On Tuesday 16th October Chair: David Hughes, CEO of NIACE, chaired a discussion on learning for local democracy in the Macmillan Room, Portcullis House, Westminster.
The event aimed to share current practice and explore how learning could support local democracy. David Blunkett MP contextualised the debate in the ‘catastrophic’ financial problems facing many local authorities at this time. He called for more community development and community leadership that can redesign public services from the bottom-up. This approach he argued will need active citizens and that can only be provided by adult learning. He mentioned the constructive role played by Ulster People’s College in bringing together divided communities, and Northern College in engaging new communities in Yorkshire as two examples.
Baroness Sharp of Guildford endorsed those comments and spoke particularly about the potential of FE Colleges to take this role forward in their communities. She referred to the recent Independent Commission of Inquiry into Colleges and their Communities which she chaired. The Commission challenged colleges to be a dynamic nucleus and a catalyst for action in their local communities. They should be democratic and involve students in decision-making as well as teaching citizenship.
Chris Minter, the new Head of Policy at the Educational Centres Association and originator of ‘Leicester Speaks’ (www.leicesterspeaks.org) shared the variety of voices involved in one of the biggest local celebrations of local democracy in the UK. He used this to argue that adult learning providers, whether colleges, universities or local authority adult learning services should take a lead on promoting local democracy. He considered that the current arrangements were not working and that historically there are strong links between learning and democracy and that adult learning providers had a strong track record on attracting participation from groups that are often not included.
Cllr Robert Light, Deputy Chairman of the LGA and leader of the Conservative Group in Kirklees, challenged David Blunkett’s view that councils in the North were facing meltdown, but said they had to reconfigure services in the face of financial constraints. He agreed that power needed to be decentralised and local communities trusted to make decisions. The LGA did a lot to promote local democracy through its Be a Councillor campaign, by promoting localism and the repatriation of powers from Whitehall.
Jol Miskin, WEA Regional Education Manager for Yorkshire and Humber, spoke about the long tradition of social purpose education, the Take Part programme and the importance of political literacy. Learning in adult education groups helps people feel more connected, share experiences and find a voice. Learning does not have to be classroom based, but can include visits to the town hall, parliament and other places where decisions are made.
Titus Alexander, convenor of Democracy Matters and Director of Policy at People Can, pressed the importance of campaigning as a public good. He underlined the importance of local government but felt that more could be done to make town halls less remote from the public and that successful local government should be a school for democracy. He also stressed the important role of champions for local democracy and that the skills of campaigning should be much more widely available to the public through adult and community education.
The discussion explored the importance of adult education taking a lead in education for citizenship as well as the tensions in localism.
Following the meeting, NIACE and Democracy Matters agreed to take this agenda forward and keep participants informed.