Many studies over many years have noted the strong association between better educational achievement and better health outcomes. The association is clear, the reasons less so. Perhaps that’s why there has been relatively little thought given to how policy in health and in education should be better aligned?
Talk to any teachers involved in adult education and the over-riding sense you will get is that they see their role as empowering people. Yes, they’ll help them learn relevant things, make progress through achieving qualifications, and want them to progress onto higher levels of learning or into work. But the real joy of being involved in lifelong learning is seeing people light up – they grow in confidence, build self-esteem, understand themselves and their environment better, and develop relationships with other learners.
You can hardly fail to be inspired and excited when you see this happening in a class of adults. Often people feel that learning gives them an identity for the first time: as an equal with others, as a learner, and as someone who has talent and can achieve. At a very basic level, it is easy to understand how this all might translate into better mental health, and how that in turn might result in better all round physical and mental wellbeing.
All well and good, but try selling that as a set of outcomes to a Treasury official who needs to see the outputs and clear benefits in monetary terms. That’s probably why at a policy level, the clear and obvious health benefits of learning for adults, has never received the policy and funding attention I believe it deserves. The very personal impact that being a successful learner has in helping people participate in their community, understand their options, be resilient to change, or even become change agents themselves are all beyond a simple economic view of the world.
So where we have seen attempts to link health and learning policy, it has tended to be about issues such as basic literacy and numeracy, and helping people find jobs through so-called employability skills. These are critically important, but don’t do justice to how empowering learning is for people, particularly for those who get the chance to ‘become a learner’ as an adult, usually having not achieved at school.
Those learners go on to do and achieve all sorts of things which benefit them, their families, our communities and the economy. They often find (better) work. They support their children to achieve at school. They live healthier lives. They become volunteers and participate in our democracy. In other words, making successful first steps into learning as an adult, whatever the course, whatever the original motivation, will often lead to multiple societal benefits.
The big challenge here is that the benefits of lifelong learning are so varied that they are both difficult to quantify and difficult to pigeon-hole. In Whitehall terms, the benefits are also spread across more than one Ministry; education, health, communities, work and pensions, culture all gain from a strong lifelong learning culture. For advocates of lifelong learning, therefore, we need to both build the evidence for the benefits and the relationships across a wide range of officials and ministers.
But the prize is simple: healthier, happier, wealthier people, and stronger families, communities and businesses.
David Hughes (@AoCDavidH) is CEO of the Association for Colleges