Educational Thinkers’ Hall of Fame – Prof. Sir David Watson

This is a re-post from Ann Walker WEA Director for Education

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How sad it is to read of David Watson’s death after a short illness. He was an eminent English academic and educationalist whose career included roles as a Professor at the University of Oxford and Vice Chancellor of the University of Brighton.  There will be warm tributes from the institutions where he worked but his influence also had a wider impact across adult education and community learning.

Written with Tom Schuller, his 2009 report on Learning though Life remains very relevant and merits further reading. It was the outcome of an extensive and inclusive NIACE-led Inquiry into the Future of Lifelong Learning. The WEA held several public meetings as part of the Inquiry, debating the issues and the outcomes. It is worth assessing what has happened to adult education policy since the report was published.

Learning through Life

The report’s introduction sets the tone:

“We begin from the premise that the right to learn throughout life is a human right. Our vision is of a society in which learning plays its full role in personal growth and emancipation, prosperity, solidarity and local and global responsibility.”

It is worth a reminder of the Inquiry’s summary conclusions:

Learning Through Life: our proposals

The UK’s current system of lifelong learning has failed to respond to the major demographic challenge of an ageing society, and to variety in employment patterns as young people take longer to settle into jobs and older people take longer to leave work. We make ten recommendations for a lifelong learning strategy which will mark out the UK as a true pioneer in this field.

1. Base lifelong learning policy on a new model of the educational life course, with four key stages (up to 25, 25–50, 50–75, 75+)

Our approach to lifelong learning should deal far more positively with two major trends: an ageing society and changing patterns of paid and unpaid activity.

2. Rebalance resources fairly and sensibly across the different life stages

Public and private resources invested in lifelong learning amount to over £50 billion; their distribution should reflect a coherent view of our changing economic and social context.

3. Build a set of learning entitlements

A clear framework of entitlements to learning will be a key factor in strengthening choice and motivation to learn.

4. Engineer flexibility: a system of credit and encouraging part-timers

Much faster progress is needed to implement a credit-based system, making learning more flexible and accessible with funding matched to it.

5. Improve the quality of work

The debate on skills has been too dominated by an emphasis on increasing the volume of skills. There should be a stronger focus on how skills are actually used.

6. Construct a curriculum framework for citizens’ capabilities

A common framework should be created of learning opportunities which should be available in any given area, giving people control over their own lives.

7. Broaden and strengthen the capacity of the lifelong learning workforce

Stronger support should be available for all those involved in delivering education and training, in various capacities.

8. Revive local responsibility…

The current system in England has become over-centralised, and insufficiently linked to local and regional needs. We should restore life and power to local levels.

9. …within national frameworks

There should be effective machinery for creating a coherent lifelong learning strategy across the UK, and within the UK’s four nations.

10.Make the system intelligent

The system will only flourish with information and evaluation which are consistent, broad and rigorous, and open debate about the implications.

Thank you David Watson.

National Voter Registration Day

Today is National Voter Registration Day and it is more important than ever to make sure everyone who has a chance to vote is signed up. The recent move to individual electoral registration has meant that although 90% of people were automatically switched to the new system, millions could potentially miss out on their vote, particularly students, those living in private rented accommodation or have moved recently.

For over 100 years, the WEA has encouraged generations of students and volunteers to become active citizens in their communities. This is part of our mission for ‘a better world – equal, democratic and just’. If you know of any member of your family or friends who might need to register, make sure you remind them today.

If you would like to register, you can visit the online government portal at here – it only takes five minutes but you will need a national insurance number. If you are unsure about whether you are entitled to vote, please download the Electoral Commission guidance here.

National Voter Registration Day is an important part of our efforts to increase political literacy throughout the UK.

Through the WEA’s community engagement education, we seek to combat social exclusion and promote active citizenship.

Working with socially and economically disadvantaged adults along with members of marginalised communities, the WEA runs courses to help students appreciate political and social issues. Our active citizenship programmes encourage greater participation in democratic decision-making while our community volunteering courses empower students to take a stronger role in civil society.

As a non-party political charity, we do not promote a particular party political view – our role is to help people understand the issues for themselves so they can make their own informed choices. To find out more about our work in promoting active citizenship to help reduce inequality and promote social mobility, social justice and inclusion, please visit our Why Vote? – Deciding Locally pages.

Our democracy is precious and each vote can make a difference. Please make sure you, your family and your friends can make your voice heard at the next election.

Adult literacy, numeracy and health care

Below is an opinion piece by WEA Director for Education Ann Walker from her blog at

Around 5 million adults in the UK lack functional literacy. According to the charity National Numeracy, almost 17 million people in the UK don’t have the numeracy skills necessary to reach the lowest grade at GCSE. Poor reading, writing and number skills are often discussed in the context of employability but recent research in the USA by Sharon K Long, Adele Shartzer and Mary Politi shows the impact of low levels of self-reported literacy and numeracy on obtaining and using private health insurance coverage. Their work, reported here, highlights how important these skills are in navigating health services and official systems, especially in a world that is increasingly reliant on independent online access by service users.

It also shows some of the risks that might arise from increasing privatisation of health services in the UK.

Health lit & num

The researchers found that navigating changes in the health care system is challenging for many people, especially for adults with limited literacy and numeracy. This should not come as a surprise, but there is a lot of action needed to bridge communication gaps between the public and health care providers.

Poverty is a strong contributor to health inequality but levels of  income and functional skills are linked.

The use of words and numbers can create barriers. Medical jargon can be unfamiliar and intimidating. Phlebotomy, oncology, obstetrics and other hospital department names are not obvious to the uninitiated. Leaflets in medication packs can be written in difficult language and many aspects of health and wellbeing, including dosage instructions for tablets, depend on literacy and numeracy.

Adding the US scenario of decision-making about health insurance is a further level of complexity, especially for people trying to balance difficult financial choices, but it is a level of expertise needed increasingly in many other everyday situations.

There is a strong need to invest in adult education that doesn’t stigmatise people who need to improve their functional skills and service providers also have a responsibility to make information as accessible and understandable as possible.

Joint working between health care providers, public service providers and adult educators might be part of a solution?

A Debate on Inequality

Below is an opinion piece by WEA volunteer Paul Tarpey, who discusses inequality in the run up to our event in Toxteth.

“Men are born equal but some are more equal than others.”

This quote from Orwell’s Animal Farm was more recognisable while I was growing up than the declaration of human rights it satirises. It does at least indicate how much debate was taking place about inequality in society. In recent years you are more likely to be berated for your naivety for even challenging this inequality.

Of course you would struggle to find anyone claiming that they craved a society with a widening gap between rich and poor. ‘It’s just Inevitable’ is the mantra of those who fuel it. I have never understood how this argument is given credence. Do we stop medical research because some level of illness will always exist?

Of course, there are people who don’t see it as inevitable at all but as desirable. And they seem to be pushing their agenda through with fewer and fewer of us questioning their motives.

The raw statistics about the rise in the gap between the richest 1% and the poorest in society are sickening. It has spiralled dramatically in the last 15 years and now seems to be held in place by a deliberate policy of penalising the increasing number of people below the poverty line.

There has always been a theory that market forces would maintain inequality but that living standards for all of us would rise to a level we could never otherwise achieve. However, there are many indications that it is not even an increase in wealth that creates a happy society. Economies with ‘relative equality’ have been shown in many surveys to display a much greater contentment with life than those with higher GDPs. This could indicate that we are happier even when poorer as long as we have fewer people to be envious of. Or maybe the much loved trickle down economy is a complete myth. Maybe financial security, job satisfaction, proper health care and mental well-being can only be provided by a society that places equality as its main objective.

Another argument you would constantly hear from those who championed inequality was that anyone could aspire to wealth and therefore it drove ambition and innovation. This notion surely has least credibility of all. The area you reside in it seems not only to reflect your current status but statistics show that it massively affects your chances of ever escaping a cycle of poverty and the health issues that follow. This is handed down from generation to generation with opportunities in life as related to the postcode you place on a form as it is on your skills and willingness to work. Maybe this can’t be challenged by the kind of equality that our liberal democracy claims it is achieving.

The idea that we are all moving forward despite the gap in equality has some superficial credibility. Technology has provided many people with access to a world that we would have associated with unimagined wealth when we were young. But this world exists alongside foodbanks. It exists alongside a level of poverty that few of us envisaged when the need to curb Trade Union powers was the major national topic.

Maybe technology has provided us with the ultimate ‘opium of the people’? Or is it just an indication of a generation unwilling to discuss how politics can shape their lives? Most online debates give the impression that not only are massive issues being trivialised but our methods of having impersonal, constructive discussions are disappearing. It certainly feels like there is a massive need for forums that are real, pro-active and based on genuine needs. Where will these platforms emerge though in a society that is losing many of its natural social and workplace talking shops?

So is it naïve to believe that the levels of inequality we are witnessing in the UK can be turned around? Whatever else you believe it is surely unhealthy for us all if the debate stops happening.

With this objective in mind WEA and Talkshop at Toxteth TV are holding  an event on 14th October  to discuss inequality in the UK and how to lobby for change with the 2015 election looming. It will be held at the John Archer Hall, 37-45 Windsor Street, Toxteth, L8 1XE from 6pm. Everyone is welcome, visit here to book.