By Jackie Howie, CEO, Learning Link Scotland
Learning Link Scotland is a national intermediary for third sector adult learning in Scotland. We were established for, and by, third sector adult learning organisations; our vision is that people will have access and equal opportunity to strong, independent, and vibrant third sector adult education, and that organisations work in partnership with others to fulfil lifelong learning, social inclusion, and democratic aspirations.

Prior to March 2020, the Strategic Forum for Adult Learning, a national, cross-sector forum supported by the Scottish Government, were in the process of developing a Strategy for Adult Learning for Scotland. The sector supported the development of the strategy which was based on our Statement of Ambition for Adult Learning which has three guiding principles stating: that learning should be lifelong, lifewide learning and learner centred.

The global coronavirus pandemic began to be felt in Scotland early in 2020 and in March of that year, the UK Government implemented a national lockdown. We were asked to work from home, schools, colleges and universities were closed and adult learning organisations suspended face-to-face delivery. In addition, the work of developing the Strategy for Adult Learning was suspended.

Learning Link Scotland carried out a consultation with providers and found that during this period, they were working hard to sustain contact with their learners, using phones, virtual meetings and social media.

Unsurprisingly, we found that adult learning organisations were providing a real lifeline for a lot of people, especially the most vulnerable and isolated learners.

We asked providers about their challenges and their support needs. The main challenges were around funding, staffing levels and digital resources. For example, many learners had no access to digital technology or use of the internet. To compensate, organisations provided paper-based activities and learning packs for delivery to learners. Later, funding was made available to support learners to access digital devices and, to enable connectivity. Most organisations have had challenges in gaining access to digital devices or mobile phones for learners and staff and across Scotland, rural areas often have poor connectivity. Indeed, even in cities, internet systems set up for home use were not always able to support home working, especially if there was more than one home worker or children are using the wifi to study. Cyber security and confidentiality became an issue as staff and learners were often using personal digital technology, email addresses and mobile numbers.

In response to providers support needs, the Scottish Government, alongside national intermediaries like Learning Link Scotland, worked together to support the sector. Funding was available for digital technology and upskilling of staff through our national intermediary Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations, under the hashtag of #NeverMoreNeeded. Weekly webinars were run to support third sector organisations manage the crisis and cross-sectoral partnerships developed, for example, Colleges Development Scotland offered free digital training to third sector and local government workers. Organisers and practitioners travelled along a steep learning curve, developing online learning for their learners – the response was phenomenal.

To take just one example, Lead Scotland, a charity supporting disabled people and carers by providing personalised learning, befriending, advice and information services, recognised their learners had challenges going digital and so they developed a free course: Everyday computer skills: a beginner’s guide to computers, tablets, mobile phones and accessibility. In East Renfrewshire, a course on Exploring Wellbeing that started delivery in the community was adapted and moved online by the tutors as they recognised the subject matter was more important than ever as lockdown progressed. In West Lothian, learners are being asked to contribute their thoughts on 2020 for a time capsule, the discussion will take place on Zoom and illustrated by an artist who will upload the results to YouTube.

While the response of the sector has been incredible, it has to be seen within the context of years of underfunding and some projects have furloughed workers and/or had to make staff redundant. Other services have been cut altogether. In addition, the nature of online delivery and endless virtual meetings are exhausting, staff and organisers are worn out by the new way of working and constantly having to problem solve in order to create effective ways of delivering learning. As noted earlier, adult learning services can be a lifeline for adults often excluded from society. However, it is these adult who are most likely to lack the skills to engage digitally and to suffer from poor mental health. These adults really need the opportunity to return to their adult learning classes.

Like most countries, our journey through the crisis has not been consistent. In the first few months, we had hoped to return to face-to-face delivery by October 2020, however, it now looks very unlikely that large scale face-to-face delivery will be taking place before March 2021.

Throughout the period, new partnerships have emerged. In Scotland, adult learning sits under the umbrella of Community Learning and Development (CLD) and one new grouping of CLD Leaders was established to meet some of the challenges presented by the current crisis. That CLD Leaders group subsequently collaborated on the development of Coronavirus (Covid-19): guidance for the community learning and development sector to support the CLD sector in planning a return to face-to-face delivery. A set of guidelines focussing on the adult learning sector will also soon be available and a series of national webinars supporting workers to make well-informed decisions about whether or not they can carry out face-to-face delivery are due to take place very soon.

As we move forward, strategic policy developments, including the Adult Learning Strategy, are again underway. In the recent Programme for Government, the Scottish First Minister made a commitment to developing a Lifelong Learning Framework, drawing together Adult Learning Strategy alongside other strategies such as the Youth Work Strategy. All being well, we will have elections for the Scottish parliament in Spring 2021; it is hoped the momentum behind the new Lifelong Learning Framework and Adult Learning Strategy can highlight the vital role adult learning will play in the recovery from the pandemic and in doing so garner support and funding to take that work forward.