By Colin McGregor, Director, ACE Aotearoa
I was fortunate to visit the UK in April this year. I visited Leicester (Learning and Work Institute and the Adult Skills and Learning Service), Telford (for the University Association for Lifelong learning Conference) and Edinburgh (Scottish Government, Education Scotland and Scotland’s Learning Partnership). The key issue on the ACE sector’s mind (along with almost everyone else) was Brexit. The European Commission provides funding for many ACE sector initiatives. There is a real fear that Brexit will result in a loss of funding. Other NGOs in the UK are already positioning themselves for a post Brexit environment – often by reducing services and staff. The impact on government (particularly in Scotland) is unknown – but a possible decrease in immigration could impact on the provision of services.

It isn’t as though the ACE sector is particularly flush with funds to start with. In Scotland core funding to a dedicated organisation akin to ACE Aotearoa is around $80,000 per annum. Other income is generated from philanthropic trusts, tenders for work and support for specific initiatives.

The trip had a number of objectives: as a follow up to see how Scotland’s Statement of Ambition for the ACE sector was actually happening in practice ; to find out what was happening in England; to see what the future might look like for ACE; and finally to steal any good ideas that we could implement in New Zealand.

The Scottish Government and Education Scotland are developing policy to support the implementation of the Statement of Ambition. In many ways Scotland and New Zealand are in similar places with their thinking. The shared issue is where to put resources – in particular whether there are any priority groups. Scotland also has a population challenge. For the next five years there is going to be a huge drop in the numbers of young people. This is an interesting conundrum as a lot of resource has been directed to youth. The NGO sector would also argue that the Statement of Ambition has remained that – and that the ambition is yet to be realised. Scotland was very keen to hear about our progress with policy and I have shared information with them. They were impressed with the role ACE Aotearoa played in New Zealand. We are keeping in touch.

England is unique. Some regions are well supported (like Leicester) and others less so. The city is Labour (and has kept its ACE funding), the District is Tory (and hasn’t kept its ACE funding). It often depends on the local politicians. Leicester has a network of provision for ACE. In many ways it reminded me of Wellington High School but on a much larger scale. Courses are funded by the equivalent of TEC, plus the European Union European Social Fund (possibly to be a casualty of Brexit) and participants. The Learning and Work Institute – the LWI (based in Leicester, London and Wales) is a membership organisation with individual, corporate and local body/universities/ third sector organisations. Their mantra is a belief that a better skilled workforce, in better paid jobs, is good for business, good for the economy and good for society. There has been some criticism that the LWI has forsaken the community development role and focussed much more on the learning for work role. The LWI does a few similar functions to ACE Aotearoa, for example they run the annual Festival of Learning. However they have a dedicated research unit and get funding (up to 20%) from Europe. They are currently at about 50 staff, down from 300 in their heyday.

The Future
At the Telford Conference there was much discussion on this year being 100 years since ACE started in the United Kingdom. Various celebrations are planned. Similar to New Zealand the fortunes of ACE have risen and fallen like the tide. One of the fundamental arguments has been is ACE for work or is ACE for social change (or indeed is ACE for both). A possible way forward could be a focus on assisting five capabilities – Digital, Health, Financial, Civic and Cultural. I found it fascinating that on my return the Minister for Seniors put $600,000 on the Gold Card for older people to update their digital skills. I also was heartened by the Office for Seniors strategic review which noted the importance of lifelong learning for older people.

Good Ideas
I was taken with Scotland’s Learning Partnerships idea of Family Learning week and an hour a day for learning week (where they even got politicians to video themselves learning a new skill). Raising the profile of ACE is an important part of people gaining understanding of the ACE and how it can improve lives. This, along with a focus on the five capabilities and an improved policy and funding framework will position ACE for the future in New Zealand.

I was also heartened by renewing the acquaintance of Sir Alan Tuckett, doyen of the ACE sector in the United Kingdom. He is a man of rare insight who has observed the ups and downs of ACE in the United Kingdom. He knows what can be done – and specially referenced the city of Suwon in South Korea where the commitment to lifelong learning is embedded across society, the politicians and the funding regime.