Put learners at the heart of education, not the courses

“When I was young and irresponsible, I was young and irresponsible.” So said George W Bush, to shrug off allegations of drug use.  It served him well for a time. But it says more about the 43rd President of the United States attitude to truth than it does about young people in general, few of whom go on to start illegal wars.   

If you’re in your 20s or younger you’re often in a transitional phase of your life. You might be in full-time education. You might have just started work. You might be doing neither. You might be feeling a bit lost.

So what do you do?

A sensible system of support will find you, give you a map, and help you find your way out.

That’s what we’re doing in the North of Tyne.

I met Brian when I knocked on his door while canvassing. He told me he’d started a community photography course. It gave him a reason to get out of the house. The course made him feel less isolated, less alone. He’d struggled with his mental health, and learning something new helped him recover.

There are thousands of people like Brian across the North East.

People who in the jargon are “farthest away from the labour market.”  People who find life a struggle and need a helping hand.  Perhaps with neurodiversity, or depression, or social anxiety.  Or simply low confidence.  They might be bright and talented, just not in a good place right now. 

It’s hard to ‘get on yer bike’ and look for work if you don’t have a bike to start with. Or put another way – you don’t throw someone in at the deep end if they’ve not yet learnt to swim.

Not everyone wants to go to college. At least not as a first step.  They want something more informal, less pressurising. Taught in a familiar setting by people they trust.

Which is why we fund organisations like the Workers’ Educational Association – the WEA.

This year WEA have provided more than 740 opportunities for people like Brian. With 500 of them – more than two-thirds – delivered as informal community learning.

We know they’re working with some of the most disadvantaged people in some of the most disadvantaged communities in our region.

We know that their work is helping people build up their confidence and break down barriers to learning and employment.

And we know that independence, self-awareness, and interpersonal skills are all critical.

The so-called ‘soft skills’ that are often the hardest to teach. But make the biggest differences to people’s lives.

We’ve given learning opportunities for 2,761 under 25s – people like Brian – in the first 6 months of this academic year.

With devolution, we wanted to do things differently.  Because if at the end of the day the same organisations get the same funding to deliver the same courses to the same students then what was the point?

The point of devolution is to use local skills, knowledge and connections – and people – to do a better job managing the Adult Education Budget from the North East rather than from London.

So what are we doing differently?

Well, we put the learners at the heart instead of the courses.  We’re not doing ‘Field of Dreams’ here – “If you build it they will come.”  There’s no good building something great if no one can get to it. And we know that public transport in the North East – not devolved until May next year I might add – is expensive and unreliable. So we need to get courses to where people live and work.

That’s doubly hard in rural Northumberland. But data shows that people from Alnwick, Amble, Berwick, Rothbury, Pegswood, Morpeth, Wooler, Hexham, and Haltwhistle have enrolled on courses we’ve funded.  So we’re getting this right.

And when the expanded devolution deal for the North East comes into force in May next year you can expect to see a similar story. Better provision in Sunderland, Gateshead, South Tyneside, and County Durham to match what we’ve achieved in Newcastle, North Tyneside, and Northumberland.

Most young people are not like George W Bush. Give them the right opportunities and they’ll make the most of them.