Evening classes in a Big Society context – why have politicians undermined it?


…and what can local colleges do – in particular using social and digital media to support their local communities? 

We had quite a number of people signing up to our most recent free social media surgery for people in and around Cambridge. Andrew Entecott, Ellie Stoneley and Mel Findlater are the brains behind them – me and Puffles simply rock up to help whoever we’re put with. This blogpost stems from one of the people I helped out today, who works in the continuing education field. It was the conversation that we had that made me wonder how Cambridge could use social media to build more sustainable learning and recreational communities for adults around its schools and colleges, while at the same time generating valuable extra revenue for those institutions.

Continuing education policy – where did it all go wrong?

Well, let’s start off where things started going right. Ivan Lewis MP was the minister at the time when Labour injected quite a substantial amount of money into the sector back in 2003 – see here. Also note the steady rise in spending on adult education between 2000-2005 in this written answer from Mr Lewis.

Then John Denham came in and ruined it all. Well, not quite, but the change of strategy away from informal non-vocational courses towards focussing on vocational and basic skills caused a stink – see here. I was living near Russell Square in London at the time – something my wallet has never forgiven me for. Thus I was in Frank Dobson’s constituency and had recently got back into music playing the viola in a string orchestra at the Mary Ward Centre. It was the result of Denham’s cuts that the centre had to scrap the orchestra class – something I’ve never forgiven Denham for. Frank Dobson tore Denham to pieces over it in a debate in Parliament.

I find it hard to believe that this is being done by good and decent people such as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills. He is my friend and he is honourable, but he is not right; he is wrong on this occasion.”

These cuts were obviously compounded by the current administration, and understandably morale has been low for quite some time. I’ve written more in this blogpost, but essentially my point is politicians look at adult education within a very narrow … what’s the word that I’m looking for…thingumyjig. Decision-makers in particular tend not to see the wider and perhaps harder-to-measure context of continuing education – in particular strengthening communities.

So…how can social media change all of that?

On it’s own, it can’t. It’s a bit like asking how a hammer can hammer a nail into a plank of wood without the help of someone to do the hammering. My point being that you can have a social media account for your group or institution, but you’ve got to be active in order to make it work. And that means doing some planning and research.

Which brings me back to these two diagrams from yesterday:

What does your community look like?
What does your community look like?
Trying to work out what sort of person might be given their level of community activism and level of internet/social media use
Trying to work out what sort of person might be given their level of community activism and level of internet/social media use


With social media surgeries, people often come to me with questions about specific social media tools but without having done much thinking, planning or research on whether the tool is appropriate for the aims of their institution/group and their audience. Much of the probing questions followed along those lines – corporate objectives, social media strategies and policies, audience segmentation, desires of your current and potential users regarding the institution…all of these things feed into which platforms you choose to use and how you use them.

How are Cambridge’s schools and colleges using them?

Patchy. Some are using social and digital media brilliantly – such as Long Road Sixth Form College which I visited recently. Have a look at this video from their politics A-level course:

The sad thing about Long Road is that it no longer has evening classes – a shame as I did A-level history as an evening class during my year out between college and university and loved it to bits. That said, there’s the massive housing development going on around the campus as well as the new technical college next door (see here). I believe it will be unsustainable for both institutions not to run evening classes when the new residents move in. The question is whether they’ve already started or whether they’ll wait for Puffles to persuade them it’s a good idea – something I moaned about in this blogpost ages ago.

Looking at another of my old local colleges – Hills Road, where I’ve signed up to do a digital film course, I had a look at some of their others, such as the one below.

Could Hills Road use other forms of media to show what people do on this course and what they produce?
Could Hills Road use other forms of media to show what people do on this course and what they produce?

Apologies for the blurred picture – an online version all on one page isn’t there, and the website isn’t very user-friendly. As a result, it makes it very difficult to put any content that is different to plain text that can showcase and demonstrate what might otherwise be really exciting courses. The culture of Hills Road as an institution is also much more ‘conservative’ compared to Long Road, which is much more forward-thinking and innovative. That’s coming from someone who has studied at both places and has visited both on their open days very recently.

Who should make the content?

Let’s have a look at another continuing education provider – the Parkside Federation. The main website is here, but isn’t linked to their Facebook page which is here. With Cambridge Regional College you have their website here which has links to social media feeds such as their general Facebook page here. Difficult to compare the two as CRC as far as I’m aware doesn’t have separate pages for mature students. Hence my point about audience segmentation above. Do you have one single page or do you have different pages for different audiences, managing them differently? Alternatively, should you differentiate by subject rather than age? So for example could you have different pages for your scientists from your beauticians irrespective of their age and type of course they are following? The best way to find the answers to that are to engage with your audiences directly rather than trying to guess yourself.

In terms of making the content, do you have the policies in place to enable the straight-forward management of a corporate page? Taking Parkside’s page, currently it’s only the admin staff that seem to be posting content on there. Would a better system involve admin staff being the curators and the students and the wider community being the content creators, showcasing what they have created in the classes provided by the institution?

Bringing the participants from all classes together

Having been a regular at evening classes in Cambridge and London over the years, one thing that has been a point of friction for me is how too many classes have felt very ‘functional’ in terms of learning relationships between the people that go there. Furthermore, I’ve often asked myself about why there doesn’t seem to be any ‘next step’ or celebration-type events about what we’ve done, learnt or achieved. When I got my History A-level, and when I got my GCSE in German, both were fairly big deals for me at the time. To be fair to our German teacher, once we’d done our exams we did have a celebration evening of German food, wine and film. But generally what we didn’t have – which what the Mary Ward Centre did have, was a general ‘celebration evening’ with people showcasing to each other what they had achieved – in their case it was musical performances. Yeah! I can play ‘Walking in the air’ on a viola!

Actually, I still maintain my greatest musical achievement was when our regular conductor got stuck in traffic and we were left with a bunch of first violin piece sheet music for Pachelbel’s Canon. When it became clear that the cellos had no idea how to read the treble clef, and the second violins needed someone to tell them when to start, I ended up volunteering to stand at the front and sort of…’nod’. With a pencil I then transcribed the treble-clef parts into bass, to give the cellos something to do and then ended up conducting the whole thing as a conductor would do in a rehearsal. Faking It telly? Yeah – I can do that too!

But my point is that we need to have things both within and at the end of term that can bring people together and get them talking to each other – especially given the hundreds of people locally that sign up to these things. Is there something that institutions together can team up to organise? My personal preference is getting all the places that run dance events to team up for one monster ball somewhere, with different rooms or marquees for Tango, Salsa, Swing/Lindy and Ballroom/Latin American.

Content creation, curation and conversation

Where does social media fit into all of this? It helps facilitate conversations before, during and after the events and classes. Done well, the potential is that it won’t be seen as the platforms are where a handful of strange people go to, but ones where you go to be inspired, learn more using different platforms and find out about other things that may be of interest to you. Thus breaking some of the silos that exist in Cambridge. With wider audiences, perhaps there is also a greater incentive for people to create their own content if they know that people are going to see and comment on it. It also creates forums for institutions to have open discussions with their students and participants. The challenge there is how do you deal with criticism and negative feedback?

One of the first places I’d go to for this is to a public service that does this day in day out – your local council. For me, Cambridge City Council are quite good at this. (See their social media webpage here). Yes, perhaps I would say that given that two years ago they gave me my break in social media and public policy training with my first paid training commission. But they were one of the first locally to recognise they needed to engage with social media users, and now have the depth of experience in how to manage negative feedback.

For those of you interested in these issues but who are not tweeting or blogging – especially if you are in or around Cambridge and have further questions, feel free to drop me an email at email me at antonycarpen [@] gmail [dot] com.


One thought on “Evening classes in a Big Society context – why have politicians undermined it?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s