NB: (material for this article is drawn from the writers current research for a book)
Summary: Community learning needs to be expanded so that young people who have suffered disruption to their full-time education will have access to a much wider range of accessible, part time learning opportunities in the future. This will also help people who have lost jobs to develop skills and qualities to pursue future occupations. The solution is based upon using secondary schools to provide lifelong learning and community development opportunities. In the C20th some schools were designated community colleges: responsibilities that were conferred upon them to provide community education i.e. adult education, youth and community development work. Community education tutors (usually 2/3) developed such work in colleges. Many were successful in this role and they embodied the concept of lifelong learning. But most colleges ceased to provide community education by the end of the C20th. In the early part of the C21st, a new form of community college (extended schools) was introduced in some parts of England but were not continued beyond 2010 – although there are still some community schools in Scotland and extended schools in Northern Ireland.
There is good evidence of the effectiveness of community colleges and extended schools in increasing participation in learning and meeting the varied learning and social needs of their communities – as well as improving their compulsory education provision. Staff and governors need to be committed and trained for this extended role. They will also need to develop partnerships and work closely with other professionals so that the principles of community education can be put into practice. Headteachers and school staff will not be able to provide these additional services on their own.
The first principle is commitment to lifelong learning through a curriculum that reflects the learning and social needs of their communities. Many C20th colleges provided community education programmes that consisted of academic, vocational, health, leisure, recreational, language courses and other informal learning activities. Educational advice and guidance, open learning, special provision for people with learning difficulties, extensive adult basic education programmes were also important provisions. School pupils were able to access these activities, and, in return, adult students were able to access some post 16 academic and vocational courses. College youth tutors ran a wide variety of evening, weekend and holiday time activities such as sports, drama, holiday play schemes and outdoor activity clubs to complement the school extracurricular programmes. All these activities contributed greatly to the economy, health and well being of the local communities served by the college.
Another important principle is shared use of premises. Schools are an important educational resource, funded by public monies. They are open 5 days a week for 6-8 hours a day for 40 weeks of the year to deliver compulsory education. To optimise efficient use of resources they could and should be used more extensively. Successful community colleges and extended schools were used by local community groups, alongside secondary education and lifelong learning activities, especially in the evenings, weekends and holiday times. Links were made between the community and the school curriculum to mutual benefit, such as sports clubs supporting various school sports with coaching expertise and providing progression from school teams to local club teams. Similarly, community cultural groups such as drama and music worked closely with school drama and music. These links enhanced and enriched the learning experiences of all concerned, not least school pupils.
Community development is another principle. Many colleges/extended schools made big contributions to the development of their communities by supporting community groups, providing learning activities and guidance to individuals that helped them grow in confidence and in leadership and entrepreneurial abilities. Roles that contributed to the social, economic, political and cultural life of the community. For example, an Access to Higher Education student went on to gain a degree; was then elected county councillor and served her community with distinction for over 20 years. She initiated many improvements to community life, through her political work. Others went on to run successful businesses from their initial adult education courses such as cake decoration, flower arranging and reflexology. Many students in adult education activities such as badminton, archery, pottery, photography progressed to form community clubs, including sections for young people. This contributed to the social and cultural life of the community and its general well being. There are many more examples.
The extended schools of the early part of the C21st built upon community college principles and practice of being open to pupils, families and the wider community during and beyond the school day. Community activities were aimed particularly at vulnerable groups, in areas of deprivation where services were limited. Community cohesion was promoted by building links between schools and the wider community, thus contributing to neighbourhood renewal. Positive attitudes to learning were also promoted, including participation in lifelong learning. These schools were founded upon greater ‘multi-professional’ partnership working with other agencies such as health, social services and the voluntary sectors.
Conclusion: The challenges presented by the pandemic can be met by creating more community-based learning hubs, using the principles and good practices of previous community colleges and extended schools. The future challenges we face need a radical increase in lifelong learning provision and participation, as well as community support and renewal schemes. Everyone deserves ongoing access to lifelong learning for whatever the reason: the future success of the country depends on this.
The government should act as a good employer by providing ongoing continuous professional development and looking after the health and well-being of its work force. In return, our citizens will be enabled to make greater and more efficient contributions to our economic, social and cultural recovery.
‘Levelling up’ needs to start by investing in community based lifelong learning.