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The decline in take up of adult and further education (FE) in the UK should be cause for acute concern among gerontologists. Last year’s annual survey by Learning & Work showed the lowest figures ever for participation by older adults. In an important recent publication, Tom Schuller, writing about further education, has identified a structural lag. He distinguishes three drivers for change that should be affecting the shape of the UK college population. The first is demographic. The second reflects the changing shape of the labour market. The third is in ‘the cultural changes that shape people’s outlooks, attitudes and preferences in a host of ways’. Of particular significance for an ageing population:

‘is how people envisage their futures: what their aspirations are, how long [or short) their time horizons are – in short how they conceive of the shape of their lives, and how they move from one phase of their lives to another.’ (Schuller, 2019, p11)

Schuller develops his argument in conversation with leaders in the field, most of them FE college principals. Although he tells us he will focus mainly on the demographic dimension his discussion ranges freely: he stresses both the importance of regional differences and the cumulative impact of inequality (ibid, p 13). So when he identifies the largest UK population cohort (50-64) as comprising people increasingly likely to stay in the workforce and more likely to work part-time he emphasises that less-educated workers will lose out (p 17). There’s a need for vocational training to enable people to change career or direction and to support the trend towards self-employment but FE colleges have not addressed this agenda. 47% of all enrolments are of under 25s and only 5.4% of over 60s. Schuller asks how closely enrolments and participation should reflect the overall demographic profile, whether to do so would be a valid direction for policy and whether older age-groups should be targeted (p22). There’s been a lack of career guidance for older people and a failure to recognise that a later life ‘career’ may also contain unpaid work and care-giving. Colleges, he says, could host peer support, whether for paid or unpaid carers.

Meanwhile, people under 50 must start to recognise the need to manage longer lives – ‘the question of caring for oneself and others.’ The UK population is also ‘notoriously short on numeracy skills’ – apparently, only 60% of households across the G20 use a budget (Schuller, pp 27-28). Gender is a rather contradictory field. While older women are more likely to experience poverty they will prosper educationally and participate more than men – Schuller wonders what might stimulate greater interest and engagement there.  He then goes on to point out that there is ‘little if any organised preparation’ for the transition to the ‘Fourth Age’ representing this as a major area of concern and arguing boldly that ‘it should be on the planning horizon, for individuals and for colleges and other providers.’

Earlier, Schuller has remarked on the need for an ‘awareness of the limitations and weaknesses of current age-based categories’ and stressed the importance of ‘an appreciation that the ageing of the population has implications for all age groups, in themselves and in their interaction with each other’ (p 13). Hence his discussion of ‘transition points’ covers not just the change from employment to self-employment, but coming out of prison, or being an asylum-seeker moving into work. Finally, Schuller asks his colleagues in FE about the scope for intergenerational learning. He notes the widely held belief that public spaces where people of different ages can ‘learn from and about each other’ are shrinking and extols the virtues of learning together as an opportunity from which to counter that.

There are some caveats. I share Schuller’s vision for further education and I have separately promoted a place-based role for colleges. In the run up to the 2019 election it was possible to believe that an incoming government might seek to restore faith in life-long learning as a public responsibility. But the huge rise in the market for online learning and training and the current government’s faith in private tuition for school children is far from encouraging. And the real challenge may still rest with stimulating demand. Here there are two significant problems. First, we need to understand better what is going on within the older population. The L&W data appears to scotch the widely held belief that informal provision has compensated for the shrinkage of the formal sector – their consultants’ definition of ‘learning’ would include both. This means that neither the expansion of U3A nor the activity organising of social isolation programmes is having the impact overall which is often assumed. Later life learning peaked in 2001. Something complex has happened since which we need to learn more about.

Then, on the age relations front, there is a major issue with moving beyond the kind of specialist, often one-off, projects, like mentoring in the construction industry, that Schuller’s colleagues describe. Campus culture must surely be recognised as an issue: it will take considerable investment and sustained initiative to establish a college environment where older learners will feel consistently welcome and which they can value. Whether the way forward is by mediating between age-specific programmes or by focusing on certain subject areas which encourage an age-diverse intake is unclear: a wide-ranging, well-resourced sharing of best practice across the sector looks essential. Nor should this be confined to following ‘intergenerational practice’. A literature has emerged in business studies, for example, which is less chary of admitting the reality of intergenerational tension.

With recent governments’ emphasis on skills development among the young and with an under-trained work-force confronting multiple sources of exclusion it’s not surprising that, as Schuller puts it, sector leaders ‘had not found the space or opportunity to consider the implications’ of the changing shape of the life-course. The value of his initiative is to insist on leaving the door open and keeping that challenge before them – after all, operationalising a life-course framework must be partly where the solution lies. I’ve been fortunate recently to attend a series of Learning & Work seminars, alongside college leaders, local authority representatives, trade unionists and civil servants. I’ve found inventive and committed people balancing diverse responsibilities in an under-funded sector who yet retain considerable idealism. None reject the idea of engaging learners from the oldest cohorts but few have seen meaningful opportunities or funding sources through which to respond. The least we gerontologists can do is to pay this agenda some attention and deliver some proposals of our own.

Tom Schuller’s work is of long-standing originality and ambition: try Young and Schuller, Life after Work: the Arrival of the Ageless Society Harper Collins, 1991 and Schuller and Watson, 2009. His report Leadership, Learning and Demographics: The Changing Shape of the Lifecourse and its Implications for Education (Further Education Trust for Leadership, 2019) can be downloaded at https://fetl.org.uk/publications/leadership- learning-and-demographics-the-changing-shape-of-the-lifecourse-and-its-implications-for- education/

The BSG Special Interest Group for Educational Gerontology will host a series of presentations online at 9am on July 2nd 2020. Uncharted territory: learning in later life in a time of radical change. There will be presentations on different aspects of learning in later life, including a BAME keynote from Dr Nilu Ahmed, and a reflection by Rob Hunter on education in the context of a care home. Go to https://www.britishgerontology.org/about-bsg/special-interest-groups/educational-gerontology or the conference website for updates.