Swansea - Building local communities of practice in lifelong learning

Lifelong Learning has to constantly re-examine and restate its beliefs and practices in order to stay relevant. When I started in Adult Education some 25 years ago, Local Authorities and all post 16 education providers had generous funding available to support adults who had either been disadvantaged by their education, or who simply needed new skills. Working in the Welsh Valleys area we were able to build upon the spirit of co-operation we found amongst the women’s groups that had sprung up during the miners’ strike. Using European funding we could provide ICT labs and intensive one year training programmes in post mining communities.

Alongside our part-time humanities degree in the community we offered European funded ICT training and this attracted more than 3,000 adults eager to learn new skills. These centres transformed their communities and still offer a vital lifeline. The centres were staffed by local volunteers who were part of the community and understood the community’s needs. We had contact with other providers but each body provided what they and the centres thought was required.


Relevance of European funded projects

Further European funded projects – Parenting in a Multicultural European City – X-PLOIT being the most recent have allowed us some time to experiment and reflect on our practice with a group of European partners – all lifelong learning practitioners – and have led us to take up the challenge of creating a Learning City Region. We now have a much broader Regional Learning Partnership which includes all education providers from schools to colleges and universities, the private sector and the local authority. This partnership has facilitated a strategicRegional Delivery Plan for Employment and Skills, Our current challenge is to try and create the co-operation and openness of the community centres on a city region scale.

The community of practice has widened to include city regions from all corners of the globe, the UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning platform, the Pascal Observatory and all the earlier Learning Cities projects and their collected resources which inspire us to think more boldly and on a larger scale.

More recently the funding here in Wales for adult education has dried up, courses once subsidised are now offered at cost. The local authority grant system that allowed adults to return to education has been replaced by a loan system. Local councils have had to make cuts in all their provision. The emphasis has become economic prosperity, economic survival - getting people back to work in the shortest time possible. Important concepts and ideas of allowing individuals to fully discover and develop their individual talents have receded.

In the development of the Swansea Bay City Region we focused particularly on the entrepreneurial aspects of Lifelong Learning for two reasons: to get buy-in from this broad group of partners – and because we believe that developing the entrepreneurial mind set: creative problem solving skills, self-direction, risk taking, best equip students of all ages to cope with the fast changing world where continuing growth can no longer be taken for granted and where finite resources will have to used more sustainably.

Technology fills some of the gaps. Online learning has developed during this period, used well, and for particular situations or groups, “flipping the classroom” is an ideal solution. A global class of students discussing sustainability online can produce incredible learning. However, many learners also want to be part of a physical community of learning, with a sense of shared purpose and the benefit of face to face communication. The UK Open University excels at providing a blend of online, face to face and group learning and in a broad range of subjects.

Learning has become more piecemeal, many agencies offer small bites. Communities First in Wales, has funding for this type of learning. Private agencies have the funds for “back to work” training. The voluntary sector including U3A has many groups. Interest groups spring up, both online and locally. The challenge for learners is to find pathways between these diverse offerings.


Success of learning city objectives

Entrepreneurship education is flourishing and has given schools a tool that many, including less achieving pupils, respond to. Entrepreneurial Academies in Colleges and Universities are inspiring students to develop skills and attitudes that can deal with challenges of the future. Examples can be identified like the new Bay Campus just opening in Swansea University, where industry is co-located with research to enhance innovation and entrepreneurial development.

IT hubs where young entrepreneurs co-locate also work well and seem to satisfy many needs, agglomeration theory has seeped into general consciousness.

We are benefiting from Learning City concepts, and inspired by so many examples from worldwide communities are, I hope, using our entrepreneurial skills to meet the new challenges of the constantly changing landscape.


Jean Preece, Swansea University’s Department of Adult Continuing Education (DACE)

Links: + Pascal Observatory, Cradall Center for Research & Development in Adult and Lifelong Learning (Glasgow University)