This was a joint event, run by Jonathan Hughes, set up by the Association for Education and Ageing and the British Society of Gerontology. In the background there was a working suggestion that the BSG should establish a special interest group on education. Judging from the two presentations in the morning this might need at least two strands: the first, reflecting Paul Nash’s account of the poor state of investment and organisation in the UK, would concern gerontological education; the second, following from Bernhardt Schmidt-Hertha, would concern educational gerontology. Thus, professionals working with older people should have a broader understanding of later life, while older learners, whether inside or outside the job market, need better support and better funded opportunities. The two strands have something in common, and at some stage very similar institutional and political barriers will need to be confronted. But, however interrelated the two strands may be, they are for the most part operationally distinct and they raise different questions and practical challenges. There was a lot of history in the room. People like Alexandra Withnall and Anne Jamieson, for whom these matters have been lifelong professional concerns, sat alongside the campaigners of the Ransackers Association, representatives of the Third Age Trust, and others who are currently carrying out topical research. In addition, two or three older participants had come out of interest and curiosity and because they have been involved in the BSG’s recent Kilburn Debates.
In the afternoon we were ably dragooned by Jonathan Hughes into a set of working groups to consider five questions largely related to the second strand of the day’s concerns:
· What research considerations do we have in the field of learning in later life?
· What kind of research could best meet these research considerations?
· What are the implications of international research projects?
· What can large scale or experimental studies contribute?
· What potential is there for concerted action to ensure progress in this research field?
The bulk of the report backs, assembled on flip-charts, focused on these questions. Jo Walker fed back from my table. It was a very research-focused agenda. I have only the notes of the things that interested me. Roughly speaking these focused on:
· Understanding and describing both the need for ongoing formal education and its relationship to everyday learning and lifelong ‘expertise’.
· A better, more widely shared, understanding of the historical picture – why we are where we currently seem to be; what social factors make the position different from the early 90s, and so on.
· The need for a better understanding of where ‘learning’ takes place for older people: I suggested in-depth case studies of contrasted neighbourhoods.
· Some sort of discussion (perhaps within the AEA) about the relationship between the U3A, WEA and others, Ransackers and the higher education colleges, and any other such bodies.
Jonathan’s final set of questions led more directly into our concluding exchanges.
· Is a SIG in BSG the right place to achieve this progress and make significant contributions to research?
· What are the alternatives and how do they take into account existing networks?
· Is a new kind of network needed, and how should it differ from other networks (AEA, ELOA)?
· What might be its characteristics – should it be national or international, disciplinary or interdisciplinary, a network of researchers or a network of researchers and practitioners?
My thoughts nearly a month later are roughly these. The first strand – the decline in gerontological education – needs urgent attention. Ideally, it should be better integrated within a policy favouring lifelong learning, but that is probably not essential to putting the situation right. It is just an absurdity that professional education has become so far detached from the realities of an ageing population, and that the high expectations of thirty years ago have not been realised. Moreover, it is the broader model of gerontology education we need in the UK. The narrower, psychologically-focused interpretation that Bernhardt identified in Germany would be much less appropriate.
The second strand needs a shift of focus. Here the trend is in the opposite direction, and, has been, as the U3A has shown, driven by older people’s involvement within education in a rather more self-sufficient direction than critical gerontologists like Frank Glendinning anticipated. However, despite what appears to be an expansion, this has probably meant (with the dramatic decline in AEA funding over fifteen years or so) that inequality in terms of access has widened. U3A groups are often diverse in a variety of ways, but they rarely function well in ‘disadvantaged’ neighbourhoods.
Research I think needs to focus more on what it is that interests older people about formal education and why they get involved in it. This would be a move in the direction of more sociologically rather than educationally-driven studies. There are important cohort effects. One or two people present had left school at 14 and were educated before the Butler Education Act was passed and the 11plus introduced. They represent a classic instance of disadvantage across the life-course, albeit a declining proportion of the population. Then, anyone roughly between the ages of 50 and 80 in the UK will have taken the 11plus: this perpetuated the earlier class distinctions but gave them a new intra-class competitive twist. What has been its impact on attitudes to learning and education in later life? Anecdotally, an unresolved anger divides baby-boomers, in particular, over this issue and may have implications for the design of learning opportunities and course content.
Two other structural factors seem important in this debate. The first, following Higgs and Gilleard to some extent, has been the impact of a consumer society. This has altered the aspirations and expectations of older people, and responding to these will involve working in ways not anticipated thirty years ago. Learning for its own sake – as distinct from the desire to ‘participate’ – has taken a step back. The second concerns the organisation of later-life learning and the extent to which it should be intergenerational – the point of overlap between the strands of this meeting. And it is also the point where the more educationally-focused issues that arise when groups of people of very different ages are studying alongside each other come into their own. The scope for competitive discomfort is often underestimated, the scope for cooperative support often exaggerated.
My own theme - the relationship between conversation and action in education, and its implications for life-long learning - harks back to the critical gerontology tradition. Whether it is focused on community involvement, or strengthening institutions, older people seem increasingly called on to provide civic leadership, and undertake new levels of responsibility both for our own social defence and for that of others. How to do this without being co-opted to the neoliberal agenda of making things worse to benefit the rich and their allies represents the single biggest challenge. Processes of reflection, practices of resilience in the service of what Blackwell and Seabrook called a ‘conserving radicalism’ need to be close to the heart of purposive later-life education.
A SIG is a good idea, but a tall order. I wonder if ILC-UK and the Institute for Education have important contributions to make here, alongside the bodies already named?
John Miles: 13/07/2015