Bureaucratic threat to adult learning - join the campaign
09 May 2008 The Guardian
Form-filling could kill off adult learning
Tuesday April 15, 2008
Take the Workers' Education Association, for example. It has been providing education for adults, many of whom missed out first time round, for over 100 years. Its large network of local branches provides classes for all types of learners, a quarter of whom either have no qualifications above level 2 or live in disadvantaged postcodes. Many are well past working age, but that doesn't mean they don't benefit in all sorts of ways from attending classes, be they on eastern philosophy, digital photography or Victorian history. Indeed, for most students WEA courses are not about getting qualifications. This worries a government that likes to measure everything to satisfy Treasury targets. So, as a substitute for the hard currency of qualifications, the tutors of these courses are being inundated with bureaucratic form-filling.
In a typical WEA adult education class, tutors must submit a course outline and set out the learning outcomes (LOs). Students must be assessed against each LO at the start and end of each course. Tutors must distribute learning records (LRs) to students at the first class. These must be collected and the courses modified in the light of student responses. At the end of courses, these LRs must be issued again alongside an evaluation form. The tutor must then collect these, read them, and fill out a tutor report. This involves providing extraordinary detail on topics too numerous to mention here, including "how well did you meet the learners' needs and interests" and "how well did you guide and support learners to progress".
These tutors earn around £22 an hour for teaching. They do not get paid for class preparation, travel time, or for the huge amounts of time it takes to fill in these forms. WEA tutors are not in it for the money. They love their subject and enjoy sharing it with interested adults. They do not give up their evenings to teach in order to then spend other evenings filling in forms. Some are saying they have had enough.
As one student wrote on a recent evaluation form: "I notice that the lecturers invariably complain about the increased paperwork they are burdened with. Is the WEA shooting itself in the foot?"
One sympathises with the WEA management: they are between a rock and a hard place. Ofsted and the LSC expect to be fed with data. The WEA needs their funding, but also needs to keep its students and tutors happy. It seems as if the government is losing sight of what informal adult learning is all about. It has just published a consultation document, Informal Adult Learning: The Way Ahead. In a foreword, the secretary of state, John Denham, writes that "all forms of good adult learning are valuable". That recognition of the wider value of learning is welcome. But it is not backed up by policy, which seems to suggest that learning is only valued if it can be packaged into learning results, quantified, counted and inspected.
The document seeks a definition of "adult informal learning". Interestingly, it shuns the phrase "leisure or general interest" classes, as if this is too frivolous. Instead, it offers a definition that relies on a negative: informal adult learning is something that does not lead to qualifications or is non-vocational.
We have long seen in schools the shift towards weighing, rather than fattening, the pig. Now it seems the long tradition of liberal learning - learning for the sake of it, and for the wider benefits of physical and mental health, and social cohesion - is being squeezed out of adult learning too.