An Epistolary Project

letters to a reader, unknown

The Azure Card: a ‘failed’ policy tool?

A further instalment in my investigation of ‘cashless’ payment systems and their uses. For a multitude of reasons this didn’t get posted when I originally wrote it, but, given the current global refugee crisis and population displacement, I think it’s useful to be reminded what asylum policy in the UK means in practice.

Prepay systems have many iterations, but the Azure Card offers lessons in the punitive underpinning that accompanies their use in the context of ‘welfare’.

The Azure Card
The tale begins, or at least surfaces, at the beginning of the millenniumIn April 2000, The Guardian carried a report detailing Oxfam’s refusal to join the food voucher scheme for asylum seekers, set up by the, then, Home Secretary, Jack Straw. The report referred to the way contractors running the scheme, Sodexho, had offered potential retailers the change due to asylum seekers when they used the vouchers in their stores, as a cash incentive to join the voucher scheme’s retailers’ network. The inability for asylum seekers to receive any cash via the old vouchers or current payment card takes on a more callous interpretation. Sodexho (Sodexo since 2008) are one of the largest operators, worldwide, of stored value card systems, and describe themselves as ‘the reference brand in Quality of Life Services’.

The Azure Card, administered by Sodexo, put in place in 2009 by the UK Border Authority (UKBA) to police section 4 asylum seekers’ support payments, illustrates the way a smartcard system can be used as a policy tool. Section 4 (Immigration and Asylum Act 1999) provides short-term support for ‘unsuccessful asylum seekers’ while they ‘prepare to return’ to their country. Intended for the ‘destitute’, it provides no cash, ‘suitable accommodation’, usually dispersed across northern and western Britain, and receipt of a section 4 Azure Card. This is topped up automatically each week by the UKBA and, valued at £35.59 per week, half the over-25 rate for a single person on JSA. If full board is provided via a contracted provider, no money is provided at all. According to a Refugee Council Briefing (April 2013) people who fail to meet the tightly defined conditions for section 4 support are generally left destitute.

The Institute of Race Relations and the British Refugee Council have detailed the history and operation of the UKBA voucher and prepay card system. A voucher scheme was re-introduced at the end of 2005, but was abolished in late 2009, as, according to the UKBA, it was  ‘poor value for money’ and open to ‘fraud and abuse’. The UKBA was alluding to the actions of local charities and asylum support groups who would exchange vouchers for cash ‘to relieve the worst excesses of hardship’ (IRR report Dec 2010 –url). There was no pilot, yet the Azure card scheme was proclaimed as the ‘definitive solution to the ‘problems’ the UKBA had identified with vouchers.

The card can be used in the ‘Big 5’ supermarkets, and a small number of other major retail outlets, and cannot be used to obtain cash or to buy petrol or diesel. However, supermarkets are not the best value for money. Due to the restrictions on its use, and the inability to carry money over [until Feb 2015] to buy larger quantities of food more economically, users are unable to access cheaper fresh and local food from markets or through food cooperatives. Those unable to travel to a designated supermarket within the week, automatically lost £30 as only £5 could be carried over each week. Anything over this was recouped by UKBA, although families were allowed to carry over limited amounts each week in recognition of the need to save for essential items.  However, this will be monitored to ‘ensure excessive amounts of credit are not accrued’, although the UKBA have not specified what is meant by ‘excessive’. The UKBA has requested Sodex to provide weekly reports on a limit set in advance by the UKBA of those people who have ‘saved’ over this (unspecified) limit. UKBA state they will investigate trends and conduct spot checks that may lead to Section 4 support being withdrawn. [The Asylum Support Partnership (ASP) ] a ‘policy in practice’ model IDS may be following, with interest.

 A FoI request in 2010 disclosed that, as a result of card malfunction and deductions by Sodex, users were losing £10/week on average. Between June and September 2010 the UKBA recouped £86,000 in ‘capped payments’ on Azure cards.  Often cards do not work or are not accepted by a supermarket, staff do not recognise the card and refuse payment. A Refugee Council report  indicated that the commonest cause of refused purchases was due to lack of funds: if the amount purchased is over by as little as 1p the whole transaction is rejected. Even if users keep an accurate record of their spending the cards regularly malfunction and can register inaccurate fund availability. A Questionnaire carried out by the Refugee Council during 2010, tracking the 1st year implementation of the Azure Card scheme, indicated that 60% had experienced their card not working; 79% had shop staff refusing the card despite being in the specified supermarket; 56% described how using the card identified them as an asylum seeker and exposed them to racist behaviour and stigma.

This cashless system of support for refused asylum seekers was intended to increase returns from the UK, but has failed to deliver on this policy objective. For the majority of ‘failed’ asylum seekers condemned to section 4 support, it is actually impossible for them to return. Instead, it has created more poverty and hardship within the UK amongst an already deeply vulnerable group of people.

Following lobbying by asylum and refugee organisations, and a debate in the House of Lords in November 2014, from February 2015 there was no longer a limit on the carryover of funds. This is the only change.

What freezings have I felt

My winter reading has led me back to poetry; re-reading Shakespeare’s Sonnets prompted  memories of their discovery while exploring the book stacks in Newcastle Central Library, a building I visited  religiously on my journey home from school. It was startlingly modern, almost brutalist in its concrete mass, but I always felt it to be my intellectual womb, a place where I discovered Elizabethan poetry, Dostoevsky, Sholokov, Chaucer. It has, sadly, been demolished.


How like a winter hath my absence been
From thee, the pleasure of the fleeting year!
What freezings have I felt, what dark days seen!
What old December’s bareness everywhere!
And yet this time removed was summer’s time;
The teeming autumn, big with rich increase,
Bearing the wanton burden of the prime,
Like widow’d wombs after their lords’ decease:
Yet this abundant issue seemed to me
But hope of orphans, and unfathered fruit;
For summer and his pleasures wait on thee,
And, thou away, the very birds are mute:
Or, if they sing, ’tis with so dull a cheer,
That leaves look pale, dreading the winter’s near.

A tribute to NIACE

I follow Ann Walker on Twitter & value her insights; re-reading her blogpost about NIACE reminded me of how much Adult Education has changed, been decimated by successive government policyshifts & neglect that has pushed it beyond the margins virtually into oblivion.
I’ve reblogged it for those of you interested & concerned about the future for UK Adult Education.

Lifelong Learning Matters

NIACE, the National Institute of Adult and Continuing Education is merging with the Centre for Economic and Social Inclusion and its name will disappear after 94 years at the forefront of promoting adult learning. The Who’s Lobbying website describes NIACE as, “the main advocacy body for adult learning in England and Wales and probably the largest body devoted to adult education in the world.” Its achievements as an independent organisation deserve the utmost respect and many adult educators will regret the loss of its identity while wishing the newly merged organisation every success.

NIACE has been a source of practical and coordinated support, encouragement, inspiration and effective campaigning for adult education – and more specifically, adult learners – over the years. I have never been employed directly by the organisation, but I have worked alongside it throughout my career. I have felt a strong affiliation and found common cause…

View original post 337 more words


Scattered thoughts on a sister dying:


Bulletins punctuate her decline,
foreshadowing funeral rites:
‘now distressed’,
‘losing the ability to swallow’,
‘a difficult night’.

Unable to visit
do I send flowers
a card
what to write
who will read
who will hear the cheery refrain
too late to reconnect?

Prepay: disciplining the global poor

 This post continues my exploration of the shifting UK policy landscape impacting on the poor and the jobless that I began with my post about prepay  [read it here]. It places the debate within a global context :

The Australian Basics Card, the scheme that Ian Duncan Smith originally explored as a potential model for the UK, provides a management template for the future of welfare, globally and is illuminating in its genesis. The Conservative Howard Government introduced compulsory income management to many Aboriginal communities in 2007 through the Northern Territory Emergency Response (NTER) legislation  The NTER needed the suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 to enable implementation. The scheme was extended into metropolitan areas in 2012.

The assumption behind the scheme is that welfare recipients require help with budgeting. Claimants judged to make problematic use of their welfare funds are referred into the system, and receive targeted interventions, with mandatory sanctions. Between 50-70% of people’s welfare payments are ‘quarantined’ for ‘essential needs’, users of the Basics Card have to negotiate with CentreLink (the managing agency) in order to pay bills using these ‘quarantined’ funds, the remainder available as cash. The Australian system also encourages voluntary self-referral, to emphasise its supportive element rather than its punitive aspects, although referral ‘out’ has been identified as an issue. The Australian Women’s Equality Rights Alliance carried out a survey amongst women on the income management programme in the Northern Territories and found that a majority of the women they interviewed wanted to exit the system but mechanisms to do this were missing; once in the system, no voluntary exist seems possible. The comment thread on DrumOpinion indicates the research not only reflected researchers’ own observations from experience working in remote communities, but also captured the sharp divisions amongst people about the uses and impact of income management on communities.

Many of the criticisms of the Australian Basics Card focus on the role of CentreLink as gatekeepers who are accused of inefficient management of payments and of making subjective judgements about claimants’ situations. The extensive list of government-approved retailers who accept the Basics card, overwhelmingly chains and supermarkets, is also an issue. The integration of large retail networks into the scheme removes card users’ freedom to make their own choices by ‘shopping around’ for alternatives in local markets and shops. Some shops are reported to operate Basics Card-only queues. A key criticism is that the use of a prepayment card removes a large degree of choice and that decisions are made for, not by, people receiving benefits.

Most people placed on income management programmes and therefore Basics Card users, are Aboriginal.  The Australian debate is embedded in entrenched and serious social problems amongst the aboriginal communities, especially violence against women over access to social security funds. Interventions such as income management are criticised for their failure to engage with communities, marginalised over generations, and the imposition of solutions designed and applied by outside agencies not local, community-led groups. Critics argue that solutions need to be co-produced and given time to work. However, by dealing with these problems via a smartcard, individual and collective experience of structural inequality such as racism, lack of access to training and education, poor housing and health provision can be dismissed as individual failings; the solution, better budgeting skills and technical management of payments.

Unlike Britain, prepay systems in the US have been developed exclusively for the distribution of state benefits and not for social care or similar uses, and are used to sanction and quarantine spending for all welfare claimants. All 50 states have used electronic benefit transfer cards (EBT) since 2002, when paper cheques and food stamps were phased out. The system polices benefit recipients’ spending: Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Programme (SNAP) and Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) payments can’t be used for alcohol or for pet food, although the detail of what can or cannot be bought using these cards varies and is applied inconsistently across the country. Claimants are subject to the vagaries of their State legislatures’ current prohibitions, some outlaw fizzy drinks, others don’t. What is common is that separating ‘legitimate’ and illegitimate’ goods happens at the till, and is mainly a task for supermarket checkout workers.

The postwar consensus around welfare was predicated on the assumption that those who needed welfare support and met the criteria had the same rights to spend their money as the rest of the population. The shift from entitlement through need as well as contributions,  to policing of spending by the state, is a major shift in welfare policy, globally. The underlining narrative, repeated like a Greek chorus, is the assumption of financial incompetence, failed parenting and bad work ethos on the part of the global poor. Income management systems, imposed control over spending and other social and work ‘behaviours’,  is part of a punitive disciplining process. The structural reasons underpinning poverty and disadvantage have been dismissed in favour of policy regimes that blame individuals for their own joblessness, poor housing and general disadvantage. Shifting the blame for poverty from governments and society to individuals removes the need to address structural inequality and provides justification for redistribution of public resources through privatisation of the systems designed to simultaneously support and police the poor.

Reflections and Shadows

This piece evolved over winter 2012/13 as my sister, Catherine, progressed through her final rounds of chemotherapy/radiotherapy/hospice care before her death, as winter ended, February 28th. She never quite made it through to spring and to her 53rd birthday. I offer no apology for my response, below, other than to say we usually say too little in too many words.

Reflections & Shadows

I write in the dusk of a bitter winter
as I recall our childhood years,
now, as we embrace our half century,
you at its beginning, me
reaching towards my 60th, a family record.

How do you embrace your sister’s
sharp struggle for life
as each faculty, ingrained with
experience and habit, deteriorates.
I wait, incapable of emotion,
drained by sadness and years
of silence.

We talk of small domestic incidents,
you narrate a litany of exotic pharmacopeia,
of doctors searching for a needle in a haystack,
nurses who reliably find the vein.

What dies with you?
Memories of awkward conversations,
of things we did not share.
You’re the sister I’m said to most resemble.
I do not hear myself, but our mother
in the cadence of your voice.

February 2013

Moral disgust, financial discipline and efficiency: Smartcards and 21st century welfare.

During late 2012 a debate began on the discussion board of a group I belong to. It focused on developing local currencies and promoting local businesses through Smartcard technologies. What concerned me wasn’t the technology, but the attitudes that seeped casually around the edges of the discussion about the necessity and inevitability of smartcard use for welfare recipients, alongside a morally ambiguous justification for the control of other people’s expenditure via smartcard technology. I felt angry at this liberal iteration of the disciplining of the ‘out-of-work poor’, but also painfully ignorant about the background to the broader issues. This prompted me to do some research into the genesis of Smartcards. This first post summarises some of the policy background and current uses that I’ve discovered; subsequent posts will explore other aspects of the prepay landscape.


Smart Cards entered our collective consciousness during autumn 2012, as Ian Duncan Smith (IDS), Work and Pensions Secretary, unleashed his attempts to discipline Britain’s ‘troubled’ families. In unveiling his proposals at the Conservative Conference October 2012, IDS framed them as ‘better value for taxpayers’ money’, but, in his rhetoric, cast doubt on the lifestyle of all benefit claimants:
I am looking […] at ways in which we could ensure that money we give [benefit claimants] to support their lives is not used to support a certain lifestyle.[Telegraph 13.10.2013]

MP Alex Shelbrooke, in his (rejected) private member’s bill, December 2012, provided a glimpse into the underlying moral and punitive attitudes towards benefit recipients amongst the Tory heartlands, when he argued for a ‘welfare cash card’ to limit spending to absolute basics.  UKIP then jumped on the benefit bandwagon, reiterating the demonising narrative that benefit recipients are financially reckless and spending ‘your’ hard-earned taxes irresponsibly.

Read the rest of this entry »


I wrote the following short essay with Denis Doran, as a reflection on our final filmwork for the AHRC/RSA project Places for All?; it’s an exploration of the processes we go through during interviewing and filming, in an attempt to start unravelling what actually happens when you work ethnographically. The people mentioned had or still live in Peterborough Foyer, supported housing for young people in the city. We pose questions here, we don’t presume to know the answers:

Places are made, given meaning, by the people who live in them and the relationships they make. Agnes Heller (1984) characterises home as that fixed point from which we venture into our everyday encounters, and to which we return. If ‘home’ is a sleeping bag on a friends floor, or a sofa, but not for too long in case the hospitality wears thin, the ‘experiencing self’ is destabilised and identity undermined. On return to something approximating ‘home’, individuals have to re-build their knowledge and experience of what ‘home’ means.  Doreen Massey asks whose identity we refer to when we call a place ‘home’; whose home is it, with its supposed supports of ‘stability, oneness and security’ (Massey, 1994: 167). In their response to the local cultures they inhabit and from which they draw their sense of Self, Dan, Charlie, Izak, and Kelly acknowledge a complex web of relations embedded in their understanding of place, at once known and familiar, but also imagined. Any sense of community is seen, ‘in terms of notions of commonality, shared values or solidarity in particular contexts’ (Stewart & Strathern, 2003: 4). Home is seen through the prism of a fractured and partial narrative. This sense of Self, evident in their stories, reflects and refracts the ruptures in the world of their immediate family and the wider social network, geographically and temporally located. Burkitt articulates how

‘The self is not separate from its engagement with the world, but is constituted by the activities it performs. We make ourselves as we engage in transforming the material, cultural and interpersonal world.’ [italics in original] (Burkitt, 2008:55)

We discuss seeking shelter, about the Foyer, their temporary home, as an advocate and agency for change, at times painfully slow, often with breaks and ruptures along the way. Their resilience is a key factor in this process.

As we work through their fragmented narratives that question assumptions about image, circulate around categories of identity, challenge received notions of belonging, we understand again how the uncertainty of ordinary lives can be shaped, fashioned into the narrative framework of the documentary film. However, documentary structures lived experience, but it is ‘not real life’. We know that

‘What is regarded as ‘real’, by whom, and how it is represented is unstable, dynamic, and ever-changing, precisely because realism is irrevocably tied to the specifics of time and place, or ‘moment’.’ (Lay, 2002: 8)

In Passing, reflected and refracted through lived experience, draws on representational conventions to set up questions about the nature of the ‘real’. Moving between those ‘codes and conventions’ within which the documentary is understood, we worked with the young people to find ways that enabled them to articulate concerns about perceptions of youth, help shape the raw material, the form of the final edit. Izak’s monologue recorded as an interview, is confessional, reflects uncertainty as he articulates his changing sense of identity; Dan’s questioning is challenging, confrontational in his use of stereotypes, directed straight to the viewer; Kelly’s quiet reflection and silence is eloquent; Dan and Charlie, as young parents, challenge opinions as they emerge into adulthood. Jodie and Benn’s technical inputs mirrored their conversations about shared concerns and desires.

Our work requires that we engage with the problematic nature of documentary and its relation to the real, to documentary as an aesthetic, bound up in the ‘negotiation between two potentially conflicting factors: the real and its representation’ (Bruzzi, 2000:13). Central to this impulse to re-present lived experience is the integrity of the relationship between the filmmaker/s and those being filmed, and an acknowledgement that any notion of ‘truth’ is sought through the, ‘codes and conventions that have become associated with realism’ (Lay, 2002: 7). This relationship is at the core of our practice, of our storytelling.

Fundamental to this process is the involvement of the people being filmed. We listen, allowing experiences to unfold, often not in any ordered sense. We know the value of being guided by the people we work with, as we attempt to tease out the narrative strands of a life. These scattered threads are collected and shaped in the process of editing, a process where those we work with are equally important: they need to have some control too. People may say more than they mean to; we are aware of over-disclosure, of sensitive issues, raw memories re-surfacing in the conversations. So, the video is simply rewound at the end of filming and we look, and listen to what’s been said, reflect and sometimes reshoot a half articulated thought. We make an agreement, the same with everyone we work with, to take all edited material back, and talk it through before we move on. Anything too sensitive will be removed. We are mindful that we are working with young people going through transformation in their lives; they may want to leave behind elements of their story, re-work others as they rework their own senses of self and belonging.

Working ethnographically, exploring ideas of what constitutes home, how people view belonging, we attempt to facilitate the co-existence of contradictory strands within the framework of a shared narrative. Because we work ethnographically, the substance of our work evolves over time – the process is essentially messy, but also instinctively developed. We never really know what might be discovered, and recognise that for some researchers, this way of working can seem challenging. Research questions act as a framing mechanism rather than determining content, and can change over time. Ours is an iterative process that relies on instinct and experience, as well as empathy with participants and an acceptance of the complexity, the fluid nature of their lives. Our working method is intended to enable participants to value and articulate their own life experiences, through the film narratives we produce: they are co-authors although we also recognise that this relationship is uneven.

For reflection:

Some of the ethical dilemmas our work with marginal groups constantly confronts us with:

  • what are the editorial decisions we make during the collection process?
  • to what extent are participants able to make informed decisions about disclosure during their participation?
  • Does the messiness of the process impinge on the value of the end result/product?
  • Does our role as researchers, committed to co-authorship, conflict with the impetus to discover and capture a ‘good story’ or a compelling research theme?
  • How much/to what extent can or should researchers assume participants could have a stake in sharing their narratives of marginality?

Bruzzi, S. (2006) New Documentary, Routledge; London.
Burkitt, I. (2008) Social Selves: Theories of Self and Society, Sage; London.
Heller, Agnes (1984) Everyday Life, Routledge and Kegan Paul; London.
Massey, Doreen, (1994) ‘A Place Called Home’, in Space, Place and Gender, Polity Press; Cambridge.
Lay, Samantha, (2002) British social realism: from documentary to Brit-grit, Wallflower; London
Stewart, P.J and Strathern, A. (2003) Landscape, Memory and History: Anthropological Perspectives, Pluto Press; London.

Teresa Cairns/ Denis Doran
Spring 2013

Poetry and Rats

I recently discovered the poetry of Christopher Logue, in particular, his re-imagined account of Homer’s Illiad. While writing my allotment diary and thinking about a short post for our growing blog, HortusLudi, I coincidentally found this short poem by Logue. It is both a plea and a threat, reflecting our own intimate relationship with these ubiquitous rodents, over time. I’ve re-blogged that post.


We’ve been tidying up on our allotment, repairing beds, mulching and covering to warm the soil for planting, and identifying where the rats have their nests, ready for some serious clearance work next month. I suspect rats have nests on most plots, so clearing them from our allotment probably just makes space for a different group of rats to move in, and prompts a Spring Progress across the site.

The other day I came across this piece  by that wonderful poet, Christopher Logue, a rather one-sided plea to a rat to leave and ‘visit’ the neighbours’ house:

Rat, O Rat…

never in all my life have I seen
as handsome a rat as you.
Thank you for noticing my potatoes.

O Rat, I am not rich.
I left you a note concerning potatoes,
but I see that I placed it too high
and you could not read it.

View original post 122 more words

Adult learning and progression issues: how people actually learn

I wrote the following article for a NIACE publication, in 2003, as I was working on the chapter posted previously. At the time, I was very involved in adult and community learning across Brighton and Hove (UK), teaching, training and evaluating projects, as well as researching the underlying issues and concerns underpinning the way adult basic skills was funded and delivered. We now have greatly reduced access to adult education provision across Britain; the emphasis either on a deficit model of basic skills and of communities, stranded alongside leisure classes usually offered at full cost and therefore out of the reach of people such as those I worked with and interviewed in the early 2000s. I’d argue the points I made in the original article still stand, the need for meaningful engagement and education provision, more urgent.

Widening participation and progression issues: lessons from a learning partnership in the southeast

I currently work in adult and community education in Brighton and Hove and have been involved in a range of projects over the last couple of years: embedding basic skills, mapping progression routes for adults and exploring community training needs for Neighbourhood Renewal.  From this work, I have been able to identify some key issues about participation and progression. In what follows, I draw on the experiences of local learners to illustrate how adults are attracted into learning and the factors that assist or work against their participation and progression.

Participation in what?
My work has shown me that you cannot separate learning from use. Most provision aimed at increasing participation rates involves basic or compensatory provision. However, it is rare for people to read just for the sake of it: they use literacy to communicate, organise, document and make sense of their lives.  Whilst it is important to acknowledge the correlation between basic skills and economic and social deprivation, it is also necessary to understand the embedded nature of effective learning.

People have multiple demands on their time, but if attractive, accessible and appropriate learning opportunities are available when needed, they will take advantage of them, as the following examples illustrate:
Julie is a home carer with young children, who discovered the daytime courses offered by her Community Education Centre: I moved here about a year ago… I wanted to meet people and do something with my time, as an adult not a carer […] the Art class […] taught me to look at things differently…maybe go on and try something else later.

Audrey joined a computer course last year but dropped out because she couldn’t see any point to her efforts. After becoming minutes secretary of her community group, she re-joined:  I tried computer skills last year… but I got bombarded with committee […] minutes  – I wanted to improve my computer skills this year to help with that so thought I’d go back.

Peter found local community education classes a lifeline after being made redundant: I was laid off… I’m doing this [Art class and IT] just to keep my brain going …coming [here] to study a bit more because I want to do something else with my life.

These examples illustrate the very different purposes for which adults learn and how they engage in learning as and when required by their life circumstances.

The need for a broad mix of learning provision
For many people, Adult and Community education is the first venture back into formal learning and can include any focus from Yoga and Cake Decorating to Everyday Spanish. If you narrow the available base of learning to basic skills and work-related skills then you restrict the opportunities available to people to start their engagement with formal education. Moreover, in promoting the conditions for participation and progression, the development of self-esteem and confidence is essential. Yet much adult provision does not begin to address issues of low self-esteem, poor confidence and limited expectations and therefore fails as what is offered does not attract people or meet their needs.

The following examples illustrate how imaginative use of funding can result in provision of relevant opportunities which both respond to people’s interests and skills needs and raise their self-confidence:

Conversational French combined with visits to France was offered to people on peripheral housing estates in Hastings. This approach broadened participants’ experiences and demonstrated the practical advantages of their new knowledge. As a result, these groups, more usually targeted with basic skills provision, had their expectations of education raised and their attitudes to learning were radically altered.

A Silver Surfers Club decided they wanted to learn web design through their UK Online Centre in order to develop an interactive web magazine for older people. Initially only basic computer literacy was available but their local Community Development Project found funding that enabled them to develop the skills they wanted.

Collective learning
As these examples show, learning is often a collective process, although it is usually assumed to be an individual activity. In my work I have found that the community is an important arena for learning programmes that respond to community needs and interests.

Several people from a marginal housing estate moved back into learning together through a local community education art class. Jo and Rhonda explain how they went on to organise a summer art scheme for children:
We learnt a lot from the summer workshops. Showed children how to do silk screen painting, batik, glass painting [ …] as well as teaching the children how to do it we learnt a lot ourselves […] we had… £3500 to pay for the artists. We worked alongside them learning as we went along… it was hard work, so many kids but we learnt a lot… and the kids enjoyed themselves.
They later became active in regeneration initiatives, organising after-school activities and a homework club having developed confidence and the collective ability to organise successfully within their community.

A group of women on a marginal estate joined a Yoga group set up by the Community Development worker with funding through the Primary Care Group as part of a Health in the Community initiative to address issues of poor health and low self-esteem. They went on to form a women’s health group and, with funding from the Scarman Trust, invited a range of health practitioners to work with them on issues around food, diet and exercise. The Community Development Worker helped them put together a development programme offering women’s yoga and counselling on the estate, identify their own training needs and to access voluntary sector training. Jaz describes the experience:
I learnt loads and the initial support was essential. [The Community Development worker] was great, she made you do it and basically, I know how to chair a meeting, organise, and run a Community Group […] two years ago I hadn’t a clue how to do any of that.

These examples highlight the benefits of innovative cross-agency collaboration within communities that both addresses their needs and builds on the desire to learn evident amongst many community members.

The examples above involve local neighbourhood provision.  Research with marginalized groups indicates that only a minority of courses are ever taken out to accessible and non- threatening community venues. The voluntary and community sector training providers I met during my work on regeneration told me that when they offer training in local venues, there is far more participation by marginalized groups who do not usually access their generic training programmes. A playgroup organiser also said how difficult it was to encourage volunteer workers to take up training opportunities that were not provided locally: they’ve said ‘I can’t go to college’. If there was something here, it would make a big difference.

Progression to where?

Lack of local opportunities to learn present a significant obstacle not only to widening participation but also to moving people on to the next stages of learning. My research mapping local progression routes showed that there is often no local, affordable accessible and supported next-step provision.

Because lack of basic skills is a major indicator of deprivation, most of the funding streams targeting disadvantaged groups and communities only fund courses at basic level or basic skills for employment without allowing for the development of supported progression pathways. A typical situation is that providers work to establish relationships in an area but at the end of funding, they are forced to leave and start work with new funding elsewhere. Learners are then left with raised expectations but without outlets to develop them. This is a continuing pattern that understandably leads to frustration amongst both providers and communities who have been targeted. According to a local student: Even though they have these courses […] sometimes there isn’t enough to keep you going at the end, nowhere to move on to

Short-term funding can be a serious barrier to progression when it results in programmes not running long enough for people to progress, when providers are only able to offer introductory level courses, and funding streams do not support co-ordination and strategic planning. A way of avoiding the problem of ‘parachuting in’ an odd course here and there is to offer programmes with built-in progression routes.  The following is an example from the local WEA:

With funding from the Lottery, the WEA designed a Women’s Community Learning Programme which was run in three areas of Brighton in collaboration with a range of voluntary and statutory partners. The programme offered three progression options. Students could move from non-accredited courses to an accredited programme, have exit guidance, or move into an OCN- accredited ‘Volunteers in the community’ course that directly built in community capacity-building. The funding allowed for provision of learning and language support as well as information and guidance.

Supporting progression
As this example illustrates, progression needs to be supported. Support for learners such as guidance on available options and help with costs, transport, and childcare are needed before many people can even begin to consider moving on. Without supported progression beyond level 1, the chances of achieving the Government’s level 2 learning targets appear slim. Formal progression routes may exist on paper, with the assumption that anyone should be able to access them, but feedback from local students I have interviewed shows that if the structural issues about access, suitability, and links are not addressed, many people will not be able to take advantage of them. One student told me:
I’m doing my NVQ2 [childcare] and I won’t be properly qualified until I’ve got my NVQ3. But then there’s having to travel all the way into Brighton to do it and it’s only evening courses and I’ve got two children. There might be a time when I’ve got no-one to look after them so that means its difficult to carry on studying.

An Unemployed Centre user and volunteer told me that her learning was only possible because of facilities the centre provides:
I volunteer in the Toy Library once a week… that allows me to use the crèche during the week and use the computers so I can study. I’m a single parent and I’ve just started an OU course so I use the space here while my child’s in the crèche – it’s impossible to work at home. Without this…the childcare, computers… I don’t think I’d even consider doing this course.

Models of progression
However ‘progression’ is not necessarily linear nor is it just about moving individuals through the system.  Many learners view their own progression as a broadening of their knowledge and often choose courses at the same or at a lower level if it meets their needs. For example, one local student used a ‘Develop your Writing’ course (OCN level 1-2) offered at her local community education centre to help with GCSE English that she was doing at her local FE College.

Progression can also mean the increased effectiveness of a community group, building capacity in an area to meet community needs:
A group of local women started computer training together, partly to help their children with their schoolwork. A local college sent a bus out to their peripheral housing estate to take them into college to study for their computer literacy (CLAIT) exams. When the funding ended, the bus was cancelled and the women could no longer continue with the course or gain a qualification. The local Community Development Project stepped in and arranged for an adult education provider to run CLAIT courses using the local library computer suite. Funding accessed by the Community Development project paid for the group to learn higher skills and act as volunteers in the library. Their progression wasn’t only about individual development:  The whole thing started because we were using the local library computer suite and I had an idea to re-pay them […] we did a voluntary course and I think that really kicked it off. It was highly enjoyable; it was the direction we wanted to go in.

The women then set up a computer club and were paid by the library to offer basic training for complete beginners. They had plans for the group to become community IT trainers, offering informal training using local IT facilities.

Adult learning is a complex process. People learn, but not always what or how educators (and governments) intend.  They do not make neat distinctions between different types of learning but participate in different bits of the learning jigsaw when their life circumstances allow, the need arises and the opportunities become available. Issues of support and access have to be confronted every time someone attempts to participate in learning. Overcoming barriers to learning is essential before opportunities can start to make a difference in people’s lives and progression becomes possible. Many of those who do not participate in organised learning are not ‘deprived’ or lacking in basic skills. They choose not to participate. Often this ‘choice’ is based on bad previous learning experiences and perceptions of learning as something formal and assessed.  It can also derive from the inaccessibility of relevant learning opportunities, and barriers such as costs and lack of childcare.

Progression pathways cannot hope to meet the needs of learners if they operate with a deficit model of communities lacking skills or knowledge. There is a clear need for multiple entry points into learning not just the obvious linear progression routes. People enter and re-enter learning for many and complex reasons. If the opportunities are not available, they will not engage or participate. What is needed is a broad matrix of learning, flexible and able to respond and adapt to a diversity of needs, with sign-posted pathways – a climbing frame model of progression offering structured progression routes available to be accessed when needed, with support available at transitional points. Learners can move up or down the frame to access accredited learning or make a sideways move to pick up a skill for a particular purpose.

We should provide the infrastructures and processes that facilitate learning, but recognise that people themselves have to determine how and what they wish to learn. By pre-determining adults’ learning routes we risk prescribing rather then facilitating their engagement.
February 2003

%d bloggers like this: