100 years of adult education

Anyone who follows me on twitter will know I have followed the developments of the ‘Centenary Commission’ with great interest. A little background: in 1919, the then Ministry of Reconstruction produced a report into adult education in England, viewing it as an opportunity for developing citizenship and growth. The most well known quote from the introduction of the original report describes adult education as “permanent national necessity, an inseparable aspect of citizenship, and therefore should be both universal and lifelong” (1).

This year, a new commission, the ‘Centenary Commission‘ was created to review what is now known as the ‘1919 report’, with new recommendations for a 21st century Britain. The report, released on 18th November to tie in with the original report’s release date, makes 18 excellent suggestions, which can be viewed here.

Last night, I had the honour of attending the inaugural presentation of the report, within a wider event celebrating adult education entitled: ‘Changing Lives: Celebrating 100 years of Adult Education’. The event was presented by Mel Lenehan, principal and chief executive of Fircroft College, sponsored by West Midlands Combined Authority, The West Midlands Further Education Skills & Productivity group, West Midlands Adult & Community Learning Alliance and the Association of Employment and Learning Providers, and was hosted in the fantastic conference suite at Solihull College and University Centre.

I had the even greater honour of inviting one of my own adult learners to the event and I invited someone from the women’s centre, who wouldn’t normally get the opportunity to attend a main college campus event due to her class meeting in an outreach centre. This vibe ran through the whole event, with one speaker commenting “wherever we meet, be it libraries, community centres, or in the pub!”, as did the feeling that none of us would be there without our adult learners.

Mel Lenehan opened the event with an inspiring presentation, including a powerful video showing Fircroft learners sharing the impact their education has had on them. She asked different stakeholders to stand and be welcomed with a round of applause, from policy makers, to leaders, to researchers, to tutors and, of course, most importantly: “please stand up if you have been an adult learner in the last 100 years!” No surprise when the whole room rose to their feet!

The first speech came from a practitioner from Birmingham Adult Education Services, who shared inspirational stories of her learners (with their blessing of course), and really highlighted the impact adult learning has on the individual, their families, as well as the wider community and society. One such story was of a dyslexic learner who had struggled with school and, as an adult, was a single parent. He went from his English GCSE onto further and higher education, later becoming a scientist. The role-model he is for his children and what he contributes to our country must be understood and valued and, as the tutor pointed out, he’d been wasted previously spending the morning in the bookies and the afternoon in the pub.

The next story was of a young man called Fizend, who had walked across Europe from Syria, and then lived in The Jungle at Calais. He arrived in England as an asylum seeker and was told the best he could hope for was to work in a car wash. He admitted an ambition to study English, and arrived at Birmingham Adult Education Services hoping to study for a GCSE. Needless to say, after a successful GCSE, he has carried on his studies and he is now looking forward to starting a Masters Degree in English in September. We were honoured that Fizend attended the event to tell his story and the whole room simultaneously rose to their feet to give him a standing ovation. With no disrespect to car washers, but wouldn’t our country be the less if he’d have followed the original advice?

Next speaking was Dr Mary Mahoney, from the University of Wolverhampton, discussing “The Value of Lifelong Learning”. She highlighted some key points that make it difficult to place a value on this type of education, including the vague definition – what actually is adult education? And what is it about? Is it about employability and skills, or is it about a full-life development and opportunity? She highlighted a few other key challenges: we don’t know what the problem we are trying to solve is and there isn’t an imperative for adult education in the way there is for schools, so schools are favoured. It was an interesting presentation with food for thought. Maybe we need a more united front to be able to really demonstrate the value of adult education?

Next Professor John Holford, from Nottingham University and joint secretary to the Centenary Commission, shared the commission’s recommendations. First, he highlighted the original need for the 1919 report: not just at a time of great reconstruction after the First World War, but at a time when many more people were now entitled to vote. He noted that democracy was growing and changing and, as a result, adult education was viewed as a chance for “building citizenship” and for “life-wide learning”. Next, when focussing on the recommendations, he again highlighted the links between what adults learn and the impact on other aspects of their lives and wider society, which he described as “learning spilling into other domains” of our lives. He also noted a key problem with the current adult education provision in England, which is that the majority of those that are accessing adult education aren’t necessarily those in the most need. A lot of funding goes to the already well-educated, and those that could truly benefit aren’t.

It was such a fantastic event, which I was truly honoured to attend, and I hope it is the start of many such events around the country. We must stand up and advocate for adult education and all share the commission’s 18 recommendations so that, in an uncertain future, adult education gets the value and funding it rightly needs.

(1) The Ministry of Reconstruction’s Report on Adult Education, now more commonly known as the 1919 report.

(Please note: this blog reflects my personal experience of the event and I am happy to be contacted to correct any inaccuracies that may have occurred in my recording of it. I was not asked to review or share the event in any way, but have chosen to do so because I think was fantastic and that the message needs to go out. My views in no way are contributed to my own employer.)

The Dictionary Game

I recently shared a photo of my whiteboard on Twitter, with all the words we’d explored as part of playing the ‘Dictionary Game’. There was quite a bit of interest, not just in the words but how to play, so I thought I’d share the rules.

But first a bit of background: full credit to my colleague Sue for creating the game, as part of a project we were working together on called ‘Work Ready’. One of the challenges of our work was engaging adult learners with vocabulary outside of their usual experience. The ‘vocab gap’ has been widely talked about and published on in recent years (reference to follow), but I think most adult literacy professionals include some exploration of vocabulary to enable and widen learners’ language experiences.

How to play:

In an ideal world, every learner is given the same edition of a dictionary (to ensure the same words are available to all). Everyone has a scrap of paper and is challenged to find a word they think their peers won’t know (even better, their tutor won’t know!). At this point, folk quite often get distracted because flicking through a dictionary is actually a fascinating thing to do. Once chosen, the words are written on the scrap of paper and are redistributed around the room, so everyone has a new word. This way of choosing vocabulary feels involving and empowering, rather than it just being more words imposed by the curriculum or the tutor. The sky is the limit!

With the new word they’ve received, each learner is tasked with looking up the word, finding out its definition, and then putting it into a sentence. This is then shared with the group. Everyone has a turn, but it’s low-stakes and non-threatening as we are all placed in the position of ‘learners’. When asked to share their word, I always ask them to spell it as I write it on the board. Again, this is non-threatening as can be read from the page, but I feel is vital to the learners’ ‘ownership’ of the word. The definitions often promote some discussion, especially if there’s more than one meaning of the word or if the word changes in usage, ie from a noun to an adjective. Putting the word into a sentence is useful. It helps us to understand that most of the time we encounter words we don’t know, we actually do so in context, thus enabling us to make smart guesses about the meaning.

I often ask learners how they found their word, which can prompt a useful conversation about how to use a dictionary effectively without me resorting to a ‘talk and chalk’ lecture. In my experience, the majority of adult learners know they need the first three letters of a word to find it effectively, but aren’t aware why there’s two words at the top of every page of the dictionary and that they represent the first and last word on the page. Why would they if no one has ever shown them?

You can use this just as a starter to get folk listening and engaged, before introducing your lesson topic, or it can be used to open up into wider discussions and to feed into larger class activities. It is easily adaptable across student ages and stages, as you can choose an appropriate edition of dictionary to reflect your groups.

Most of all, enjoy! I really enjoy playing, as I love to share my passion for words with my learners.

My action research thoughts

Previously, I completed action research as part of my Open University studies, namely for the “English Grammar in Context” module. The context was my teaching and I specifically focussed on an adult literacy class at a Birmingham probation office.

The problem I had identified to solve was seemingly about grammar, but turned into something much broader.

Initially, I had identified that some students could struggle to develop their writing due to incomplete sentence structure. I wished to investigate the barriers that students had to developing their writing. To enable me to do that, I asked the question:

What does a grammatical analysis of a piece of everyday writing by my own students reveal about its effectiveness?

I chose to follow a Hallidayan approach to linguistic analysis, particularly because he identifies that lexicogrammatical choices are not just about the language in use, but also about the social setting as well. The focus of my study was largely social, considering adult literacy through the lens of popular policy dialogue of the time[1] that apparently poor basic skills can impact on an individual’s life to the point of social exclusion or a higher probability of offending.

When collecting data for the analysis, I encountered an unexpected issue, namely the lack of everyday writing for the cohort. Using the categories of ‘writing to maintain the household’, ‘writing to maintain communication’, and ‘personal writing’, from Barton and Padmore (1994), I found that, from all the students within the cohort, they only identified with a maximum of one of the categories. I also encountered considerable anxiety around writing outside of their comfort zones, apparently linked to fear of making mistakes in spelling, punctuation or grammar.

Although not part of my initial study, I believed there was sufficient evidence that a lack of everyday reading and writing practices affected progress. Within the group was ‘student 4’, someone who had joined the class very enthusiastically, had excellent attendance, but whose progress had plateaued quite quickly. I was convinced the answer lay in his everyday literacy practices, or rather a lack of them. I compared his progress against another student, in a mainstream literacy class, who was also completing a counselling course alongside the literacy course, and who was reading and writing large amounts. This student’s progress was expediential.

Although small, my initial study allowed me to develop my teaching practice and pedagogy to ensure that students have the opportunity to develop their grammar to understand sentence structure, as well as lots of opportunities to write (therefore practising the art of writing). It also showed me the importance of using real-life examples and of modelling good writing. I believe this has the positive effect of building student confidence in their writing ability and, therefore, their ‘voice’.[2]

However, ever since, it has always felt important that I also promote everyday literacy practices. This led me to the Reading for Pleasure research and work, plus various writing for pleasure activities, which I promote to my students and are often the topic of this blog. I’d like, therefore, to be able to investigate further how effective this approach is and am intending to apply for the ETF/SUNCETT Practitioner Research Programme to give me the opportunity to explore this further.

I believe that raising everyday literacy levels would build confidence, voice and skills for all students, regardless of subject studied, so therefore hope to develop transferable models that can be used by other teachers and educators.


[1] The Skills for Life national strategy: https://dera.ioe.ac.uk/7187/7/ACF35CE_Redacted.pdf

[2] For me, language and literacy have a strong link to identity, which I am currently exploring, looking at the work of Kate Pahl and Ruth Finnegan – to be followed up in a further blog post.

Barton, D. and Padmore, S. (1994) Roles, Networks, and Values in Everyday Writing, in Graddol, D., Maybin, J. and Stierer, B. (1994) Researching Language and Literacy in Social Context. Avon, The Open University.


ReimagineFE – sparking new flames

At Reimagine FE, I shared the story of my blog, launched almost exactly a year ago in Isla’s kitchen, over a pile of biscuits and big mugs of tea. I shared my story in the hope of inspiring and empowering other adult, community and offender learning colleagues into what’s possible if we start to reimagine our work. Reimaging the FE sector is good work; important work.

And in FE, we kind of like fairy tales and I really love fairy tales… so, please, gather round my campfire. I have a tale I want to tell.

Once upon a time, last year, there was an old woman who lived deep in the woods.[1] The old woman’s work was spinning and weaving, spinning and weaving, spinning and weaving. She knew it was good work. Important work. Life-changing work. And she also knew the work was for everyone, important to spread and share.

At night-time, the old woman lit her candle so that she could continue that important work. Spinning and weaving, spinning and weaving, spinning and weaving. But sometimes, in the half-light, just as she was weaving a particularly beautiful thread of gold, the candle would blow out. The old woman would stand, slowly cross the room to light the candle again. But when she sat down to her work, she would exclaim in frustration, ‘I have lost my thread’. And the work would stutter and falter.

Meanwhile, the old woman hadn’t noticed that the important work was valued. The good people of her sector, who valued it the most, spoke kind words of encouragement, and tried to keep her working. Spinning and weaving, spinning and weaving, spinning and weaving. But once again, late into the night, the candle would blow out. The work faltered again and was lost.

Then the good people started to reach out. They reached out, and they wrapped their hands together, shielding her flame. Now the old woman could work. Her candle flame was shielded and protected, so she could sit and work: spinning and weaving, spinning and weaving, spinning and weaving. No longer could her work falter, no longer would she lose her thread, no longer was the candle flame blown out. The light of the candle illuminated it all and more; the old woman could see ALL the threads now, all the threads linking and flowing, connecting all the people together. Indeed, there was much good work.

And when the good work was finished, she put it down and went outside, dancing into the night.[2]

  1. Although I might not be considered old in our times, I was certainly feeling it a year or so ago. And, I’m trusting you know that old women in fairy tales represent wise women, right?
  2. Daley, M., Orr, K. and Petrie, J. Eds. (2015) Further Education and the Twelve Dancing Princesses. London: Institute of Education Press.

(I couldn’t resist a Dancing Princesses reference.)

Advocating FE; advocating SET

Just over a year ago, I joined the Society of Education and Training (SET). I’d been having a difficult time, working part-time out in the community, rarely walking onto college premises and, in hindsight, was feeling quite isolated. I was also feeling frustrated in my professional development, as Sarah Simons recently described perfectly in Tes. I have always felt like I was the over-keen geek in a room full of scepticism, as CPD was becoming another annoying acronym in education after years of being linked to a deficit view of teacher development.

I loved the new look of SET when it was launched and was really enjoying the opportunity to connect with other SET folk through Twitter. It feels to me like perfect timing for SET to fill a void, as I think that there is a really great need for it within our sector. Not just for a collected voice (which our union amply fills), but to help us find commonality and promote our professionalism. It is well reported we are living through difficult times in education but, I believe, some of the most difficult times have been in FE. I feel that we aren’t helped by the widespread nature of our sector, which gives us an even greater reason to band together as a community. We talk about FE and skills… and training… and adult and community…. and offender learning… which is a broad and difficult reach. I feel it’s time to club together behind one banner to stand up for our professionalism.

Last autumn I attended the inaugural SET conference. I was feeling brave (and not only in leaving my classroom for the day) and it did feel like a no-brainer as it was being held in the most amazing location that is only 10 minutes up the road from where I should’ve been teaching. Even though I arrived alone, I immediately met some lovely folk in the car park and we walked to the venue together. Even though I hadn’t yet walked through the door, I knew I was in the right place, that these were ‘my people’. The whole day was the same: every room I walked into I met people who were as passionate about FE as me; who were as committed to their professional development; who were as excited as me to come together. I had scanned the delegates list, eager to see who else was there, and was so inspired to see the range and breadth of our sector represented.

It wasn’t just the theme, ‘Pride in Professionalism’, but the venue itself reeked professionalism. Gone were the CPD rooms of old: stuffy conferences in backrooms. The location was fitting for the occasion. The Vox Centre is modern, light, well-purposed, central, and all this coupled with delicious food and fantastic workshops, which gave me the opportunity to participate, not just sit and listen. David Russell’s keynote inspired me further, getting me thinking how I could take pride in my own professionalism and, as a result, I enrolled in the next cohort of professional formation leading to QTLS. Although I had attended alone, I felt like I had found my community.

Since the conference, I have been engaging with SET whenever the opportunity has arisen. I was excited to hear about a new Local Network Group being founded in my area and felt keen to get involved. I’ve got stuck into the professional formation process, particularly enjoying the use of the self-assessment tool against the Professional Standards, and really valuing the opportunity to engage in greater critical reflection and build bigger, better, more concrete communities of practice.

When I saw there were vacancies to join the SET Practitioner Advisory Group (PAG), I saw a wonderful opportunity not only to give something back but to ‘put my money where my mouth is’ in supporting and advocating FE teachers’ professionalism. In truth, my desire to advocate for SET comes from a desire to advocate for FE.

I attended my first PAG last Friday. It was great to meet all the SET team and to finally meet some Twitter friends too. Again, I found myself in a room full of committed colleagues and again they represented the range and breadth of our sector. But, most importantly for me, it was a chance to witness first-hand just how member-focussed SET is. The Practitioner Advisory Group is just that – a group of passionate, committed professionals coming together for the good of our sector.

I have found my campfire to gather around. I suggest you give it a try too!

Putting evidence-based teaching & learning into practice

One of the concepts of QTLS is a developmental ‘thread’ running throughout. As I’ve blogged elsewhere, for me, one of those threads has been developing a more inclusive approach to dyslexia. QTLS has been an extremely useful opportunity for me to make the time and space to explore and to learn.

However, although I’ve been busy maintaining that and other ‘threads’ for my professional formation, it has actually been a really rich tapestry of learning, once I opened my mind and made a commitment to embrace any arising opportunities.

For example, some of the (unforeseen) lessons I learnt from FE Showcase have been serving me well for the past few weeks, as I help my students prepare for their upcoming exams. I recently confessed on Twitter that it took me until I was at least 30 before I worked out effective strategies for revising. Previous to that it was decidedly hit-and-miss. (I still haven’t forgiven myself for gaining a ‘first’ all year for my English Grammar module, only to drop my mark right down through my exam result – hands up, I didn’t even revise, including not using the past paper I was provided with. Idiot. But it is the reason I worked how to revise from then on…)

It’s worth noting that understanding how exams work is important in our current education system, which favours a lot of testing in all sorts of forms. There is, rightly, a lot of push-back against teachers ‘teaching to the test’, but I do think there is a lot of scope for teaching how tests work and how to negotiate them, from understanding how questions are asked and what language shapes them, to understanding good, practical ways to process the knowledge learnt in the best way to ‘showcase’ what has been learnt.

At this year’s FE Showcase, the second keynote speaker was Dr Flavia Belham, from SENECA, and her keynote was entitled ‘Helping Students Use Effective Learning Strategies’. It was excellent. She highlighted that the ways that our students choose to study aren’t really the best way for them to learn, i.e. re-reading material, writing summaries, and highlighting their textbooks.

I decided to take this to my students – asking them how they thought they should revise. Several said reading their notes and handouts, a few said rewriting their notes, a few genuinely had no idea where to start.

We formed a plan based on retrieval practice, whereby we separated the six types of texts into six days with one rest day in a week, and then the cycle would repeat again and again for as much time as they had or needed. For example, on Monday they might work on speeches and on Tuesday it could be articles. We agreed that revising these at the same time could be very confusing, as we’d struggle to remember the differences between the two.

Next, we planned in the work that would be the most effective way to learn, i.e. we could break down our notes into quickly grasped points, such as brainstorms, and we even did a few in class, with me modelling a useful approach.

Finally, the next step would be a practice exam question. This meant that they could put it all into practice there and then by working through the type of question that they could be asked. It also meant that they were actively testing themselves, which Flavia stated is a strong learning tool in its own right.

Me being me, there were one or two last points of my own to add. I understand that, as adults, my students have many other commitments, so might not be able to dedicate a session a day over several weeks. In that instance, I’ve suggested to them that the most important topic to revise is the one that worries them the most. It never ceases to amaze me how tempting it is to keep practising the thing that we’re good at, presumably as doing it well gives us a nice dopamine hit not too dissimilar to a like on Twitter. My other advice, as always, remains constant. If you want to be good at reading and writing, you need to read and write.

Has it been successful? Only time will tell but, so far, the feedback from the revision sessions has been good. But, as one student grasped the ideas, she exclaimed out loud “wow, that’s clever!” I’m sure Flavia would be glad to hear so!


Ethical thoughts (or how to tell stories that aren’t my own)

I think there’s an ethical consideration in education blogging, just like in educational research, that some of the stories that we are trying to tell aren’t ours to tell.

It probably doesn’t matter if it’s a blog focusing on research, techniques, content, etc, because it can be broad brushstrokes. What works, not ‘who’ it works too. However, in telling the story of using evidence-based practice, it inevitably is about a real-life situation and the impact that work is having on real people. Not hypothetical ‘students’ as a catch-all.

I’ve asked me about this before. I am very careful about what I use and how I use it, always asking permission and never using anything that hasn’t had the OK. I have a super photo of my whole class reading their Quick Reads at Christmas and it would’ve looked ace in my blog, but I don’t have everyone’s permission to use it and, actually, I wouldn’t ask either. As lovely a photo as it is, there was no real need to use it as it wouldn’t serve any greater purpose than the existing shot of me doing a reading selfie.

This week I’ve been sharing a video of my student’s poetry. I’ve her permission to share it; in fact, I have her blessing to share it as she knows I’m doing so for positive reasons. I’ve been trying to support her in setting up her own digital identity as a poet, getting in touch with The Prince’s Trust to look into a loan for self-publishing, and encouraging her to start going to open mic nights.  So, there’s a fine line to tread: telling enough of her story to give power to her voice, but not the whole story as it’s not mine to tell.

Another example is from a recent blog post here. I wrote about some lessons I have learnt through choosing to develop a more inclusive classroom. This has felt so important to me for so many reasons: partly as someone with dyslexia can easily be disadvantaged or even taken advantage of. Partly because it is an area I feel gets a lot of attention, but not necessarily much understanding of how to make a real difference. Partly I have a vested interest as a primary school governor with a focus on SEND.

However, to be able to tell the story of what I have learnt and how I have affected my practice, I need to be able to tell the stories of some of my learners. This, then, becomes an ethical issue, as it is really not OK for me to share details of my learners in any way that is identifiable, damaging, or disrespectful. If I did, then it would be me exploiting them for my own uses and gains. So, I’ve chosen a route that enables me to tell the stories, without doing any harm. I’ve chosen to mix it up a bit. I’ve changed a few details that don’t damage the story-telling, that don’t add dishonesty, but still can demonstrate key points. Maybe someone’s gender has changed, for example.

Because the point of my work is empowerment, enabling people to use their voices.