Towards a Citizens’ Curriculum

29 July 2014

What kind of adult learning opportunities would engage and support the most disadvantaged people, in a range of settings and circumstances? What kinds of adult learning could empower adults to take greater control over their lives, bringing personal, family, social and economic benefits? According to a recent NIACE scoping study, part of the answer might be a ‘life skills / citizens’ curriculum’ approach.

Funded by the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, NIACE has been building on Learning Through Life, the ground-breaking report of NIACE’s Inquiry into the Future for Lifelong Learning, to establish how its recommendation of a citizens’ curriculum approach might work in practice.

A couple of clarifications to start with: by ‘citizens’, we simply refer to adult (and young adult) learners. And we’re not talking about the kind of curriculum that involves a heavy, spiral-bound volume setting out predetermined content that may or may not be relevant to the needs and interests of adult learners.

Broadly speaking, a life skills / citizens’ curriculum approach involves developing learners’ language, literacy and numeracy skills in an interlinked way, alongside and within other life skills, which include health, civic, digital and financial capabilities. Our scoping study suggests that a citizens’ curriculum approach is locally-led, determined by the needs and interests of learners in a particular context or setting. Crucially, learners are meaningfully involved in shaping and designing the curriculum content, with the support of practitioners where needed.

Our scoping study found that many learning providers are beginning to adopt elements of this approach, and other enablers, such as resources and accreditation options – where appropriate – are in many cases already available. Despite this, we also identified that some aspects of the current adult learning landscape may restrict take-up of a true citizens’ curriculum approach – the lack of flexibility around funding and qualifications, and the support needed for informal learning, for example.

Over the coming year, NIACE hopes to pilot and evaluate a life skills / citizens’ curriculum approach in a range of contexts, including learning opportunities for families, for homeless adults, for recent migrants, and for ex-offenders. Our manifesto for the 2015 General Election identifies a number of priority actions which, if introduced, would further support the adoption of a citizens’ curriculum approach – a review of the funding system, personal skills accounts and more support for informal learning would all be beneficial in bringing about a true citizens’ curriculum approach.