“So, what will the new NIACE look like, then?”

29 November 2011

This is the question which I have been asked most often since I was appointed to the NIACE role. It’s a great question to ask and I will make an attempt to answer it, but before I do, I will share a few thoughts which the question provokes for me. The first is that my welcome into NIACE and in making the transition from ‘gamekeeper to poacher’ has been extremely warm and positive. I am grateful for the support I have received in recent months from all sorts of people across the adult education world. And I do mean across the world, with welcomes, offers of support and contacts from people in many countries.

This has led me to realise how lucky I am to be at NIACE. There is a lot of support for the organisation as well as expectation about the role we play, both supporting practice and being the critical friend of Government. We act as the interpreter of policy, retaining the long term perspective, providing the policy memory; we support practitioners bringing people together to share good practice and to learn from our research; we advocate on big issues when and where they occur and we speak out when things are not right. To lead NIACE is challenging, rewarding and enjoyable.

Increasingly, as I become part of the furniture and no longer the new boy, other, perhaps, more pressing questions are being asked: What can we do about the significant drops in adult participation in learning? Are you worried about the fate of adults who want to learn in HE? How do we address the 5.2 million adults who need entry level literacy? What can we do about the 8.4 million people who have never been online and used the Internet? What role does adult education have in the new localism and the Big Society? What do you think the impact will be of introducing Level 3 loans for adults over 24 years of age? How will colleges face up to the challenges of being more independent and of being even more accountable to the communities which they serve?  I could easily go on because there are many more similar questions which I think need to be asked, need to be debated, need to be addressed.

I know that many people are now asking those big questions; my list might not be the same as yours, but most people working in the sector are worried about the future. Funding cuts do that, they make people worry and they also mean that previous gains and wins can sometimes be lost. My biggest worry at the moment is that the adult education sector is so focused on survival that the big policy and practice issues are not being debated and discussed enough. That’s why I think that one important role for NIACE is to help stimulate informed and open debate about the big issues in adult education. We will do this in partnership with others and we will provide the spaces and the intelligence where we can. We hope that you will join us and contribute to the debate.

I have also had many people asking me about the transition I have had to make personally in moving from the Skills Funding Agency to NIACE. From the outside I can see how dramatic the move has been, but for me it doesn’t feel very different. I am still fighting for the same things, I still have the same values, the same passions and the same focus…I just have a different platform and space in which to fight for what I believe in and have always believed in. When I joined the Learning and Skills Council in 2000 I was signing up to an organisation given the task of delivering a learning revolution; unfortunately I think there is still some way to go on that journey.  At NIACE we have a simple purpose; to support and make the case for all adults to have the opportunity to participate in and benefit from learning throughout their lives. I like that, I believe in it and think most people in adult education are working towards that, even those in the funding bodies.

“So, what will the new NIACE look like, then?” Having been at NIACE for less than three months, I have had the luxury of saying that I am still listening to what others want it to look like. That is probably starting to wear a bit thin but also reflects the need for NIACE to listen to its members and stakeholders. I want us to deliver what you want, meet your needs, support your agendas because that will help us to achieve our purpose. NIACE is a strong and confident organisation doing great work but, it also needs to change. There is so much to build on, so many good projects, publications, events, campaigns that the change is mainly about facing up to the new environment. NIACE is now a lot smaller than it was a few years ago, but we still have a hundred staff doing great work and I am confident that we can sustain that. More importantly is how we use our resources, how NIACE operates.

A major part of the change therefore is for NIACE to be more of a facilitator, helping to stimulate and inform debate and bringing practitioners together to help overcome the isolation they often experience. Given the funding challenges, we also need to focus our energies on the policy and practice issues which will have the most impact in line with our purpose and we need to enter into strategic alliances with others to ensure that we can combine resources rather than simply compete. If we are to be true to our purpose we need to support better learning for all adults wherever they are learning: at work, in college, in the community, informally, and so on. We also need to be vigilant to ensure that we speak out for those people and communities who are not being given adequate opportunities and support to learn and to succeed.

By the spring we will have a new NIACE strategic plan setting this out and starting to set out what the organisation will look like. Before then I will be doing more listening and learning. Lifelong learning is great, isn’t it?