Adult Learning

– in the Scottish Parliament on 23rd January 2019.

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Photo of Christine Grahame Christine Grahame Scottish National Party

The final item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S5M-15186, in the name of Colin Beattie, on celebrating the reach of adult learning. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament acknowledges the partnership established between Midlothian Council’s Lifelong Learning and Employability Service and Melville Housing to assist tenants to improve their digital skills through cooking, specifically supporting people on low incomes in the Dalkeith, Mayfield and Easthouses areas; believes that, by providing a unique adult learning programme that develops digital skills, financial capacity, research and use of online information, this has helped tenants become more aware of the benefits of a healthy lifestyle; understands that the participants were able to develop social networks to reduce social isolation; welcomes what it sees as the outstanding contribution that community-based adult learning makes to people, and welcomes debate about the impact and effect of adult learning in disadvantaged communities across Scotland.

Photo of Colin Beattie Colin Beattie Scottish National Party

I am very pleased to introduce the Scottish Parliament’s first ever debate on the reach of adult learning in Scotland’s disadvantaged communities.

I congratulate Midlothian Council’s lifelong learning and employability service and Melville Housing Association on their joint adult learning project. I am particularly pleased to highlight it not only because it is running in my constituency but because it illustrates how such educational interventions can change people’s lives. I know from colleagues in the Parliament that, across the country, there are many great examples of adult learning.

It is timely to discuss the issue now, in what can be seen as a year of celebration for adult learning in Scotland as well as in the Scottish Parliament. Significantly, this year we will mark the centenary of a revolutionary milestone in the history of adult education in the United Kingdom and internationally: the publication of the final report of the adult education committee of the Ministry of Reconstruction, which is better known as the 1919 report. It represented a hugely important statement of the value of adult education and its role in creating and sustaining successful democratic societies, animated by shared civic, social and economic goals. Not only did it recognise the wide impact that adult education can have on society, notably in responding to the massive social, economic and political challenges of the time, it accorded national and local government direct responsibility for ensuring its adequate supply.

The 1919 report argued that adult education was not a luxury but was indispensable to national recovery and to sustainable, effective democracy. It also emphasised the social purpose of adult education in supporting enlightened and responsible citizenship and creating a well-ordered welfare state organised around the common good.

In 1919, the goal of all education included the advancement of citizenship. It promoted an understanding that access to adult learning was a right and that, as a skilled member of the community, each individual had responsibilities to help to meet local needs and reduce disadvantage. The report also argued that the main political, social and economic challenges that the country faced could be tackled only with the help of a greatly expanded, publicly funded system of adult education. It was decided that

“adult education must not be regarded as a luxury for a few exceptional persons ... nor as a thing which concerns only a short span of early manhood” or womanhood. Rather, it was

“a permanent national necessity, an inseparable aspect of citizenship, and therefore should be both universal and lifelong”.

The report stated that

“the opportunity for adult education should be spread uniformly and systematically over the whole community, as a primary obligation on that community in its own interest and as a chief part of its duty to its individual members ... every encouragement and assistance should be given to voluntary organisations, so that their work ... may be developed and find its proper place in the national educational system”.

The report laid the foundation for what became a publicly funded adult education sector, in which local education authorities were encouraged to see non-vocational adult education as an integral part of their activities. It recognised that all men and women had the capacity to participate in a humane and liberal education and to contribute to the democratic life of the country. It also saw that different approaches to teaching and organisation were required for adults, emphasising the reality of their lives and the breadth of their interests, along with their need for the fullest self-determination in their learning.

One hundred years later, the Scottish Government has been laying the foundation for a strong culture of community learning that helps to build individual and social capacity. The strategic guidance to community planning partnerships, the Requirements for Community Learning and Development (Scotland) Regulations 2013 and the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015 are the keystones that support community-based learning and see the power for change rooted in and flowing from Scotland’s residents.

Between 1919 and 1945, each education authority was responsible for ensuring the delivery of adult learning and worked closely with the voluntary sector and universities for support.

It was not until 1975, with the publication of the report “Adult Education: The Challenge of Change” and the reorganisation of local government that we saw the emergence of discrete community education services, in which adult education, youth work and community work were brought together to target disadvantaged groups. Those three strands of work now form the three national priorities for all community learning and development providers in Scotland.

For much of the next 25 years, a shift in focus to community-based adult learning enabled individuals and groups in local communities to participate in the widest possible range of education and/or training opportunities. The report, “Communities: Change through Learning”, which was published in 1998, focused on the development of a national strategy for community-based adult education, youth work and educational support for community development.

Those developments focused on social inclusion and lifelong learning. The acceptance of the report’s recommendations resulted in the Scottish Office guidance of April 1999 providing direction to local authorities on the provision of community education. It also detailed the requirement to produce community learning strategies with authorities’ partners.

With the establishment of the Scottish Parliament in 1999, “Partnership for Scotland: An Agreement for the First Scottish Parliament” set out Government priorities for Scotland, including the development of an enterprise economy through investing in jobs and skills. Adult learning was seen as key to achieving those goals, and a focus on literacy, numeracy and employability was introduced into the programme.

The Scottish Government is working with others, including the national strategic forum for adult learning, to develop a strategy for that in Scotland. Initial consultations with adult learning providers and learners have taken place. Hearing directly from learners helps us to empower communities and remember that education has a purpose beyond solely promoting skills growth.

Our predecessors in 1919 recognised that education had relevance to people’s livelihoods and success and to the nation’s prosperity. Further, they were just as concerned with values, citizenship, the nature of a good society and the intrinsic benefits of learning.

The infrastructure of adult education has increasingly been challenged at a time when the challenges that are posed by changes in technology, climate, demography and politics seem to demand much more adult education, not less.

The centenary of the 1919 report provides a much-needed moment for introspection and reflection on what we think adult education is for and why we value it. It is an opportunity to put adult education once again in the spotlight and to recognise the importance of thoughtful civic engagement through citizenship and to show how adult education can help us to renew our democracy and become a kinder, smarter and more cohesive, open and prosperous society.

The Scottish Government has made a good start by introducing guidance and legislation to promote community engagement and empowerment. I look forward to hearing from the minister how we can now go forward by resourcing community learning to give districts across Scotland the ability to deliver an education that meets the aspirations and needs of communities of geography or interest, especially those where a reduction in disadvantage can be delivered most effectively by those who understand how to challenge it best.

Photo of Stewart Stevenson Stewart Stevenson Scottish National Party

I start by apologising to you, Presiding Officer, the people in the public gallery and colleagues in the chamber, because the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee has a meeting in Galashiels tonight and, after I have spoken, I will depart to catch a train to get me there on time.

I am sure that this will be an entertaining and interesting debate. I thank Colin Beattie for giving us the opportunity to discuss this very important topic and I also thank my intern, Bella Nguyen, who has done the research and written my speaking notes for me. It is always a challenge for somebody when they come to the Parliament to be invited to look at a policy area that they have never looked at previously and to come up with something, and it is always quite revealing how quickly they can find that we are doing quite a lot. The important point is that, although we all say that Scotland aspires to be a welcoming and inclusive country for all and that part of that is about ensuring that adults in Scotland have a good social network and support, many continue to experience severe social exclusion. The emphasis in the motion before us on developing social networks is therefore very welcome.

NHS Health Scotland’s report “Social Isolation and Loneliness in Scotland: a Review of Prevalence and Trends” talks about those who are particularly at risk, which includes

“children and adults who are socio-economically disadvantaged and those experiencing ... physical and mental health” that is below the norm. A whole set of stigmas is associated with people on low incomes or people with disabilities who are isolated, so any initiatives that we can take that help people develop a better sense of themselves, which they should properly have because we value everyone in our society, would be helpful. However, we should also equip them to develop relationships that will be life long and beneficial to them.

The Scottish household survey reported that 8 per cent of responders disagreed that they could turn to friends and relatives in the neighbourhood for advice or support. That gives us some measure of the problem, which is perhaps bigger than we might have imagined. That survey also reported that 18 per cent of responders said that they had limited regular social contact in their neighbourhood. That leads, according to other research, to health issues that are sometimes readily measurable, such as high blood pressure, poor sleep and depression. More fundamentally, it leads to mental health issues, which can be more insidious, particularly at low levels where they are subclinical, the need to seek help is not necessarily recognised and help is not sought. We therefore need to reach out to that category of individuals in particular and ensure that there is a wide range of opportunities for them to participate in the range of things that most of society takes for granted. Through that participation, they can improve their social contact with others and allow others to see opportunities in supporting such people in the long term.

Technology is adding to the problem in many instances, rather than being a solution. If people do not have the skills, the incentive or the equipment to engage in the modern digital world, they are further isolated. The focus on ensuring that people have the ability to develop online and digital communication skills is as important as other initiatives. Our libraries and other public spaces are often very good places in which people can undertake such development. For example, in my Banffshire and Buchan Coast constituency, the community learning and development team is hosting small group sessions to address that digital issue, which is part of a wider national picture of activity that I very much welcome.

There are big opportunities and a lot to do, but we are making good progress.

Photo of Gordon Lindhurst Gordon Lindhurst Conservative

I, too, thank Colin Beattie for raising awareness of the digital kitchen workshop in Midlothian through his motion for the debate. It is a timely initiative that appears to suit the twin needs that we now have as a society that is technology driven and has problems with food. We are, of course, surrounded by technology in everything that we do, as has already been said. Whether we are looking to find out basic information, such as shop opening times, or applying for a job through an online portal, technology is there.

Not having the access or skills to use that technology self-evidently puts people at a basic disadvantage. Last year, a Citizens Advice Scotland survey of 1,200 of its clients found that 18 per cent never used the internet. That is almost one fifth of people, particularly adults, who are being left behind as younger generations take the technology that they use for granted, because they grow up with it all around them.

That one-fifth figure is also significant for other reasons. In 2016, only one fifth of adults in Scotland consumed the recommended five portions of fruit and vegetables on the previous day—I confess that I do not think I have eaten my proper number of portions today—which was a significant decrease from 23 per cent in 2009. As a result of that, we are facing a worsening obesity and diabetes crisis.

For people who have the skills, cooking may feel like rather a simple exercise, allowing them to use healthy food in interesting and tasty ways. However, people who do not have the skills must resort to more unhealthy options—or feel that they must—which are often more expensive, even if they are easier to buy and more conveniently available. Bringing adults together in surroundings in which they can develop digital skills and learn how to cook healthy and affordable meals is, therefore, an excellent use of finite time and resources, and a model to be used elsewhere.

The workshop reminds me of a similar housing association initiative that I visited towards the beginning of my time as an MSP. The Clovie community garden in Clovenstone, which is run jointly by Prospect Community Housing and the edible estates initiative, brings together people in the community to grow an impressive variety of fruits and vegetables in the heart of Edinburgh. A series of cooking classes is organised, in which the produce is used to make tasty and cheap meals. I was treated to potatoes from the garden patch that I can from my first-hand experience were extremely good. What pleased me most, however, was the way in which the garden and the workshops clearly brought together people in the community and taught them valuable life skills. As Colin Beattie pointed out, those are especially important in areas of disadvantage.

I note that the Midlothian learning and development three-year plan for 2018 to 2021 highlights that an area for improvement is community empowerment related to food growing. Perhaps the next step for the digital kitchen workshop could be to replicate the Clovie community garden and grow the food, and I am sure that other parts of the country can learn from the good work being done in Midlothian.

Let me end by thanking everyone who gives their time to community-based adult learning. I hope that today’s debate shows how much that work is appreciated and how important it is.

Photo of Mary Fee Mary Fee Labour

I, too, thank Colin Beattie for securing the debate and I wish the partnership between Midlothian Council’s lifelong learning and employability service and Melville Housing Association every success.

The opportunity for lifelong learning must be universal, and it is fundamental to improving the lives of people across Scotland. The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights states:

“Everyone has the right to education.”

Investment in lifelong learning for adults must be seen as preventative spend, particularly in areas of adult literacy and numeracy, digital access and social isolation. Unfortunately, in this age of austerity, cuts to education affect the opportunity to access learning for people of all ages.

The financial settlement for local authorities will deliver real-terms cuts to budgets, as it has done in recent years. If we want to be proactive in supporting adults to learn, particularly those with the poorest literacy or numeracy skills and those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds and communities, we need to recognise that local authority budget cuts will limit how proactive we can be.

Reaching out and engaging with adults who could benefit from programmes such as the one in Midlothian is a difficult task, and cross-agency partnerships are key to overcoming that barrier. Community learning and development has a key role in helping people from disadvantaged and vulnerable groups to access learning and prepare for study and employment. Engaging with adults in their own communities limits the barriers or fears that some may face when thinking about education. Many of those whom we are talking about have no qualifications and no post-school education, so creating a safe place to learn is crucial to that engagement.

Although the aim for adult learning is rightly focused on some of our most disadvantaged people, it is crucial to ensure that some of our smaller groups—often the most marginalised groups, such as asylum seekers and refugees—can access adult learning programmes. I was pleased to see a focus on community learning and development in the Scottish Government’s “New Scots: refugee integration strategy 2018-2022”.

In speaking about adult learning, it would be remiss of me not to mention adults in prison, given my interest in that area. Statistics show that levels of poor literacy and poor numeracy are high in the prison population. There are education and learning programmes in the prison system, but we must ensure that CLD is available to those who are being released. Again, that is about engagement and preventative spend.

Community learning and development is necessary to tackle the problems that are associated with isolation and poor levels of numeracy, literacy and digital access. It must be properly resourced. We need a national strategy for adult learning that reflects the importance of community learning and development and the critical role that those who work in the sector can play.

Photo of Richard Lochhead Richard Lochhead Scottish National Party

I congratulate Colin Beattie on securing the debate on this important subject. As he said, it is the first such debate, so it is highly significant. I also note that it is the centenary of the seminal report that recognised the importance of adult education, which Colin Beattie brought to our attention. That takes us on a journey through the history of the subject, back to 1919. It is appropriate that we are discussing the issue in 2019.

I am particularly pleased that we have had the opportunity to debate the contribution that community-based adult learning makes to Scotland, and to hear about the specific impact that is being made by the partnership of Midlothian Council and Melville Housing, about which Colin Beattie spoke.

I thank members for their insights and their contributions. Gordon Lindhurst, Stewart Stevenson and Mary Fee, from whom we have just heard, all discussed topical issues including digital exclusion, which can in this day and age lead to social isolation, and to people who do not have digital skills being disadvantaged in our communities. That very important dimension was brought into the debate.

I particularly want to acknowledge the huge effort that goes into the partnership that has been undertaken by Melville Housing. As the minister with responsibility for community learning and development, I have already, in the past few months since I took on my role, seen the difference that community-based learning is making through partnerships across Scotland. From what I have seen across the country and what I have heard tonight, it is becoming increasingly clear to me that Scotland absolutely must recognise the role that community learning and development can play alongside early years provision, schools and colleges, so that we can support each other and every one of our children, adults, families and communities to ensure that they succeed.

As our society and economy change we must, as members have said, ensure that as many adults as possible are engaged in their communities, in order to improve their life chances and so that they can make the contributions that our communities and our economy need.

In 2014, the Government rightly prioritised young people at a time when Scotland and the rest of Europe were experiencing unprecedented high levels of youth unemployment. In response, the Scottish Government launched the developing the young workforce programme. We now see youth unemployment at a record low, and have achieved our target three years ahead of schedule.

Although we are rightly proud of that achievement, we know that austerity has impacted on delivery of adult learning at the local level, which Mary Fee mentioned in her speech. We now want to respond and ensure that our approach is fit for purpose, as we move forward. Scotland’s workforce challenges evolve, and as the focus moves increasingly towards upskilling the ageing population—including those who are in work and those who are out of work—we are committed to supporting adult learning and the role that it can play in delivering on Scotland’s ambitions for inclusive economic growth.

Also in 2014, the Scottish Government set out its commitment to adult learners in “Adult Learning in Scotland: Statement of Ambition”, in which we recognised adult learning as

“a central element of personal and community empowerment.”

Since then, the Government has been grateful to the members of the national strategic forum for adult learning for all their efforts in safeguarding Scotland’s work in adult learning. The forum’s work on the learner voice has ensured that adult learning has been learner centred and learner driven.

The forum’s commitment has been matched by resources from the Scottish Government—members have mentioned resources—with more than £1 million per year being invested in adult learning organisations since 2014, through our adult learning and empowering communities funding. I am pleased by the work that those funds have facilitated across the breadth of adult learning organisations, including Scotland’s Learning Partnership, Lead Scotland, the Workers Educational Association and the Coalfields Regeneration Trust, all of which have a direct impact in places including Midlothian, which Colin Beattie represents.

We want adults to be able to participate in a range of learning opportunities. In that regard, we are grateful for the work of other institutions and organisations in Scotland. An example is Newbattle Abbey College—also in Midlothian, coincidentally—which is working internationally to build Scotland’s adult learning reputation through its support for the development of adult achievement awards. As we address the question of parity in learning pathways, it is vital that we have a framework for recognition of achievement, which gives currency to learners who want their learning to be recognised by others.

As I look ahead, I am mindful that the strong foundations that have been created by the statement of ambition for adult learning should be built on through the creation of a national strategy to guide that work. As partners work together to develop the strategy, I make it clear that it must recognise the ways in which adult learning is central not only to personal development, but to community empowerment, which I mentioned.

I also want to bolster the sector and ensure that it is well placed to address the challenges that we face today, and that we will face in the times ahead. That is why I want to ensure that the forum is supported to lead the work, and that it is in the best shape to engage learners to work with officials to evaluate progress and identify future priorities.

In Scotland, we are lucky to have a successful adult learners week—the next one will be in May 2019. Adult learners week is supported by Scotland’s Learning Partnership and is widely recognised across the world as being at the forefront of learner developments. During this year’s events and at others, it is important that we maximise learners’ voices in informing our current activity and future strategy. In the spirit of adult learners week—one theme in it is called “Never too Old to Learn New Tricks”—I am committed to the Scottish Government doing new things in support of adult learning, and in particular to supporting greater alignment across other ministerial priorities, particularly further and higher education and science.

I will keep stressing the importance of partnership as we deal with the complexity of the fall-out from Brexit. We are operating in an increasingly difficult environment. These are challenging times, and we can combat the challenges only by working closely together. Collaboration will have to be at the heart of our approach.

The example that Midlothian Council and Melville Housing have set clearly demonstrates how the provision of a learning opportunity based on shared interests—cooking, in this case—can easily have positive outcomes in a number of areas. Gordon Lindhurst talked about the importance of cooking skills, which have a variety of benefits, from health to affordability and tackling poverty. By capitalising on the opportunities that just one skill offers, the partners have shown that adult learning has wider impacts on learners’ lives.

There is a lot to do. Collaboration and partnership will not be easy, given the many challenges that we face, but we must move forward. The overcoming of entrenched inequalities, often while managing the impact of decisions that are made elsewhere, and especially the consequences of Brexit, will be challenging for years and years to come. However, the Scottish Government is committed to doing what it can do to reduce the negative impact of such decisions. We will not let those decisions curtail our ambitions or halt Scotland’s progress.

I recognise the challenges that members have mentioned, but I am pleased by the progress that is being made. We take great pride in leading the agenda in the Scottish Government. I commend the motion to Parliament, as we all continue to support adult learning in Scotland. As other members have done, I congratulate and thank all the people who contribute to adult learning in our communities.

Meeting closed at 17:39.