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Finding a New Voice for Further Education

Don Edgar

('Waves of Change Conference, Southern Western Port Regional Council of Adult Community and Further Education - Rosebud, 31 May, 2001)

Your conference theme is 'Waves of Change - Surfing for Survival'. I'm afraid I find that somewhat passive and reactive, and I want to challenge you to think about a more assertive role for your organisations in the new global age.

Let me start by asking, 'Are you on the 'Knowledge Nation' agenda?

Now don't simply tell me you're not sure what the details are because Beazley has not allowed Barry Jones's long draft to be published as yet. Because whatever the details, you should have already been involved and actively lobbying to get your work on the agenda. For education, new learning, harnessing the new technology and lifelong learning is the agenda of the future.

To be a strategic player, you have to get on the agenda, whatever it is.

First, you have to ask what is it? Is it national, state or local? Is it economic, political, cultural, social, or purely educational? Is it broadly or narrowly defined? Future-directed or backward-looking?

Second, you need to know whose agenda is it? Who are the key players, the agenda-setters? Are they political parties, corporate players, or community interest groups? Where are you in the game of agenda-setting?

And third, you need to ask, how do they get to set the community agenda anyway - is it superior knowledge and wisdom or simply control of the financial strings that pull? What are the avenues through which the preferred agenda of our community is articulated? And does it take account of the most crucial element of modern life - its pluralism, its complexity, the competitive nature of diverse community interests and their regional, locality-based particular needs?

If adult and further community education is seen as peripheral to the broader community agenda, it will miss out on resources and effectiveness, so you have to articulate your relevance to the various agendas that circulate within society and within your particular communities. To get on the agenda, what you have to offer must be seen as relevant, and strategic to their goals as well as your own. You don't and can't sit alone in splendid isolation affirming your own self-worth.

So networking is merely a start. Your 'voice' needs to be heard in a whole range of strategic places. You have to participate actively in a whole range of partnerships with groups whose agenda will be better served by working together with you. Strategic partnership is the name of the game.

Let me step back for a moment to ask what the new education is about.

In the United Kingdom and Europe, the new education is seen as central to the attack on social exclusion. They have stopped talking about mere poverty, or disadvantage, about welfare programs as a safety net for those who have missed out. Social exclusion is more than just economic disadvantage. It is the denial of citizenship; it is isolation from the mainstream processes of society, being excluded from those relationships that make for human and social capital. The whole discourse has changed, whereas Australia limps along with the old language and outmoded debates.

Social inclusion is about power and agency, about people's capacity to control their own lives. It is about being as 'effective' as possible, about having both a sense of competence and the capacities for competent action in and on the world.

Social inclusion in a global age requires total reform of the structures and processes of governance to promote 'joined-up' programs and multi-agency working, within local communities, involving citizens in decision-making and in the 'delivery' of services. It requires an end to the separate silo mentality of government departments, a new language of resourcing rather than servicing communities, and a more location-based approach to democratic participation than we have had in the past.

The problem of citizenship in a pluralistic modern society is in essence one of 'voice' - how to encourage competing claims for participation within a cohesive, shared public space; not just the old 'entitlement citizenship' of 'individual rights', but encouraging a new type of voice and agency which acknowledges the contested nature of public purposes.

The new education needed for a new age requires a broader conception of purpose, of human capacity, of frameworks of learning and of assessment. The new goal is one of active citizenship, not narrow vocational training, or acquiring specific bodies of information. The goal must be to develop not a 'Knowledge Nation', but a 'Learning Society'.

Learning has to be reconnected to living, to the practice of dialogue and negotiation, through active community participation, the enrichment of human potential through the arts and culture, and must involve emotional wellbeing, not just a narrowly instrumental approach to cognitive learning. The over-arching goal of education is to develop a sense of agency and those capacities that make for competence in a complex modern society. Learning must be seen as the development of the whole person. It is therefore never finished as 'schooling' or even as 'education', because learning is a lifelong project. We even have to learn to be old.

Such a concept of learning has many implications. I shall mention just two in the context of this conference.

One is that learning is always cooperative, dependent on learning relationships and shared projects; it is not just an individual and internal process of mind. So we have to think in terms of communities of learning, not of individual learners. It is especially important to encourage relationships within families (the first and most crucial community of learning) which develop in children an interest in and mutual support for learning. We have to see parents as partners, with teachers and adult educators, for it is only through them that children can acquire the motivation to learn, to extend themselves, to do well in the world and make some impact in the world.

The second implication is that we only acquire such agency if we find our voice, as individuals and as members of groups. We must learn to talk, and 'talk' in this context involves both listening and hearing, as well as being able to express our beliefs, feelings and claims on life itself. Every individual must be able to enter a conversation with others that develops mutual understanding and reflection; we must learn to discriminate between options and form judgements about the course to follow. We choose and decide not just for ourself, but also with others. And we cannot 'talk' unless we can imagine and create a possible (joint) future, which makes the arts, music, drama and sport central to the creation of a rich language base, a foundation for lifelong dialogue and learning interaction with other people.

To say it another way, the purpose of education is not just to acquire information and skills, vocational or otherwise. We have to ask, instead:

  • What do people need skills for?
  • to make them self-dependent and capable
  • to satisfy the need for competence, a sense of efficacy
  • to give them the capacity and sense of agency to participate in the decisions that affect their lives
  • to give them a 'voice', the ability to articulate who and what they are/need/want
  • What sorts of skills are critical to life in a global communication era?
  • the capacity to locate and sort information
  • the ability to apply knowledge to new problems and situations, since complexity and change are endemic
  • how to communicate, share and learn from others (cooperative competence)
  • self-insight and empathy (Gardner's intra- and inter-personal intelligences, Goleman's 'emotional intelligence')
  • the ability to understand and see through politics, dogma, the media haze, so we can make informed choices. You are not 'free' unless you can stand back and look at things with some scepticism; you are not free to 'choose' unless you have access to socially valued resources
  • you do need skills that society values and will pay for (rapidly changing vocational skills, communication skills, managerial skills, etc.)
  • life skills for living a good life (values, inter-personal, cultural)
  • Where do life skills develop?
  • not just in schools or colleges and training programs
  • not just in adult education courses
  • but in a whole range of learning communities

If ACE's own agenda/purpose/goal is

  • to further education
  • to continue education

then it is, by definition, to encourage lifelong learning. It is the ongoing transformation of people as skilled action learners, what someone called 'the prevention of blindness', a search for light and discovery. The task is to enhance and develop people, both for their own enlightenment, and for the good of the community as a whole (hence, the 'Knowledge Nation' or the 'Learning Society')

This in turn means that

  • you've got to look at where else learning starts, and takes place in an ongoing way
  • you've got to realise that education is a shared, partnership activity and that community-building is crucial in a globally competitive age. ACE must be seen as a strategic player in that process of building a learning society.

Let me list briefly some of the key learning communities with which ACE must become a strategic partner. You need to know what are their agendas, who sets them, and how you get yourself onto their agendas if you are to stay relevant. You need to discuss how you can strategically ally yourself in the sharing of learning resources across all these learning communities.

  • Families:
  • parents as partners in learning and learning how to learn
  • helping parents do their job (i.e. child-rearing)
  • building inter-generational links within the community, older people as resources for learning
  • how does ACE help inform families about the best learning processes to motivate, stimulate children for life?


  • Workplaces:
  • spillover into family life, limit time for parenting and community activity
  • quality of work-life balance issues (employer of choice)
  • specific skills training on the job
  • teamwork skills, management education
  • companies looking for mutual benefit
  • UK Investors in People Scheme and Small Business Service
  • UK's Learning and Skills Council, with strong business representation
  • Schools:
  • schools are central to developing any community

-    primary schools as Family Learning Centres

  • Family Resource Zones and Forums, with ACE as a key player
  • middle schools as surrounding/supporting teenagers
  • senior schools as Community Colleges, adults involved from 16 on
  • UK's Learning Partnerships with schools to improve planning and coherence of post-16 learning
  • Colleges/TAFE
  • who defines what courses are needed?
  • more active role for ACE? Other community groups?


  • Arts Organisations
  • natural partners in the 'prevention of blindness', moving towards 'voice', light and discovery
  • regional art galleries as a vehicle for learning, guides, volunteers
  • libraries as a vital community-building resource
  • community theatre and music helping people find a 'voice'
  • action projects, not passive courses
  • Service Agencies
  • links to the excluded and disadvantaged
  • mentoring, caring skills, family support
  • quality of community life and the family-friendly community
  • need a range of Public Forums to identify needs and develop programs


  • Neighborhood/Region/Locality
  • ACE as a strategic ally in community-building, development of both social and economic infrastructure
  • creating a strong learning culture within your own region
  • strategic links with business goals
  • UK Learning Towns and Cities - use learning to promote social cohesion, neighborhood regeneration and economic development, involving all parts of the community


Community development depends upon:

  • pride in local facilities, quality of life, heritage
  • identification of existing resources (financial, physical, human, social)
  • willingness to invest in the future
  • a participatory spirit
  • community-based decision-making
  • belief in and support of education
  • a problem-solving approach
  • presence, being there when needed
  • building a sound infrastructure
  • a realistic view of what you can do
  • being able to find the problem and measure the impact of what you do


How can ACE help develop these prerequisites of community-building? Essentially, by forming partnerships with that whole range of learning communities and ensuring that lifelong learning is seen as a crucial strategic partner in all their projects and concerns.

Partnerships are built upon people, and their capacity to negotiate is essential.

ACE needs the self-confidence to articulate not just what it has to offer, but also how it could work strategically with partners for mutual benefit.