From education to employment

Continued Development Urged for Testbed Learning Centre Scheme, Concludes NIACE Report

The National Institute of Adult Continuing Education (NIACE) have released their review of test bed learning communities, in which they praised the projects for “beginning to provide some of the answers,” but urged the government to continue developing the scheme.

The report, entitled “Building local initiatives for learning, skills and employment,” was published to coincide with a national conference in Leicester, which examined the current difficulties facing adult learning, and the effects of factors such as changing demography on adult education policy-making.

The report is keen to stress that community-based learning not only has “obvious benefits for communities”, bringing “learning and employment opportunities within reach,” but also has advantages from a governmental point of view, improving the social and economic resources of an area, and helping to bring disadvantaged areas closer to the national average.

Learning Communities

The 28 learning communities across the English regions were set up as part of the 2003 Skills Strategy, in order to make education more accessible at a local level to people who were otherwise disadvantaged in the sector. At the time, the then skills minister, Ivan Lewis, spoke of the need to instil “high aspirations and belief in the importance of education” in order to “make a reality of lifelong learning.” The report describes the learning communities as “the glue between educationalists and local communities, helping to join up services so that they meet local needs.”

The current funding for the test bed communities is due to end in March, but the report suggests that the scheme has been so successful in some areas that many will continue beyond this, “because local partnerships and key agencies like the Learning and Skills Council (LSC) and local authorities have recognised their work.” Within the test bed communities, the focus on learning and skills can be felt in a number of areas, including all levels of the education sector, from pre-school to Further and Higher Education, workforce development and community citizenship learning.

A Clear Message

The message for the government is clear: the learning communities are key tool in helping to achieve many of their crucial policy pledges. “The contribution of learning and skills to greater prosperity and social inclusion in firmly anchored in government policy on sustainable development.” As well as helping to fulfil the government’s Every Child Matters Agenda, and improve equality between disadvantaged and high-achieving communities, “Learning communities ““ through skills and employability initiatives and employer links ““ can help to achieve the 80 per cent target for employment set by the government.” The report also suggests that can provide a crucial local-level test bed for policies.

One of the most positive aspects of the learning communities project has been the link established between community education and local prosperity, through their ability to “anchor learning and skills in broader plans for area renewal.” The importance of community participation has also been highlighted, and the report acknowledges that, “precisely because learning is a voluntary activity, a learning community without the active engagement of their residents would be meaningless.” The report cites the example of a community garden festival, which, having attracted a wide range of the local community, lead to the development of further community groups, and later to a drop in anti-social behaviour.

Helping Communities

The institutions created within the test bed neighbourhoods have taken on many different forms. In some areas, these include a First Stop Neighbourhood Centre, which can offer volunteering, citizenship and community leadership and advice on issues ranging from immigration to heath and debt. In other areas, Jobmatch Networks help to link deprived communities with employment opportunities, reducing commuting and improving the income of the area.

As well as a number of in-depth case studies of individual local learning communities, the report also offers advice for building on the success that the learning communities have provided thus far. These include greater cooperation between learning communities, to promote the exchange of experience and ideas, through regional conferences and the establishment of regional networks. The report also stresses the need to continuing widening the participation of local residents in the development of learning communities, even using voluntary and community organisations as intermediaries between residents and service providers. Costs can be cut, it is suggested, through “all-agency partnership and collaboration” and a joining up of key policy areas, to avoid duplication of roles and services.

Jessica Brammar

What else should the Government do to support testbed learning centres? Tell us in the FE Blog

Related Articles