Adult education has been a neglected field in terms of public attention and funding. The European Commission’s mission has been to change that. Part of their solution: EPALE, a community of colleagues that should give a voice to this diverse field.
“I can’t say I was the one with the bright idea of creating it. I wasn’t there for the conception. I wasn’t even there at the birth because I arrived just before the launch conference. Maybe I’m a godfather,” says Paul Holdsworth, leader of the ‘Skills for Adults’ team at the European Commission.
He is talking about EPALE, the Electronic Platform for Adult Learning in Europe, started in 2014 by the European Commission with the aim of bringing some cohesion to the European adult education field.
However mundane a platform might sound, everyone in the adult learning sector seems to have an opinion on EPALE. People seem to either love it or hate it.
As the platform celebrated its third anniversary in April, it seemed a good opportunity to talk with EPALE representatives and look back on how things have gone.
A neglected field in education
That is how I ended up talking with Mr Holdsworth. For some four years now, he has been leading a team of four people dealing with adult learning policy at the European Commission. That means that things that have anything to do with EPALE end up in his desk at some point.
- was born in Yorkshire, lives in Belgium;
- Team-leader of adult education policy at the European Commission;
- has worked in European Commission since 1996, in the fields of language policy, teacher education and adult education (since 2014).
He has found the field fascinating to work in, as there are so many different aspects in education: sociology, philosophy and classroom practice. There is also a lot of political interest in education.
“It is a topic that is always somehow in the news,” he says.
Hold on. Although this might be true to education in general, it is hardly the case for adult education. To start with, there are only four people in his team at the Commission.
Over the European Union, the field of adult education tends to be the field that gets the least attention and the least money, in almost every country.
“There are 400 million adults, so we have about 100 million people each,” Holdsworth jokes, but adds quickly that there are other departments that deal with, for example, adult education in the Erasmus+ programme, adult skills training financed through the European Structural Funds, data and statistics and so on.
It still sounds a rather small team for adult learning policy in the whole of Europe.
“I would prefer not talk about whether we are well-resourced or not,” Holdsworth laughs when asked about the matter.
“What I can say is that, generally speaking over the European Union, the field of adult education tends to be the field that gets the least attention and the least money, in almost every country. It’s higher education, school education, vocational education and then finally possibly some attention to adult education,” he continues.
This is probably not a shock to anyone working in the field. But why is it so?
A heterogeneous field
According to Mr Holdsworth, one reason is that the field of adult learning is so diverse and diffuse. It could mean anything: middle-class cookery classes, sports, IT skills for the elderly, literacy courses, or it could be refugees learning languages. The organiser of adult learning might be a private company or a public service, a volunteer body or even a health authority.
Politicians, on the other hand, tend to focus their attention more on initial education.
“It is hard to argue for increasing the budget for adult learning, because it could mean less money for schools or universities,” Mr Holdsworth says.
Only some 10% of adults engage in any kind of learning. That’s nowhere near the massive involvement that we need to see in adult learning.
Nevertheless, behind the complex facade, adult education’s importance is clearly growing. Firstly, now there is academic research that shows that it improves your health, the desire to participate in democracy societal life and economic prospects.
Secondly, changing working life expectations, digitalisation and migration flows are just a few phenomena that also indicate that learning should not end after school.
This clearly contradicts the way the education system was developed in the 19th century. In those times, once you learned how to read and write that was basically all you needed to know for 50 years in a factory.
“I think many people still haven’t come to terms with the idea that the world is actually very different now and it’s changing very quickly. Only some 10% of adults engage in any kind of learning. That’s nowhere near the massive involvement that we need to see in adult learning,” he says.
In fact, according to him, people who already have degrees take part in lifelong learning most actively.
On the other hand, people who never finished school, are marginalised or do not have economic assets are simply so excluded from world of learning that may not even know how it might be beneficial to them. For example, there are approximately 63 million adults with low basic skills in Europe.
“The key message right now is that everyone needs to be learning throughout life. If you stop, you get left behind.”
Lobbying instead of law-making
On a practical level, however, there is one major thing holding the commission back from putting its vision into practice, and that is where EPALE comes in.
“The EU has no power in the field of education, as we can’t make laws. But what we can do is to bring experts together, get them to innovate and encourage them to aim for higher standards,” says Mr Holdsworth.
There are working groups and national coordinators for adult learning. There is Erasmus+ and the European Social Fund that finance projects and training. And there is the European agenda for adult learning, “an ambitious list of visions” that was adopted by the ministers of different member states in 2011.
People and organisations providing adult learning often do not talk to each other, even in the same region of a country.
“We try to use both a bottom-up and top-down approach: bottom-up as we offer funding to adult education projects and top-down as we try to persuade politicians just to aim a bit higher,” Mr Holdsworth explains.
But according to him, lack of cooperation within the adult learning sector itself is also an issue. People and organisations providing adult learning often do not talk to each other, even in the same region of a country.
As we speak, EPALE, the online platform launched to change this, is celebrating its third anniversary with some 40,000 visitors per month. The commission’s aim has been to make it a place where people working in the field could work together, whether they are teachers, policy-makers or researchers.
This is the first time anyone has done this, so they are learning as they go along.
“There is no other online platform specifically aimed at bringing together the whole adult learning community anywhere in the world. So, we try something and then improve it based on user surveys,” he says and then names some suggested improvements, such as increasing the website speed and making it easier to find content relevant to the user.
“We are on the way to creating the kind of community we are aiming for. We just have to find the critical mass that we don’t yet have – people who are going to use EPALE every single week, which will make it a real community,” he says.
Top-down instead of bottom-up
In some ways, this seems upside down. As the need for technical support for communication did not start from the grassroots level, why did the commission choose to build an ambitious technical platform, and then make it a target to build a community to use the platform?
As said, adult education is an enormous umbrella, under which are people from different career paths and sectors. Is it even possible to meet the different needs on a single platform?
Mr Holdsworth replies by saying that it good for personal and professional development to have a broader range of experience and compare what is happening with colleagues in other countries.
It still fails to answer the question of why an adult education professional should use EPALE, when there are Facebook groups and countless other applications and social media channels?
Is it even possible to meet the different needs on a single platform?
To answer this, he names an even more important aim: creating a community of adult learning professionals that will be able to give a voice to adult learning at European and national levels.
“We hope to create a well-informed and lively community, able to discuss where it wants adult learning to go, and set out its vision. Maybe it could even become one of the main interlocutors for the Commission and national governments in the field of adult learning, pushing forward the agenda of adult learning.”
A community of colleagues that could raise itself from the shadows.