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Upskilling Pathways – Health, Wellbeing and Learning in Northern Ireland

On 23 October 2019, EPALE UK and the Learning & Work Institute (European Agenda for Adult Learning) held a joint conference in London. I attended the workshop which presented the experience of Belfast in becoming a UNESCO Learning City with a specific focus on tackling inequalities, especially around health and wellbeing. Core to the work and future development is connectivity – linking globally, locally and across sectors/disciplines. This point was taken up by the second speaker who looked at the development needs of the adult learning workforce and how these should be linked to those of related disciplines.

Belfast a Learning City

Danny Powers, Chair of the Lifelong Learning Group, described how lifelong learning emerged as a priority area in 2011 for the Belfast Strategic Partnership – an alliance of the Public Health Agency, Belfast Health & Social Care Trust and Belfast City Council. Its Lifelong Learning Group then chose to focus on how learning can help tackle the city’s ever deepening health inequalities.

In 2015 the group developed and published a Belfast Learning Charter with the intent to introduce a common platform for learning across the city. The following year saw the inaugural Belfast Festival of Learning to showcase the excellent work happening in Belfast led by providers from across all sectors: the Festival has grown year on year. In 2018, Belfast applied to and was accepted into the UNESCO Global Network of Learning Cities and works closely with the other member cities within Ireland (Cork, Derry & Strabane, Dublin and Limerick).

Within Belfast the Learning City is linked to the Belfast Agenda, the city’s key community development plan and it is hoped that further connectivity will be built with the Belfast Regional City Deal.

Many possibilities for development have been identified, but the initiative is waiting on the resources and authority to advance these and would be concerned that the original health partners may become edged out by driving concerns for economic development.

Delegates listen to a keynote speaker

Workforce Development

Our second presentation was from Paul Donaghy, Vice Chair of Open College Network NI and a member of the NI Impact Forum on Adult Learning. Paul’s talk was based around his contribution to the report launched at the conference, Healthy, Wealthy and Wise: implications for workforce development.

Paul picked up the theme of connectivity as his central argument for Joint Practice Development, where practitioners from related disciplines help one another create shared purpose and take the fear out of collaborative gain.

The current traditional models of practice in all disciplines are untenable. We need to move from the silo-based mentalities and delivery mechanisms to an ecosystem approach that focuses on integrated intervention and support.

Lightbulbs with writing inside

Common Issues

Within Danny and Paul’s presentations certain common challenges and indeed desired changes could be identified.

Moving from silo-based policy and practice to collaborative approaches. Changing mind sets and operations is extremely challenging even when there is a directive to do so and all parties can see the benefits. Adopting a new culture and building new relationships needs investment – and that must also include breaking the funding silos. A learning city model is predicated on collaboration across policy-makers, providers and learners.

Language and Communication. In building collaboration, we need to reach out to others we may not have traditionally worked with and we need to employ language that will draw them in. We need to understand their agendas and show how the agenda of lifelong learning relates to their core business. This process could be supported by a model of Joint Practice Development.

Leadership. We can all act as leaders for change and it is important not to wait for it to come from others. However, the reality is that power resides within existing hierarchical institutions and part of practitioner leadership can be to persuade those with power to act in a more enabling manner, to become the champions of change. This requires the language and communication mentioned above. When this can be achieved then it frees up creative development – this is what Belfast a Learning City is working to achieve.

People-centred Approaches. Using the example of health, both speakers identified how this service remains disproportionately skewed towards clinical intervention rather than prevention – on fixing people, rather than supporting them to fix themselves (this is analogous to the well-known give a man a fish/teach a man to fish allegory).

What is required are coordinated services responding to needs identified through consultation with the individual or community, especially if, like Belfast a Learning City, we are striving to address complex inequalities.

A Final Exhortation

Learning is a vehicle for transformation (this is true for the workforce as much as the learners) and we have the evidence that it works. We need to keep the faith – we know what to do and we have the expertise to deliver better outcomes both for the workforce and the communities we live in and serve.

For further information on Belfast a Learning City and its Festival of Learning contact Dolores Atkinson dolores.atkinson@bhdu.org.

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