Andrew McCoshan reflects on how the adult learning sector can help in the response to the call from the Council of the EU to develop pathways for adults with poor basic skills.
Adult learning professionals will have a lot to offer in the coming months as EU Member States start to develop the upskilling pathways called for in the recent Recommendation from the Council of the EU. They have a wealth of knowledge and experience that will be invaluable for the planning, design and implementation of the pathways needed.
The Recommendation calls for the development of pathways to develop literacy, numeracy and digital skills for people who left school before the end of upper secondary education. Such pathways may lead to qualifications at EQF Levels 3 or 4. Adult learning has both direct experience of such work through "second chance education" and also more generally in working with adults with poorly developed basic skills.
So from what is already known in the adult learning sector, what is needed to build successful upskilling pathways?
1 Effective outreach to the target group
Upskilling pathways are aimed at people who have struggled to succeed in mainstream education and they can be hard to recruit into education and training schemes as adults. Adult learning has much experience in reaching out to these communities. Often it needs collaboration with civil society organisations who know their communities inside-out and understand the obstacles people face in getting back into learning. Many adult learning providers already possess long-term relationships with community groups.
2 Packages to support people in their learning
Learners who use upskilling pathways are likely to need a package of support measures to ensure they get to the end of their learning "journeys". Each learner is likely to have their own individual needs, and these will be related not just to how they might best learn but also to non-learning obstacles such as health issues, access to transportation etc. These require the assembly of multi-professional teams including not only educators but also social welfare professionals, guidance counsellors, psychologists etc. Each learner will probably need their own mix of expert support.
3 Appropriate learning environments
Upskilling pathways will involve learners who may well have had negative experiences in the compulsory phase of education. As experience in second chance education in particular testifies, it is important that mainstream school environments are not replicated for these learners: they are more likely to deter than encourage. This means rethinking what classrooms look like and where they are located, as well as how timetables are structured. Many adult learning professionals have vast experience in developing such "alternative" provision.
4 A "stepping stone" approach
Learners are likely to need ongoing encouragement. Existing qualifications will seem like a far-off horizon. It is important to mark stages of achievement clearly and offer opportunities for validation regularly. Radical alternatives such as endorsements by peers or employers could be considered to give learners a sense of achievement. "Entry-level" qualifications may need development (at EQF Level 1 or even below) to get learners onto pathways and give them clear goals.
5 Rigorous transition support towards the end of the pathway
What happens to learners when they get to the end of an upskilling pathway? Will they be able to make the most of what they have learnt? People who lack basic skills often also lack the ability to reflect on their learning and to identify what they should do next. Lessons from adult learning show that assistance in these areas needs to be a central part of all upskilling pathways and not an “optional extra” at the end. Learners need preparation for the exit from their upskilling pathway. Indeed, it should really not be an exit at all, but just the next step.
This is just some of the knowledge we have in adult learning that we can use to make upskilling pathways a success. In essence, the message to the designers of upskilling pathways should be this: put the learner at the centre and weave together individualised packages of support that bring together all the expertise the learner needs.
Andrew McCoshan has worked in education and training for over 30 years. For more than 15 years he has conducted studies and evaluations for the EU, and before that was a consultant in the UK. Andrew is currently an independent researcher and consultant, an ECVET Expert for the UK, and Senior Research Associate at the Educational Disadvantage Centre at Dublin City University in Ireland.