A Shared Responsibility

It’s difficult to doubt the positive impact that adult education has on people’s lives. Without the obvious benefit of opening doors to employment, whatever the format or level of learning, it has the potential to re-shape thinking and bring about a new and sustainable life path.

Qualifications in particular bring individual economic returns and social productivity [2],i.e. positive personal change and successful take up of new opportunities; and anecdotal evidence brings us the encouraging social narrative of strength through adversity and liberation through learning.

We’re facing a difficult time in Wales, with most adult learning services under threat. It’s in times of austerity that we’re desperate to find the statistics that demonstrate that amongst all the services under threat of cuts and extinction, that this is the one to keep – and yet despite its huge benefits, registration numbers are struggling, and slip down year on year in many areas across Wales.

Speculation about its cause are rife. Our money is just needed elsewhere. The ‘Maslow effect’ [3], in that current economic changes put our basic needs at risk, and it becomes difficult to think philosophically about the future. Or perhaps we’ve exhausted the pool of adult learners. Or cut backs to marketing departments have taken adult learning off people’s radar.

I’ve lost count of the times that I’ve heard community development practitioners cry out in frustration over the lack of participants on courses they’d carefully negotiated with local trainers and tutors – offered to local residents for free. Almost as if there was an invisible barrier between the potential learner and the professional provider.

Learned helplessness, or learned dependency is a real psychological condition. A condition that creates a sense of feeling powerless to change circumstances for the better. To fully believe they’re not in control. It only takes a few instances of this sense of powerlessness for people to stop trying, to even begin to self-exclude and sabotage opportunities.

Communities are complex. No two are the same. There are different physical structures, resources, territorial divides, spaces made up of individuals with different needs and wants, and diverse communities of interest within geographical communities. Many communities are also dealing with the impact of complex, multiple problems associated with living in deep poverty over years. Of years of having serviced delivered at them, rather than with them, where they have little or no control in how it’s delivered. Living with helplessness. Learned helplessness can also be a key factor in depression and low-self esteem.  [4]

The psychological key to happiness is learned optimism. We can tackle learned helplessness by creating learned optimism. Of making a direct challenge to the cycle of destructive negative self-talk.

We can tackle learned helplessness by belonging to something bigger than one-self, creating achievement and a sense of value.

What if by taking a co-production approach, we were able to tackle these big issues and co-design adult learning services that are relevant to our communities and sustainable?

The beauty of co-production is the core principle that people are assets – everyone is an equal partner and acknowledged as ‘experts through experience’. That we have an incredible reservoir of assets in the core economy, the skills, knowledge, expertise, energy, wisdom, experience, empathy and community relationships.

Co-production allows us to identify the skills between us, find value in them and find a place for their influence. Far from being tokenism, it’s right up there at the top of the ladder of participation.

If we invited everyone with a vested interest around the table to co-design and co-deliver adult learning services, imagine the benefits. When we try to create and deliver services that are detached from people and their every-day lives, we lose an essential source of insider information.

By bringing the community to the table, we might discover the importance of repeat positive learning experiences, of the ripple effect of increasing confidence. By bringing youth to the table we might learn that we should be creating adult learning services with future generations in mind. If we bring the health board to the table, we might be able to join the dots in terms of the health benefits of learning. Of reducing social isolation and of the place that learning has in fighting dementia and the place of learning in older peoples services. We may also discover that the medical model is not the only way for dealing with depression, and that prescribed activities can reduce loneliness, social isolation and can create useful distraction and purpose. We’re able to better understand the barriers and opportunities around adult learning and that unique local knowledge can inform and influence service delivery.

Through the co-production approach we are also able to build on people’s capabilities  – identifying people’s abilities rather than needs as the starting block.

Most of the above connections are of course speculation. What isn’t speculation however, is the potential of co-producing service delivery. In Falmoth, Cornwall, co-produced community programmes reduced unemployment by 71% and reduced post natal depression by 70%. In Glyncoch, South Wales, a co-produced community safety strategy reduced crime rates from the highest in the area to the lowest. [5]

When we use a co-production approach, it can help us to reframe the relationship and role of ‘users’ and ‘deliverers’. If we keep doing what we’ve always done, we’ll keep getting what we always got. Cutting back on services won’t be enough. We need to re-shape our thinking and practices to achieve different results that create meaningful change for our existing communities and future generations.

[1] Image – Fran O’Hara www.franohara.com

[2] Mark Connolly et all, 2008, The Wider Benefits of Adult Learning

[3] Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, www.simplypsychology.org/maslow

[4] Seligman, Martin E.P. Learned Optimism

[5] Co-production by Spice, a short film. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vugLEaEcBR0