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Getting a diverse ‘social purpose’ curriculum

November 8, 2011

I’ve been given responsibility for Curriculum and Provision within the WEA and want to share some thinking and invite comment. Whilst the focus is on the WEA comment  is welcome from all with an interest in adult education.

It is a good time to be debating the future shape and direction of our adult learning curriculum.  We are living through turbulent times with widespread questioning of established institutions and ideas. This presents a challenge for adult educators in attempting to inform an understanding of events and action to influence them. Additionally, publicly funded organisations  need to  justify their expenditure and demonstrate its beneficial impact on individuals and communities. In the  WEA  we want, as a leading adult education organisation,  to be confident we are using our limited resources effectively and demonstrating convincingly the value of our work.

Below are proposals to devolve curriculum leadership and pilot a ‘social purpose’ planning methodology; these changes are intended to create the conditions for a more innovative and challenging curriculum.

Devolution of the curriculum

 Diversity in curriculum is a good thing but we don’t make enough of it. What we do where has evolved in response to a range of factors such as history, gaps in local education markets and the expertise and enthusiasm of staff, learners, members and partners. We’re looking at a mosaic not a standardised offer. But these localised and regional strengths can be built upon by asking WEA regions with a particular strength to lead across Association. Such leadership could provide support to other regions, development of the subject area into new directions, and dissemination, building our reputation and profile.

 The benefits to the Association as a whole are evident but the ‘lead region’ will also gain by recognition of its expertise and broadening of its identity beyond  geographical location.

 There is a question for the Association: what curriculum areas should be devolved? This is partly a question of capacity (need people, volume and expertise) and partly one of priorities for the future. 

 Social purpose planning

 Curriculum planning is a complex process fashioned by tensions between the demands of the funding and regulatory regimes on the one hand and ‘responding to local need’ on the other. I have blogged about the refreshing and invigorating impact of projects where educational activities address a clearly defined set of identified needs and desired outcomes, for the individual and the community.

It is commonly felt that ‘projects’ are more innovative and embody a clearer sense of social purpose than ‘mainstream’ provision; the problem is their short term nature.  I would like to see a position in which the mainstream is continually refreshed by work that starts off as a local project. Obviously some projects, being experimental, won’t succeed and will remain temporary. At the other end of the spectrum we need to find ways for longstanding provision to be sustained outside of the main funding framework. Some of the recent discussion on learning circles touched on this.

The idea then is to pilot the use of a project (or social purpose) methodology within mainstream provision. This would mean shifting local programmes of work away from the notion of ‘delivery’ to that of  ‘projects’ that address  identified areas need such as supporting people take up volunteering activities, improve their health and fitness, become more involved with their children’s education etc. The programme structure and reporting would focus on these outcomes in addition to retention and success rates.

This approach will help us think through how our programmes connect with social purpose and spark considerable innovation at a local level as well as build organisational capacity in ‘project development’. Externally, it ought to lead to a constant stream of reports that demonstrate the impact and social purpose of adult education.

I can see that implementing this approach will be a challenge but feel that it could hold the key to further improving our curriculum and we should therefore give it a go.

As ever, comments and questions are very welcome.


From → Adult Education

  1. Hugh Humphrey permalink

    Agree that this is a time when we need to redefine our offer to make us distinct from other providers
    and to deliver more clearly on our mission and values. I think there are two ways of doing this. Firstly, integrate the project approach into the mainstream and branch programme. To a certain extent we have done this in Scunthorpe for quite a long time but it is often difficult to involve the targeted students in the branch because of the the short term nature of their course involvement.
    However, it is possible to raise branch members’ awareness of targeted work and special projects
    and for them to feel some ownership, through the branch, of this kind of work. This means organisers sharing their project plans with branches and not regarding it as something which need not concern them.
    Secondly, to get a wide a cross section of the community into mainstream / branch provision so
    that the interaction of different backgrounds and views serves a real social purpose although demonstrating the outcome of this is difficult. I think where you can demonstrate social impact, this is fine, but if you can demonstrate the student mix, course content, learning method and good attendance this should be sufficient. Our funders must be dissuaded from a utilitarian approach
    to education. Payment by results went out in Victorian times.

  2. My first thoughts, as always they may change as the debate progresses!
    The basic premise of a core curriculum constantly refreshed by projects developed in response to changing and/or local need is one that worked informally for many years in locally based adult education services. The curriculum offered by, mainly, LAs changed as recreation departments developed sport and arts/drama; as cheap throwaway clothes from Asda or Tesco moved needlecrafts to a hobbyist activity rather than an economic necessity; as the law and increasing technical complexity/simplicity meant that some aspects of DIY and car maintenance were no longer appropriate; as the opinion formers in the media made some creative areas fashionable and others deeply unfashionable. Areas go away and come back, courses on cooking/nutrition and gardening existed in the 70s driven by economic necessity, they disappeared and came back now driven by the drive for healthy eating and/or social or community inclusion and/or ….
    Although there were often common threads across the country or a LA, there were differences. For example, early adoption of literacy, language and numeracy projects in Birmingham in the 1970s were not replicated in the then county of Cumberland until later and then at a lesser level. Within Birmingham some areas had larger or different programmes within the area dependent on their demography. The work in Liverpool 8 was a national exemplar that seemed to have little relevance in Solihull, while the needs or methods of working in the disrupted community of Castle Vale were judged different to those of settled communities of the same size.
    Many of those issues/differences remain and that seems to me to be one of the issues we need to develop when identifying a nationwide curriculum plan that will meet all? priority? needs. Overlay the democratic nature of parts of the association, the localism agenda, differing levels of competition/partnership with other providers and it becomes even more complicated with a reducing and/or part-time work force. Others may have different experiences but I think that recently we have been most successful when we have been linked into the networks of geographically compact areas, unitary authorities or District councils where the power buttons can be seen and have been less successful in the artificial government office areas or even the large shires. Those national successful projects such as CLCs or TRIF have only delivered that success because of local, and sometimes very local strengths and identified need, where the project meshed with existing work but at a substantial cost in national and regional overhead.
    As I said first thoughts only and no answers!

  3. Jol Miskin permalink

    I think the project idea is well worth some experimentation. Were we to say – for instance – that we want all provision in area X to assist towards greater community involvement then tutor recruitment, course Aims and Learning Outcomes etc. would have to be based on that intent. It would not restrict the subjects offered but it would restrict the nature of the ‘delivery’. An art class would no longer be able just to be an art class with no further purpose than to enable students to learn and to paint and to be happy. No it’d need to be more than that. As well as learning the basics of painting the tutor would need to encourage discussion on issues affecting the local area. Perhaps the students would be asked to paint something about the area and how they view it and maybe they could paint how it could be: a utopian vision even! All sorts of things could develop out of this type of approach. The same would need to apply to any course in the area.

    But I also see no reason why this cannot apply to all our provision – project or not. What we need to develop, discuss, argue about and then agree on is what exactly we mean by social purpose education. It seems to me that there are some certainties: critical thinking is one and affecting positive social/political engagement and change is another. Underpinning the notion of social purpose education is a view of a better society (Tawney’s tolerable society). That has to be a more equal one (The Spirit Level), one where more people participate and see the purpose in doing so and one where the state has a positive and purposeful role to play. It’s one where there is anger at oppression and exploitation in all its forms and a general sense of responsibility to be involved and to help create change. I think it’s certainly one which applauds public service – and puts public service back on the agenda – and challenges the belief that the private sector is by definition good and necessary in every aspect of our lives.

    We should be far more demanding of our tutors when developing courses. Are they wanting to work for the WEA and commit to what we stand for or not.

    I won’t go on but suffice it to say adopting a social purpose agenda does mean taking sides!

    • Mary Hunter permalink

      This is the Paper we have awaited for so long- since March/April 2005 to be exact, when Pete and Peter Templeton set out their 3-year plan to shape the WEA Curriculum.
      -10 Curriculum Areas, each with a curriculum leader in every Region supported by a national network
      “The intention is that the curriculum leaders and teams begin to actively shape the way we provide that subject area. We want to see sharing of good practice to make greater use of the creativity and initiative of WEA course tutors” Sound familiar? Here are the new REMs in embryo.
      Equally crucial, the article emphasised the importance of ” educational and transferable problem-solving skills”; In the context of standards and quality assurance the writers affirmed that these are”about ensuring that students are provided with a challenging learning experience in which we develop their understanding of the subject as well as their skills in learning”.

      The blog on “Why I like projects” follows on from this earlier work. Project work should be viewed as working towards integration into the mainstream.
      Pete believes we should aim for” a position where the mainstream is continually refreshed by work that starts off as a local project”. He advocates usinga “social purpose”/project methodology WITHIN the mainstream. Again, yes!
      Hugh Humphrey highlights some difficult issues of this approach, especially the difficulty of integrating the targeted students into the Branch at the end of a project- branch members need to have an awareness of the targeted project work- and( here perhaps a spot of “social purpose “comes in?) to ensure the branch members can feel some ownership of the work.Yes.

      DMetters too raises important points about a “core curriculum” which could become possibly too prescriptive( shades of the National Curriculum!) and importantly, non-responsive to local needs.

      Jol Miskin raises an interesting point – again on the restrictive or even prescriptive outcome suggesting ” Then tutor recruitment , course aims and learning outcomes would have to be based on that( ie the specific project) intent.”
      Yes, this is an issue, but if I revert to Pete’s comments on SKILLS, and quote from the Scottish Executive definition of Adult Literacy and Numeracy , then for me this could be the start of what could be a coherent Core Curriculum, developing generic skills, which are valid for all Projects, for all courses, and which surely are those which many of our target groups need to give them confidence, “thinking” skills, to enable those who need to, to gain employment, feel happier and more confident to be engaged within their communities.
      The title of the 2007 Conference was “The Public Value of Adult Learning; who benefits?”
      In 2009, it was “Skills for Social Justice”.
      This year it was “Equality, Inclusion and Actiion in Adult Education.”
      ‘Nuff said?

      So, here is that quote:-
      “The ability to read,write and use numeracy, to handle information,to express ideas and opinions,to make decisions and solve problems, as family members,workers,citizens and lifelong learners”.

      Mary Hunter

  4. Chris Sanders permalink

    I fully support Pete’s ideas about projects. As Take Part, LFCI and a number of recent citizenship focussed activities have demonstrated, we need to step outside our mainstream provision if we are to be meaningfully responsive to local demand and innovative rather than reactive in terms of informal adult and community learning.

    Jol’s point about discussing what we mean by ‘social purpose’ education is valid and part of a dialogue we need to have if we are to successfully mainstream work developed through projects and break down barriers between community learning and branches. It seems to me that there are two major blocks to this at present. Firstly, projects frequently draw down development time (funds) which is vital to initiate projects, broker partnerships and engage with new learners and new styles of learning. If we are to look at evaluating success in terms of community outcomes, project development/outreach time is even more critical.

    Secondly, while our projects are successful in geographical pockets or on small scales, I wonder if they fail to grow into something more spectacular because there are too many fire fighting demands on Tutor Organiser’s time to give the amount of attention needed to reflect; discuss, refine, synthesize them, and re-pilot them or roll with out into new areas. I believe any framework designed to capture and grow project successes would need to take onboard these issues.
    Chris Sanders
    TO Community Learning

    • Mary Hunter permalink

      Yes, breaking down the barriers between community learning and the branches is a vital issue; equally the point you make about the tutor organisers/Programme Area Managers.
      They certainly cannot find that time to “give the amount of attention needed to reflect etc”, but are not these skills and requirements to build on projects( eg) exactly those which a future Regional Education Manager could/should have to ensure projects can be rolled out more widely?

  5. Richard Crisp permalink

    “The benefits to the Association as a whole are evident but the ‘lead region’ will also gain by recognition of its expertise and broadening of its identity beyond geographical location.”

    One reads of regional ‘successes’ in WEA News and in reports, but quite often such successes are hyped or prove to be unsustainable.

    One of the tests of New Look, will surely be whether or not inter-regional tensions are reduced and co-operation engendered. For lead-regions to really be effective in implanting ‘success’ in others, some resource incentive will be required for the former, and real commitment from the latter.

    • Pete Caldwell permalink

      Challenging points made by you and others. I’m planning a follow-up post to respond to some points and see how we move forward.

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