What do we mean by 'Community Learning'?
Carol Taylor reflects on some core concepts
Family and Community Learning is a vital part of the educational landscape in the UK. The involvement of families and communities in education opens doors, improves employability (ie the range of skills and experience needed to choose career paths, get a job, change jobs, leave a job), sets up the model for a learning culture, contributes to economic well-being, and improves community cohesion. And that's just for starters! In this introduction to the Special Report, I want to reflect on what we mean by 'community learning' in the 21st century, and to set the scene for the articles that follow. I have also chosen to develop this theme to take in 'community literacy', a concept that for me grew out of 'family literacy' and the links between poor basic skills and a range of other social factors that are linked to poverty.
A quick skip through Google, and a look at a dozen or so sites that have 'community learning' in their mission statement (or even their title), reveals that it's an over-used and overgeneralised phrase. While not disagreeing with the mission statement 'We aim to offer opportunities to people who have gained the least from formal education and training', I ask the question 'But why is that 'community learning'?'
And the statement 'Learning is something you can do any day and at any time, whether you're in your local library, museum, cinema, art gallery or just exploring your local area' sees community learning as about place - in this case definitely not a formal learning setting such as a school. A Community Learning Service points out on its website that its mission is to 'provide a wide range of high quality part-time courses for adults across the county'. So community learning is about courses? As is often the case when exploring this field, Scotland is a good place to start:
'Broadly, we can approach community education as 'education for community within community'. In other words, something called 'community' is not just the place or context in which education is to occur, fostering community is also a central concern. The process of becoming part of an existing social network in order to encourage dialogue and learning is sometimes labelled as 'informal education' in UK discussions or as 'community education' in Scottish debates'. Mark K. Smith (2007) www.infed.org.uk*
In 1987 I was employed as part of Derbyshire County Council's 'Community Education strategy'. The Council had decided to put several million pounds into the development of a wide-ranging, cradle-to-grave strategy to develop community education, based in primary and secondary schools. I was assigned to seven primary schools, working in a cluster, with little steer from elected members at the start, and an exhortation to go out there and make community education happen.
My aim, supported by the heads of the seven schools, was to bring the community into the schools and take the schools out into the community. The range of activity went from the expected - adult classes, reading support, after-school clubs - to the unusual - the community involved in whole school activity days, a community patchwork, writing a book about one of the villages, and so on.
To me, youngish, straight out of teaching, community learning was simple - it was about communities learning together, for both intrinsic and extrinsic reasons. Perhaps to help your (or another family's) child in school, or in out-of-school provision; perhaps to work together to clear up derelict land for community use; perhaps to understand more about your community; perhaps simply because you felt brave enough, and supported enough, to decide you wanted to learn for yourself, and the primary school felt like the safest place to do it.
By the mid-1990s, family literacy programmes appeared - four demonstration programmes in 1993, funded by ALBSU*, established the 'three-stranded approach' (working with adults, with children and jointly with both groups). A robust evaluation of this approach by Brooks et al., which demonstrated that family literacy was highly successful at engaging parents, improving children's language, and improving adults' literacy levels, led to national funding and the development of family literacy programmes in virtually every local authority.
This involved a rigid 92-hour model which, as a wide range of community groups began to deliver family literacy, began to cause frustration:
'There were increasing concerns about the rigidity of the approved 'dominant' model and whether this programme could provide appropriate support for all families, especially those with particular social or language needs'.
The blurring of 'family literacy' and 'community literacy' had begun - where does a family end and a community begin, for example, in extended families, or with children who are looked after? Or in situations where parents cannot engage with a model where they have to attend every week, so a neighbour may be the best person to support the child?
The concept of 'community literacy' is particularly interesting when we think about teenage parents - often disaffected and with poor literacy and numeracy skills, too often from dysfunctional families themselves, and needing the support of a range of places and people to enable them to survive and prosper.
Recent practice shows that teenage parents rely on safe places to support their
own and their child's development, and often need the presence of a 'surrogate'
family, be that a voluntary organisation, a mentor or supported and tailored literacy
provision, that embeds their own learning in that of being a parent (see Nicola Aylward's article). Community literacy is key in thinking about offenders who are also parents,
who rely on a range of people in their community (both social and geographical)
to enable them to continue to support their children and to improve their own
literacy through activities like 'Storybook dads' and Family Days.
(see Antonia Rubinstein's article)
An NRDC-sponsored piece of research  created an opportunity for a group of us to think more deeply about the issue of 'community literacy'. We were interested in taking the concept of community learning one step further - what does it mean to do cradle-to-grave basic skills, with a community focus? The starting point for the study was that community-focused provision was under-conceptualised, underresearched and insufficiently appreciated in the current policy context.
We sought to add to current understanding by looking at previous research and then conducting case studies of providers in England who were thought to be taking a community-focused approach. We wanted to find out what these people actually did and thought, and whether there were enough similarities to begin to come up with a concept of 'Community-Focused Provision'. The study concluded that there was indeed something that could be called 'Community-Focused Provision' and that those who were planning and managing provision in this way were robust in their own thinking about what it was.
Community learning at risk?
Community learning is currently at risk as the move towards longer courses, and those that carry qualifications, bites deep. According to the latest figures from the Learning and Skills Council (LSC)*, 55,000 adult learners have been lost from publicly-funded 'safeguarded' adult learning (formerly Adult Community Learning) in the last year. This means that, in just three years, there has been a fall of 184,600 adult learners in programmes for personal fulfilment, civic participation and community development.
This fall is on top of the 1.4 million adult learning places that have been lost from all publicly-funded adult learning over the last two years . (See also Graham Meadows' article) The decision to split the DfES* into, broadly, pre-16 and post-16 puts areas of work like family learning at great risk of being seen as only about one target group. Indeed the funding of Family Literacy, Language and Numeracy through the LSC puts the onus on providers to meet national PSA* targets for learners acquiring a Level 2 qualification.
Even more at risk are activities that could be described as 'community literacy' - activity that is often located in the voluntary and community sector, and often working with the most disadvantaged and disaffected. Working in this way with the whole community to improve literacy skills so that people can be encouraged to 'have their say' is a long hard process, but one that pays off - not only in improving literacy skills but also in developing people's motivation and ability to improve other skills.
The articles in this Special Report highlight the range of activity that encourages people to improve their literacy, language and numeracy skills in the context of community learning - learning that happens in communities and is open to all irrespective of age. Most importantly, community learning has at its heart the development of the skills of individuals, families and communities so that they can become part of a social network.
Carol Taylor is a Director at NIACE* and the former Director of BSA*. She has 30 years experience in literacy and numeracy, 'cradle to grave'.
 Brooks, G., Gorman, T., Harman, J., Hutchison, D., Kinder, K., Moor, H. and Wilkin, A. (1997). Family Literacy Lasts: the NFER Follow-up Study of the Basic Skills Agency's Demonstration Programmes. Basic Skills Agency
 Figures fron NIACE, April 2008. See www.niace.org.uk
* See Glossary
We will be spending around £1.5 billion per year on a full range of first step and progression programmes which improve skills levels and employability, help strengthen families and communities, and support social justice and community cohesion. We value informal adult learning. Whilst we have safeguarded a budget of £210 million per year up to 2010-11 we recognise that this hasn't been perceived as a priority area in recent years. That's why we have launched a consultation and national debate on this kind of learning. For more information, see www.adultlearningconsultation.org.uk
DIUS has committed £25 million per year from 2008 to fund family literacy, language and numeracy courses. The recent DCSF Children's Plan provides an additional £30 million over the next three years to support family learning, demonstrating a strengthening of the links between compulsory and post-compulsory education.