Adult Learning

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament on 23rd January 2019.

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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.