Encouraging more men into informal learning: reflections on the Men’s Sheds movement
Much of adult education is more or less a man-free zone. I see this as a statement of fact rather than a complaint. As someone whose first ever adult class was a group of branch officials of the Yorkshire miner’s union, I find it very easy to enjoy working with women as colleagues and learners. I also ‘get’ quite a lot of the feminist argument: women have had a raw deal from education in the past, men still occupy more than their share of senior positions (including professorships, though that is changing), and there’s a long way to go before our structures and processes meet the needs of women. But I still think we need to talk about men.
This autumn, NIACE and AgeUK organised a large and successful conference on Men’s Sheds. Men’s Sheds originated some ten years ago in Australia, where there are now an estimated 600 community sheds. These are simply spaces where men can gather – some in gardens and allotments, some in rugby clubs or voluntary fire stations – and do things that they enjoy doing. Often, this means sharing skills and information, or working together to fix things and make things, or planning and organising events. Sometimes they decide to invite guest speakers (sometimes male, sometimes female) or a tutor to run a course. So there is plenty of learning going on, but under the control of the men, rather than a professional service provider.
This sounded like good news to the audience at the Leicester conference. Barry Golding, who has done more to spread the word about Australian men’s sheds than anyone, spoke movingly about their independence and their community roots. He reminded his audience that as well as skills and knowledge, the men are building social networks, helping each other cope with changes, and developing their health and well-being. And he emphasised that sheds are particularly important for older men, going through processes that can otherwise be felt as loss and isolation and a disregard for skill and experience.
Do we need something like this in British adult education? We do if we think men’s learning matters. You don’t have to look far for evidence that men are massively under-represented among adult learners. They account for only one quarter of participants in “Adult Safeguarded Learning” – that is, informal learning that is publicly funded - and are well below half of all Skills for Life learners. NIACE’s own yearly survey shows that men are less likely to do any adult learning than women, and also less likely to have plans for future learning. Most part-time students in universities are women, as are three quarters of students from access courses. So yes, we need something like sheds, if we’re going to improve participation in learning among men.
Sheds themselves, though, are a means to an end. The Leicester conference heard about the small but growing sheds movement in Britain and Ireland, and I am in no doubt that this presents an important opportunity for partnerships with adult educators. But what about the sorts of men who used to get into adult education through trade unions and other community based organisations? What about the young men who feel so excluded and disrespected by our society that they take to the streets? We need men’s sheds, but we also need to invent – or discover – other ways of engaging with men’s learning.
John Field, School of Education, University of Stirling http://twitter.com/#!/John__Field
Find out more!
http://www.mensshed.org – Australian Men’s Sheds Association
www.menssheds.ie – the Irish men’s sheds movement
www.menssheds.org.uk – a newly formed network of British sheds and their supporters
http://www.niace.org.uk/campaigns-events/events/discovering-mens-sheds - presentations from the NIACE/AgeUK conference