Activities outside Parliament

The New Wales: A Learning Country?

A Discussion Paper by Professor Hywel Francis, University of Wales Swansea.

8th September 2000

The idea of a Learning Country

The WLGA is a body whose component parts have played such a crucial part in improving the quality of life and the democratic governance of Wales for over a century, and is today, as a new national body, such a major player in developing what I would call our twin challenges -

The creation of a Learning Country and the strengthening of our new democracy not through additional powers but through a greater sense of social partnership across the whole of Wales, a greater sense of participatory democracy beyond Cardiff Bay and a greater sense of active citizenship.

Unless we build this new Learning Country and that wider democracy, then our ultimate objective of community and economic regeneration through education will forever elude us: that is why the title of this Conference "Regeneration and Education" is so apposite.

This idea of a Learning Country has been pioneered by one of the new national educational bodies in Wales which the WLGA has played such an important part in creating and nurturing - NIACE Dysgu Cymru - a body which will be a new radical, democratic and hopefully loud voice for adult learners in Wales.

What I have to say this morning is by way of a discussion with you around three questions related to how we create this Learning Country.

1. How do we define poverty?
2. How do we define social partnership? and
3. How do we define a collective pride in ourselves and our multi-cultural diversity?

This all a long way from league tables and local government settlements, important as they are. This is all blue sky stuff or in my case, red sky stuff.

This last year in Wales has been quite a learning experience. To be frank, the quality of discussion sometimes on the real issues facing the young unemployed in Rhyl West, or the single parent in Butetown or the miner's widow in Tredegar has been, at best, problematic.

And I believe this has much to do with the lack of a clear definition of poverty, social partnership and pride in our cultural diversity.

Firstly then let us look at poverty. The recently published Welsh Index of Multiple Deprivation should be read and absorbed by all, especially elected representatives, and this should be followed by a reasonable period of silence. Consider the top and bottom fifty wards and how many of the very poorest are in the Valleys.

The Index will be seen as a step forward in giving us the tools to conquer poverty. That said, the compilers of the Index believe there could be improvements in the way we measure Deprivation.

And these may well focus around broader definitions of learning - recognising that a poverty of aspiration, in all generations, is born out of a poverty of opportunity. The combination of access to good teachers, good schools, colleges and universities, good libraries, good museums and galleries, good childcare, good homes, good skilled jobs, a good safe healthy environment and a welcoming tolerant community that supports the most vulnerable in our society.

If we achieve all of that, then we will begin to be measuring abundance in Wales not poverty, we will then have an informed public debate and we will be able to change, as one Swansea headteacher suggested, Penlan to Olchfa 2, or vice-versa.

All this does require a massive culture shift, of recognising that conquering poverty, improving lifelong learning and achieving regeneration are all organically and fundamentally inter-connected; and to see all this as being a long-term permanent strategy that recognises the need for a wide all-embracing learning environment.

Four signs of hope recently have been

1. the Assembly's Communities First Consultation Document;
2. the number of Objective One fast-track bids which focus on the relation between life-long learning and deprivation;
3. the prominent role of trade unions in life-long learning through such initiatives as the Welsh Union Learning Fund and the ISTC's Steel Partnership Training.
4. and finally the way in which all our Colleges and Universities are taking more seriously their community mission and particularly making the link between deprivation, learning and employability - note the HE involvement in Rhondda's new Pop Factory and the partnership with Neath Port Talbot.

And now let me move on to my second main question - how to define Partnership, more particularly, Social Partnership and how that is itself a serious learning experience.

For far too long the received wisdom has been the necessity of competition in all aspects of public life, rather than co-operation and partnership In our specific situation, with Democratic Devolution and Objective One, it should be compulsory for us to behave differently towards one another, both as institutions and as citizens.

Much has been made of the Irish experience, the "Celtic Tiger". Out of the recent visit to Ireland by Secretary of State for Wales, Paul Murphy and First Secretary of the National Assembly, Rhodri Morgan came three clear messages

1 . the centrality of Social Partnership
2. the centrality of life-long learning
3. and the centrality of the long view, of sustainability.

In launching the Irish National Development Programme last year, the Taoiseach Bertie Ahern said most revealingly, "...we must ... equip all our people with the skills and opportunities to cope with the pressures of change."

Democratic Devolution and Objective One is forcing the Welsh people and all our institutions, old and new, to learn the painful lessons that introspection, the victim culture, the politics of envy and most of all, the Welsh lobster syndrome, all need to be abandoned. We need to learn that our definition of Wales must be world-wide and that must be built on social partnerships within Wales, within the UK and internationally.

I now come to my last big question - How do we define a new pride in ourselves that recognises in new ways that our Welshness is multi-cultural and indeed multi-faith?

That is our biggest learning challenge - to live in a more tolerant, welcoming, civilised, safe community and country: free of prejudice and ignorance, free of racism, xenophobia and homophobia so that the Bangla Deshi community in Swansea, the Somali community in Cardiff and indeed the asylum-seeker in Newport are as much citizens of the new Wales as the Welsh speaking farmer in Gwynedd.

We should learn to celebrate our diversity and define ourselves as Dr Mashuq Ally, the Commissioner for Racial Equality in Wales has done recently-

" Wales is a commonwealth of communities."

It is encouraging to see the number of our public bodies taking a lead in public awareness strategies from Police Authority anti-racist hoardings at sports grounds to local authority active citizenship programmes: the best I have seen this season is in the South Wales Police "Wizards Tackle Racism" at the Aberafon Rugby Ground.

And perhaps most imaginative of all are the forthcoming exhibitions by the National Museum of Wales. Firstly, one on Welsh identity called "Pwy i ni? / ln Search of Wales" and the other a major international exhibition on the life of the civil rights campaigner, Paul Robeson and his links with Wales. This second exhibition will be entitled "Let Paul Robeson Sing".


Defining poverty, partnership and pride in our cultural diversity and how they relate to regenerating the new Wales have been my themes this morning. I think this is beautifully illustrated in Trevor Griffiths' brilliant television play on Aneurin Bevan.

The old dying Bevan contrasts his formal learning experience with his broad enabling learning vision:

" Schooling for our people," said the old Bevan in the play, " has always been constructive misery from which a true education has been deliberately excluded obedience and cringing servility in; imagination and mental daring out. That's always been our sort of schooling, a human dog-training.

" Once I asked a simple question, "what do we put in place of fear?" If we let ourselves believe that reading and writing and painting and song and play and pleasure in the imagining, good food, good wine, good clothes and good health are the toffs-turf, boy, haven't we lost the battle already? Their ours, our human right all right?"

That is the real democratic challenge for our new Learning Country. But do we yet have the political courage and maturity to seize it?

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