At European level, EU Member States are working towards a common set of objectives called the strategic framework for European cooperation in education and training, or ET 2020, and these have recently been reviewed by the European Commission. The framework covers all areas of education and training and provides an “umbrella" for the Renewed European Agenda for Adult Learning.
The review comes in the form of a draft Joint Report from the Commission and the Council. Published in August, it reports on the implementation of the framework with a view to determining the priority areas for the coming years. The report offers an opportunity to look at how priorities have changed since the last review in 2012 and, by implication, what progress has been made in Europe as a whole in recent years.
So what's the same and what has changed regarding the issue of quality in adult learning?
Quality runs as a thread through the review, as it does through the strategic framework itself. “Quality learning for all" is key to fostering “upward social convergence". Adult learning “is the basis for up-skilling and re-skilling", with persistent problems of low basic skills and high unemployment rates making it necessary to reinforce the implementation of the European adult learning agenda. There is a need to “significantly increase the supply of high quality adult learning provision", and priorities include better quality assurance. These elements will be familiar amongst adult learning practitioners. They reinforce previous messages at European level and point to the need for continuing progress.
But not all is reiteration. Notably, the Joint Report draws attention to the need to stimulate the quality of learning outcomes “in a lifetime perspective". As far as I can tell from my many years watching European adult learning policy, this application of the quality concept to learning outcomes is new. It applies the term right at the heart of learning processes. The meaning is not elaborated in the report. But it would be interesting to think about what “quality" learning outcomes might be.
The report also makes much more of digital learning and information and communication technologies in the strategic framework than before. This reflects thinking at European level in the last few years. Indeed, ICT is now reflected in the priority areas, which include the need to promote the use of ICT not just as an add-on to learning, but as nothing less than “a driver for systemic change to increase quality and relevance of education at all levels". The 2011 Renewed Agenda for Adult Learning simply made reference to making better use of ICT to improve the quality of provision. To make ICT a systemic change driver poses both opportunities and challenges for adult learning.
The review also builds on previous thinking about monitoring and evaluation. It encourages Member States to use evidence-based policy-making to monitor policies and design reforms that deliver quality education more efficiently. And it also prioritises the exploration of “new ways to measure the quality of teacher training", which has not previously been identified in the strategic framework although there has been much focus on the quality of teacher training in general. Finding ways to measure it is new. The report also identifies the need in adult learning to “collect necessary data on needs to effectively target and design provision", a priority which highlights an important gap in many countries.
Overall, the Joint Report reinforces existing priorities and also identifies new needs. At the same time, it streamlines the number of priority areas from 13 to 6. On balance, we therefore have greater focus but at the same time confirmation that the needs identified when the strategic framework was adopted in 2009 still remain. The review also applies the concept of quality into some new areas, filling in some important gaps but also raising new questions.
As the report points out, Member States will select the areas and issues they wish to focus on according to their own national priorities, but the priorities throw down important challenges for anyone concerned about quality adult learning in Europe.
Andrew McCoshan has worked in education and training for over 20 years. For the last 10 years he has specialised in policy development studies and evaluations for the EU, and before that was a consultant in the UK. Andrew is currently a freelance consultant, an Associate with the UK Higher Education Academy, an ECVET Expert for the UK, and a Member of the UK Education & Employers Taskforce Research Group.