the way in which large numbers of people are better educated, they travel widely and it is much less possible to control the media.

However, Lagarde also draws our minds towards some of the dangers. Interconnectedness can and does spread contagion, whether from the toxic impact of sub prime debt in America or the impact of over borrowing across the economies of Europe.

Building on her arguments we have three main challenges – demographic shifts, environmental degradation and income inequality. In order to tackle all three we need more investment in education – not just for the young but for the whole population.

Young populations in Africa and South Asia will grow rapidly, but China, Europe and Japan will be aging and this is a shift we need to respond to through investment in lifelong learning.

As for environmental degradation there is real evidence that where countries are investing in environmentally friendly technology they are able to reduce their carbon footprint and generate economic growth and jobs. Phasing out our energy subsidies is part of the answer but so is mass education about how individuals can make an impact alongside the development of intermediate technologies which require less capital and more labour.

The third issue – that of income inequality – poses the biggest current threat of all.

According to Oxfam, the top 85 richest people in the world own the same amount of wealth as the bottom half of the population. In the words of Lagarde ‘we need inclusive growth’. Sustainable growth depends upon us making the best use of the available talent pool and this includes women.

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimates that around the world 865m women are being held back. The boost to per capita incomes would be substantial if more of these women were being properly educated and allowed to take a full part in the economy and society.

In 1914 we had the suffragette movement which led to the right for women to vote. In 2014 there was worldwide outrage there was when Malala Yousafzai was shot in Pakistan because she wanted to go to school. The world has made progress in developing women’s rights, by there is still more to do. There is no room for complacency.


NIACE & Ofsted showcasing Family Learning

The WEA welcomes the NIACE & Ofsted Joint Project: Illuminating Excellent Practice in Family Learning which complements the Association’s own campaign to promote the value of education for parents.

The WEA was founded in an era when compulsory education had only recently been raised to the age of 11 by adults who understood that their access to education was critical to a more equal society – an educated democracy. The WEA quickly grew in working class communities as adults demanded the chance to study and debate issues concerning them. Today the WEA is still committed to the idea that education belongs to the individual (not the state) and that fostering it through families, communities and workplaces is vital to a successful society.

Delivering on that commitment today means providing educational opportunities in disadvantaged communities that resonate with adults living there. One of these is the aspiration of parents and carers for their children to succeed in education. They know that, even today, good education is a route out of poverty and builds the confidence for a successful and fulfilled life. They value local schools and children’s centres as vital community resources.

In most cases, these adults begin their classes with little idea of what it might lead to for themselves. However, their own return to education can quickly restore their own confidence and aspirations. Many resume their own education and make progress, setting an example to their children at the same time. The WEA has seen countless parents move on to volunteering and work – often in support of local schools and children’s centres. This process has been happening for more than two decades in some of the most disadvantaged communities in England.

Genuine partnership working is the key to this approach. In many neighbourhoods across the country, the WEA has longstanding relationships with schools and local services that are meeting the needs of families. By making a commitment to this work nationally and combining it with great local practice, the WEA continues its social purpose mission today.

However, the need to promote educational success for disadvantaged families is as critical as ever. The WEA supports the recommendations of the NIACE Commission of Inquiry into Family Learning and calls upon schools and government departments to promote the use of resources such as the pupil premium to increase the involvement of parents in learning in schools. It also supports moves by Ofsted to include the assessment of family learning and parent involvement in its inspections of schools and pre-school provision.


Devolution, political engagement and the role of adult education

With the forthcoming Scottish referendum, the UK potentially faces unprecedented changes to its democracy structures.

Despite this, citizens are becoming increasingly politically apathetic. They often feel the political class does not represent their views and concerns.

With the economy still reeling from the shock of recession, we are facing both a fiscal and democratic deficit. Politics is becoming a minority interest, with the young in particular disinterested in the political and policy making process.

Many fear the power and influence of the political classes, but also expect that they will fix things for us. The gap between the citizen and those that represent us is increasing and there is not enough direct engagement at a local or national level to bring them together.

This forms the backdrop to the Scottish referendum this September and the UK General Election in May 2015.

The stakes are very high. If Scotland votes yes, the Labour party stands to lose a lot of safe seats and the political balance of the rest of the UK will shift. If the Scottish vote no, there will still be a substantial minority in Scotland who want further powers to be devolved and some in England who will resent the degree of independence Scotland has compared to the rest of the UK.

Through our work in adult education in both England and Scotland, the WEA is to encouraging political education and debate. The work we do on political literacy is vitally important. Not only is it needed to encourage participation – it also enables us to widen the debate to include socially isolated communities and all sections of the population.

Recent OECD research shows we suffer from major skill gaps and many young people and adults lack basic skills in literacy and numeracy. As the OECD Secretary General, Angel Gurria, said “the impact of skills goes far beyond earnings and employment. In all countries, individuals with lower proficiency in literacy are more likely…to believe that they have little impact on political processes.” According to NIACE one in five adults participate in education compared to three in five in comparable countries in Euro Zone and Scandinavia.

This is an issue we need to address urgently.

Part of the WEA response to the democratic deficit is to build our national campaigning voice on behalf of our students and our movement. One of our campaigns is centred on encouraging local and national participation in politics and over the coming months we will be helping our members and students to understand the issues that concern people locally. We will be encouraging them to arrange events with prospective candidates for the local and European elections as well as facilitating discussions about the impact of the Scottish referendum.

We will also be publishing our own Manifesto in May 2014 and sharing our recommendations with the main parties in England.

Alongside this, we will continue to engage with colleagues and partners to further develop and embed our teaching and learning across the four nations of the UK.

Whichever government is in power we need to reinforce principles of democratic engagement and accountability. Education has a major role to play.

Ruth Profile

John McGarrigle – A Tribute

On 30th November 2013, we woke to the terrible news of the police helicopter accident in Glasgow. Amongst the nine people who lost their lives, was John McGarrigle who was an active member of the WEA. John’s funeral takes place in Glasgow today.

The following tribute was written by WEA Scotland Ambassador and former Scottish Secretary Joyce Connon.

Poet John McGarrigle was sitting in his usual seat in the Clutha on that Friday evening, when the unthinkable happened, a helicopter crashed through the roof, with tragic consequences for so many people. John was a regular in the Clutha, which was a Glasgow city centre venue for folk music fans and writers. Only a few weeks before, it had been the location for a farewell gathering in honour of writer Janet Shepherd who, like John, was introduced to writing through a local WEA Writers’ Workshop.

John was a stalwart of the WEA Castlemilk Project, which, between 1984 and 1994, offered a rich range of adult education experiences drawing on culture, heritage and creativity in support an urban regeneration initiative in Castlemilk, one of Europe’s biggest social housing estates. The Project left a lasting legacy in publications like the Big Flit the stories of people moving from the inner-city to the modern housing estate and trying to build a new community and the Incomplete History of Castlemilk.

John’s first encountered the Writers’ Workshop in Castlemilk when he offered to be the eyes of a friend, a member of the writers’ group, who was blind and felt uncomfortable presenting his work because he could not see the members’ reaction to his writing. John’s friend left the group after few weeks but John stayed on. He talked about the stick he got from his mates. “Working-class men don’t go to writing classes.” Despite the ribbing his commitment to the group grew. Over the years, the group published several volumes of their work, they organised readings and events and enjoyed support from established Glasgow writer, Liz Lockhead later to be Scotland’s Makar.

At the time the WEA was supporting a growing movement of working people finding their voice, recording their experiences and expressing their creativity through writing. John participated in a Federation of Scottish Writers’ Workshops ‘Come All Ye’, a weekend event at Newbattle Abbey College, Scotland’s only residential Adult Education College. Here he met with and shared his work with writers from around Scotland.

He attended the WEA Edinburgh Festival Fringe Summer School, staying at Edinburgh University’s Pollock Halls, seeing a wide range of official festival and fringe events and meeting writers, directors, performers. His enthusiasm for the experiences the school offered was infectious. The morning after seeing a dance presentation of the Temptations of Dr Faustus, John delighted in telling everyone that he had breakfast with Lust, as the members of the Dance Theatre Company were also staying at Pollock Halls.

Through his engagement with the Castlemilk Project, John was elected to the WEA West of Scotland District Committee during the difficult time when the merger of the three Scottish Districts was under negotiation. Following the merger, he became the first Chairman of the new WEA Glasgow Local Association, playing an important role in ensuring the work of the Association in the city continued under the new structure.

By the time the Castlemilk Project came to an end, John and two other members of the Writers’ Workshop had gained places at Glasgow University, where John graduated with an Arts Degree.

Although he moved around a bit, John was a Glasgow poet who wrote about the city as he saw it. His work was published in various compilations about the city such as Workers’ City: the Real Glasgow Stands Up. His own volumes included Glasgow’s McGarrigle. He loved to write and to present his work live to an audience. John will be greatly missed but his work will not be forgotten.

Reviving our economy: A national strategy for lifelong learning

As we painfully emerge from the depth of this recession, there are a number of important policy lessons to learn.

First of all, it was not benefit scroungers who got us into this mess. It was over borrowing, fuelled by greedy lenders, including the major banks, who seduced many of us into believing we could afford to live on credit. Public policy was also partly to blame – deregulation in financial markets, and across a range of previously controlled public utilities and other providers of public and private services. The contracted-out culture was central to the growth of the 90s – government spending being a major factor in fuelling the empire of growth.

As the reality of public spending cuts now impacts both jobs and services, it is all too obvious that both banks and individuals are cutting back, producing the deflationary cycle which has been the predominant feature of the last few years.

In these circumstances, government must act for the long-term enabling localities to survive and develop through economic regeneration, providing to jobs and growth. This is the only effective long-term way to develop a sustainable future – not fuelled by debt but by goods and services manufactured and delivered in the UK.

The recent government emphasis in localism is a welcome development as long as it is accompanied by a national strategy for economic development and social renewal. This strategy includes banks lending to businesses and building entrepreneurial activity, a flowing FE and HE sector offering a wide range of business reward skills and a housing infrastructure which is much better able to deal with demand. Local organisations can then engage, inspire and challenge citizens to get involved in their community. Employers can provide opportunities which reflect local needs and circumstances. They can take advantage of low interest rates and incentives to invest. But they need literacy, numeracy, and employability skills. This is borne out by all the recent research.

We need a clear commitment to lifelong learning which demands action from individuals, employers, government (both national and local) and the adult community learning sector. The individuals need to be proactive about learning as well as earning. The need for higher level skills means that many have to enhance their skills levels at work. For those in full time employment, the gap needs to be addressed at a local college, or in an adult learning environment. For government the challenge is to incentivise the right behaviour – publicise vocational qualifications. A-Levels and degrees are not the only answers to some of our major skills deficit issues. As well as apprenticeships and traineeships, we need a platform for learning for all adults as they transition into work, and a managed process for developing earning-learning opportunities for those in work. This is the route out of benefit dependency, and also the problem we now have of in-work poverty, i.e. individuals trapped by low incomes with few prospects of advancement at work without the necessary skills and training.

BIS and DWP need to work collaboratively to ensure that we are not lifting individuals off the dole queue to place them in low paid, unsustainable jobs where there is no scope for skills enhancement or development. There are also practical challenges: arbitrary rules have arbitrary and sometimes unintended consequences.

We can’t reverse the damage of the past three years, but we can create a better future. Investment in education and skills rather than social security is the answer.