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Electronic Platform for Adult Learning in Europe



Why adult learning strategies need a workforce plan

by Mark Ravenhall
Language: EN
Document available also in: FI


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Nobody would write an organisational strategy without having a plan to support those who deliver it. Adult learning professionals are at the heart of supporting the wider workforce but who is responsible for looking after their own development? Over the years I have had the privilege of reviewing any number of lifelong learning strategies and plans across Europe, but very few have a systematic approach to developing the leaders, managers, teachers, and other staff who deliver it. 


Never mind the quality, feel the width

When plans do talk about ‘workforce development’ it is usually about other workforces. When they talk about the adult learning workforce, it’s almost always as a subset of quality assurance. Quality is important but it is not the only reason we develop our staff and volunteers: we do so to create strategy and innovate, to challenge government and existing ways of doing things, and to develop the next generation of adult educators.

Adult education is changing alongside many other public services. It is being asked to work more collaboratively, on shared outcomes alongside colleagues in health, in social care, in community safety, and in cultural services. In 2018 we highlighted that as adult learning worked in more collaborative ways, there would be a demand for dual and multi-professionalism, an enhanced skillset in measuring the wider outcomes of learning, and better systems leadership across geographical leadership. 

With the support of the European Commission and the Further Education Trust for Leadership we asked ten people from across the sector to summarise their views on what needed to be done. The result were the thinkpieces in Healthy, Wealthy, and Wise: implications for workforce development.


People collaborating to complete a puzzle

Common themes

The thinkpieces identify a range of approaches to developing the adult learning workforce which have the potential to nurture the skills, knowledge and attitudes needed for the future. However, a number of common themes emerged:

  1. More flexible delivery is needed. This includes the provision of increased opportunities to undertake part time training and making greater use of digital delivery to create online as well as off-line spaces for collaboration.
  2. Collaboration, inclusion and diversity should be actively promoted through more open practices in workforce participation. There is a need for a more flexible and ‘common sense’ approach, to enable those from other professions to enter the adult learning workforce, via fast track qualifications, accreditation of prior experience, team teaching, and other modes.
  3. Progression routes should be developed with appropriate linkages between different stages and levels, and opportunities for upskilling for those who want to progress. This includes support for the well-trodden path from adult learner to adult educator, often through volunteering.
  4. Coaching, mentoring, action learning sets and peer learning approaches use fellow managers and practitioners to support each other to take control of their own learning and are a powerful way to share knowledge and experience.
  5. Learning by doing together is a powerful way of achieving change. Cross-curriculum and multi- agency teams help to break down professional barriers and forge new relationships. ‘Polyvocal conversations’ (see thinkpiece 6) are a way of enabling managers, practitioners, volunteers and partners to communicate effectively, share and learn, and move together towards finding common solutions.
  6. Joint Practice Development (JPD) approaches stand in contrast to top-down, prescriptive Continuing Professional Development. As thinkpiece 2 argues JPD is a more egalitarian model, ‘an anarchic response to CPD’ and ‘an antidote to the notion of mastery.’


Responses from across the UK

My co-editor Helen Plant and I had the pleasure of testing out these ideas at forums across the UK earlier this year.  From these responses we drafted the final section of the publication.


Eight underpinning principles infographic

The main message was that although each part of the UK had different adult learning plans—and therefore different approaches to workforce development—there were common issues. However, each devolved administration decided to take forward its plans for adult learning, they needed to work to a framework based on common principles.

Do you agree with these principles? Do you feel we have missed anything?

In future blogs we will be describing how we arrived at these ideas, so feel free to ask questions below.



Mark Ravenhall

Mark’s career has spanned the public, private and voluntary sectors. He started as a teacher in further education, leading a residential adult college and an adult education service before joining the UK National Institute for Adult Continuing Education (NIACE) in 2001. He worked for 12 years at NIACE becoming Director of Policy and Impact. Freelance, he works for a number of clients in the UK and Europe. Since 2013, he has been part of the UK National Coordinator team, now led by the Learning and Work Institute. As part of this work, he chairs the England Impact Forum which meets quarterly to discuss evidence on the impact of adult learning. Mark has co-authored five publications on adult education and is currently co-editing a collection of essays on workforce development.



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