Over the summer holidays, we are revisiting some of our favourite articles published in The Australian TAFE Teacher magazine in 2012.  

In Australian policy and practice terms, there are as many definitions of Adult and Community Education as there are states and territories. Nationally, ACE has two quite distinct meanings. In some states it refers to non-vocational programs delivered by almost anyone and in many instances by TAFE. In other states, ACE refers specifically to a sector of not-for-profit community organisations who deliver both non-vocational programs but who increasingly form part of the Vocational Education and Training system.

While many TAFE teachers have an appreciation of ACE and may have even worked in the sector, others see the growth of larger VET focused ACE providers alongside VET reform in many states as yet another tool to undermine the pay and conditions of TAFE teachers; a veritable Trojan Horse, being used by policy makers to put a more palatable face on a privatisation race to the bottom.

I would argue that ACE, at its best, transforms lives and transforms communities and complements the work of publicly funded TAFEs. Further, that a greater understanding of the history and potential of ACE is essential for ACE and TAFE practitioners to work together towards their many common goals.

ACE is an extraordinarily broad church that has developed organically as a result of a number of waves of social movements. The first of these was the Mechanics Institutes, Schools of Mines, Schools of Arts and Circulating Libraries that developed in the second half of the eighteenth century. The aim of these largely worker-based movements was to enrich the lives of working men and women and to allow them to participate more effectively in civic life. These were joined at the turn of the century by Workers Education Associations; learning organisations which originated in the UK and continue today in Adelaide and parts of NSW. Post World War 2 the CAE in Melbourne opened along with a series of regionally based branches, and Community Colleges in NSW were developed.

The Neighbourhood House Movement with its emphasis on providing new educational options for women gave new energy to ACE in the 1970s and early eighties, and the early nineties “recession we had to have” added a series of Skillshares with a strong focus on the long-term unemployed. At the moment, other movements such as the Men’s Sheds movement and the Social Enterprise Movement (often modernised and rethought supported employment services for people with a disability), are flirting at the edges of the sector.

The diversity of ACE is both its greatest strength and its greatest weakness. On the strength side, each movement that has built the sector has been a genuine response to a pressing social need. Each centre’s uniqueness reflects the unique needs of its local community, with the mix of programs and courses differing widely between communities. Each centre also includes its own mix of social and community services alongside education offerings, from childcare, to job services, and in some high poverty areas even provision of welfare services such as food vouchers. Many have begun social enterprises and micro-businesses to provide supported work to members of the community such as community cafes, gardening services and recycling ventures.

On the weakness side, the diversity of providers means that public visibility of individual centres within local communities is high but the public sense of a sector is quite poor. Just like small businesses, the small size and geographic spread of ACE organisations makes for few economies of scale and a tough financial environment. ACE’s relationship with the community services sector puts it in the same highly feminised, devalued and poorly paid category as childcare, youth work and community development. All this makes for an industrially weak sector. Also, the very broad definitions of ACE in some states can mean that a small local neighbourhood house focussed on language and literacy can be treated in the same way as a large, multi site not-for-profit enterprise offering only accredited qualifications.

It is in every trade unionist’s interest to guard the definition of and policy approach to ACE and to advocate for adequate funding for the sector. The alternative is to allow ACE to be exploited by state governments as a ‘cheap and cheerful’ alternative to TAFE, forced to move away from the values and traditions that drew people of good will into it in the first place, competing over a shrinking pool of learners and ignoring those who have no relationship with learning at all.

While welcoming the diversity in the sector, ALA’s position is that the definition of an ACE provider has three parts, each of which forms an essential component. These are:

1)      Not for profit.

2)      Place-based community development amongst its core aims.

3)      Providing non-formal learning programs in addition to formal VET programs.

Not for profit requires little explanation. There is little enough investment in education or community services in Australia. Having to return a profit is bound to impact negatively on quality of provision and makes it unlikely that a provider will make the long-term commitment to a community required to reach the most disengaged. Remarkably some states include private RTO’s in their definitions of ACE, spreading the small amounts of funding for building communities even further. Unremarkably these are the states with the weakest ACE provision.

The ‘place-based’ part of the second criteria is crucial and needs to be protected. ACE providers have such a strong reputation in reaching hard to reach and socially excluded learners because they are in it for the long haul. An ACE provider’s long term commitment to a local community means that they remain as a presence whether there is a market case for them being there or not. For example, there are a number of ACE providers known simply as “The Centre”, that is, they are so embedded and well-known within their local community that the rest of their name has dropped off over time. Once a community has this kind of ownership of a learning centre, even the most disengaged adult in the community is likely to know what it does and feel comfortable walking through the door.

Not for profit status alone does not an ACE provider make. In our opinion, a large not-for-profit organisation that drives in and drives out or flies in and flies out of a community when the market is strong and moves camp when it’s not, is not an ACE provider.

Which brings me to the final part of the definition. Non-formal non-vocational learning is an essential part of the ACE tradition. Just like our forbears in the Mechanics Institutes, ALA believes that adults needs to keep learning not only to gain and retain their next job, but also to build functional homes and families, to manage their own health and wellbeing, to be active citizens in a vibrant democracy and to engage in an informed way with the important debates of our times such as moving to a lower carbon society or dealing decently with diversity and immigration.

Anyone who has worked in ACE or TAFE has heard the term ‘basketweaving’ used as a derisive grab bag term for any learning activity that does not include training to atomised narrowly defined competencies for a job that exists today and might not tomorrow. While there is most certainly a debate to be had about public/private benefits of non-vocational learning and who pays for what, a large part of ACE’s appeal nonetheless is that it is open to people who are not seeking work as well as those who are, and to people whose identity is informed as much by being a parent, or grandparent, as by what they do for a living, or whose contribution is made to the non-paid volunteer economy instead of to the paid workforce.

A 2004 – 2006 Longitudinal Study of Victorian ACE learners found that for those surveyed:

  • The unemployment rate declined to one-third from 24% in 2004 to only 8% in 2006
  • The proportion of workers employed full-time more than doubled from 13 percent in 2004 to 28 percent in 2006.

However, it also found that:

  • Overall the main motivations for those studying an ACE course were to “improve well being and confidence” (93% agreement), to “meet new people and share a learning activity” (89% agreement) and to “develop new interest or activity” (82% agreement).

Ironically, the very reason that people value ACE, that is, learning general skills in the company of others, is the least valued by government and the most likely to end up defunded as “basketweaving”.

No one would advocate for non-vocational programs for the middle class to be funded at the expense of support for the unemployed to gain qualifications to enter the workforce or for vulnerable workers to gain qualifications that will increase their capacity to move to high skill, high wage jobs. However, the grab bag of ‘basketweaving’ is too often used to devalue and defund important access, participation and intergenerational literacy initiatives that form an integral part of the ACE tradition.

The 2007 ABS Literacy and Lifeskills Survey caught the public’s attention because of the startling figures of 53% of the public with less than the level of numeracy and 47% with less than the level of literacy required to operate effectively in a modern knowledge based economy and society. A little quoted figure from this survey found that those adults who reported above the required literacy and numeracy levels and who also had the highest formal qualifications, also reported having engaged in large amounts of self funded or workplace funded non-formal learning. On the other hand, those with low literacy and numeracy reported very little engagement in non-formal learning at all.

Those of us in secure employment take part in so much non-formal learning, in the form of seminars, workshops, mentoring, briefings and conferences that we barely notice it. This non-formal learning underpins and informs our pursuit of formal qualifications. Yet for some reason we expect the poorest, least skilled members of our community to spend large amounts of their resources going straight to the formal option, with no access to non-formal learning at all. What does it say about us a society that our government would rather intervene in some of our poorest communities to manage people’s finances for them, rather than teaching them the numeracy and financial management skills to do it themselves?

I encourage you as unionists and educators not to buy into the notion that all learning outside formal qualifications is basket weaving. Accredited qualifications are important tools for participation in the economy, but short courses, taster program, learning circles and other non-formal approaches are essential too. It is no accident that those countries (mainly the Scandinavian countries) with the highest levels of adult literacy not only have strong VET systems, but also offer opportunities for adults to learn a broad range of life skills in each others company.

In increasingly privatised tertiary education environments, the ACE tradition is not a threat to sustainability of the TAFE sector. I would argue that ACE is an enabler and a provider of pathways and that TAFE can only be strengthened by working cooperatively with community based adult education. However, ACE needs to be funded to do what it does best so that it is not forced to abandon its traditions and compete for the scraps from an already lean table. It is in both our interests to understand the interrelationship between formal education and training and non-formal learning and development and to build a culture and commitment to both lifelong and lifewide learning for all Australians.

– Sally Thompson is the CEO of Adult Learning Australia, the 51-year-old national peak body for adult and community education across Australia