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‘Employability’: a challenge for adult education

August 15, 2012

 Austerity, poverty,  social exclusion, high unemployment and the decline in social mobility…all these pressing contemporary issues must make us think about how adult education can support people in getting a job, or if they’ve got a job – a better one.

 Adult education has had a longstanding if at times uncomfortable relationship with employability. It brings to the fore the tensions between the state’s priorities, employers’demands, the aspirations and needs of disadvantaged adult students, and the mission and purpose of providers of adult education and their partner organisations.

Yet many of the most exciting and innovative adult education programmes of the 1980’s and 1990’s included an explicit labour market focus:

–         ‘Second Chance’ in Liverpool grew out of a job-creation scheme

–         The  impact of ‘women returners’ hugely enriched adult and further education particualrly in the latter quarter of the last century

–         The ‘Access to Higher Education’ movement (predominately in FE but stretching across WEA, Universities, the residential colleges etc) enabled thousands of educationally disadvantaged adults to progress through adult, further and higher education into white collar, professional and managerial jobs

–        Unison ‘Return to Learn’  (R2L)  takes ‘second chance’ principles to tens of thousands of low paid public service workers; R2L students progress in many different ways: academically, through their union and in their employment at a time of significant job re-structuring

But we can view employability more widely. Looking at programmes from the student’s point of view: often the intention is to get a job, or a better job, even though the course itself isn’t specifically designed to help them do this. A good example of this is community based ESOL programmes where many students report improved employment prospects as a result of their course. 

The WEA as an employer and as a voluntary organisation contributes to employability. Many ‘home grown tutors’ begin as students and – with training and support – progress from tenuous part-time employment into established posts. Volunteering, too, can provide a bridge into employment.

So, it is part of what we do. Pushed to define an ‘adult education’ approach to employability we’d list the capacity to reach deep into disadvantaged and marginal communities (providing a first step); the importance of a broad and more liberal curriculum; the stretching of students’ horizons educationally and vocationally (hence fuelling social mobility) and an  emphasis on a variety of outcomes, not just employment. A distinctive approach is discernible.

Undoubtedly during this century the terms of trade have moved against this vision both in the labour market and state policy. The expansion of white collar professional and managerial jobs (particularly in the public sector) has halted and the opportunities for disadvantaged adults to progress through education have reduced significantly. And, partly in response to this, and to the growth in unemployment, state policy (and what the government will fund) has narrowed considerably. New Labour had its supply side obsession with level 2 qualifications and the Coalition has its reductionist ‘payment by results’ focus on job outcomes. In addition the costs to the individual of education (particularly at degree level) have grown exponentially, deterring many adults from pursuing it.

So where does that leave us? The WEA certainly is still able to make a strong case that we contribute to employability in important and potentially distinctive ways. We do a great deal of work with really marginal groups (such as homeless people and those recovering from alcohol and substance abuse). The emphasis is on re-engaging in different ways with local communities including employment and volunteering. 

Adult education provision doesn’t fit into neat boxes. Many of the skills and much of the knowledge is of value in the labour market; communications, problem solving, team working are part of the adult education ‘core curriculum’.    In the same way, students use what they learn on courses in different ways; many students on English, Maths and Language courses see them as a way to improve employment prospects.    Similarly skills from craft courses can be turned to economic advantage through self employment or social enterprise. Finally we have a number of ‘niche’ courses such as Community Interpreting that clearly support employment, enabling students to use vital but often undervalued skills and experience.

So is this good enough? I think that a more open and unabashed approach would pay dividends for adult students and organisations such as the WEA.

Firstly there is much to be said for making the implicit explicit. If students are learning things that could help their employment prospects, make sure that they know, draw out the relevance and record it.  Provide opportunities for students to learn about how their skills can be used in an employment setting, through the curriculum or by putting them in touch with a specialised agency.

Secondly, there is more to progression than skills and qualifications. People progress through networks, connections and pathways (as we know from seeing how the political process works with its interlocking social and professional networks and lobbying ). We need to help our students build their own networks and connections so that they know where the information, support and opportunities are for them.

The WEA has identified employability as a curriculum priority. Part of what we are doing is expanding some of our niche courses, such as Community Interpreting, and identifying new ones that can help people make use of skills and experience that are currently dormant, or used mainly in a voluntary capacity. It’s also important to provide educational opportunities and links into higher education and professional training rather than simply reproduce exisiting job inequalities. The WEA’s partnership with the Open University, and attempts to revive links with other universities are important here. There is a real gap created by the demise of university adult education.

Finally we need to look at what we can do as an employing and voluntary organisation to create opportunities for people both to progress ‘from the periphery to the core’ and to gain employment (such as paid interns), trainees (apprentices?) or volunteers that they can use to improve their employment prospects. The WEA (and other adult education organisations) have a wealth of knowledge and experience (not just teaching and learning, but community and voluntary work as well as support functions such as IT, admin and finance). These can be shared to the benefit of all.


From → Adult Education

  1. Pearl Ryall permalink

    I think a holistic approach which integrates opportunities to learn with oportuniites to ‘try out,’ whether that be through volunteering or community involvement, is essential to our employability strategy. People are motivated by activities which are meaningful and of value to them. The skills you mention around communication, problem solving and team working are all enhanced by ‘naming’ them through a process of practice and reflection. You have to be confident to get through a job interview and nothing builds confidence like experience and success. I think there are loads of things the WEA can do to practically support routes into employment but we have to find ways of resourcing the broader ‘experience’ elements as well as the teaching activity.

  2. Hugh Humphrey permalink

    As you say, Pete, we always have had many courses with an employability dimension and so have a base on which to build. One concern is the likely pressure to demonstrate actual progression to employment for each individual student which would be time consuming and costly as well as, quite often, difficult. I would hope that the content of the course, the standard of tutoring, the full participation of the student and an indication as to what the next step was going to be would be sufficient. The second concern is our commitment to students who are not looking for a job but simply wish to engage in further education for the joy of learning and discovering pastures new. They do not generally wish to progress into higher education but often benefit from the health and well being factor. This is mainly the branch programme which in our region is now down to only 23% of all provision. How do we ensure the continuance of courses not generally relevant to employability and keep a reasonable balance in our provision? Or are we moving into a new era where this sort of provision is left to filter out into activities outside the WEA?

  3. sue taylor permalink

    Thanks Pete, for a clear and useful summary which helps to focus our minds on the WEA’s approach to helping people improve their opportunities in life in relation to work.
    As a WEA organiser and tutor I have been involved with many of the courses mentioned including Return to Learn, ESOL and Community Interpreting, as well as others such as PTLLS, Improve Your Study Skills, Women’s Lives, Learning for You and the Open University Understanding Health. These courses are hugely successful and the benefits to students are impressive in terms of their progression in work and accessing further and higher education. (in addition to many other benefits students gain from learning with the WEA)
    One of the burning issues for running these types of courses in future is funding. Previously the Unison Employer Partnership courses were funded either by local hospital training departments, the Union Learning Fund or by the local Unison branch. These funding sources are no longer available. The PTLLS course, as I understand it, will not be funded through the SFA resulting in a higher fee to the student.
    In the absence of such funding I am eager to know how we can provide educational programmes with a focus on employability. I believe there is a big demand in our local communities for such courses.

  4. Nicola Whittingham permalink

    I enjoyed reading your views on employability, particularly what you say about making the implicit explicit. I agree that we need to make links between what we already do and know to be good practice with the employability agenda. This implies that we need to develop a shared understanding of what we mean by the term ‘employability’, as it can mean a number of different things to different people. Although HE based, the following link provides access to a number of definitions which I think are useful to consider

    Once we have our definition/s of employability, we could work with tutors, volunteers and learners to identify the elements of employability in courses, activities and systems. By using our existing approaches to highlight what we do in terms of employability, we could give a much stronger message than the recent Ofsted employability report does about the providers it surveyed. Although WEA was part of the survey – we are listed on p 32 of the report – the changes we effect appear to have gone largely unnoticed.

    • Pete Caldwell permalink

      Thanks for your comments and sorry for the delay in replying. The HE link is useful and provides a model we could look at in adult ed. It’s more holistic and coherent. I’d encourage others to look at it

  5. Good dialogue. Thanks for kicking it off Pete.
    You say:
    So, it is part of what we do. Pushed to define an ‘adult education’ approach to employability we’d list the capacity to reach deep into disadvantaged and marginal communities (providing a first step); the importance of a broad and more liberal curriculum; the stretching of students’ horizons educationally and vocationally (hence fuelling social mobility) and an emphasis on a variety of outcomes, not just employment. A distinctive approach is discernible.
    Spot on.
    I think we need to look closely at the “…broad and more liberal curriculum” element and ensure that that is definitely unique and distinctive. The key here is ensuring that our ’employability’ provision develops citical thinking. For instance courses need to raise issues about the meaning of ‘work’, the ‘value’ society (capitalism) places on different types of work, issues relating to pay, control, work/life balance etc.
    And let’s not forget that ’employability’ is not just about paid work. It also includes unpaid labour- volunteering, caring etc. Another hot topic for some critical thinking and increasingly raising really important ethical issues: to pay or not to pay. Discuss!

  6. Lesley Dale permalink

    I agree that employability and WEA’s role in supporting our learners to improve their job prospects is an important one and it is good to have the debate however I also think that we have to be careful not to lose sight of the other benefits of learning- social integration and cohesion, health and well-being etc that WEA courses provide for our learners. Not everyone who joins one of our courses needs to find a job, but they still want to learn and with the cost of adult learning not funded by the SFA such as OU courses rising expontially there is the very real danger that adult education for its own sake or for less tangible outcomes like health and well being will become once again the preserve of the wealthy.While moving with the times and the demands of funding bodies and employers the WEA has a responsiblity to uphold its legacy as an educator of the ‘ordinary’ man and woman in the street. And while this may cause tension in a resource limited environment we can and should still strive to do both.

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