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Employability and Adult Education: further thoughts

September 28, 2012

I wanted to take the opportunity to respond to some of the comments on my last blog; they have certainly helped to clarify my thinking and hopefully were useful to others.

Firstly I agree that a definition of ‘employability’ is essential. This should include the development of skills, knowledge and information that support the student in finding employment and/or improving their employment position. We should also provide some contextual discussion about work, employment and society. A clear definition would give the student (potential student) a better idea of what we could offer them; it would also discourage the notion that ‘employability’ simply means job search skills.

Secondly, and this is where I found the work done in Higher Education useful, we need to say how it is provided. ‘Employability’ can be seen as an overarching curricular theme rather than just a set of courses or programmes. Within this theme could be included:
• Programmes that are primarily vocational such as Community Interpreting, Support Work in Schools, Initial Teacher Training etc
• Programmes where employability skills are embedded say within some English, Maths or language courses
• ‘Mini-modules’ in employability topics that can be done independently or can be embedded in another programme
• ‘Enhancement activities’ such as visits, placements, volunteering opportunities etc
• Information, Advice and Guidance providing support on progression routes into employment or volunteering

This approach combines providing a framework to support those who are interested in WEA provision for ‘employability’ reasons whilst recognising that many courses and programmes have a range of outcomes. For example someone on a craft course, with ’employability’ aims, could work with their tutor to identify and record the transferable employment skills (team working, communications etc) and be advised of a further course, or mini-module, about using craft skills in an employment context (for example setting up a social enterprise).

Some of the comments expressed a concern that focus on employability could be at the expense of other programmes such as those about community development and cohesion and or those associated with liberal adult education provision, with a personal development focus. Many people, as we know, join adult education classes to ‘keep the old grey matter ticking over’ or ‘enjoy learning for the sake of it’ and don’t want to be shoe horned into a particular direction.

I can see where these concerns are coming from, particularly a sense that there’s a strong central government steer towards employability. However, it need not be a zero sum game. Part of my argument is that many of our students do have employability intentions and we should do our best for them. A coherent approach would help us to do that much better. But a traditional strength of adult education (not just WEA) is the mixed economy of provision and the range and variety of outcomes students achieve. This is part of our continuing argument about the importance of adult education and is, I think recognised within the policy community, for example in Government’s approach to the objectives of Adult Community Learning. I don’t however think we should say that we don’t do employability; it’s far too important for thousands of disadvantaged adult students to say that.

The final area of comment was about the need to keep, or develop a critical approach to employability rather than treat the current labour market and employment situation as unproblematic. I agree with this and critical thinking is an important ‘employability’ skill. There is a rich literature about employment that explores, for example, the impact of class, gender, ethnicity and disability on employment experience and prospects. This formed part of the WEA ‘Access to Higher Education’ programme we used to run in Birmingham. Many of the issues in the debate resonated well with the students who were mainly low paid workers, quite a few of whom had experienced prolonged spells of unemployment. One of the main challenges for us as adult educators is to find the point of connection between the initial motivation and ambitions of our students and wider debates and arguments that we think would interest them.

Ok, that’s enough. Hopefully the discussion will continue although I think my next blog will be on health and wellbeing and what parallel, and distinctive, approaches can be taken there.


From → Adult Education

  1. Useful summary of the debate thus far. Thanks Pete. I look forward to the Health and Wellbeing dialogue. We need more and more of this………………

  2. Mike Bradley permalink

    I don’t wish to enter into further discussion on the establishing of a framework for the planning of provision of education aimed at assisting students with their employability, whether through directly applicable workplace skills or in improving their more general skills and abilities, but I do wish to turn to the question of liberal arts education for adults.

    It is unfortunate, I think, to refer to keeping the old grey matter ticking over or enjoying learning for the sake of it, since this sounds like trivialising education that is not vocational or aimed at improving an individual’s employability. There is a great deal more to a human being than his or her employability, and WEA liberal arts classes provide a means of satisfying human curiosity about the causes of things, and in development of the individual to be a more participative and effective member of society.

    The mention of Adult Community Learning sent me searching through the current brochures of two London Boroughs, Harrow and Hillingdon. Both Boroughs have what I consider to be an excellent programme of classes for 2012-2013, but the number of classes they offer in the liberal arts area has dropped over the years almost to vanishing point. In the Hillingdon brochure I managed to find three courses that could qualify as liberal arts,plus one study day, in a total provision of over 500 courses. In Harrow I found none, The WEA advertises 15 liberal arts courses in Hillingdon in 2012-2013 and 11 in Harrow.Ten years ago that would have been 20 and 33. I see little evidence here that liberal arts can thrive in an environment which is predominately concerned with the world of work.

  3. Your intelligent summary has helped me sort out my own thoughts and I’m grateful for it, Pete. WEA and Northern College share a tradition of working with students who have multiple motivations and our strength lies in how we balance those tensions. I particularly liked the idea of supporting students to identify transferable skills; a meaningful and empowering form of embedding which deserves being more in the foreground. Thank you.

  4. Very good blog you have here but I was wanting to know if you knew of any
    forums that cover the same topics discussed here?
    I’d really love to be a part of online community where I can get comments from other experienced people that share the same interest. If you have any recommendations, please let me know. Bless you!

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