Active minds with nowhere to go? Getting the BSG Special Interest Group on Educational Gerontology off the ground in Manchester

Caroline Holland reports from the event at Manchester Metropolitan University Business School on Tuesday July 3rd 2018

The public event held as part of the Manchester Festival of Ageing saw the BSG’s Educational Gerontology SIG get off to a thoughtful start with Professor Chris Phillipson’s consideration of ‘Re-Creating Spaces for Ageing: The role of education in later life’. Education and Learning, Chris argues, create spaces for practicing ageing, or thinking about ageing; spaces for ‘unlearning’ work and gender stereotypes from earlier in life; and spaces for (re)engaging in activism. But a whole range of opportunities for this reflection on individual and collective ageing have become diminished or lost as part of a process whereby ageing has become more precarious and individualised. For example, since 2010, mass closures of libraries and museums or restrictions in their opening hours has removed important spaces for people to come together to learn. We have seen a big drop in the numbers of people aged over 50 participating in formal education and training, and big changes in the nature of pre-retirement education courses. Chris also pointed to a crisis in institutional recognition of older learners: the conversion of the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education into the Learning and Work Institute; the reframing of the Higher Education Funding Council for England as the Office for Students; and the marginalisation of adult education within the Department for Education. It is frustrating to see this increasing marginalisation of later life learning even as the population ages and requires ever more information and understanding in a complex world.

However Chris also points to some ‘new’ spaces for learning: arts- and culture- based spaces and spaces carved out within age-friendly cities (for example Manchester’s c.150 culture champions), the role of the U3A in replacing some at least of the lost capacity for older people to learn together albeit with a different ethos and purpose, activities within care homes, and support coming from specific organisations such as the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the Baring Foundation. But there are big challenges, not least in the nature of evidence that must be produced to convince politicians of the societal as well as individual benefits of supporting older citizen learners and put resource back into supporting it. Chris described ‘learning as transformation’ as distinct from ‘learning as continuity’ – the former involving challenge, new thinking, and sometimes engagement with the work of ‘civil repair’ – reflecting the concern of critical gerontology to address widening social and cultural divisions. Critical Gerontology has a role here, Chris argues, challenging the impact of austerity, considering new forms of ageing, and challenging the networks of power that exclude older people from the education system.

This conversation continued with the SIG symposium at the BSG conference on Friday 6th, with discussions of three different spaces for learning – a university context, learning to be ‘physically literate’, learning a new language; and the question of how to teach and learn on ageing within higher education. We’ll produce a formal report of this Active Minds – Still Learning event later this year but in the meantime more detailed reports can be accessed later this month through the members’ digest at the Association for Education and Ageing: http://www.associationforeducationandageing.org/digest.html.