A place of hope, not hate: Adult education and a life after Brexit

There is much discussion of the febrile nature of political debate in Britain just now, and the violence of the language used by politicians to incite public opinion against their opponents. One of the worst and most reckless offenders is, of course, the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, a man whose fancifully high opinion of his own rhetorical abilities is matched only by the extraordinary casualness with which he deploys them. In a high-profile and typically light-touch interview with the BBC’s Andrew Marr this morning, Mr Johnson was permitted to repeatedly characterize the Benn Act, which his opponents hope will force the government to seek a Brexit extension and avoid a no-deal Brexit, as the ‘Surrender Bill’ – this on a day when one of the most prominent Brexit-supporting newspapers further stoked the flames of violent conflict with a front page warning of remainers’ ‘foreign collusion’.

Evidently, the Prime Minister has as little regard for national unity or the need to build communities of consensus as he has for telling the truth. The tone he has adopted is not surprising – it serves not the interests of the country, but his own trivial but all-consuming desire for political power – but it is profoundly damaging for any hope we might have of healing the divisions that are dominating and coarsening British political discourse.

It is irresponsible and extremely dangerous. The divisions caused by the referendum are real and painful – the lack of credit given by either side of the debate to the other is pretty much unprecedented, in my experience. We have never felt further apart. It is regrettable and troubling to see senior politicians prepared to exploit this baleful state of affairs for personal or tribal gain (if Johnson’s odious hedge fund backers can be termed a ‘tribe’). But I think it is important to note that the divisive nature of British politics did not originate in Brexit. Indeed, while Brexit has undoubtedly deepened the uncivil war of words, the no-man’s land between left and right has been widening for some time. While we hear sporadic gunfire, we no longer see one another’s faces, or hear the voices of those we dispute with.

As with Brexit, the engine of discord between progressives and conservatives in the UK is fuelled by a feeling that change is impossible, a general sense of hopelessness that, in turn, drives the recklessness expertly exploited by Farage, Johnson, Cummings, et al. Inequality, low wages, worsening living standards, declining infrastructure, an ailing health service, and an education system that routinely fails the poorest while giving the already privileged an unfair advantage, unfairly compounded throughout life: the punishing human toll of these debilitating trends is deepened significantly by the seeming impossibility of positive change. What is behind this sense of hopelessness?

Many communities in Britain have experienced decades of neglect – an unmanaged decline overseen by all mainstream parties – while their concerns, well-founded or not, have been, at best, ignored, at worse, derided, making them ripe fodder for the exploitation of Britain’s wannabe populists. But underpinning this sorry record of political neglect has been the internalization of the ‘big lie’ of British politics: the notion that there is no alternative to neoliberalism, with its attendant squeezing of opportunity and rampant inequality – that investing more in education, health or people’s wellbeing or standard of living will prove economically disastrous, and indeed that the increased investment in public services under the last Labour government resulted, in large part, in the financial crisis, the long shadow of which still dominates out politics more than a decade on.

This lie was most clearly and artfully articulated under the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition that ushered in the politics of austerity (though it was implicit in Labour’s drift to the right in the search of an elusive ‘third way’). It was the necessary justification of a policy that put the bill – and most of the blame – for the financial crisis at the door of the public sector. Most of those making this argument have known it to be untrue or at least a serious distortion of the truth. But it has been incredibly effective in cementing in the public’s mind both the need for austerity and the financial imprudence of any attempt to bring about substantive progressive reform. The narrowing of the range of voices discussing these issues in the mainstream media, and the generally dismissive attitude taken to anyone prepared to challenge the ‘consensus’ has helped ensure the lie sticks. And while the purpose of those who popularized it may have been simply to marginalize the Labour Party and to convince the victims of neo-liberalism to vote for more of the same, it has had a more profound effect, making sensible mainstream social-democratic progressive reform almost impossible and limiting the levers available to politicians set on progressive change, while contributing both to Labour’s lurch to the left and to the Tories’ death-embrace of right-wing populism. While Brexit has shone a bright light on the divisive, binary nature of British political culture, these divisions are bigger than Brexit and will outlive it. The challenge for progressives is to change the self-defeating internal narrative of British politics – the story that keeps the wheels of progress spinning uselessly off the ground – and create a new, more inclusive, compassionate and democratic one.

The failure to persuade, to build consensus or form coalitions has been the main fault of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party. While he has, quite properly and pretty much uniquely (if not always particularly clearly), sought to develop a nuanced position on Brexit capable of commanding wide support on both sides, Mr Corbyn has done far too little to reach out and engage, even within his own party. This, regrettably, has been typical of his style of leadership. Because of this, while he has overtly challenged the divide in British politics and offered an alternative narrative, in many respects quite compelling, the uncompromising, uncollegiate nature of his politics has ended up reinforcing it. As a result, many Labour members and supporters, including those initially sympathetic to his leadership, have come to see him as an obstacle to progressive change. This is unfortunate as many very compelling and radical aspects of his policy agenda would be unlikely to survive a change of leadership. The argument within the Labour Party about Corbyn’s leadership concerns both the policy direction of the party and his ability, given his limitations as a leader, to deliver the change his policies promise (which I suspect have the broad support of most members).

The problem for Corbyn and other supporters of progressive social change is the lack of engagement in social democratic ideas in British political life and culture. This is a frustration of the left which often results in the mainstream media and the BBC, in particular, taking much of the blame for their exclusion. This is partly justified but there is a wider story here too: there is considerable resistance to these ideas among the general public, as well as a lack of understanding, which the media reflects and feeds, and politicians exploit. Although it will do considerable economic harm, and has already inflicted significant reputational damage to the UK, Brexit also represents an important opportunity to offer a vision of a new Britain that is more equal and socially just, and where opportunity and wealth are more evenly spread across the country, regionally and in terms of social class. But for this to happen we need two things: people need to feel empowered and be persuaded that change is possible (‘resources of hope’, in Raymond Williams’ wonderful, ageless phrase), and places where people can come together to discuss, shape and effect positive change (what we might term ‘spaces of hope’).

Historically, important social progress, such as extensions to the franchise or the creation of the National Health Service, have resulted from a combination of political and economic shock and a widening of educational opportunity, especially in adult education (for example, that provided by the Army Bureau of Current Affairs during the Second World War). We desperately need a conversation about the future of Britain that starts from the ground up, that is not managed but has the same open-ended, democratic characteristics of the best adult education traditions. The best way to learn about and become engaged in politics is by doing it. Social movements such as the climate crisis protests offer more opportunities for adult educators to create spaces for debate and learning. But we also need to see education for active citizenship not as a threat to elites whose power is premised on artful dissembling but as the lifeblood of strong and resilient democracy and support it accordingly. This, however, is unlikely to happen while the forces of populism continue to occupy Downing Street (for the first time since I started writing about adult education there genuinely seems no point in even proposing increased support for adult education), but we can all perhaps do our bit to create spaces for constructive debate, at home, in our communities, schools, institutions and workplaces, to enable civil, polite debate and respect for others, while arguing for broader change through more conventional means. Some combination of these is essential, both for postive social change and a healthy democracy.

Democracy and education remain the best ways out of the mess we are in, and, of achieving, in the face of the super-rich, their parliamentary agents and the media interests they control, a progressive Britain that is a place of hope, not hate.

The kids are alright

Greta Thunberg gave a remarkable and impassioned speech to the United Nations’ General Assembly yesterday, calling on the governments of the world and the international community to ‘understand the urgency’ and act to address the climate crisis.

She and other young campaigners have changed the political narrative on climate change and sustainability over the past year. Ms Thunberg’s solo strike in her native Sweden sparked a worldwide movement of school strikes, culminating in last Friday’s remarkable global display of nonviolent public resistance to political inaction (1.5 million people took to the streets in Germany alone). Young people have become the global leaders of the debate about the climate crisis – and with that comes the promise of real change; the only bright spot on an otherwise pretty bleak horizon.

Change is possible, but we must want it, and we much be prepared to pay what it costs. That, of course, is likely to be painful and discomforting for many; it is a long-term, not to say, permanent, commitment – something that will not be accomplished in months or even years. It will mean turning the world order on its head, challenging inequalities and doing things differently, listening to ideas we have previously dismissed as idealistic or unrealistic, thinking about our economic and social futures in different ways. Business as usual is no longer an option.

Unsurprisingly, given the threat this popular movement represents to the entrenched economic interests of the powerful, many are quick to dismiss its leadership and aims, to allege hypocrisy or to impugn protesters’ motives. Personal attacks on Greta Thunberg are common and frequently vicious. Resistance to change, while less visible and certainly less reflective of what the public at large thinks, is nevertheless extremely difficult to overcome, representing, as it does, the strongly held views of those who benefit the most from the global order and who also bear the least risk from its consequences for climate change. The likely outcome of these views prevailing will be something akin to genocide in the poorest parts of the world.

Many ordinary people watching Ms Thunberg’s speech at the UN will have been impressed by her seriousness and sincerity; others will have found her too abrasive, too publicly angry and uncompromising. Some are outraged at the idea of children daring to raise their voices or have an opinion. I fear, however, that the people in the latter camps are missing the point. The old covert and deferential way of doing politics, if it ever worked, does not work now. Faced with the challenges we now are now watching unfold, it simply is not fit for purpose. Meaningful change will have to come from somewhere else. What I found particularly interesting about her speech was her confidence that change was coming, irrespective of the political will in the room.

I hope she is right. It is easier to see what isn’t working than to say what needs to be done to change it. Change is inevitable – the planet is demanding it – but we have a significant say in the nature of that change. Will we see wealthier countries increasingly prepared to isolate themselves from poorer parts of the world, where the impact of the climate crisis will be felt first, and most forcefully? Or will the global community work together to meet and exceed its targets on emissions and find solutions that prevent the worst impacts of climate change, and that work for everyone, particularly the poorest?

There is a two-fold role for educators in this. First, it is important that people understand what is at stake (they frequently underestimate the extent of climate change and its likely impact), and, just as crucially, what climate action will cost. Politicians who try to engage meaningfully with this issue are likely to make themselves deeply unpopular with many segments of the electorate. They will have to challenge powerful vested interests. Without public understanding and support for the idea of a sustainable future, whatever the price, none of these things will be possible.

Second, educators need to empower people to demand change and advocate effectively for it. As Ms Thunberg has demonstrated, non-violent public disobedience is extremely powerful. In fact, it is difficult to think of any examples of large-scale political or social progress that have not been accompanied by activism of this sort. There is an opportunity here for adult education to revive its traditional roots in social movements and purposeful civic, democratic action. To stop the climate crisis escalating, the movement started by Greta Thunberg needs to be just the start; we need to move the will of politicians through our actions and activism.

Some time ago, we all boarded a train that, for quite a while, has been headed fast in the wrong direction. Although we can see clearly, on the horizon, where we want to be, the train we are on takes us further and further away from our desired destination. To get where we need to go, we need not only to change direction, but also to find a new vehicle for getting us there. This new vehicle won’t be as salubrious as the one we are in now, it won’t move as fast or provide as much on-board entertainment, but it will take us where we want to go.

Above all, as Ms Thunberg told the UN, we need to challenge our addiction to endless economic growth, and reform our education system, which has, increasingly, been formulated primarily as a means of pursuing this absurd objective. The old teaching-to-the-test, standardized, utilitarian education model, that served the global order by producing useful, unreflective economic units, is no longer fit for purpose. It never was. The challenges of the future demand an education system that fosters hope and creativity, thoughtfulness, democratic citizenship and a willingness to learn throughout life. We need solutions that are not simply sophisticated ways of maintaining business as usual. And we need to be prepared to make the changes demanded by a more creative, mindful and future-oriented approach to living and organizing our societies.

Greta Thunberg has shown that it is no longer enough simply to be a cheerleader for reform. We all must work to make a difference, in our own lives, in our neighbourhoods and workplaces, and as active citizens. As organizations, we need not only to talk the talk of climate reform; we have to walk the walk too. I see little sign of even the most well-meaning organizations taking their own responsibilities as seriously as they now need to. This has to change. We need to set an example of sustainable living and working, to help create a new normal. We can all do better; we can all do more (to paraphrase, the question is not so much ‘Why should I?’, as ‘How dare I not?’). Whoever you are, whatever your job, wherever you work, you can play a part in being the change we need to see in wider society.

Uncritical friends

When I began work for NIACE (the National Institute for Adult Continuing Education, since merged to become the Learning and Work Institute) in 2002, the institute had entered into close partnership with a Labour government that was, at least in its first few years in office, strongly committed to progressive reform and investment in the adult learning and further education. NIACE’s approach was not universally acclaimed. Many in the sector – or the ‘movement’, as we still thought of it then – opposed NIACE’s approach. Critics felt that there was a danger of NIACE becoming too close to government, that accepting significant amounts of government funding for project implementation would tie its hands when it came to resisting regressive or potentially harmful policy reform.

NIACE was well aware of these objections and took them seriously. However, the view of director Alan Tuckett and his policy consigliere Alastair Thomson was that it was better to be at the table with ministers and civil servants, able to make good policies better and mitigate the impact of bad ones, than to be shouting perpetually from the sidelines, with clean hands but no influence. I have written elsewhere that this calculation was, on balance, a sound one (even if it meant that NIACE could not take everyone in the field with them). NIACE was able to exercise a strong influence on policy (in some cases, effectively writing it), to keep adult education at the forefront of ministers’ minds, and to effect significant reversals in policy where the prospects of adult learning and adult learners were perceived to be in danger. Although I was sceptical about this approach at first, I came to admire it and to see the value in NIACE’s willingness to put outcomes for adult learners above recognition (and, for some, credibility) in the field. As I have observed before, much of NIACE’s best advocacy work ‘was conducted sotto voce, with the institute preferring to be privately effective rather than publicly lauded’ (perhaps, one day, Alan or Alastair will tell this story – it would make a fascinating book).

What made this approach work and kept NIACE, as it were, honest, was the institute’s willingness to bite that hand that fed it, to tell ministers when their policies were likely to prove harmful to adult learners and to campaign with partners against regressive policy, in the interests of learners. NIACE styled itself as a ‘critical friend’ of government. This did not mean that the institute was unable to offer meaningful criticism but, rather, that the criticism it gave was frequently delivered privately and always in a constructive way, as a means of improving learning outcomes. As the Labour government lost sight of the animating spirit of David Blunkett’s The Learning Age, with its invocations of enlightenment and its aspiration to create a ‘learning society’, and focused funding increasingly on basic skills and employability, NIACE became more publicly critical of the direction of policy (see Alan Tuckett’s TES columns from 2003 on) while nevertheless maintaining good relationships with key ministers and civil servants, which meant that the government was aware of what the institute was doing, even if they could not be expected to like it. This enabled the institute to reduce some of the negative impact of policy, but it was unable, in the end, to change its direction. As funding for other types of adult learning shrivelled up and learner numbers went into steep and, as yet, unarrested, decline, NIACE’s approach cannot be declared an unmitigated success, but it was, to my mind, the right way to go and remains a useful template for advocacy in education.

One of its successes was to transmit the institute’s vision for adult education and lifelong learning to the incoming secretary of state and minister for further education, Vince Cable and John Hayes, respectively, following the 2010 General Election and the advent of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government. NIACE had cultivated a strong relationship with John Hayes and his adviser Scott Kelly when they were in opposition and, indeed, Hayes’s first speech as minister was given at an Adult Learners’ Week policy event. Cable too was a long-standing friend of NIACE, with personal experience of the benefits of adult education. These relationships helped ensure that adults learners were protected from the worst possible effects of austerity-induced cuts (for example, the anticipated withdrawal of ‘safeguarded’ funding for adult and community learning) and that further education survived the threat of having all of its funding withdrawn (a proposal put to Cable by a department civil servant). Nevertheless, the broad drift of policy – driven by an ideologically motivated desire to shrink the public sector – was hugely damaging to adult education, as part-time and mature student numbers went into freefall and the crisis in adult participation in further education was deepened. For all the talk about the wider benefits of adult learning – in 2010, for example, new Prime Minister David Cameron told Adults Learning that ‘adult learning and the way it inspires people is crucially important’ – the view that adult education is about the development of workforce skills increased its hold on policy, and the enthusiasm of ministers frequently amounted to little more than hot air. As I recall Alan Tuckett’s successor at NIACE, David Hughes, remarking, adult education now enjoys warm rhetorical support from ministers and shadow ministers alike, but this is rarely translated into policy. Still less is it reflected in outcomes for learners.

Undoubtedly, organisations such as NIACE that choose to work closely with government in shaping policy, and that accept money for support in implementation, do so at some cost to their independence and credibility among supporters. Despite this, as NIACE also showed, it is possible to achieve meaningful positive outcomes and to be critical, both privately and publicly, in an effective and useful way. However, sharing the table with policy-makers assumes a climate in which values and objectives are also, to a large extent, shared and where commitments made can be taken at face value. What I suspect we have seen in recent years is, on the one hand, an increasing preparedness among those in power to say one thing in public but think another, entirely incompatible, thing in private, and, on the other, a growing unwillingness among organisations dependent on public funding to call out policies that fail to live up to the avowed values of politicians, or indeed their own values. The broad nature of the impact of austerity has meant that organisations with an unhealthy dependency on government support have not been able to diversify their funding base (a long-standing problem faced by NIACE, which was never, to my understanding, adequately resolved). At the same time, the quality of political debate has declined, with policy-makers eschewing evidence in favour of the opinions of experts with whom they agree. Such unequal relationships cannot reasonably be termed friendships, still less critical ones.

In the best of friendships, values are to the fore, as is mutual respect. Where values move too far apart or respect diminishes, relationships break down or become abusive and unequal. If we remain in these circumstances, we run the risk of aiding damaging behaviour, or of being complicit in it. This has increasingly become my concern about the relationship between the key advocacy groups in the adult and further education sector in the UK and the government. When we agree to work closely with the government in implementing reforms necessitated by austerity, are we abetting that policy? When we accept the latest prime ministerial promise concerning further education at face value and flag up our willingness to work with the government to make it a reality, are we really doing the best for the learners and providers we represent? Rather than celebrating the support of politicians, shouldn’t we be calling them out as hypocrites who attach too little value to keeping their promises? This has always been a difficult road to walk and some degree of compromise is certainly inevitable. And, of course, much of the good work these groups do is not visible. But I have to wonder if we now have the balance right or whether we need to take an altogether more sceptical approach to our work with government and use our influence not only to secure the survival of our bit of the sector but also to assert our values and widen the diversity and authenticity of voices at the policy table accordingly.

What made the NIACE model work was the fact that the institute had an unarguable bottom line – it was about defending the interests of adult learners of all kinds and across all sectors. It was not simply banging the drum for one bit of the sector or one group of providers. This is what made it such an important and irreplaceable part of the education policy community, and is the reason the Learning and Work Institute, for all its excellent work, cannot be said to occupy quite the same space or to fulfil quite the same purpose. I do not want to say that we have reached a point where the values and objectives of government are so removed from the progressive values of the further and adult education community that we can no longer sit around the table together. But the conversations we have there should reflect our understanding that we no longer operate in a particularly benign or progressive political environment. They should also acknowledge the fact that core values are not negotiable and come as a package – one cannot be sacrificed or silenced for another. There is also something dissatisfying about the prevailing one-dimensional, high-level model of policy influencing. We strengthen the branches but neglect the roots. I would like to see advocacy groups do more to strengthen their links with civil society and rediscover the social purpose ethos that has underpinned the adult education movement in the UK for well over a century. Time spent rediscovering our shared mission is never wasted because it reminds us that learners do not care about who is providing what – they want, and deserve, solutions that work for them, and that places on the sector an obligation to advocate holistic solutions that do not involve robbing Peter to pay Paul. We are the guardians of our mission and values. If we do not call out policies and practices that fail to live up to them, who will?

A reasonable hope of something better

Jeffrey Sachs, the economist, senior UN advisor and high-profile sustainability advocate, gave the keynote lecture of CEIS 2019, the annual conference of the Comparative and International Education Society, last night.

Speaking in San Francisco’s historic Herbst Theatre where the United Nations Charter was signed in 1945, Sachs stressed the link between the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the founding ambitions of the UN to ‘reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person’, and ‘to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom’.

Three years later, the UN General Assembly ratified the UN Declaration of human Rights, setting out the fundamental human rights that should be protected, including the right to education. Seventy years on, Sachs argued, the Sustainable Development Goals represented another attempt to implement the basic human rights that so animated the international community in the years following World War Two.

Four years into the sustainable development agenda, however, it was obvious we were not winning the battle, Sachs said. The achievement of SDG 4 on education, so crucial to the interrelated goals of the 2030 Agenda, was a case in point. With 260 million children of school age around the world not in school, the world, Sachs argued, was a starkly different place to that envisaged in the SDGs: ‘If you follow the logic, follow the arithmetic, then we’re not going to make it’.

‘We are desperately in need of a different course of action,’ Sachs said. There simply were not enough resources in poorer countries to address the challenge – it was down to the wealthier countries around the world to ‘do something different’ and increase taxation on the very rich to fund what were, on the global scale of things, relatively modest and achievable increases in spending.

‘The money is there,’ Sachs said. ‘We just need to raise our voices’, urging educators around the world to ‘fight harder for resources’.

It is hard to argue with this. The world is rich in resources, but those resources are shockingly unevenly distributed. While trillions of dollars in wealth are split between the thousand or so richest people on the planet, hundreds of millions of people have next to nothing and no hope of doing better. It is truer now than at any time in recent history that where you start in life determines how you end up. Opportunity is as unequally distributed as wealth.

The educator voice is important in all of this, of course, but I would question whether that voice is best applied simply in demanding more resources. It is critical too that we think about how those resources are allocated so that progress is permanent and people are galvanized to demand positive change for themselves, their families and their communities.

Making change meaningful means not only finding more resources – indispensable though that is – it is about doing education differently, and maximising education’s contribution to positive, progressive change, at every stage and age.

The interrelated nature of the SDGs and of the challenges they are intended to address means that, if we are serious about meeting them, we can no longer afford to think of education simply as concerning school and initial formal education. Finding new money for children’s education is important, but how much more effective would this expenditure be if the parents of the poorest, most marginalized children were able to support their kids through school and exemplify the culture of valuing learning we need to foster? But none of this will be possible unless, for example, we also address the huge global adult literacy challenge.

Education has a major role to play in addressing the challenges of sustainability, of course, but the nature of those challenges means that only holistic solutions will do. This is why lifelong learning – deliberately placed at the heart of SDG 4 and yet so often largely absent from discussions such as these – is so important.

Lifelong learning provides us with the organizational principle for thinking about educational priorities in a coherent, cross-sectoral and interconnected way. It is also key to the vision of education as a human right set out in the UN Charter and affirmed by Jeffrey Sachs last night.

Crucially, it puts learning and the learner at the centre of our thinking about education, and recognizes that it is only through lifelong education that we can give people the knowledge and capacity to advocate for effective long-term change in their own societies and hold their own politicians to account. This is where meaningful, lasting change has to begin – with a reasonable hope of something better.

The kind of change Sachs rightly demands can only be achieved from the ground up, in part through the increased provision of lifelong learning, and through a revival of adult education for civic and social purposes, in particular. Without it, progressive change, in the face of the entrenched inequality that has, for decades, had the tacit support of the governments in the industrialised world, will be difficult, if not impossible, to sustain.

 

1919 and all that

1919

This year we will mark the centenary of a milestone in the history of adult education in the UK and, indeed, internationally: the publication of the final report of the Adult Education Committee of the Ministry of Reconstruction, better known as the 1919 Report. The report represents a hugely important statement of the value of adult education and its role in creating and sustaining successful democratic societies, animated by shared civic, social and economic goals. It not only recognised the wide impact adult education can have on society, notably in responding to the massive social, economic and political challenges of the time, but also accorded government, national and local, a direct responsibility for ensuring its adequate supply. Adult education, it argued, is not a luxury – as governments subsequently have tended to see it – but is in fact indispensable to national recovery and to sustainable, effective democracy.

This farsighted and ambitious perspective emerged at a time when the country was in profound crisis and the need to learn from past mistakes was acute. Prime Minister Lloyd George’s government created the Ministry of Reconstruction in 1917, charging it with the task of overseeing the rebuilding of ‘national life on a better and more durable foundation’ once the Great War had ended. It set up numerous committees to consider different aspects of life in Britain, including labour relations, local government, housing and the role of women in society. One of these committees was on adult education. It included luminaries such as Albert Mansbridge, founder of the WEA, Basil Yeaxlee, who oversaw the YMCA’s programme of adult education during the war, and chair Arthur L. Smith, Master of Balliol College and another key figure of the British adult education movement. A young R.H. Tawney drafted much of the final report. The Committee’s remit was ‘to consider the provision for, and possibilities of, adult education (other than technical or vocational) in Great Britain’. However, in practice, it went somewhat beyond its terms of reference to consider all forms of adult education, including technical and vocational, on which it makes a number of recommendations.

The final report was presented to the Prime Minister in 1919. It emphasised the social purpose of adult education in supporting enlightened and responsible citizenship and in creating a ‘well ordered welfare state or Great Society’ organised around ‘the common good’. The main purpose of education, Arthur L. Smith noted in his covering letter to the Prime Minister, was ‘to fit a man [sic] for life’, including not only ‘personal, domestic and vocational duties’ but also ‘duties of citizenship’. The ‘goal of all education’ must therefore be citizenship, he wrote, ‘that is, the rights and duties of each individual as a member of the community; and the whole process must be the development of the individual in relation to the community’. He argued that the main political, social and economic challenges faced by the country could be tackled only with the help of a greatly expanded, publicly funded system of adult education. Not only did peace between nations rest on a ‘far more educated public’ but so too did the health of British democracy, harmonious industrial relations and the elimination of the social ‘cankers’ of drink and prostitution. The ‘necessary conclusion’, Smith wrote:

is that adult education must not be regarded as a luxury for a few exceptional persons here and there, nor as a thing which concerns only a short span of early manhood [sic], but that adult education is a permanent national necessity, an inseparable aspect of citizenship, and therefore should be both universal and lifelong … the opportunity for adult education should be spread uniformly and systematically over the whole community, as a primary obligation on that community in its own interest and as a chief part of its duty to its individual members, and that therefore every encouragement and assistance should be given to voluntary organisations, so that their work, now necessarily sporadic and disconnected, may be developed and find its proper place in the national education system.

The members of the committee had been greatly impressed with the progress made by the adult education movement in the nineteenth century and in the early part of the twentieth. The report surveyed these developments in detail – tracing the history of adult education in Britain from the early adult schools (probably the first recognisable and distinctively adult education provision in Britain) to the mechanics’ institutes, the cooperative movement, people’s colleges and university extension programmes – but placed particular stress on ‘the recent expansion of adult education … sprung spontaneously from the desire of working people for a more humane and civilized society’. This new approach, the report noted, was reflected in the support given by trade unions to Ruskin College and the foundation and expansion of the Workers’ Educational Association and other ‘collegiate institutions’ such as the Working Men’s College and Morley College in London, Swarthmore in Leeds, Fircroft residential college in Birmingham and Vaughan Memorial College in Leicester. The WEA, in particular, had ‘combined in one organisation a large number of working-class and educational bodies … to stimulate and give effective expression to the growing demand for higher education among adult men and women’.

This explosion of voluntary activity, combined with the improvement in adult teaching represented by the ‘tutorial classes’ offered by universities as part of extra-mural courses, often organized in conjunction with the WEA, had been the main inspirations for the expansion in non-vocational adult education, the report said. It put particular stress on two factors. First, it highlighted the work of voluntary bodies in demonstrating ‘the necessity for the recognition of the peculiar needs of adults and for methods of education and methods of organisation and administration appropriate to the satisfaction of these needs … Non-vocational studies have developed in recent years largely because attention has been concentrated upon the formulation of methods in harmony with adult needs’. Second, it emphasised the importance of the university tutorial class model, noting the ‘seriousness and continuity’ of the students’ commitment, their growing ability to understand and evaluate sources and direct their own learning, the high quality of their work and the tendency of the classes to challenge and overcome intolerance. ‘Dogmatism does not easily survive question, answer and argument continued at weekly intervals for several months, and students learn tolerance by being obliged to practise it,’ it said.

The report sought to build on this ‘remarkable renewal of interest in adult education’, particularly among working-class people, and the growing trend towards ‘extending and systematising’ provision. The advance of the adult education movement was, it noted, in part an ‘expression of the belief that a wider diffusion of knowledge will be a power working for the progress of society, and the ideal which it places before its students and members is less individual success of even personal culture then personal culture as a means to social improvement’. The ‘primary object’ of such education was ‘not merely to heighten the intellectual powers of individual students, but to lay the foundations of more intelligent citizenship and of a better social order’. Technical training, while ‘necessary and beneficial’, and an ‘integral part of our educational system’, was not to be thought of as ‘an alternative to non-vocational education’, thus conceived. ‘The latter is a universal need; but whether the former is necessary depends on the character of employment,’ the report argued.

The committee urged substantial development in adult education, supported by public funds. In particular, it called for an expanded role for universities in delivering adult education, especially through the establishment of extra-mural departments, more and better-paid staff, and an increased role for the WEA and other voluntary organisations. Universities, the report said, should not look only to schools for their supply of students but ‘to the world of men and women, who seek education not as a means to entering a profession, but as an aid to the development of personality and a condition of wise and public-spirited citizenship’. They should make ‘much larger financial provision’ for adult study with the support of ‘liberal assistance … from public authorities, both national and local’, and reframe their priorities to reflect the importance of adult education, including by establishing an extra-mural department for adult students in every university. The Committee viewed extra-mural departments as a crucial link between universities and the wider, non-academic world.

Local education authorities were encouraged to see non-vocational adult education as ‘an integral part of their activities’, including through organisational and financial support for university tutorial classes and the creation of ‘non-vocational institutes as evening centres for humane studies’. These centres would have a special focus on the education of young adults and operate in cooperation with voluntary agencies. Authorities were also recommended to form ‘Adult Education Joint Committees’ within their local area ‘to receive applications for the provision of adult classes’. Ultimately, though, the report argued, the volume of educational activity would be determined ‘not by the capacity of universities and education authorities to provide facilities, but by the ability of organising bodies to give shape and substance to the demand’. The agencies should be regarded as ‘an integral part of the fabric of national education, in order to give spontaneity and variety to the work and to keep organised educational facilities responsive to the ever-widening needs of the human mind and spirit’. Their work, therefore, should be ‘maintained and developed’, supported though not directed by the state (the report put great stress on ‘self-organisation’). The ‘large expansion of adult education’ would only be possible with a ‘considerable increase in financial contributions from the State’. This in turn would require a system of inspection to ensure the education was ‘serious and continuous and, because of its quality, worth supporting’.

The 1919 Report, like the 1942 Beveridge Report that founded the British welfare state from amid the ashes of the Second World War, represents an attempt to renew and repurpose society in the wake of the most appalling destruction and loss. Its particular importance lies, in the words of R.H. Tawney, in demonstrating that adult education was ‘an activity indispensable to the health of democratic societies’. The Committee saw in adult education an opportunity to foster the capacities and attributes necessary in creating a new, fairer, more democratic society (including, importantly, the knowledge and understanding required by women who, following the extension of the franchise, had new roles as citizens). It sought to capitalise on the desire it identified among working people ‘for adequate opportunities for self-expression and the cultivation of personal powers and interests’ and the deeply rooted links between adult education and ‘the social aspirations of the democratic movements of the country’. The report recognised that all men and women had the capacity to participate in a ‘humane’ liberal education and to contribute to the democratic life of the country. It also saw that different approaches to teaching and organisation were required for adults, emphasising both the realities of their lives and the breadth of their interests, along with their need for ‘the fullest self-determination’ in their learning. Its focus on the role of education in supporting participatory democracy drew on the intellectual origins of the movement and its insistence on the importance of ‘true education’ which ‘directly induces thought’ and promotes active citizenship and social understanding. This perspective shaped and influenced the practice of British adult educators for decades to come, informing their view of their work as invested with ‘social purpose’.

The report led, among other things, to the creation of an Adult Education Committee to advise the Board of Education on the development of adult education provision. The Committee argued for a stronger coordinating role for local authorities and sought to expand the range of ‘responsible bodies’ involved in adult learning, alongside universities and the WEA, through the 1924 Board of Education (Adult Education) Regulations. This was, in part, a recognition that the report’s limited focus and relative neglect of the vocational dimension of adult education (which makes it, in places, a slightly awkward, unsatisfactory read). The Committee was evidently not entirely comfortable working within the limitations of its mandate. While it appreciated that a more comprehensive approach was desirable and necessary, it is undeniable that the report perpetuated the damaging distinction between vocational training and academic study, and underscored the relatively low level of esteem accorded the former in comparison with the latter – an issue that continues to dog education policy in the UK a century later.

The British Institute of Adult Education was founded in 1921, in the wake of the report, as a ‘thinking department’ focused on research and advocacy on adult education (it became the National Institute for Adult Continuing Education in 1983; and is now the Learning and Work Institute). Its remit was in part to ‘revive interest’ in the report and its recommendations, which, it was felt, had not been sufficiently noticed by the public. However, while it put strong emphasis on the involvement of local authorities, it quickly moved away from its early focus on university extension classes to take an interest in what it termed ‘various auxiliary services’, meaning the wide array of voluntary agencies, usually with a primary purpose outside adult education, involved in creating less formal, but often more accessible, opportunities for adults to learn. Its activities included collaboration with the BBC on developing an educational use for the wireless, a commission on educational and cultural films, an inquiry into public reading habits and a national advisory committee, set up with the National Council of Social Service, to develop educational work for the unemployed.

Later, under the direction of Secretary W.E. Williams, the Institute initiated a number of cultural projects, which led to the creation of the British Film Institute and the Arts Council. During the Second World War, Williams oversaw the work of the Army Bureau of Current Affairs (ABCA), established in 1941 by the War Office to provide weekly current affairs talks and discussions, led by regimental officers and supported by the fortnightly publication of pamphlets on issues ‘of topical and universal importance’. Williams felt strongly that serving men and women should not only have access to basic information about the war, but also have the opportunity to take part in the discussions that would shape the country that emerged from the conflict. General Sir Ronald Adam, President of the British Institute of Adult Education from 1945 to 1949, told the Institute’s 1945 conference that the ABCA programme was ‘a great manifestation of democratic faith’.

While voluntary organisations kept the recommendations of the report alive, albeit according to their own changing understandings of the needs of adults, the response from successive governments was cool. As Harold Wiltshire notes in his introduction to the University of Nottingham’s 1980 reprint of the report, the years that followed its publication were marked by economic crises and cuts to education spending, which lasted from the early 1920s well into the 1930s (when local authorities were instructed to make all non-vocational adult education classes self-supporting). This helped ensure that the recommendations of the Committee were widely ignored. It was not until the 1944 Education Act that education authorities were given a responsibility to provide ‘adequate facilities’ for full-time and part-time further education ‘for persons over compulsory school age’ and ‘leisure-time occupation, in such organized cultural training and recreational activities as are suited to their requirements, for any persons over compulsory school age who are able and willing to profit by the facilities provided for that purpose’. As a result of the 1944 Act, the number of evening institutes offering courses for adults more than doubled between 1947 and 1950, from just over 5,000 to nearly 11,000, while the number of students increased from 825,000 to 1,250,000. The 1943 White Paper on Educational Reconstruction, which preceded the Act, described wartime developments in army education as a catalyst for adult education reform and stressed the need for training in democratic citizenship through adult education, effectively reviving the idea of education as a civic project.

As Wiltshire argues, the 1919 Report’s lasting influence resides less in its direct practical or political impact or application than in ‘its general and pervading influence’ in establishing adult education as a ‘distinctive domain of education’, elucidating its ethos and purposes, and highlighting its problems and possibilities. For that reason, it remains a critical text, a reference point for advocacy and a landmark statement of the value of adult education. Reading it today, however, reminds one of how our much our political aspirations and ambitions for education have shifted. As Alison Wolf wrote in 2002:

[We] have almost forgotten that education ever had any purpose other than to promote growth … To read government documents of even fifty year ago … gives one a shock. Of course, their authors recognized that education had relevance to people’s livelihoods and success, and to the nation’s prosperity. But their concern was as much, or more, with values, citizenship, the nature of a good society, the intrinsic benefits of learning.

This shift is reflected in the shocking decline in part-time and mature higher study, the closure of university adult education departments, the reduction in opportunities for adults to learn for reasons other than employment and employability, cuts to adult further education so deep they now threaten it with extinction and in the narrowing of the school curriculum. Outside education, local authority funding has been dramatically cut, on the altar of austerity, resulting, among other things, in the loss of many public libraries, highlighted in the 1919 Report as answering a vital need of adult students. When Philip Alston, the United Nation’s special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, visited the UK at the end of 2018, he noted that more than 500 children’s centres had closed between 2010 and 2018 and more than 340 libraries between 2010 and 2016, an act of social and cultural vandalism ‘of particular significance to those living in poverty who may need to access a computer or a safe community space’. There is nothing woolly about this idea. Anyone who has lived in or around poverty knows how potentially lifesaving and life-changing such spaces can be.

The infrastructure of adult education in the UK has been effectively and efficiently dismantled; all at a time when the challenges posed by changes in technology, climate, demography and politics would seem to demand much more adult education, not less. Where once the rest of the world looked to Britain for guidance and inspiration in adult education, it now regards us with ill-disguised concern and sadness. It would be charitable indeed to suggest that this destruction of this tradition and complete disregard for public value in education policy was the result of anything other than informed political choices. The centenary of the report provides a much-needed moment for introspection and reflection on what we think education is for and why we value it. It is an opportunity to put adult education, once again, in the spotlight, to recognize the importance of engaged, thoughtful and civically responsible citizenship, and to show how adult education can help us renew our democracy and become a kinder, smarter, more cohesive, open and prosperous society. Let’s raise our voices once again.

Locked into poverty: Britain’s political choice

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights has been in Britain. He described a country in which ‘areas of immense wealth’ exist uncomfortably alongside areas of acute deprivation, characterized by cash-strapped and overstretched public services, rough sleepers and food banks, where millions of children are ‘locked into a cycle of poverty from which most will have great difficulty escaping’. His report pulled few punches. A fifth of the British population – 14 million people – live in poverty, with 1.5 million destitute, unable to afford basic essentials. By 2022, child poverty rates are projected to be as high as 40 per cent. ‘For almost one in every two children to be poor in twenty-first century Britain is not just a disgrace,’ he wrote, ‘but a social calamity and an economic disaster, all rolled into one’. Worst of all, and most importantly, he pointed out that all of this was a political choice, the result of ‘mean-spirited, often callous policies’ about which the British government remains ‘determinedly in a state of denial’.

The reality described by Philip Alston will, I suspect, be familiar to most people living in Britain. Food banks are now commonplace, as are families who rely on them. The Trussell Trust, Britain’s biggest food bank network, handed out 1.2 million food parcels to families and individuals in need in 2016-17. The Independent Food Aid Network estimates that there are more that 2,000 food banks in operation around the UK. Homelessness has also increased significantly since 2010, according to the National Audit Office (NAO), with a 60 per cent rise in the number of homeless families (including 120,540 children), driven, the NAO said, by government welfare reforms. The shocking rise in the number of rough sleepers is evident in every town and city in the country. Work is no longer a sure-fire route out of poverty. Some 60 per cent of people in poverty in Britain are in working families, often struggling with debt and poor housing, sometimes doing multiple jobs to make ends meet. It is a similar story for many of those living just above the poverty line, juggling low-paid, low-quality and insecure work, combining long hours with demanding family commitments and living in impoverished neighbourhoods where hope is in short supply. All of this – the poverty, the job insecurity, the homelessness, the stress and hardship of low-paid work, and, perhaps most of all, the absence of hope of things getting any better – are feeding Britain’s growing mental health crisis, not to mention the slow-down in life expectancy the UK is experiencing. These are all signs of a society in crisis.

Professor Alston’s analysis of the causes of this crisis are similarly hard-hitting. ‘Austerity’, he argues, has been driven not by a commitment to economic reform (the ‘living within our means’ mantra) but rather ‘a commitment to achieving radical social re-engineering’, a ‘revolutionary change in both the system for delivering minimum levels of fairness and social justice to the British people, and especially in the values underpinning it’. ‘Key elements of the post-war Beveridge social contract are being overturned,’ he continues. ‘In the process, some good outcomes have certainly been achieved, but great misery has also been inflicted unnecessarily, especially on the working poor, on single mothers struggling against mighty odds, on people with disabilities who are already marginalized, and on millions of children who are being locked into a cycle of poverty’. Local authorities, especially in England, ‘have been gutted by a series of government policies’, effectively halving their funding and preventing them from playing their vital role as a ‘social safety net’. Libraries, meanwhile, ‘have closed in record numbers, community and youth centers have been shrunk and underfunded, public spaces and buildings including parks and recreation centers have been sold off.’ The costs of austerity have fallen disproportionately on the poor, women, ethnic minorities, children, single parents, and people with disabilities, the same groups likely to be hit hardest by Brexit.

In his conversations with ministers, Professor Alston encountered a combination of ignorance, disbelief and indifference, a refusal to accept that in-work poverty exists and an unwillingness even to engage with the issues in a serious way. He will not, therefore, have been surprised by the reactions of the Prime Minister’s office, which said that Mrs May ‘strongly disagreed’ with the findings, or the Work and Pensions Secretary, Amber Rudd, who declared the report to be ‘political’ and couched in ‘inappropriate’ language. These reactions were predictable, perhaps inevitable from a government which has carefully spun a number of myths about itself, notably the myth that austerity has been unavoidable, a necessary measure justified by the need to save the country from bankruptcy in the wake of the previous (Labour) government’s overspending on schools, hospitals and social care. This narrative has a powerful hold on the public’s imagination in Britain, where a substantial proportion of the electorate believes that decent schools for all and a well-funded health service are unaffordable, despite the very obvious examples to the contrary offered by neighbouring northern European countries. Professor Alston challenges this narrative, arguing that the reforms were neither necessary nor, in purely economic terms, effective. While billions have been taken from the benefits system since 2010, they have been offset by the costs created elsewhere as underfunded hospitals, mental health centres, local authorities and police forces attempt to deal with the problems created. ‘Austerity could easily have spared the poor, if the political will had existed to do so,’ Professor Alston writes in the conclusion of his report. ‘Resources were available to the Treasury at the last budget that could have transformed the situation of millions of people living in poverty, but the political choice was made to fund tax cuts for the wealthy instead.’ Little wonder the government would rather attack the language and political nature of the report than deal with its substance.

The findings of the UN envoy represent a wake-up call and should prompt urgent action and a substantive change of direction from the government. Sadly, this seems unlikely from a government that is so in thrall to the fantasy narrative it has created that it is prepared to legislate against problems it knows do not exist, while allowing real problems such as poverty, probably the biggest challenge we now face as a society, to fester, unchecked. Nevertheless, the report represents an opportunity to take stock of where we have come to and to consider whether we really want to continue along this road. It can be read as a sort of draft manifesto for positive change in Britain. Alongside the misery of child poverty, the calamity of homelessness and the personal tragedy of women forced to sell sex for money or shelter, Professor Alston also recognised ‘tremendous resilience, strength, and generosity, with neighbors supporting one another, councils seeking creative solutions, and charities stepping in to fill holes in government services’. These are all things on which we can build, but I fear it will be to little avail if we are unable to create a different political narrative for Britain, one in which voters are not blinded by a false choice between austerity and bankruptcy. This is hugely difficult in a country increasingly divided by class, political perspective and geography, but it is essential that we find ways of talking to one another across these divides, of developing a meaningful consensus based on shared values. We need to decide who we want to be.

Poverty and inequality make these conversations difficult. Part of the reason poverty is so little reported is that it is simply not a factor in the lives of most leading journalists, who are drawn increasingly from backgrounds of privilege. Unsurprisingly, millions of people in Britain now feel wholly unrepresented by the media, their voices unheard, their views – or a caricature of them – routinely attacked or ridiculed. They feel acutely the ‘disconnect’ Professor Alston refers to between their own lived experience and the rhetoric of government ministers. As economically and socially damaging as Brexit is likely to be, it may also be an opportunity to reassess. We surely do not want to go further down the line of cutting back on public services, welfare, workers’ rights and conditions, in order to fund further tax cuts for the wealthy. This option is on the table and is, as I write, a strong possibility, but it would be a disaster on an unprecedented scale, a bonfire of Beveridge and the welfare state and a shredding of the social contract that has been weakened by stealth by successive governments. We need to find ways to mend this fabric, restoring the role of local authorities in fostering community and connection, reversing the appalling loss of important public spaces such as libraries, community centres and adult education centres and creating opportunities for people to access education that is not narrowly about training for a job. We need to revive education for democracy, for public value, citizenship and a good society. The government has been fond of telling us it will not pass on the legacy of debt to future generations. Instead, it seems set to pass on something immeasurably worse, an impoverished and divided society, shorn of its values and compassion, in which privilege is hoarded and poverty is a life sentence. It is about choice. I hope Britain makes the right one.

Education and Britain’s inequality crisis

Britain has an inequality problem. It is probably the biggest problem it faces and it is getting worse. Increasingly, how long you live in Britain depends on where you live. Life expectancy has stalled since 2010 and in some cases has gone into reverse. People living in rich parts of Kensington and Chelsea can now expect to live on average 16 years longer than their poorer neighbours in the same council area. Wage growth has stalled for all but the already very rich, whose salaries continue to soar (executive pay went up 11 per cent last year alone). The mean pay ratio between FTSE 100 CEOs and the mean pay package of their employees was 145:1 in 2017 (compared to 128:1 in 2016). Income inequality, already higher in Britain than in almost all other European countries, is growing. Work in Britain is no longer an effective defence against poverty. One in eight workers live in poverty – 3.7 million – and, of the 12 million working-age adults and children in poverty, 8 million live in families where at least one person is in work. Meanwhile, a fractured and self-contradicting government, tied up in introspective knots as it steers the country towards a Brexit outcome that only a minority of right-wing zealots want and that will worsen the lives of the worst-off still further, has no answers and seemingly no interest in doing anything about it. 

Britain looks increasingly like a country in need of an intervention. We are locked in a cycle of self-destructive behaviour, aware of the harm we do ourselves and others but seemingly unable to stop doing it. Politicians often talk about the problems Britain faces, commissions are set up and inquiries launched, critics are co-opted and reports published, often with the best of intentions – but there is no appetite in government to deal with the underlying causes, or even to talk about them openly. And for much of the mainstream media, the day-to-day struggles of people living with poverty are simply off-radar – a foreign country which, in the best English tradition, they would rather sneer at than try to understand. We are, increasingly, in denial about who we are and where we are going, puffed up by self-delusion and beset by imaginary bogeymen, frequently mistaking our friends for our enemies. We need to acknowledge this and begin talking honestly about the challenges we face. The starting point for any intervention – and the first step to recovery – is acceptance: we must, first of all, accept that we have a problem with inequality and that we are, as a society and as individuals, in crisis because of it. We also need to accept that none of this is inevitable – it is the result of the choices we have made – and that we can change it.

It is increasingly clear that the inequality crisis means that very many people in Britain now face difficulties that make their lives unmanageable. Inequality, as Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson show in their new book The Inner Level, is not just about material goods and wealth; it ‘eats into the heart of our immediate, personal world’, increasing the social distance between people and making us ill at ease with each other, becoming, in short, ‘the enemy between us’. They point to evidence from a Mental Health Foundation Survey, which found that 74 per cent of adults in the UK were so stressed at times in the past year that they felt ‘overwhelmed and unable to cope’, with one-third reporting suicidal thoughts. Socioeconomic inequality ‘strengthens the belief that some people are worth much more than others’, they say. ‘In more unequal societies we come to judge each other more by status and worry more about how others judge us … [Inequality] increases status anxiety in all income groups, from the poorest ten per cent to the richest tenth’. This can take the form of ‘lack of confidence, feelings of inferiority and low self-esteem’, resulting in ‘high levels of depression and anxiety in more unequal societies’ and leading to greater alcohol and substance abuse. Those living in relative poverty, no matter what their material living standards, tend to experience a feeling of failure and a ‘strong sense of shame and self-loathing’, while the rich tend to flaunt their worth and achievements, to ‘self-enhance’; and ‘become narcissistic’. Interestingly, Pickett and Wilson report, more unequal societies are also more likely to have high levels of personal debt as people ‘try to show that they are not “second-class people” by owning “first-class things”’.

Inequality is corrupting, in all sorts of ways. Not only is it a driver of depression, alcohol and substance dependency, debt and acquisitiveness, it is also inimical to the health of our democracy, allowing the wealthy to exercise a disproportionate influence over government and its institutions. As the Economist reports, the political influence of the rich tends to increase as inequality grows – they are able to spend more on political donations and are much more likely to have regular personal contact with elected officials. More insidiously, they have the power to shape public opinion, through ownership of media outlets, the financing of ‘nominally apolitical think tanks’, and so on. These efforts are sometimes ‘used to influence the result of a particular vote’, such as the vote on Britain’s EU membership. However, ‘it is often deployed more subtly, to shape public narratives about which problems deserve attention’, focusing attention on matters of ‘social order’, such as crime and immigration, rather than issues of economic justice.

Inequality also inhibits social mobility – the gaps between the rungs of the ladder make the risks of failure that much greater, and make education a high-stakes, high-risk endeavour, which incentivises system-gaming of one form or another. This means that the wealthy are better able to monopolise positions of power and influence within society, something that is exacerbated by systems of first-rung internships and the prohibitive costs of living in London. This, in turn, helps ensure that senior positions in the media are dominated by people from wealthy, privileged backgrounds, pushing the lives and concerns of working-class people still further down the news agenda. Much of the bias this creates is unintentional. The appalling neglect of further education and technical qualifications in the national media, for example, is down as much to ignorance (they are for ‘other people’s children’) as it is to a deliberate policy of exclusion.

We seem to be approaching what Danny Dorling describes as ‘peak inequality’, a situation where ‘the town you live in is so segregated that the school-aged children do not mix – not between schools, not socially, not at all. Peak inequality is where the best-off people in your workplace demand “housing allowances” because they could not possibly live near those who clean their workplace, or those who ensure the photocopier works, or who keep the computer servers working night and day.’ If this situation is not immediately familiar to you, you probably do not live in Britain. As Dorling notes, inequality now ‘pervades every aspect of our lives in Britain in ways we now accept as normal’. We see it in our over-crowded railway carriages (and often near-empty first-class carriages), in our under-funded public services, our impoverished schools and hospitals, our booming (and publicly subsidised) private-school sector, our shabby, sometimes derelict public spaces and the ongoing ‘cleansing’ of old working-class neighbourhoods. Inequality is everywhere. It is saddening to see how accustomed we have become to political failure, to things no civilised society should tolerate.

So, what can we do to change things? Education has a crucial, underpinning role to play, although it is only one part of the story. To really change things, we need a huge shift in political will, backed by a broad national consensus about the kind of society we want to be. Such change would inevitably involve a substantial redistribution of wealth, a reduction in health inequalities and a properly funded health service, fairer pay and greater pay equality (with curbs on soaring executive pay, which has leached also into the public sector), and more affordable housing. But education can often be the start of such change, which is why I attach so much importance to it. Specific educational interventions can make a big difference. I want to talk about three.

First, we need to level the educational playing field to ensure equal opportunities for all. Britain is a complete outlier internationally in deliberately perpetuating a two-tier school education system, in which the majority of wealthy parents send their children to private schools, where they meet other privileged children and greatly improve their chances of attending an elite university and being successful later in life, and the rest send their children either to a state-supported selective school (often dependent on living in the right area, access to academic coaching, etc) or to a ‘bog-standard’ state school, which, like the parents who send their children there, is likely to be struggling to provide basic educational necessities for their kids. The current government has deliberately exacerbated an already bad situation, by reducing real-terms funding for state schools while finding extra money for selective schools to expand. Astonishingly, and in the face of all evidence, ministers implementing these policies claim to be acting to promote social mobility. This is an example of the kind of Orwellian doublespeak now routinely employed in government departments, and it is a particularly bare-faced example. The reality of their policies is a reinforcement of social inequality, selection based on class or wealth, with middle-class parents (who have the knowledge and resources to do it) incentivised to game the system in favour of their children, panic among parents desperate to get the best option available for their kids, and greater consciousness of failure in selective areas among children who have not made it to a selective school (in effect, the presence of a selective school turns neighbouring state-maintained schools into ‘secondary moderns’). The great irony of this is that all of it, including the elite private-school system, is subsidised by ordinary tax-payers. Getting poor people to pay for this must rank among the greatest con-tricks on public opinion of all time.

The term ‘bog-standard comprehensive’ was coined by Tony Blair’s attack dog in chief, Alastair Campbell, to justify his government’s promotion of specialist schools and academies. Subsequent Conservative-led governments have reinforced this rhetoric, emphasising choice and diversity rather than uniformity of quality, and systematically reducing the funding available for the education of ‘other people’s children’. It became perfectly clear, particularly under Michael Gove – the worst, most arrogant and irresponsible education secretary in living memory – that the life chances of poorer children were a price worth paying for the government’s experiments in selective education and their attacks on ‘the blob’, the rump of experts, academics and teachers trying to educate kids in spite of the mess created by Gove and his moronic acolytes. Parents want choice, we were/are told. But in fact parents want nothing of the sort. What they want is bog-standard schools – schools that are of a bog-standard high quality and offer the same opportunities to every child – and a system that is fair for everyone, no matter where they live or how wealthy they are.

Uniformity of quality in school education is generally regarded as rather a good thing in countries other than Britain. No-one minds sending their kids to a ‘bog-standard’ school when the standard is uniformly good. When I moved to Hamburg a couple of years ago, people looked at me uncomprehendingly when I asked where the best schools in the city were located. Generally speaking, they told me, they are all good. There is no mainstream private school alternative and the social mix of state schools reflects that. The parents of the children in my son’s school include neurosurgeons, architects, GPs, teachers, nurses, lawyers, police, retail workers and cleaners – not a mix you would find in many British schools where social segregation is, for the most part, the norm. The reason for this is that the British education system has developed to perpetuate privilege rather than to challenge it, to compound advantage and to stifle equality of opportunity rather than to promote it. If we had set out from scratch to design a system for just this purpose, it would look something like the system we now have. To change this we need to follow the example set by Finland, as set out by Melissa Benn in her excellent Guardian ‘long read’, by abolishing divisive, privilege-entrenching fee-paying schools and establishing a genuinely nationwide comprehensive system. The reforms in Finland, as Benn notes, helped close the attainment gap between the richest and poorest students and turned Finland ‘into one of the global educational success stories of the modern era’. With sufficient political will, we could achieve this in Britain too. The best and surest way to improve our education system and ensure it is fair and well-funded is to have a single system in which every parent is equally invested. We would soon see public funding for schools rise. Taking away the multi-million pound state subsidy for private schools and redirecting it to struggling state schools would be a step in the right direction, but it is nowhere near enough.

My second intervention is to increase support for those who have already been through compulsory education to improve their lives and prospects and those of their families, particularly their children. The past two decades have seen a remarkable erosion in opportunities for adults to learn, whether in the community, in work, in further education colleges or at university. It is important that this decline is reversed, and in a way that acknowledges the importance of wider learning: learning that makes us more creative, confident, ambitious, resilient and sensitised to learning, as well as work-ready. Adults who have been failed by our faulty and systemically unfair education system deserve a second chance. This is crucial not only for them but also for their families. Parents are desperate to support their children through school but many lack the knowledge, skills and confidence to do so. Working-class parents in particular often still bear the scars of their school education: some need support with basic skills such as literacy and numeracy, others, labelled ‘thick’ or ‘stupid’ at school, find the classroom a scary, intimidating place. These are all issues they need to overcome to engage fully in their children’s education. This is why I think family learning is a particularly useful intervention, and something that should be a much more recognised – and much better funded – feature of our educational terrain. It not only provides parents with a powerful incentive to engage in learning, often for the first time since school, but has also been shown to have a substantial positive impact on the attainment of their children. When it comes to pupil performance, there really is no substitute for parental engagement. And when it comes to adult engagement, there really is no more compelling motive than the desire to better support our children.

Family Connections, a Belfast-based project funded by the children’s charity, Barnardo’s, provides an excellent example of how family learning works. The project takes as its premise the idea that ‘children will do better at school if their parents are involved in their education’ and aims to build ‘the capacity of parents to embed learning in the home environment’. It has four main complementary and connected strands: work with children; work with parents; work with children and parents; and work with community. Each strand reinforces the others, inspiring kids and parents alike, and supporting them in creating the sorts of rich learning environments more-privileged children can take for granted. This kind of support is critical in enabling children to do well in education. It can be as simple a matter as reading with a child. Reading for pleasure has been found to be an even more important predictor of future educational success than socio-economic background, and home environment is the critical factor in fostering this. Research also suggests that if we can get more people reading we can increase empathy, improve their relationships with others, reduce symptoms of depression and improve wellbeing. The value of family learning includes but, importantly, goes beyond improved educational achievements for children and parents, and includes well-attested benefits in terms of confidence, self-esteem, motivation, self-efficacy, health and well-being, employability and increased community involvement. Despite the well-documented benefits, funding for family learning has been in decline.

A third and, for me, absolutely critical intervention is to invest in people’s civic and political education. We need to revive spaces in which people can come together and discuss the things that matter to them and their communities and we need to revive the tradition of education for active citizenship, which has been part and parcel of the British adult education system for well over a century (though it has been in deep retreat for several decades). People need to find a way out of their algorithmic echo chambers, to find means of locating common ground with others, including, especially, those they disagree with. Rather that hurling insults across the cyber divide we should be seeking out common spaces in which to exchange ideas, persuade and discuss – spaces in which, in Hannah Arendt’s words, we can ‘think against the grain of received opinion … question and challenge [and] imagine the world from different standpoints and perspectives’. Democratic governments have a responsibility to support this, as do the leaders of all educational institutions in receipt of public funding. It is, for example, a crucial, though neglected, part of the mission of our universities. We can learn here from Sweden, where adult education came to be seen as an essential part of ‘building democracy from below’ and of including and empowering excluded members of the population. As Magnus Dahlstedt puts it, ‘adult education was understood as a domain of democratic fostering’ whereby ‘adult learners learn how engage in a debate, listen to other’s arguments’ and are, by participating, ‘fostered into democratic citizens’. This tradition is still alive in Sweden though it is largely forgotten in Britain, where, not so long ago, it was the primary concern of adult educators, and from where the Swedish model took much of its early inspiration. Raymond Williams described it as the ‘central ambition’ of the adult education movement in Britain, ‘to be part of the process of social change’ rather than just a consequence of it.

Renewing this neglected part of our educational tradition is particularly challenging but I think it is of growing importance, given current threats to democracy, the polarising effects of social media and the distorting mirror our unrepresentative and unaccountable media, dominated by private interests and private money, holds up to reality. As a society, we desperately need to have an informed, open and collegial conversation about the sort of society we want to be, not more self-defeating group-think. Do we want to continue subsidising private schools to the tune of millions of pounds while funding for state education is cut? Do we want a two-tier education system in which opportunity is so unevenly and unfairly distributed, to the extent that we routinely write off the chances of half the school-leaving population? Do we really want to continue running our public services down, hollowing out local government and under-funding health services, while the already wealthy take more and more to the point where they can afford to turn a blind eye to the civic vandalism taking place all around them? What is our collective vision for the future of the country post-Brexit? These are important questions that we need to ask ourselves that concern actual choices, not facts of life or unchangeable laws of national life. At this crucial point in British history, we need an informed, national and local conversation, supported by civic and political education.

Our failure on inequality is in part a failure of the imagination – a failure to think differently or to believe things can be different. It is also a failure of values, conscience, courage, optimism and critical thinking. The statistics quoted at the start of the article have become depressingly normal, as have the excuses, the pretence that inequality is either inevitable or justified by the superior talents of the rich. We have grown accustomed to the idea that we cannot possibly have the nice things the Scandinavians, or for that matter the French or Germans, take for granted – decent state schools in every neighbourhood, a good, inexpensive transport infrastructure, pleasant, well-maintained public spaces, a well-functioning health service, an education which does not load poorer students with a lifetime of debt. But inequality is not inevitable – it is the result of political choice and it can be changed. To change things, we need real political will and vision from government, as well as a willingness to talk frankly about what the challenges are and what options are available to us, including, crucially, the option to do things differently. One reason for people’s alienation from politics is that, in most cases, this latter option simply does not seem to be on the table. We need to empower people to play their own part in shaping the country of the future. Years of ideologically driven austerity, tolerance of outrageous pay inequality, the neglect of working-class communities around the country, a profoundly cynical and undemocratic media and our continuing support for an education system that compounds privilege have brought us to crisis point. But what happens next is in our own hands. We can continue down the current road, ignoring the warning signs and allowing the poison of poverty and inequality to spread, or we can turn around and go in another direction. I very much hope we will do the latter.