Special dossier: The UNESCO Recommendation on Adult Learning and Education (RALE) impacting on national policies and practice

An important part of the work of ICAE is to highlight effects and the success stories of advocacy on adult learning and education (ALE).

This is why we have prepared a special dossier on the evidence of impact of the new UNESCO Recommendation on Adult Learning and Education (RALE, 2015) in terms of national adult learning and education policies and practices.

RALE is one of the main policy frameworks of UNESCO for ALE, adopted by the UNESCO General Conference in 2015. It replaces the 1976 Recommendation on the Development of Adult Education and is, therefore, the most up-to-date normative instrument in this important policy area. As a policy framework – RALE is very timely as it contributes to a suite of policy frameworks and commitments (Sustainable Development goals (SDGs), Belém Framework for Action (BFA), Education 2030 Framework for Action, etc.). A global policy coherence is visible and these international policy frameworks enable us all to work to contribute ALE.

Defining adult learning and education in detail

The new Recommendation provides a more detailed definition of adult learning and education (ALE), distinguishing three core areas of skills and learning: (a) to equip adults with literacy and basic skills; (b) to provide continuing training and professional development, and (c) to promote active citizenship through what is variously known as community, popular or liberal education. It calls upon Member States to take action in the areas policy, governance, finance, participation, inclusion and equity, and quality. Governments and the international communities already know these areas of action, as they were already defined in the Belem Framework for Action (BFA), adopted at CONFINTEA VI in 2009. Therefore, RALE provides a consistent and integrative approach with the BFA, as well as other international documents on education.

RALE stresses the importance of:

  • a rights-based, participatory and discrimination-free approach to the design and implementation of policies and programmes;
  • ALE for the economy and the labour market; improving the status of ALE and strengthening its function as an indispensable component of contemporary education systems;
  • ALE in terms of lifelong learning;
  • the foundational role of literacy;
  • recognizing, validating and accrediting non-formal and informal learning;
  • capacity-building and enhanced international cooperation.

One way in which the new Recommendation can be monitored is through the CONFINTEA process, especially the Global Report on Adult Learning and Education (GRALE), which tracks progress achieved in implementing the BFA in UNESCO Member States.

Therefore, this special dossier will present different success stories of advocacy and action inspired by RALE as well as evidence of its impact in terms of national adult learning and education policies and practices.

The impact of RALE on quality national ALE

What we can see from these examples presented is that RALE can strengthen quality adult learning and education.

  • RALE supports a governance that recognizes the contribution and participation of civil society organizations (CSOs) active in ALE at all stages and at all levels, through multi-stakeholder partnership structures and processes. This includes the delivery of ALE as well as the development of both policies and programmes.
  • RALE underscores ALE’s potential for transformation in all relevant spheres, through the provision of contextualised and learner-centred adult learning and education. We need flexible and seamless learning pathways across formal and non-formal education and training.
  • RALE is committed to mobilizing sufficient financial resources as there is a continuing lack of funding of ALE.
  • RALE is dedicated to participation, inclusion and equity – “so that no individual is excluded from adult learning and education and that quality learning opportunities are available to all. (…)”.

Examples show that the broad and humanistic conception of ALE that underpins RALE can and should inform legislation, public policies and educational practices, with an intersectoral perspective. The ethical, political and pedagogical dimension of ALE, referred to in RALE, gains increased visibility and presence in the public domain.

The impact of RALE on the three core areas

RALE offers us the opportunity to reflect and learn how to recognise and value local capacity, also through international cooperation and partnerships.

ICAE based it analysis on the three core areas of ALE defined by RALE: (a) to equip adults with literacy and basic skills; (b) to provide continuing training and professional development, and (c) to promote active citizenship through what is variously known as community, popular or liberal education. The analysis shows that responses to international declarations such as RALE and other policy influences have been positive.

  1. Literacy and basic skills in policies

The exploration demonstrates that in many countries literacy and basic skills remain top ALE priorities in national and regional policies and programmes. Literacy and basic skills are a major concern and represent an essential component in policies, legislation and definitions of ALE.

Thus, adults with low levels of literacy or basic skills top the list of ALE target groups, followed by those not in education, employment or training (NEETs). Literacy challenges and the difficulties of accessing and completing educational processes are often linked to patterns of unequal power distribution. Therefore, the continuing emphasis on reducing adult illiteracy is an important component of ALE policies across most countries. Correspondingly, there are increasing efforts at national levels to conduct literacy surveys and when new quality frameworks for ALE are being established, they are focused often on adult literacy and basic skills.  Therefore, in large majority of countries report there has been progress in political commitment to ALE, at least in the form of literacy and basic education.

However, unfortunately some countries, adopt a narrow concept of ALE restricted to adult literacy; give top priority to literacy and basic skills for ALE programmes and have limited the extent of their policy framework to literacy and basic skills. Also, many programmes are focused on the first stage of literacy and little attention is given to continuity and succeeding levels. Due to the high political profile of adult literacy, governments tend to invest more in monitoring and evaluating literacy programmes than they do in the case of other adult education programmes.

Nonetheless adult literacy cannot be understood as a uniquely educational concern. Most countries accept that ALE has a positive impact on an individual’s participation in social, civic and political activities, on general social cohesion and on social trust and tolerance of diversity. Literacy and basic skills programmes deal with social and cultural development issues.

It requires an integrated and coordinated multi-sectoral approach. According to the outcomes and lesson learned from the BFA monitoring and the fields of learning identified in RALE, a concept of ALE and literacy that corresponds to the broader model, is needed – one not limited to the basic skills of reading and writing,  but including many competences; a concept that ‘allows citizens to engage in lifelong learning and participate fully in community, workplace and wider society’ (RALE, p. 2).

  1. Continuing training and professional development

Although there exists an increasing diversity of adult learning and education programmes, frequently their principal focus is on vocational education and training (VET). Often men predominate in technical and vocational education and training and the participation of women is very low.

Regarding the professionalization, in-service and continuing education and training programmes for ALE practitioners, teachers and facilitators, an availability but with inadequate capacity has been reported.  While ‘improving training, capacity-building, employment conditions and the professionalization of adult educators’ was one of the commitments of the Belém Framework for Action (BFA), ineffective capacity-building is one of the most important issues needing to be addressed by a majority of countries.

Some countries have developed a standard curriculum for adult educators and national standards for competences required of an adult educator. In other countries, universities and other educational research institutions are engaged in professional training and development of adult educators. Pre-service and continuing education programmes largely take the form of short courses, work-based learning, induction programmes and in-service training.

However, the professionalization of adult education as a discipline needs more effort as the capacity to provide opportunities for professional development often remains inadequate. The reasons for this lie in the way the ALE sector is structured and made functional. While many countries rely on non-professional adult educators, others work with peers or volunteers who are trained as adult educators.

  1. Active citizenship

Developments in several regions show an emphasis on learning for active citizenship and sustainable development, in which ALE can play a significant role by encouraging dialogue and safe learning environments. Countries see that ALE has a positive impact on an individual’s participation in social, civic and political activities, on general social cohesion and on social trust and tolerance of diversity. In particular literacy and basic skills programmes deal with social and cultural development issues. Additionally, a number of policies prioritize ALE as a means of achieving employability as well as social cohesion.

Nevertheless, the benefits of ALE in social, civic and community life are not widely acknowledged on national level policies.

A comprehensive and holistic approach to ALE needs to be strengthened at national and regional levels. There is a growing need for an ALE approach that is given its vital role in maintaining social stability and coherence, promoting political participation, achieving active citizenship, involvement in democratic and social life, facilitating social interaction and living in tolerant and diversified societies. Adult learning and education go beyond employability and foster the values of active citizenship, strengthen personal growth and secure social inclusion. “It empowers people to actively engage with social issues such as poverty, gender, intergenerational solidarity, social mobility, justice, equity, exclusion, violence, unemployment, environmental protection and climate change. It also helps people to lead a decent life, in terms of health and well-being, culture, spirituality and in all other ways that contribute to personal development and dignity.” (RALE, p.7)

The following list of examples will be presented:

  1. Literacy and basic skills
    1. Arab promotion of literacy (Arab Region, Egypt),
    2. Community learning – literacy programmes for Youth and Adults (Dirección General de Escuelas Mendoza, Argentina).
    3. Networking and partnership for fighting illiteracy(Québec, Canada).
  2. Continuing education and vocational skills
    1. Youth action research points towards community learning hubs for interaction, sharing, and learning(Northern Samar, Philippines)
    2. Digital Skills & Learning advocacy (European, UK)
    3. Community Learning Centers (Asia, Laos)
  3. Liberal, popular and community education and citizenship skills
    1. Kvinnofolkhögskolan: a feminist folk high school (Malmö, Sweden)
    2. Gender justice street theather in Cape Town (South Africa)
    3. Landless workers’ movement and rural popular education (Brazil)