Adult education: how can co-operatives help?

Studies have shown the crucial benefits, ranging from career to wellbeing, that education can bring to adults – and co-ops have their part to play

Adult education is too important to be left to chance, argues a 2016 report by Warwick University, whose research highlighted the benefits of adult education for individuals, employers and communities and called for a national strategy for adult education. Can co-ops play a role in this?

Chris Butcher, research and public policy officer at the Workers’ Educational Association was one of the speakers at the Co-operative Research and Education Conference in Manchester earlier this month. He talked about the work of the organisation – the largest voluntary sector provider of adult education in England and Scotland.

WEA recently conducted a survey of over 2,000 participants, asking them how classes had affected their lives.

It found that over 52% of those taking classes are aged over 60 while 21% are non-native English speakers. They said said classes helped them feel better, keep their minds active, make new friends and increase self-confidence.

Related: Co-operation can help people play a key role in research

Around 49% were able to progress in their career while 12% said the classes helped them get new jobs. The survey also revealed that people taking WEA courses were more active culturally and improved relationships with their children.

Nigel Todd, chair of the board of trustees at the Co-operative College, explained how the College’s own research had revealed that by joining co-operatives people were learning new things as well as gaining trust and build a connection with the organisation. He suggested that co-operatives could also be key to reaching prison populations, helping them to learn new skills and rebuilding the prison education service.

Co-op philosophy can also help bring together groups of people to improve their communities, he added. Mr Todd gave the example of The Community Cooperative – Greening Wingrove Community Interest Company in the Wingrove and New Mills’ Estate, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Supported by the Big Lottery Fund, the initiative is running projects to improve the appearance of the local area while giving residents the tools to make a different, including by running training sessions. “Someone with a disability, who lacked confidence, attended the course as informal education and went on to do a master’s degree,” said Mr Todd.

Hazel Johnson of the Open University told the session co-ops also ad something to offer to young people. She suggested people could engage in co-ops to gain skills and formalise these through organisations such as the WEA or the College.

Kerry Facer of Bristol University, who delivered a keynote speech at the conference, argued that education bodies needed to work together as a collective sector rather than just defend a particular institution.

Adult learning is not dependant on institutions, there are questions about how adult institutions can act as platforms to support people to learn from each other,” she said.

“We need to get beyond defending institutions and think about the different landscape we are in and resources we have otherwise we end up competing with each other.”

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