Meditations on an emergency

The devastation caused by floods and fire this summer is a wake-up call with regard not only to climate change, but to lifelong learning too.

The floods that devastated parts of Asia and central Europe and the wildfires that reshaped the landscape in Greece and North America this summer supplied what are sure to become some of the defining images of our time. This year will be remembered as the one in which wealthy nations came face to face with the reality of climate change. As Malu Dreyer, the Minister-President of Rhineland-Palatinate, Germany, noted of the floods in her state, climate change is ‘not abstract any more. We are experiencing it up close and painfully’. There are no longer any safe places, no exemptions for the privileged.

This sobering picture was confirmed by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s new report on the climate emergency, which was published on 9 August 2021. The IPCC Report – the definitive and uniquely authoritative word on the physical causes of global warming – found it ‘unequivocal’ that human activity was the cause of climate change, making extreme climate events, including heatwaves, heavy rainfall, and drought both more frequent and more severe.  Already, every region in the world was experiencing some combination of rising temperatures, forest fires, flood or drought, the Report said. Only ‘strong, rapid, and sustained’ reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, and attaining net zero CO2 emissions in this decade, will prevent further climate breakdown and limit global warming to 1.5 °C. Without it, larger scale, extreme weather events such as floods and heatwaves would become more common, and human life on the planet would become more precarious.

However, the IPCC report is not a counsel of despair. Although we are uncomfortably late in acting, and many of the changes we are seeing are ‘irreversible’, it is not yet too late, and there is still much we can do, and much we can save. As Inger Andersen, Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme, noted at the report’s launch, ‘the power is in our hands at this point’, and there is an onus on every business leader, politician and policymaker ‘to consider how to be a contributor’.  The problems caused by climate change can be mitigated, if not solved, but only through concerted, intersectoral action everywhere, on every front, in every community, wherever we live in the world. The IPCC report represents an unchallengeable mandate for far-reaching change in every aspect of the way in which we live, including, quite crucially, in education.

This is what makes the challenge so daunting. We are used to experiencing the world as unsolvable. As Fredric Jameson observed, it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. While systems of power are more nebulous and harder to challenge than before, it is also the case that we have forgotten that change can and does happen; and that collective action can make other worlds possible. It is important that we believe this. The old, dying orthodoxy of endless economic growth and limitless consumption will take all of us with it, unless we can find a new language of hope, founded on planetary sustainability, collective action, and a commitment to equitable and inclusive futures.

Education has an important role to play in this, not just in response to change, but as a driver of it. This is a challenge to the global education community, at every level. We cannot wait for change to arrive, but must, instead, in all of our practice, strive to embody the sort of change we recognize as essential in wider society. Among other things, this means reframing our understanding of lifelong learning, and reviving some old, now unorthodox and unfashionable, understandings of the term, making them meaningful to a new generation of people facing new, unprecedented challenges.

Gert Biesta wrote some 15 years ago that lifelong learning had come to be understood ‘in terms of the formation of human capital and as an investment in economic development’, a transformation felt at both the level of policy and the level of the learner and learning provider. If anything, in the years since, this trend has become more established, more seemingly permanent. Learning for purposes other than work is, by comparison, more marginalized than ever. It is under pressure everywhere. Yet, despite the predominance of what Biesta terms the ‘learning economy’, it is increasingly evident that we need something else: lifelong learning that prepares us to be not only good and efficient workers, but also thoughtful, active citizens, adaptable and resilient, yet creative, cooperative, and imaginative enough to shape new futures based on collective thought and action and a desire for social and environmental justice.

Biesta’s call for us to reclaim ‘those forms of collective learning – learning with others and from otherness and difference – which are linked to empowerment, collective action and social change, and to the translation of our private troubles into collective and shared concerns’, is more pertinent and urgent than ever. The horrific images from China, Germany, Greece, Austria and other places, and the astonishing heatwaves in North America, which saw new record temperatures four or five degrees higher than the previous ones, are a wake-up call, with regard not only to climate change and the prevailing economic model driving it, but to education too. They tell us that business as usual is no longer an option. We need to create a new normal based around the idea of sustainable living, and to realize the potential of lifelong learning to empower people to make the change we need.

While we all have an obligation to be mindful of our environment and ethical in our behaviour in the different aspects of our lives, there is, I believe, a special obligation on those of us who work and learn in education to highlight the wider value of lifelong learning and foster its democratic function. Education that empowers and enables, that connects and inspires, and, in the best traditions of adult education, foregrounds dialogue and co-production of knowledge, is more necessary than ever.

What might this mean in practice? At the level of the learner, it might mean becoming a learner-activist, championing environmental concerns at school or college, and taking what you learn into your community. For teachers, it could mean embodying democratic practice and the principle of co-production of knowledge in your teaching; and building networks of mutual support. At the level of local and national government, it may mean rebalancing the dimensions of education and lifelong learning and recognizing that, in some key respects, the system is broken, its resistance to change indicative not of health or robustness but of dysfunction. At the level of the international education community, so critical in all of this, it must mean renewing the education discourse in a way that makes change thinkable and hope possible.

Of course, the kind of cooperation that is required to respond to the climate crisis is unprecedented, but so too is the emergency. It is on an entirely different scale to every other challenge we face, the pandemic included. We cannot know if we will be successful or anticipate what will emerge from our response to the crisis. But by acting as though another world is possible, we optimize our chances of getting there. There is no chance at all if we don’t.

The post is an updated version of a blog post first published on Only Connect, UIL’s blog, and also draws on my introduction to the August 2021 issue of IRE. It was first published in this form in the PIMA Bulletin No. 38 (Sept. 2021). It is reproduced here with permission.

Freire, interrupted

Paulo Freire, the Brazilian philosopher of education and proponent of critical pedagogy, was born on this day, 19 September, 100 years ago. He published his most famous book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, in Portuguese in 1968, at a moment of acute hope and possibility, politically and culturally, and in English in 1970, by which time that hope had begun to leech away.

Interest in his ideas has waxed and waned in the subsequent decades. When I began working in the adult education sector in 2002, he was still seen as a relevant figure, even a revered one, but, for all practical purposes, he was, to most, a teacher from the past, an inspiration perhaps but not a guide to the problems of the present.

This is not all that surprising. The decades that followed the publication of Pedagogy of the Oppressed brought seismic change in education, as they did in the rest of society. The ‘banking’ model of education – that idea that teachers deposit knowledge into the heads of their students, a kind of one-way information dump – that Freire critiqued so effectively became more prevalent, as education systems came to focus more narrowly on teaching to the test and preparation for work or, more narrowly, a job.

These changes of course reflected wider systemic changes in society, which were, in large part, a response to the promise of the late 1960s. Societies became more individualized and divided, inequalities grew exponentially, within and between countries, and places and spaces in which collective action or collaborative thinking was possible began to dwindle in number and importance. Naturally enough, in education, markets were promoted, competition became more prevalent, and goals and purposes narrowed, as governments came to see education as a private investment linked to economic function, and lost sight of its public value.

While these changes were not, by any means, limited to adult education, change in adult education, as is often the case, can serve as a kind of barometer of change elsewhere, as it is the part of the education system politicians find easiest to tamper with, cut or eliminate altogether, the canary in the educational mine, if you like. Adult education for purposes other than work or employment began to disappear. There was greater focus on preparing people for work, and far less on the development of critical thinking, creativity or active citizenship. The most recent Global Report on Adult Learning and Education (GRALE 4) found education for citizenship to be grossly neglected in comparison with basic skills or vocational education. And while critical adult education which exemplifies Freire’s ideas about dialogue and solution-posing, has survived, it has done so in spite rather than because of the actions of governments.

Despite these trends, the past decade has seen a steady increase in interest in Freire’s work. Education researchers have engaged with him anew, some returning to his work, others finding him for the first time, and this has been reflected in the growing number of conferences and special issues of academic journals dedicated to his thought. Teachers, activists and practitioner-researchers also appear to be looking to his work for ideas and inspiration. What explains this apparent resurgence of interest? I would propose three important factors, offered not as an exhaustive list, but, in the Freirean spirit, as a stimulus to further reflection on the contemporary relevance and applicability of his ideas.

First, the world has changed and the challenges we face are new and acute. These include the current pandemic, but the most pressing is the climate emergency, which is now reshaping the planet, and driving irreversible change in the conditions in which we live in every part of the world. Such challenges cannot be met with more of the same. We need to find ways to live with and as part of the natural environment and not see it any longer as a bottomless resource for our economic advancement and gratification. Such a radical shift in how we live and see the world requires education that does more than simply reinforce the status quo. The high-stakes, rote-learning model of education is no longer fit for purpose. We need critical and creative citizens capable of thinking and acting collectively and an education system that promotes this. As Freire explains, teaching is a political event. There is no neutral route – only a choice between authoritarian approaches that seek to integrate students into the prevailing system, or what Freire terms the ‘practice of freedom’, though which people engage critically with the world around them and try to change it. All teaching takes place in the space between what is and what could be.

Second, wherever we look today, the institutions and values of democracy are under attack. The rise of populism has led to a greater spread of disinformation, enabled by technology and an increasingly polarized politics.  At the same time, there are fewer places in which to practice democracy, including in classrooms. The day-to-day anxiety most of us feel about paying the bills and managing our debts, is replicated in schools, where cultures of high-stakes testing produce environments unconducive to creative or critical thought. Freire recognized that education, at every level, was critical in raising the consciousness of learners, and giving them a means to engage critically with reality.  What he described as ‘conscientization’, the process whereby individual agency is realized through collective engagement with the world, is integral to promoting democracy and counteracting authoritarian ideology. Only by rooting educational practice in the reality of people’s lives, finding an appropriate language in which to express the issues people face, and exemplifying democratic practice in the way in which we critically engage with these issues, can we make education that is truly ‘liberatory’.

Third, societies have become fragmented and atomizing places in which to live. We lead increasingly disconnected lives, while the technologies that promise to connect us confirm our prejudices and drive us further apart. Quiet despair is the norm for many people who feel constrained and overburdened and see no way in which to make things better for themselves, their families and communities. The hope of something better is probably the most important thing education can offer. It is what makes social change possible. Yet, too often, education does no more than reproduce patterns of disadvantage. Freire’s recognition that while change is difficult it is not impossible is important, particularly in societies in which we have grown used to living with hopelessness. His understanding that we realize ourselves through collective action is critical too. Whether we acknowledge it or not, all education takes place in a contested, political space in which the future is endlessly available to be disrupted, interrupted and remade. There is an urgent need, recognized by the Futures of Education initiative, to reframe education in terms of collective action and social change, which speaks directly to Freire and more broadly to the adult education tradition.

These are some of the reasons we continue to read Freire. The centenary of his birth is an opportunity to reconnect with his thought and celebrate it. But I hope it can also be a catalyst for a more extended, critical engagement with his ideas and their relevance to the problems we face today. There remains much here for those who see education as, above all, a vehicle for creating a fairer, more equal and humane world.

Instead of building resilience, why not the hope of something better?

Resilience, popularly understood as the capacity to ‘bounce back’ from adverse circumstances, seems to be everywhere right now. Work is commissioned on how to promote it, conferences are convened to debate it (ostensibly, at least), think tanks and international organisations highlight its importance in ‘building back better’, and policy-makers seek ways to foster it through education, particularly in schools but increasingly in adult education. Things have been bad, we are told, and are unlikely to improve much. In fact, it is probable that things will get worse, perhaps much worse. We need to be strong. We need to keep going, in spite of it all – for while we may not be able to control the fast-changing, messed-up reality around us, we can at least control how we feel about and react to it.

In a way, it is difficult to argue against this, which, I suppose, helps explain the current pervasiveness of the language of resilience. It has considerable surface plausibility. Life is unpredictable and precarious, and people should be prepared for it. It stands to reason that if we can increase people’s capacity to cope and mitigate the inequalities they experience, particularly with regard to education, we should do it. It is part of the role of education to support learners in becoming more resilient and adaptable, so that they can flourish in an environment in which change is a constant. So far, so reasonable. However, there is also something problematic about this focus on building resilience that makes me uncomfortable and which, I think, should give us concern. It seems to me to be part of a wider trend in approaches to disadvantage and exclusion that draw the eye away from the basic problems at hand and that should, therefore, be approached critically and perhaps resisted.

First, it is a concept oddly short on substance, not at all well understood or elaborated (particularly in education), which seems to be used to cover a wide range of meanings and intentions, often fairly obscure. We should be careful about attaching as much importance as we currently do to a concept that is so poorly defined, and so carelessly thrown about. What does it mean, for example, to recover quickly from adversity? How do we understand recovery or measure it? What counts as adversity? What do we know about the costs of mental toughness or the long-term consequences of enduring difficulty that might be dealt with or addressed in other ways? How well does resilience predict success in education compared to other factors, such as critical thinking or creativity? It seems to me that many of those who advance the case for foregrounding resilience in education are far too comfortable with this kind of obscurity.

There is a more important issue though. The call to resilience, while ostensibly altruistic, seems to me also to be a sort of injunction to passivity and acceptance, encouraging resignation and coping where empowerment and collective action, two of the traditional objectives of adult education, are more appropriate. As Paulo Freire wrote in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, ‘the interests of the oppressors lie in changing the consciousness of the oppressed, not the situation which oppresses them; for the more the oppressed can be led to adapt to that situation, the more easily they can be dominated’. We have seen, in recent years, a kind of privatization of distress that misappropriates blame and responsibility and militates against empowerment and dialogue for change. We have pathologised the symptoms of disadvantage as though they were something that could be cured by treating the disadvantaged individual (and also, therefore, something for which the disadvantaged person can be blamed and feel responsible for). And while the global mental health crisis is serious and should be not be ignored; nor should we ignore that fact that it is in part, and in many places, the UK included (or especially), driven by a high-pressure high-stakes education system which favours the rich and privileged and stacks the odds cruelly against the poorest, all while spewing the deliriously misplaced rhetoric of meritocracy.  

There is a dark side to resilience. It can be dangerous and debasing. It can encourage us to accept things that should not be accepted, to knuckle down and make the best of it when we should be resisting and pushing for change. It can encourage us to put up with unfair or abusive treatment, and to find solutions in the things that hold us down. This is something I encountered a few years ago when, in a moment of personal crisis, I started to meet with a specialist in cognitive behavioural therapy. He helped me identify patterns of negative behavior and to see how mechanisms I had developed to cope with mental distress had become part of the cycle that, to quote Philip Larkin, kept my wheels spinning ‘an inch too high to bite on ground’. Ways of coping that had once been useful, or served some purpose, at least, were now heavy, albeit stabilizing, weights around my neck, keeping me close to ground, endlessly navigating a maze with no way out. Trapped in the amber of years-ago, I spent decades managing a grief I thought was illegitimate, that came with caveats and explanations, that was somehow frivolous. I was resilient. I kept going. But I wasn’t happy.

My experience makes me sceptical about somehow equating resilience with success. Resilience can mean no more than putting one foot in front of the other. This is not nothing. Keeping going can be an act of heroism or of rebellion. It can be everything. But it cannot be confused with happiness or success.  We need to remember that the aims of education are much broader and much more valuable than simply preparing people to keep keeping on, from school on to college, into the workplace, out of the workplace, into a relationship, into a family, onto retirement and death. We are life’s non-combatants, barely participating in our own lives, let alone impacting on other people’s. We have become so good at living in this distracted state we hardly notice we are doing it. Far too many of us live lives of absence and anxiety, paralysed by fear and uncertainty. Keeping on is the best we can think to do, and an achievement at that. We ‘bounce back’. We keep at it. And, for the most part, we put to the back of our minds the (in most cases unlikely) prospect of anything better. But we can do better and be much, much more, and that, I feel, is what education, and adult education in particular, is all about. It must support human flourishing in the fullest sense, and enable us to live lives that are creative, collaborative, compassionate and critical. Human beings, I believe, need to build, not only their resilience but also their capacity to effect change and make community. Education that does not foster our capacity to effect such change is no more than a cheap knock-off, undeserving of the name. Rather than helping people get through tough times, education should give people the means to change an unfair and dysfunctional world. Instead of asking people to put up with all the shit that is thrown at them, we should consider throwing less shit.

None of this, of course, is to say that we should not consider how to make people more resilient or that resilience is unimportant. But there is something philosophically unsatisfying about reorienting education to address this issue and attaching such overweening significance to it. I think this is because while resilience is about coping with conditions as we find them and making the best of adverse circumstances, education’s critical function is to give people hope of something better and empower them to pursue that hope. Resilience can be an admirable quality but resilience without hope can be debilitating, demeaning and, ultimately, soul-destroying. Resilience is too often a surrender, a giving up on hope, an acceptance that things cannot and will not get better. It’s also a kind of evasion, obscuring and perpetuating fundamental problems. Millions of people live with hopelessness; it has become second nature for many, even in the wealthier parts of the world. Their resilience is remarkable, hewn out of rock. But they deserve more. They should not be expected to take responsibility for political failure, to passively accept the blame for wider systemic failings. Human beings cannot just be creatures to whom things happen. It is part of our nature to influence, to make change in the world, to be activists and agitators. That is what we need, now, in this moment, more than at any point in human history, I would say. But it is not possible without hope, and hope is what education, at its very best and most admirable, fosters.

It’s England, but which England?

I don’t know if you’ve heard but England are in the final of football’s European Championships tonight, up against a very good, highly pragmatic Italian team that has forgotten how to lose. The England team is well-liked, extremely effective and resilient, and, in the inspired Raheem Sterling, possesses probably the outstanding player of the tournament. Yet, for all the undeniable qualities of the team and their extremely impressive manager, Gareth Southgate, not all English people have felt able to share in their success in the tournament, and some will feel ambivalent about the prospect of an England win.

I must admit that I have been one of them. It has been difficult to explain my lack of enthusiasm to my friends and neighbours in Germany, where I live, when they congratulate me on England’s success. They look slightly baffled when I explain: ‘Well, it’s complicated’.

But it is. While I once cheered the England team on with the best of them, I’ve come to feel excluded from their success and, to a degree, alienated from the culture in which I grew up. A lot has changed. The Brexit vote has ‘turbo-charged’ it, as Britain’s PM likes to say, but it has been coming for a while. Back in the eighties, when I started watching football, England players would either mumble their way through the national anthem – the British one, of course, that awful hymn to servility and subjecthood – or not sing at all. Now the players, to a man, belt it out, while a large minority of England supporters go a step further in demonstrating their loyalty to flag and crown by booing the anthem of the opposing team. Undoubtedly, something significant has changed in English culture since the eighties, and football, to my mind, has done more than simply reflect these changes. It has been one of the fronts of a ‘culture war’ that, far from being new, has been rumbling on in England for decades.

Things are further complicated for me by the fact that my home city is Liverpool, a place that seems always at odds with the rest of the country, and has never really thought of itself as part of England anyway. Liverpool is the city that demanded justice over Hillsborough, even when most of the rest of the country preferred to look away. It is the place that blew the whistle on the high-level cover-up that followed the disaster, and that continues to fight, even as legal avenues are closed and public interest ebbs away. It is, in a way, the painful conscience of the country, willing to hold up a mirror to the often brutal, stupidly complacent and morally repugnant face of the English establishment. It has shown how far we have fallen from our professed national values of fairness, decency and justice, and how our willingness to tolerate and condone it implicates us all.

Liverpool’s whistle-blower status helps explain why much of the rest of the country dislikes the city. This is especially true of English football supporters, some of whom revel in victim-blaming over Hillsborough and in poverty-shaming the city (in football fandom, ‘banter’ trumps class solidarity every time). In recent years, supporters of the England national team have replicated some of these chants, reinforcing the sense of alienation many people from Liverpool feel for their country and the national team. But, of course, it is not just about football. Resentment of Liverpool goes right to the top of English society, from the consideration given by the Thatcher government to the city’s ‘managed decline’ to faux England fan Boris Johnson’s typically charming description of Liverpool as a city with a ‘predilection for welfarism’ and a tendency to ‘wallow’ in its ‘victim status’. A long-term colleague of Johnson’s noted on Twitter this week that he had never known him to express any interest in football, except ‘as an excuse to attack in the most contemptible terms possible the people of Liverpool’.

English football supporters (and commentators) have become experts in an advanced sort of moral selectivism. Exploding with righteous indignation over plans for a European super league of untouchable, super wealthy and successful clubs (and Tottenham), fans have nevertheless been avid spectators in the creation a sort of mini super league at home, with honours largely shared among rich, already-successful clubs (a club in their own right, with elite-only access) which spend lavishly to maintain their success. Such is the importance attached to riches in the game that fans applaud and chant the names of the oligarchs and despots whose wealth delivers their team’s success. Others dream of their clubs being owned by foreign billionaires. Where brilliant working-class managers such as Brian Clough, Matt Busby and Bill Shankly – all devout socialists who put their principles into practice in the way they ran their clubs – once pitted their wits against Europe’s finest, now wallet is pitted against wallet in club competitions the outcomes of which are largely determined in board rooms and on billionaire’s yachts. These changes, of course, reflect changes in wider society, particularly growing inequality (austerity for the poor while the rich multiply their fortunes), social exclusion and post-industrial neglect, and the growth of a kind of culture in which money not only buys anything, it excuses everything too.

The referendum over EU membership became, entirely predictably, a catalyst for the deepening of these and other divisions in English society. While in some sense an understandable response from people in communities which felt they had nowhere to go and no prospect of positive change, Brexit also become a flag around which some of the worst elements of society could rally. Unhappily, this flag has usually been the English flag, a symbol, certainly for people of my generation, of narrow-minded nationalism and thuggery, associated with the National Front and the English Defence League. Their flag waving is not about pride or even patriotism – it is about violence, intimidation and subjugation. For some England supporters, there is no distinction between supporting England and supporting some variety of ethnic nationalism. That is what they are there for, and that, at bottom, is what drives the booing of England’s players when they take the knee. The players are not ‘neo-Marxists’ – an idea rightly dismissed as laughable by Billy Bragg in an excellent Channel 4 News interview. Instead, they represent the view of what I still like to think is a majority of people in England – that the future of the country lies in tolerance, respect for others and the equal treatment of everyone, irrespective of race, class, sex or sexual preference (all the things, in fact, that Johnson and his gang find themselves unable to support).

I know that the government does not share these values. I know that they will use an England victory tonight for their own purposes – purposes which, I confidently suppose, run counter to those of the current England team and their manager. And I know that the ethnic nationalists who hide behind the flag will celebrate an England win as a win for their ugly, divisive beliefs. Despite this, and despite everything I have written above, I want England to win. As Billy Bragg said, the current England team is a ‘reflection of who we are’ not who we used to be or who we imagine we once were. They also embody some of the values I want to think can again be associated with England and Englishness: they are tolerant, socially aware, open-minded, at ease with diversity and united. I like that they are politically engaged and progressive – after all, politics has been all over football for years – you can’t keep politics out of it, nor should you. I like too that this England is proper team – no stars, no privileges, winning and losing together, as a group. The players are, in many respects, who we want to be. They are not playing for the boo boys or the bigots. Nor do they play for politicians who represent English isolationism and half-baked hostility to foreigners. They represent an England that is for everyone.

I am not sure the England flag can be reclaimed – it has too many ugly connotations for too many people, in many cases much worse than my own (see, for example, this excellent thread from Carys Afoko). But we can certainly reclaim what Englishness means. I realized this week that I was allowing a minority of thugs and racist bigots to determine what Englishness meant to me. I also realized that the success of this English team means something else – it represents hope for a future that is fair, tolerant and inclusive. Their victory would, ultimately, be a defeat for narrow-minded nationalism and, however they strain to claim a victory for themselves and their values, the politicians who espouse it.

Win or lose, though, this team has shown its country the way, and held out a hope of something better, a more positive and inclusive form of patriotism we can all get behind. It is about more than football. It is about which England we want. The England of empire and exploitation, Johnson, Patel and the EDL, or the kinder, better England of Carys Afoko, Billy Bragg, Marcus Rashford and Jordan Henderson. I know who I’ll be shouting for.

‘I would prefer not to’: What if we refuse to play along?

Herman Melville’s 1853 short story ‘Bartleby, the Scrivener’ has been on my radar for a while and I finally read it for the first time a couple of weeks ago [note that this post contains multiple spoilers!]. I’m sorry I waited so long because I felt an immediate fascination with the story and a funny sort of affinity with the central character, whose actions, or lack of them, remain highly relatable and poignant, yet wholly enigmatic until the end.

‘Bartleby’ tells the story of a scrivener (a scribe or copy-writer) newly employed by a well-to-do, rather complacent Wall Street lawyer, the narrator of the story, to copy legal documents by hand. The lawyer employs three other people: Turkey, a middle-aged, heavy-drinking scrivener, whose work – and temper – deteriorates after lunch; the younger Nippers, who is agitated and dyspeptic in the mornings, but works well in the afternoons; and an errand boy known as Ginger Nut, whose chief function seems to be ensuring a steady supply of snacks to the office.

At first, Bartleby seems a diligent, hard-working employee, quietly doing excellent work and often labouring late into the night at his desk. The lawyer is delighted with his work until one day he asks Bartleby to proofread a document he has written and the scrivener replies, calmly: ‘I would prefer not to’. The lawyer is so astonished by this reply that rather than remonstrate further he asks Nippers to proofread the work. However, later, when the lawyer again asks Bartleby to examine a document, he receives the same response: ‘I would prefer not to’. The lawyer is again astonished, and realises he should dismiss his new employee, yet a feeling of sympathy and puzzlement about the man keeps him from acting. He is disarmed and disconcerted by the weirdly defenceless yet quietly assertive Bartleby.

The lawyer’s curiosity about Bartleby deepens as he notes that he seems never to leave the office and appears to eat only ginger nuts procured by the errand boy. When he drops in at the office on a Sunday he finds that Bartleby has been living there. Not long after, Bartleby, who his employer assumes (it seems wrongly) has been suffering with eye strain and thus unable to work, informs his employer that he has decided to give up writing altogether. While the lawyer feels pity for him, he is also alarmed at what seems a degeneration in his employee’s mental health. He gives him his salary and tells him to leave but, true to form, Bartleby prefers not to. He remains at the office, staring out of his window at the brick wall that lies beyond it, effectively giving up work altogether.

Faced with Bartleby’s dumb refusal and stumped by his apparent irrationality, the lawyer, who feels unable to turn his employee out, instead decides that he will move offices, leaving Bartleby for the next tenant to deal with. A few days later the new occupier of the lawyer’s former office turns up at his new quarters, demanding that he do something about Bartleby, who refuses to leave the building (Melville has been credited with anticipating the Occupy movement). Although, at first, he denies knowing Bartleby, the lawyer, fearing bad publicity should his connection to Bartleby be discovered, makes a last attempt to convince him to leave, encouraging him to find new employment and even inviting him to stay in his own home. He warns him that if he stays he is likely to be arrested. None of these inducements, though, appeal to Bartleby, who prefers ‘to be stationary’ and continue haunting his former offices.

The next the lawyer hears of Bartleby is that he has been arrested for vagrancy and sent to prison. He decides to visit him in ‘the Tombs’ – the Halls of Justice – but is given short shrift. ‘I know you,’ says Bartleby, ‘and I want nothing to say to you’. Stung by what he takes to be a reproach, the lawyer bribes the ‘grub-man’ to ensure the scrivener gets the best dinner available and is treated politely. A few days later, he visits the prison again, but this time is unable to find Bartleby. After speaking to the guards, he finds the ‘silent man’ lying in the prison yard, apparently sleeping. Going close, he realises Bartleby is dead. Among the things that the scrivener preferred not to do, towards the end, was eat. The lawyer hastily concludes his narrative, noting that while he shares the readers’ likely curiosity as to who Bartleby was, he is ‘wholly unable to gratify it’. He remarks that he heard a rumour that the scrivener had once been employed as a subordinate clerk in the dead letter office of the post office in Washington, and speculates that this work has heightened his ‘pallid hopelessness’ and sped Bartleby to death.

The lawyer’s bemusement has been shared by generations of readers who have found the story, by turns, fascinating and confounding. Even the odd coda about Bartleby’s previous employment at the dead letter office sheds little apparent light on his character or motives, though it may reflect his attitude to all his work and all the texts that pass through his hands, that they are in a sense ‘dead’, their point and purpose some steps removed from his engagement with them. Nevertheless, the story leaves much room for disagreement, about pretty much every important detail. In particular, there remain two big questions that Melville is careful not to answer directly: Why does Bartleby act as he does and in the precise terms that he does? And why is his employer (perhaps as important a character in the story as Bartleby himself) prepared to tolerate it? Trying to answer these two questions takes us to the heart of the story and its meaning.

The two questions have to be answered together. It is possible to think of Bartleby’s degeneration in pathological terms, as the decline of an afflicted, damaged individual whose problems put him beyond help, and certainly beyond the help of the well-meaning lawyer. But Melville, while giving away little of his character’s backstory, does a lot to demonstrate that, whatever his state of mind at the start of the story, the environment in which Bartleby finds himself dramatically worsens his condition. This also speaks to the lawyer’s feelings of responsibility and compassion for his employee. When Bartleby starts work, for example, it is clear that the lawyer regards him as merely a useful acquisition, an employé with a certain utility first, and a human being second. He places his desk in a cubicle space, facing a window overlooking a brick wall (at which he later repeatedly stares in a inscrutable ‘dead-wall reverie’), screened from the lawyer but close enough to be called when he chooses (privacy and society conjoined, as the lawyer describes it). He values Bartleby’s constant presence in the office, his willingness labour into the night at a mechanical pace, despite the dull nature of the work and the poor conditions (the space is poorly lit), and does not think to question this until his expectation of ‘instant compliance’ is frustrated by Bartleby’s passive resistance.

When it is, the lawyer’s reaction is perhaps surprising. He is initially too stunned to respond but, then, as Bartleby’s uncooperative behaviour escalates, he finds it increasingly difficult to challenge, disarmed by his behaviour and prepared, to a large extent, to indulge it. In a way, this leniency (or failure to act) is in keeping with the lawyer’s character. After all, he has already demonstrated a willingness to tolerate two employees who work at close-to full capacity only half of the time and are largely useless the rest of it. The lawyer also notes that he is an ‘eminently safe man’, protective of his reputation and not much inclined to challenge or change his behaviour. But there is something more to his apparent toleration and growing sympathy for Bartleby. The less useful his employee becomes to him economically the more he is obliged to see him as a person, with intrinsic value as well as commercial utility. He sees the human being who works, not just the worker, and his humanity, however alien it may seem, speaks to him. The more he sees, the more sympathetic the lawyer becomes, even offering to allow the poor scrivener to return with him to his home. He is evidently touched by his passivity, his resignation to a dismal fate, and reminded, in the end, of their shared humanity. Bartleby though continues to resist, quietly refusing all of the lawyer’s gestures of comradeship.

But what of Bartleby’s behaviour itself? He is a person of no clear character, an absence, almost a ghost, who seems only tangentially connected to the human world. He appears to the lawyer, initially at least, as the kind of creature his treatment of him presupposes him to be: a cipher who becomes the task he is set and is nothing more. His own profession – the scrivener or scribe – has a noble ancestry but has fallen low in the esteem of the world. It will soon be wholly obsolete, with the invention of better, faster and more reliable ways to copy text. The texts he is tasked with copying are dull, as the lawyer admits. Hand-copying the words and thoughts of others is hard, tedious and soul-destroying work. Bartleby is industrious at first, gorging himself on the documents he is given to copy, but he works cheerlessly, ‘mechanically,’ as the lawyer pointedly observes. His only preference appears to be a negative one. He seems to want nothing more than to remain where he is, doing nothing. He repeated assertion, ‘I would prefer not to’, is phrased in such a way as to avoid expressing his own will – he never says ‘I will not’ – yet his expression of his preference is experienced by the lawyer as extremely willful, to the extent that he is utterly dumbfounded and overwhelmed by it. Indeed, by resisting, however passively, the scrivener throws a hand grenade into the works, exercising perhaps the only power he has, challenging the rules of the world as he finds it, with dramatic results. Puzzled by his own failure to act appropriately, the lawyer seeks solace in the philosophy of free will, putting his encounter with the scrivener down to unfathomable predestination. Yet there is also a suggestion here that Bartleby is the only character who is exercising his own free will, through his refusal to play along with the conventions of the society around him. He is a copyist who refuses to copy or conform. His determined and unwavering resistance contrasts with the lawyer’s procrastination and unwillingness to act.

Of course, Bartleby’s actions, his lack of resistance and resignation, could be understood as symptoms of worsening depression. But they can also be understood as rational actions, albeit desperate ones – the actions of a person who is forced into a corner, both figuratively and spatially, who can neither cope with the conditions in which he is obliged to work and live, yet cannot imagine anything different. By this understanding, Bartleby does not act irrationally, but rather rejects the prevailing rationality – the rationality of commercial society and its underpinning morality – he encounters. This is not to say that Bartleby is not psychologically distressed, but his distress has a cause in the world, and is, in a sense, a rational response to it. Perhaps this is what rational looks like when the option of collective action is not available. The scrivener stands in the portal of an emerging world, one in which people are no longer bought and sold but their time is – a world in which human relationships are reduced to the level of economic transaction. We are now so used to renting ourselves out in this way, for a large part of our waking lives, that we hardly notice the loss of freedom and discretion over our own time, the irrelevance of our preferences for the duration of our ‘work’.

What is the alternative? For Bartleby, there does not appear to be one. The confinement of Bartleby’s work environment, boxed in and facing a brick wall, reflects the confinement of his wider life; unlike the wealthy lawyer, he has little space in which to manoeuvre (though the lawyer perhaps has much less than he thinks). He has no prospect of anything better. Nor does he have the social or interpersonal skills he would need to make something more of his environment. He has no public self. There are no good choices. Perhaps he sees what his colleagues have become, half-men blinded by anger or alcohol, one made sick by his work the other turned into a drunk (contrast this with Bartleby’s measured, if extreme, asceticism). Bartleby is utterly, unreachably lost (and knows it – he is never less than lucid, however irrational he seems), but rather than play the hopeless game (one he cannot ever win), and keep walking the treadmill with the promise only of more of the same, he steps off, quietly but firmly: ‘I would prefer not to’.

There is something exceedingly poignant about the scrivener. He is an individual without guile or armour, pallid and humourless, an invisible man whose resistance finally, makes him visible to the world. It is only when he declines to work, that his employer sees him, to his evident dismay and confusion. It is by exercising his limited agency in this way that Bartleby emerges as human. The lawyer, used to instant compliance from his screened-off employees, people he only sees when he needs something from them, finds himself in a messy human space, forced to confront the messy humanity of an employee. But the lawyer invites compassion too. He is not a bad man by normal standards, though he is certainly a self-satisfied one. His journey is as interesting as Bartley’s and, like Bartleby, he finds himself reacting to forces he doesn’t understand, feelings of guilt, compassion and responsibility he has difficulty articulating. The lawyer’s behaviour is inexplicable, even to himself. He lacks understanding – of himself and of the world around him, despite his relatively successful engagement with it. He thinks of himself as free but he has internalised the rules of the system in which he operates (Bartleby too could be said to have internalised the rules of his own resistance to foreign influence by refusing to eat). This helps us understand why Bartleby’s resistance disrupts not only the lawyer’s workplace but his sense of balance and wellbeing too. In the end they are both small, uncomprehending cogs in a huge machine, rule-governed but seemingly undirected, through which money in constantly circulated, for reasons no one can quite remember. Is this rational?

Of course, it is not insignificant that the story is set in Wall Street and even subtitled ‘A story of Wall Street’. This is the biggest clue to the author’s intentions and I take it at face value. Melville evidently intends his story as a sort of allegory of the emerging commercial society, with its non-human, financial imperatives, and the impact this was having on humanness and human relationships. He was prescient in recognising the tendency of capital to dehumanise and distort human relationships – and in seeing the impact of dissociating people’s work from the end purpose or point of the work, of treating human beings as ciphers. Bartleby challenges all of this, and in an inadvertently ingenious and disruptive way. His is an unwitting, innocent revolutionary who, in the end, does what he does because it is necessary for him. He cannot go forward in any other way. But it is his way, followed without fear, and he is the only character in the story who can be said to be acting spontaneously on their own volition, however dismal the end point of this journey. For all of this, Bartleby remains an enigma to the reader, whose claim on him is never more than tenuous. There is something characteristically defiant in the way Melville presents his hero, challenging us not to make lazy assumptions or categorise him in narrow terms that overlook his humanity. It is a challenge too to see in the blankness of his personality a human being with intrinsic value, a fellow being deserving care and compassion (which he undoubtedly is), and maybe also admiration (which he may be). He is more than an instrument of any interpretation, mine included.

I found myself wondering if the story itself is a sort of dead letter, improperly addressed and unanswered. Perhaps Melville, famously frustrated at the public’s reaction to what he considered his serious work, had begun to see his writing in this way? Somehow it never reached its intended recipient. Returned to sender, unopened, unread, un-understood. Perhaps he knew – or felt – that there was no audience for the work. Luckily for us, and all the generations that followed Melville, we get another chance to prove him wrong.

Against work

‘Why should I let the toad work squat on my life?’ wonders Philip Larkin in his half-funny, half-wise meditation on work. Why, he asks, should he give up six days of his week to work, when the meagre rewards are so out of proportion with what he must sacrifice to gain them? His answer, it seems, is that there is something sufficiently toad-like in his own character to oblige him to muddle along in his job. Escaping the toad work in pursuit of money, fame or ‘the girl’ is a romantic enough idea, but, in the end, it is not for him.

Larkin’s poem sticks in the head. Who among those of us obliged to work for a living hasn’t wondered this? Who hasn’t woken up, still processing the drudgery and waste of the previous working day, only to be sucked reluctantly into another? Who hasn’t sat at their desk, writing a report no-one will read or preparing for a meeting no-one will remember, and wondered whether their time might be employed more constructively? But I sense that for Larkin it was more of an academic question than it is for working people now (and, of course, the relatively privileged Larkin had more options available to him than working people did then or do now). As he says, it would seem easy enough to fend off the toad, more pest than predator, with a pitchfork (he suggests), should he choose to. It is more his inertia, his fear of the unknown, that keeps him from ditching work for something better.

Since Larkin’s time, work has come to occupy an increasingly large and inescapable place in our lives, despite the emergence of technologies that could be used to make all of our lives easier and more commodious. Work asks more of us than before, in many cases for fewer rewards. I know this varies from place to place, but in the UK working hours have increased (British workers work longer hours than most other countries in Europe) while wages have stagnated and insecure contracts (including zero-hours contracts) have become common. Many families in poverty have one or two parents working, sometimes doing multiple poor-quality jobs, for low pay and with little job security. Work, once considered the guarantor of a decent life, now purchases only the most tenuous of grips on the good life. According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 56 per cent of people living in poverty in the UK in 2018 were in a household where at least one person had a job, compared with 39 per cent 20 years ago. The twin manacles of debt and precarity keep the show on the road: however bad things get there is always something worse. The costs of not being ‘in work’ can be life-alteringly high and are often immediate, given the hand-to-mouth financial existence most of us now face.

Work is also much more invasive now, thanks to technology and particularly smart phones, a technology that promises connection but delivers isolation. They have, among other things, made the barrier between home and work more permeable – we are available all the time, we never switch off fully. Work is only a push notification away. It is everywhere, yet it never seems to end, expanding, seemingly endlessly, to fill whatever space we make available for it. COVID-19 and the lockdowns have exacerbated these trends for many people. Work is in your living room, your bedroom, your kitchen, thanks to Zoom, Teams and other technologies; something to be managed alongside homeschooling and other home responsibilities that usually occupy a different sphere of life. A survey commissioned by the Royal Society for Public Health in the UK found that 56 per cent of lockdown home-workers found it harder to switch off from work, while 67 per cent felt less connected to colleagues, 46 per cent took less exercise, 39 per cent had developed musculoskeletal problems and 37 per cent suffered disturbed sleep. The shift to homeworking, while giving some workers a chance of improved work-life balance, has also resulted in an increase in work stress and feelings of isolation which are already taking a toll on people’s mental health, especially, I suspect, among women, who still do most of the unpaid work at home and take on most of the caring responsibilities.

Furthermore, as anthropologist David Graeber argued in his polemical book Bullshit Jobs: A Theory, much of the work we do while we are ‘at work’ is ‘meaningless’, ‘pointless’ or ‘useless’ work of dubious value and, often, obscure purpose. A survey commissioned to test the book’s thesis found that 37 per cent of the British workers who responded believed their job did not ‘make a meaningful contribution to the world’ (50 per cent of people felt their job did and 13 per cent were uncertain). A survey of Dutch workers, also reported by Graeber, found that 40 per cent felt their job ‘had no good reason to exist’. While the definitional blurriness of the questions limits what we can read into such surveys, it is, nonetheless, a depressing sentiment, given the vast amount of time we spend at work and the role it plays in our sense of self-identity. It is also one to which many people will relate. Even people who see value in parts of their work frequently complain that they have too little time to focus on those aspects of their work that are valuable, usually the primary function of the role. The rest of their time is filled with wasteful meetings, reading and responding to emails, compliance with reporting and monitoring requirements, ticking quality kitemark boxes, and other administrative tasks, not to mention the now obligatory updating of our social media profiles and the innumerable other compulsive distractions and micro-stimuli thrown up by AI. The problem, as Graeber frames it, is that we value the job rather than the work, that is to say the fact of being in work, rather than the outcomes or point of the work. ‘More jobs’ is an end in itself, pursued by all political parties, irrespective of the nature or conditions of the work. And even though there is evidence that a shorter working week would make people more productive and happier, no mainstream party is seriously pushing for this.

I hope it is clear that I have no issue with work in and of itself. Work can be hugely fulfilling, especially when it is work you love or you feel matters. It can give you a sense of purpose and community, as well as a structure to life many people find useful. What I take issue with is the disproportionately large place work, in its institutionalized forms, now occupies in our lives and its tendency to exclude other things that matter and to override questions of value that we need to be asking; now more than ever. We work too much and, in most cases, for too little. But it is not only that. Precarity, personal indebtedness, housing costs, low wages, the high cost of living and the direct and indirect costs of a decent education for our kids mean that those of us not fortunate enough to be born into wealth, privilege and property face an almost impossible task in shrugging off the yoke and getting off the treadmill that is our inheritance. This not only breeds hopelessness and degradation but occupies our time and minds in such a way that it is almost impossible to think our way to anything better. We are agitated, humiliated and anxious, dismayed yet also curiously calm and almost disinterested because we believe nothing can change. What people who have never been without money find difficult to understand is how utterly absorbing, how emptying it can be to have very little, how the thought of it and what it means fills the room and every space in your life, including your thoughts, a constant, niggling, spiteful voice that is never done with you. There is little room for anything else.

Education is a case in point, and a highly instructive one because it demonstrates how radically things have changed in past decades. In a relatively short time, work has become the be all and end all of education policy, to the almost complete exclusion of education for non-economistic purposes. It is important to remind ourselves that this was not always so. The 1973 Russell Report on adult education in the UK, for example, noted that ‘The value of adult education is not solely to be measured by direct increases in earning power or productive capacity or by any other materialistic yardstick, but by the quality of life it inspires in the individual and generates for the community at large’. A ‘great development of non-technical studies’, it argued, was ‘vital to provide the fullest opportunities for personal development and for the realization of a true conception of citizenship’. As recently as 1997, Helena Kennedy, in her introduction to Learning Works, a report on improving participation in further education, observed:

Education must be at the heart of any inspired project for regeneration in Britain. It should be a springboard for the revitalisation that our communities so urgently need. However, in all the political debates, it is the economic rationale for increasing participation in education which has been paramount. Prosperity depends upon there being a vibrant economy, but an economy which regards its own success as the highest good is a dangerous one. Justice and equity must also have their claim upon the arguments for educational growth. In a social landscape where there is a growing gulf between those who have and those who have not, the importance of social cohesion cannot be ignored.

Since Learning Works was published, the language in which we talk about education has changed dramatically. It is difficult to imagine any government paper now offering an alternative to the ‘economic rationale’ for investing in education. The atmosphere has changed. It is almost as though the part of our vocabulary that deals with value that isn’t private or economic has been excised from the language. We find it hard even to articulate its absence, other than by talking in instrumental terms that contribute to the further othering of these different kinds of value. The most recent UK Government white paper on further education was called Skills for jobs: Lifelong learning for opportunity and growth, a title that summed up neatly both the current UK Government’s lack of ambition – its aim is not even skills for work, or a life of work, but skills for jobs merely – and its narrow, utilitarian view of lifelong learning, opportunity and growth. Where is learning for active citizenship or sustainable development, for health and wellbeing, for critical thinking or community cohesion?  Where is education that fosters a love and understanding of art or culture? Where is learning that builds resilience, creativity or the capacity to learn throughout life? We ask in vain.

The change is not only in the language we use, of course, important though this is. It is reflected in the reduction in opportunities for adults to learn for purposes other than basic skills acquisition or employment. In the UK, we have seen a steady decline in adult learner numbers since Labour decided to treat work as a proxy for all kinds of social inclusion from 2003 on, and a very substantial narrowing in the types of opportunity available to adults to learn, culminating in the slash-and-burn vandalism of successive Conservative-led governments after 2010. The austerian politics of the past 10 years or so have given Conservatives the opportunity to complete the demolition of the infrastructure of adult learning begun under Labour, forcing learning for purposes other than work further to the margins and practically eliminating it from further education colleges and higher education continuing education (the ‘extra-mural’ tradition). Adult education beyond skills for work has not quite gone, but it is embattled and precarious, and survives in spite of government policy rather than because of it.

Although no other sector has suffered cuts on the scale of adult education, the trend that has driven these cuts is reflected elsewhere, with comparable consequences. In both (state) schools and (non-elite) higher education, curricula have narrowed, with careers predominant and arts and the humanities increasingly disfavoured. In England, for example, curriculum breadth has been reduced as a result of funding pressure and real-terms cuts to state school funding, with pupils losing out on subjects such as languages, computing, design and technology, and music. ‘Catching up’ after lockdown, according to the education secretary, is likely to involve a further narrowing of the curriculum to focus on English and maths, with other subjects dropped or offered in reduced form. Meanwhile, in higher education, universities, particularly the non-elite, less selective institutions, have stripped back their offers in the humanities. History programmes have been particularly under pressure of late, with both Aston University and South Bank University peremptorily axing apparently successful history programmes, as the government pushes for a greater focus on ‘high-value’ technical and vocational courses. The dizzying price tag now attached to higher education courses has deepened the impression that education is a private transaction with primarily private benefits. And the need for (mostly) working-class students to find work to fund their studies, in addition to loans, has radically changed the university experience, robbing less well-off students of the space to think and explore, free from the pressures of work and time. The main and most important single product of the non-elite English higher education system is indebtedness.

As working-class adult education for civic, social and personal-development purposes has retreated, vocational higher education has been on the march, spurred on by New Labour’s incoherent 50 per cent HE participation target. This target has been reached but the achievement, such as it is, masks real and persistent inequalities. While full-time higher education is being accessed by more young people than ever before, the loss of part-time students over the past decade – there was a 61 per cent fall between 2010 and 2018 – means that the student body is, in fact, less diverse than it was before, with fewer opportunities for poor and working-class young people and adults. For those working-class, first-generation students who do make it to university, the experience is likely to be very different to that of their better-off, more privileged peers. Working-class young people are more likely to apply to and attend a non-elite university with a more vocational offer, and to combine work with study. A broad, liberal education is increasingly the preserve of the wealthy and privileged, who also enjoy the further benefits of freedom from work during their studies and emerging from university without debt. English higher education increasingly operates two tiers, one dominated by the privately educated whose time is their own to dispose of and who can choose to study what they like, and the other largely dominated by students from state schools, already well used to being told what they can learn, who have to combine work and study and face a limited choice with a strong emphasis on the vocational. Education for the children of the wealthy – training for everyone else.

Rather than giving students an experience of intellectual and personal freedom, higher education as most UK students experience it offers them a taste of what life will be like after they leave university, heavily in debt and managing work and other responsibilities, continuously conscious of time pressure and their obligations to others, overworked and under-supported, with a clear line of sight to the burdens and dissatisfactions of their working futures. Education, which should give us the means to break our chains or at least to reflect on how to do so, instead ends up further stupefying us, closing down options it should keep open, and filling our cognitive spaces with anxiety and agitation that stop us thinking about anything else (and also keep us firmly in line). It’s not that vocational education isn’t valuable. It certainly is. It’s just that it isn’t everything, and the purpose of education is not merely to prepare us for a job, or even for work, it is to prepare us to be good citizens, friends, lovers, parents, neighbours and carers, among other things. It is not that we have forgotten about these things, so much as we have lost our ability to talk about them as though they matter (even though we know they do). We are workers first, people second. And in the condition of permanent anxiety and distractedness in which very many of us live our lives, it is not surprising that we have difficulty thinking of how things might be better, even doubting whether it is possible that they ever can be.

Somehow, we have come to think of this very abnormal and unhealthy situation as normal, and even natural. People scoff at the idea of reducing people’s working hours with no loss of pay, despite evidence that it would improve productivity and reduce our carbon footprint, as well as improving people’s health  and wellbeing and strengthening their bonds with their families and communities. We have stopped believing that the future can be any different from the present. But, of course, planetary survival demands exactly this – that we imagine what seems unimaginable. It is a huge challenge and education is pivotal to it. We need an education that gives us grounds for hope rather than convincing reasons for despair, to paraphrase Raymond Williams. We need the space first to imagine change, and then to live it. But achieving this means doing, and thinking about, education differently. It means admitting that we are some distance down the wrong path and learning, with appropriate humility, from other knowledges, especially indigenous knowledges. Changing our relationship with the natural world means, among other things, changing our relationship with work. Work is making many of us unwell, reproducing patterns of inequality and driving the climate crisis. While it should be a vehicle through which people can achieve their potential, in very many cases it is directly preventing this. It is absorbing our attention to a degree that excludes other possibilities, even the possibility of change. Challenging must start with education and with the acknowledgement that while work matters, it is not the only thing that matters, nor even, as I wrote in my last post, the thing that matters most. If we are to dream again, and dream better, we need education to hold open the door to a different future, not close it.

Failing to see further

Education should be about the world we want, not just the world we have.

It has been said many times, and in many different ways, over the last 18 months, that the COVID-19 pandemic is an opportunity to ‘reset’ and ‘build back better’, a ‘portal to another world’, as Arundhati Roy put it in her brilliant, much-quoted essay in the Financial Times, and so, I believe, it is.

Yet, for all the well-intentioned ink spilt in setting out these possibilities, somehow we cannot quite see them, or, if we do, we cannot see how to walk through the ‘gateway between one world and the next’, as Roy puts it, without dragging with us the accumulated baggage of outdated orthodoxies and ill-considered allegiances. This is as true in education as in other areas of policy, but I think the question has special resonance in the area of education, because education is so essential to thinking and doing differently, and so much at the root of everything that is wrong with how things are, and also every conceivable way in which things could be better.

In fact, while the pandemic has exacerbated existing inequalities, accelerated the managed de-socialisation of society and increased our reliance on powerful tech companies much more interested in deepening our reliance on and vulnerability to technology rather than its educational possibilities, it has offered few glimpses of how things might be different once we emerge into the post-COVID world, however and whenever that happens.

Part of the problem is that we have got used to thinking small. There are no big ideas in education right now, or, at least, and probably more correctly, those ideas are not being seriously discussed where they count.

There is something mean and enervating about the way in which we talk about education and about education policy, in particular. Our obsession with skills and learning for work has ballooned absurdly to occupy almost all of the space allowed for debate and reflection about education. And while we did not, as a sector, devise this new language of learning, we still use it, albeit slightly tortuously as we try forlornly to fit it to our own values.

This is not to say that learning for work is unimportant, of course, but it is not all that there is, or even the most important part of that whole.

It is important to assert this simple fact because this rhetoric is all-pervasive now, as is work itself, which, in a directly mirrored way, occupies an absurdly large and looming space in our lives, reaching further and further into our private lives, particularly with the ongoing lockdowns and the emerging and almost universally feted triumph of supposedly connecting technologies, which in fact do nothing of the sort.

There is learning for other purposes, of course, still, though far less than there was, but we don’t like to talk about it. Not really. We are almost embarrassed to insist that education that fosters active citizenship, knowledge of history and philosophy, social cohesion, environmental awareness, resilience, creativity, sensitivity to arts and culture, and health and wellbeing, matters as much as training for a job. In fact, it matters more. It is what, primarily, education is for.

It hasn’t always been this way and it is important to remember that all of this is a relatively recent phenomena, and the direct outcome of policy decision, rather than invisible forces over which we have no control or say (however comforting at times it may be to think that).

In the UK, the 1919 report, the Russell report of 1973, right up to Learning Works and The Learning Age papers of early New Labour, all attached prominent value to the common good, to the civic, cultural and social purposes of education, presenting them not as incidental extras or things that are nice to have but a bit expensive, but as essential dimensions of a country’s educational settlement with its people.

All of this brilliant canvas has been painted over, in dull utilitarian grey, all in the name of economic growth and other unhealthy addictions that are slowly killing us. The loss is huge and the trend continues, as governments around the world claw back funding spent on the humanities, at school and at university, and the UK directs all but the children of the very wealthy to some form of career preparation. The benefits of a broad liberal education are increasingly the sole preserve of the wealthy and privileged. Elite institutions continue to throng with ‘entitled mediocrities‘, while bright working-class kids are directed elsewhere, by one means or another.

Bizarrely, given the social cost, there is little appetite to change this situation, from any side, and understanding how this can be so also involves reckoning with education. For decades now, neo-liberalism has fought an incredibly successful rearguard action against the promise of something better that emerged in the counter-culture movement of the 1960s and 1970s (a moment of rare and acute possibility). Part of this action has involved education: the curriculum has narrowed, for sure, as work has come to dominate both policy and life to an absurd and unnatural degree, but we have also seen the disappearance of places of adult education and other community spaces in which people could engage in open-ended, critical reflection on their lives and, together, consider how they might change. We’ve stopped talking about how things might be different. With so few avenues of potential change open, it is not surprising that our politics has become one not of hope but of grievance and hostility.

As such spaces slipped from national consciousness, they were replaced with the spread of vocationally focused higher education, on the one hand, and work-based training, on the other. We stopped dreaming of something better and instead settled for what we had, and the prospect of more and probably worse.

Depressingly, many of the institutions that defended learning for purposes other than work have had, to some degree, to capitulate with this narrative, often for reasons of survival, following the funding while, at the same time, unhappily, confirming the policy biases making life more difficult and less worth living for the people and communities they want to represent.

Little wonder then that we find it so difficult to set out an alternative.

We remain preoccupied with the symptoms of the collective malaise of which we are part, cleaning up messes and minimising the negative impact, while the machine rumbles frantically on, devouring large parts of the planet while treating human beings as not much more than conduits for the constant circulation of cash and data. They need us alive, but not necessarily living.

We desperately need the space and time to think, yet most of us find this utterly elusive. Technology has brought work into the home, while social media fills us with the kind of anxiety and dread that makes us good consumers but terrible friends, lovers, parents and citizens. We have normalized high levels of debt (and, relatedly, the idea of education as an investment with essentially private benefits) and created a work environment in which people live from hand to mouth, fearful they could lose everything, at any moment. For most of us, there is little time for anything else, and certainly not concerted, informed reflection on the future shape of society. Instead, we accept things as they are and keep going, as best we can.

This is where we are, and I have no more idea how to get out than anyone else.

It is clear, though, that we need to resist these dismal trends in education, and do so in this moment of potential transformation. We need to find new spaces for joint critical reflection, and reassert the social-purpose values that have driven and characterized the adult education movement, certainly for most of the twentieth century. We need more spaces for learning and more spaces for learning that are not about work and that direct us to the common good.

We need to make sure that education prepares us not only for the world of work, but for life; not only for the world of today – a world over which, we are led to believe, we can have no control – but for the world of the future, the world we can’t see yet but can create, if we have a mind to.

Reclaiming our common purpose: 100 years of adult education

Yesterday was the centenary of the organisation known, variously, as the British Institute of Adult Education (BIAE), the National Institute of Adult Education (NIAE), the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education (NIACE) and, in its present incarnation, the Learning and Work Institute.

Although it appears to have passed largely unremarked (I confess, it would have escaped me had it not been for a tweet from Sir Alan Tuckett), it is an anniversary to celebrate: the organisation made a substantial, civilizing contribution not only to the British adult education movement of the twentieth century but also to British society more widely, including through the numerous organisations to which it gave birth. But it will also, for very many veterans of the movement, be a moment to pause and reflect on what we have lost, the distance we have travelled from our founding mission and where we are now going. I want to explore this a little but I will begin by considering the origins of the institute, its founding goals and some of its most important achievements, evidence of its often profound social and cultural impact.

The inaugural meeting of the British Institute of Adult Education took place on 28 May 1921, at the University of London Club in Gower Street, two years after the publication of the hugely influential 1919 report on adult education. Its primary aim, according to its first President, former Secretary of State for War Lord Haldane (who, with Albert Mansbridge, founder of the Workers’ Educational Association, was instrumental in creating it), was to be ‘a centre for common thought by persons of varied experience in the adult education movement’. It aimed to be a representative body and a ‘thinking department’, focused not on teaching but on discussion and advocacy, holding public meetings and exerting pressure on parliament. Initially, it did not have its own premises but met in hired rooms.  Its address for correspondence – 28 St Anne’s Gate, London – was Lord Haldane’s private address.

Most of the institute’s early members were university teachers and administrators and its initial focus, unsurprisingly, was on university adult education, with forays into women’s education, adult education in rural communities and broadcasting. The institute was quick to see the potential educational power and reach of broadcasting, and made this the topic of one of its first inquiries, in 1923, organising a conference on the use of broadcasting for educational purposes. Subsequent inquiries focused on everything from the relation of library services for adult education to the educational uses of the gramophone. In 1924, it published a report entitled The Guild House that proposed that every town and cluster of villages should have a centre for adult education. The following year, it began publishing its own journal, the half-yearly Journal of Adult Education, which became the quarterly Adult Education in 1934 and the monthly Adults Learning in 1989. It started an adult education library and commenced publication of a Handbook and Directory of Adult Education, edited by Basil Yeaxlee, one of the forerunners of the concept of ‘lifelong education’.

The institute began to move away (though never entirely) from its early focus on university extension classes and to take an interest in what it termed ‘various auxiliary services,’ meaning the wide array of voluntary agencies, many with primary purposes outside adult education, involved in creating less formal and more accessible opportunities for adults to learn. Its activities included: collaboration with the BBC on developing an educational use for the wireless; setting up a Commission on Educational and Cultural Films; assisting loan exhibitions of pictures in small towns and villages; an inquiry into public reading habits; and, in 1933, setting up a National Advisory Committee to develop educational work for the unemployed.  By the mid-1930s, the institute saw its wok as ‘analogous to a research laboratory’, conducting experiments, preparing blueprints, defending adult education and devising strategies to take it into new territories.

Some of these interventions led to the creation of new bodies. The Commission on Educational and Cultural Films, set up in 1929 to explore the use of films in education and the possible establishment of a ‘permanent central agency’ to develop the public appreciation of film, led to the creation of the British Film Institute. In 1935, under the direction of its Secretary, the brilliant social entrepreneur W.E. Williams, the institute set up a scheme called Art for the People, which aimed to provide ordinary people with the opportunity to see great works of art. Many private collectors loaned paintings to the institute for the purpose. This work led to the creation of the Council for Encouragement of Music and the Arts (CEMA), which, throughout the Second World War, provided high-quality musical, theatre and opera performances, as well as exhibitions, helping resist what Kenneth Clark, one of the founders of CEMA, termed a ‘cultural black-out’. It provided artists with employment and emphasised local participation and the contribution of amateur groups. In 1946, CEMA, which has been chaired by John Maynard Keynes since 1941, became the Arts Council of Great Britain, with a charter committing it to securing greater knowledge, understanding and practice of the arts, and too increasing the accessibility of the arts to the general public. Williams became its first secretary-general.

During the war, Williams was instrumental in setting up and running the Army Bureau of Current Affairs on behalf of the War Office, overcoming official resistance in doing so. He felt strongly that serving men and women had a right not only to basic information about the war, but also to the opportunity to partake in the discussions that would shape the country that emerged from the conflict. The bureau organised weekly current affairs talk-and-discussion sessions for service men and women, based on a series of 16-page pamphlets, published fortnightly and dedicated to an issue ‘of topical and universal importance’, from post-war reconstruction to the abolition of war (!). The sessions have been credited with engendering greater political awareness and contributing to the election of a Labour government in 1945 (some sources estimate as many as 80 per cent of soldiers voted labour), though, in practice, official vetting meant the pamphlets on which the talks were based usually avoided controversial topics.

In 1949, the BIAE, which was struggling financially, merged with the National Foundation for Adult Education – a forum set up to promote understanding and co-operation between the various bodies involved in the provision of adult education – to form the National Institute of Adult Education (NIAE), under the leadership of Secretary Edward Hutchinson and Deputy Secretary Brian Groombridge. The new institute welcomed both corporate as well as individual members, including local education authorities, Workers’ Educational Associations, libraries, the BBC, the Townswomen’s Guilds and Women’s Institutes. Hutchinson enhanced the institute’s reputation as the national focus for adult education, thought and practice, while ensuring its financial stability. He also made the institute more internationally focused. In addition to Adult Education, the institute published an annual yearbook and numerous monographs, which helped promote understanding of adult education, both nationally and internationally. The Russell Committee of 1973 described the institute as ‘a major non-governmental force in the development of the adult education service’ and recommended the enhancement of its role. Its recommendation that the institute conduct regular surveys of adult students and teachers, led to the institute’s regular surveys of adult participation in learning. Another of the committee’s recommendations – to ‘establish a Developmental Council for Adult Education’ – led to the creation of the Advisory Council for Adult and Continuing Education (ACACE), under the chairmanship of Richard Hoggart. Co-located within the institute, ACACE produced 36 reports between 1976 and 1983, on topics such as educational guidance, basic education and education for black communities.

In 1983, the NIAE changed its name to the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education (NIACE), a decision at least in part motivated by changing preconditions for departmental investment. As the 1980s progressed, NIACE began to contribute more confidently to discourses about the relationship between general education and vocational training and between economic prosperity and social inclusion. ACACE was succeeded, in 1984, by two new units: the Unit for the Development of Adult Continuing Education (UDACE), which focused on collecting information on effective and innovative practice, making recommendations to government on improving adult learning, and developing research to the benefit of adult learning; and REPLAN, which aimed to improve, increase and extend educational opportunities for unemployed and unwaged adults in England and Wales. There was a perceptible shift in policy interest towards skills for employment, and particularly basic skills, which was becoming an increasingly important part of the institute’s activities. In 1975-76, the institute was funded to establish an Adult Literacy Research Agency (ALRA), to support and promote an expansion in adult literacy teaching. It funded special development projects, published resource material and developed staff training. The grant was extended for two further years and, in 1978, ALRA was succeeded by the Adult Literacy Unit. The unit remained a part of NIACE but stayed in London when the institute moved to new premises in Leicester. The unit became independent of NIACE in 1989, changing its name to the Basic Skills Agency in 1995. With the policy scenes in England and Wales diverging, NIACE Cymru was established in 1985 to advise the Welsh Office, the Welsh Joint Education Committee and Welsh adult education providers. It became NIACE Dysgu Cymru in 2000.

In 1988, Alan Tuckett succeeded Arthur Stock as Director of NIACE. While positioning NIACE as a neutral, non-sectional advocate for adult learners within government, he also strengthened the institute’s campaigning profile, launching the monthly Adults Learning as a successor to the quarterly Adult Education in 1989, and, in 1992, organising the first UK Adult Learners’ Week, a festival of learning to celebrate the achievements of learners and encourage others to try learning for themselves, since emulated in countries around the world. The celebrations coincided with the publication of NIACE’s annual survey of adult participation in learning – to this day a critical advocacy tool for the institute. Stephen McNair noted later that: ‘Adult Learners’ Week gave NIACE direct access to, and credibility with, ministers and the wider policymaking community, which proved invaluable as government’s interest in adult learning grew throughout the 1990s’. NIACE’s growing influence on mainstream policy was evident in its response to the 1991 white paper, Education and Training for the 21st Century, which threatened the withdrawal of public funding from non-vocational adult education. NIACE argued vigorously against the proposal, explaining that it would almost certainly prove fatal to all sorts of socially valuable adult education provision. Working with a coalition of partners including local authorities and the National Federation of Women’s Institutes – described by an education minister at the time as ‘the forces of darkness’ – the institute helped force the government into a climbdown, recognising that non-vocational adult learning mattered and retaining the statutory duty on local authorities to ensure its ‘adequate’ provision (though the vagueness of this requirement would prove problematic).

NIACE’s move into the mainstream did not sit well with all of its partners. As Roger Fieldhouse noted, the 1990s saw a serious erosion of adult education’s ‘fundamental commitment to serving a collectivist social purpose – to make the world a better place’, presenting the institute with a ‘vast new challenge’ to ‘introduce its social values into the mainstream’. During this period, NIACE published a number of influential studies that sought to explore the factors preventing adults from participating and succeeding in learning, including Veronica McGivney’s influential Education’s for Other People: Access to education for non-participating adults (1990). NIACE also contributed to a number of important reviews, notably John Tomlinson’s review of further education opportunities for students with learning difficulties and/or disabilities, and Helena Kennedy’s inquiry into adult participation in further education. Both exerted significant early influence on the 1997-2010 Labour government, largely through its National Advisory Group for Continuing Education, chaired by Principal of Northern College Bob Fryer, with Alan Tuckett as vice-chair. The group’s final report called for ‘a new learning culture, a culture of lifelong learning for all’, and helped shape Labour’s 1998 green paper, The Learning Age: A renaissance for a new Britain. The green paper promised to put learning at the heart of the government’s ambition, calling for the creation of a learning society, built on ‘a renewed commitment to self-improvement and on a recognition of the enormous contribution learning makes to our society.’

The Learning Age proved the high-water mark both of Labour’s ambition for adult education and of NIACE’s direct influence over policy. While NIACE, now recognised as part of the mainstream of public policymaking in lifelong learning and charged with delivering parts of the government’s the new agenda, continued to grow, both in size and influence, its ‘critical friendship’ with government become increasingly strained as Labour, form 2003 on, moved away from the expansive vision of the green paper towards a narrower, more utilitarian vision of adult education, stressing skills for employment to the exclusion, in the end, of almost everything else. Not everyone was comfortable with the institute’s new role. As Leisha Fullick argued, ‘[T]he relationship with the government and the growth in contracting gave rise to concern that the organisation’s role as an independent advocate was being undermined’. NIACE agreed a memorandum of understanding with the government which recognised the institute’s right to campaign and comment on government policy, irrespective of any existing funding relationship, and continued to publish work critical of policy (including Fullick’s Adult learners in a brave new world [2004]), but this did not satisfy everyone.

Within the institute, the relationship with government was the topic of thoughtful, ongoing debate. As I have written elsewhere, Director Alan Tuckett and his policy advisor Alastair Thomson saw that NIACE had an unprecedented opportunity to sit at the big table with policymakers, and to shape, and even to write, government policy. They felt that, on the whole, it was better to be 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’. The calculation was that the institute’s ‘commitment to adults and their learning, and the independence this gave it’ would keep the organisation ‘from becoming just another contracting “think tank” working at the behest of ministers and civil servants often with quite divergent agendas.’ I wrote about this here. Once consequence of this approach was that much of NIACE’s advocacy work was conducted behind closed doors, sotto voce, with noisier partners often taking credit for changes in policy that owed more to NIACE’s quietly critical approach. I suspect that one of the reasons this approach worked, and NIACE did better than most publicly funded organisations in resisting the distorting effects of government support, was that Tuckett and Thomson remained ever-mindful both of the dangers inherent in the approach and of the need to preserve an independent, strongly critical voice, however softly spoken.

Nevertheless, as Labour’s increasing focus on the achievement of equality and fairness through economic modernisation narrowed opportunity for adults dramatically – more than 1.4 million adult learners were lost between 2004-05 and 2006-07 – this tightrope became more and more difficult to walk. Taking the view that a ‘new settlement’ for adult education was required, NIACE launched, in quick succession, a ‘Big Conversation’ about adult learning and an independent Inquiry into the Future for Lifelong Learning, chaired by Sir David Watson. The latter’s main report, Learning through Life, published in September 2009, called for a rebalancing of expenditure on learning towards adults, to reflect demographic and labour-market changes. The report was used extensively by NIACE in its advocacy in the run-up to the 2010 general election but, despite its relatively modest costs, it remains to this day a missed opportunity to recalibrate learning to meet the challenges of the twenty-first century. The election of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat government was attended by yet more warm words about adult education, quickly followed by swingeing cuts and the hollowing out of provision, as successive governments moved further and further away from a wider view of the purposes and benefits of adult education. NIACE was itself, by this time, in deep financial trouble. The ongoing withdrawal of government funding on which NIACE had become dependent resulted in a succession of restructures and the loss of large areas of work and the staff who worked on them.

In 2014, NIACE, now led by David Hughes, began a process of strategic cooperation that led to its merger, in 2016, with the Centre for Economic and Social Inclusion to form a new organisation, the Learning and Work Institute. The change in name marked a more substantial change of focus, strengthening the institute’s work on young people, employment and skills, but also making its traditional focus on the promotion of adult education for a variety of social purposes more marginal to its aims and purposes. This should in no way be taken as a criticism of the current stewards of the institute’s work. These changes were difficult to avoid, perhaps irresistible, given the funding environment and the urgent need to secure financial satiability for the institute and its staff. But it was inevitable that the merging of these two agendas would mean a diminished voice for adult education, and for the pluralistic and inclusive vision of adult education long-defended by the institute, in all its previous incarnations, and so it has turned out. The world is a better place for the Learning and Work Institute, and its contribution remains significant. It is an important voice on adult education, but it is no longer the loudest or the most urgent. With adult education facing wave after wave of cuts over the past decade, the loss of a dedicated organisation committed to promoting adult education and the interests of adult learners to the exclusion of all other interests has hit hard, though other interventions, such as the Centenary Commission on Adult Education, have tried, with some success, to fill the gap and offer the intellectual and campaigning leadership the field needs.

So, for me, 100 years of the institute, in all of its guises, is a critical moment that we should recall and celebrate. But it is also a reminder of what has been lost along the way, and an indicator of how policy ambition in education has narrowed and coalesced around an incredibly meagre, economistic vision of the purposes and benefits of education. Where is the vision for a better world that drove the institute’s work for most of the twentieth century? What has happened to the notion that education is about human and not merely economic flourishing?  Why do we find such concerns hard to articulate or somehow uncompelling? The challenge now is, as Roger Fieldhouse observed so nicely in the nineties, to find ways to bring these social, pluralistic, human values into the mainstream of policy, where they absolutely belong. In some ways this seems more difficult than ever. Changing education and reclaiming adult education’s traditional purpose means challenging systems of power and ways of thinking about and doing education that are pervasive. Yet the pandemic crisis gives us permission, and the opportunity, to see and think further, to make good, once again, our common purpose.

I see some hope in the idea of ‘learning to become’, articulated by the UNESCO Futures of Education as an additional pillar to Delors’ famous four – to know, to live together, to do, and to be (or perhaps as a better way of framing each). We need to think of learning as essentially connected to something beyond the individual, something essentially to do with making change in the world, with collective action for the common good, construed as inclusive not only of all people but of the natural world to which they belong – a ‘less anthropocentric humanism’, as Maren Elfert described it in her contribution to a debate about the commission’s latest update this week. As Elfert also argued, this is not about breaking with tradition or rejecting the strand of humanism in thinking about education to which the institute has contributed – it is about reclaiming it from those who have co-opted and repurposed it for non-humanistic, instrumental ends, and realising its potential in reshaping education, including adult education and lifelong learning, in the service of the common good. This, perhaps, is the educational challenge of the next 100 years.

For the history of the institute I have drawn on a series of articles I wrote between January and April 2011 for NIACE’s now-defunct journal, Adults Learning, which I edited from 2002 to 2014. Other material is drawn from A History of Modern British Education, by Roger Fieldhouse and associates, NIACE, 1996.

Worlds apart: Education and Britain’s inequality problem

Are we all in this together?

The COVID-19 pandemic is still with us, and seems likely to be a part of our lives, in some form, for some time to come. It has taken – and continues to take – a huge personal, social and economic toll, while stretching health services to the utmost limit. It has also exposed and exacerbated deep and entrenched inequalities, both in education – between and within sectors – and in wider society, opening up questions of value and authority that go to the heart of the social contract and how we understand it. The crisis represents an appalling human tragedy, one which we have hardly begun to reckon with, but it is also an opportunity, albeit a fleeting one, to think further and differently, to challenge old, tired orthodoxies and to radically rethink the way in which we do things, including education, from the perspective of public rather than private good.

The lessons of the pandemic are profound and far-reaching. Among them is the lesson of our inescapable interconnectedness; our mutual dependence and the fragility of the social fabric. Countries’ success – or otherwise – in managing the crisis has depended, to a very large extent, on the willingness of people to behave cooperatively, to recognise and respect the needs of their neighbours, and to sacrifice a part of their freedom for the good of others and for the common good. We have found, to the evident surprise of some, that every inch of the social fabric matters, and that it is only as strong as the point at which it is stretched most thinly; where it is weakest and most threadbare.

We have seen too, perhaps not so remarkably (though it is an evident surprise to some), that this fabric is strongest not in the boardroom or in the shiny high-rise offices of the City, or in the corridors of Whitehall, but on the shop floor and our public transport network, in the classroom and the high street, the laboratory and the intensive care unit. We have found that we are reliant on the ‘essential’ efforts of a wide array of often low-paid workers to whom we usually give little thought, from the people who staff the criminal justice system, to delivery drivers, postal workers, refuse collectors, mechanics, hairdressers, supermarket workers, plumbers, nurses, teachers and care workers. While the virus has imposed on us a state of emergency in which the social and political dimensions of life have been much reduced, troublingly so for many, it has also obliged us to reflect seriously on our frailty, our humanness and our profound interrelatedness, and posed important questions about who and what we, as a society, value.

This is as true at the level of the nation state as it is the individual. The wealthy countries of the world will not emerge fully from this crisis until the poorest have. We are, in an important and very real sense, all in this together. We cannot afford to be introspective or myopic. It is essential that we see ourselves as part of the world and also act in it, in an intelligent, collective and cross-sectoral way. We should see our failure to do so as an important moral problem and as a dimension of our wider failure to address inequality, both within and between countries.

Yet in another, equally important, sense, we clearly are not all in this together. Despite the evident need for genuinely global solutions, we are already seeing clear inequalities in the distribution of vaccine, with rich countries disproportionately benefiting in comparison to poor countries (in February 2021, more than 130 countries were still to receive a single dose of vaccine). The world’s five wealthiest individuals saw their collective worth increase by $269 billion during 2020, driven in part by people’s increasing dependence on online devices. Meanwhile, millions of people in the poorest regions of the world have been pushed to the point of starvation by a pandemic crisis which has exacerbated the already calamitous impact of conflict, climate change and food poverty. A United Nations study, published in September 2020, found that the pandemic had driven an additional 150 million children into multidimensional poverty – deprived of education, health, housing, nutrition, sanitation or water.

At national level, too, in the UK, the impact of the pandemic has not been felt evenly. COVID-19 has not only replicated existing health inequalities, in some cases it has increased them, with the risk of dying from the virus substantially higher for those living in the most deprived areas than for those living in the least deprived. People of black ethnicity, furthermore, were found to be four times as likely to die from COVID-19 than people of white ethnicity. And while many people, across socio-economic groups, have experienced a reduction in income as a result of lockdown, the pain has been disproportionately felt in poorer communities, with people on lower incomes more likely not only to face reductions in pay but also to suffer severe material and psychological harm as a result. The Resolution Foundation reported in May 2020 that around a third of the lowest-earning fifth of employees had been furloughed or lost their job as a result of the pandemic, compared to less than one in 10 of the top fifth of earners.

While COVID-19 does not discriminate – it doesn’t care who it infects – poverty, precarity, poor housing and poor local infrastructure, among other factors, ensure that it hurts the least advantaged the most. This is certainly the perception of many people living in the UK. The Social Mobility Commission’s Social Mobility Barometer 2021 found that 79 per cent of adults believe there is a large gap between different social classes, while over half the public (56 per cent) think the pandemic has increased social inequality.

This inequality of impact should make us question many of the accepted narratives of British political life. Poverty, poor-quality housing, insecure work, inadequate infrastructure and underfunded public services are the result not of irresistible economic forces but of political choices. We have created a society of winners and losers in which the odds of success are stacked massively in favour of the already advantaged, those who rely little on our broken infrastructure or our overstretched systems of social support. Successive governments (Labour and Conservative led) have weakly championed the problematic notion of ‘social mobility’, while at the same time presiding over widening social and economic inequalities that make the risks of falling a rung or two down the ladder unthinkably risky. Little wonder then that wealthy and well-connected parents are prepared to go to pretty much any length to game the system and secure the prospects of their offspring. It is difficult to blame them. This is simply a natural, human response to the system we have created.

High levels of inequality have a profound distorting impact on education. While our education system affects to treat everyone alike, and politicians on all sides engage readily in the rhetoric of equality of opportunity, if only as an aspiration, the reality could not be more different, and in a way that should not surprise anyone who understands how the system works, and how policy decisions drive it. While state schools have undergone a decade of real-terms funding decline since 2010, with the poorest areas the worst affected, the government has directed funding towards free schools, academies and grammars, increasing selection under the guise of promoting parental choice and social mobility. However, the free school programme has conspicuously failed to reach areas where educational attainment is low, while the majority of academy chains have failed to secure better outcomes for disadvantaged pupils. Most damningly, the government has continued to foster the ruling party’s obsession with grammar schools, despite the effective debunking of the myth that grammar schools promote social mobility (and the equally strong evidence that they promote social segregation). Choice is one thing, and it might be said that a diverse student population demands it, but it must not be premised on the perpetuation of systemic inequality and the cultivation of a dystopian educational culture of winners and losers.

This pattern of inequality has been deepened by the pandemic. In England, the variations in school funding and the disparities in wealth among regions meant that while some schools were able to offer their pupils very effective continuity of learning through online teaching and other activities, less well-resourced schools struggled to offer children meaningful access to teaching or other kinds of support. Less advantaged children from poorer areas were, in general, much worse hit by the school lockdown. Their families will have found themselves under much greater financial pressure, with less time and energy to devote to home schooling (many such parents do multiple, often insecure jobs). They are much less likely to have access to relevant technologies to support online learning. And, for those children who rely on school to provide them with their one decent meal of the day, hunger and poor, cramped, sometimes unsanitary or unsafe, living conditions make effective home learning extremely difficult, if not impossible. This has been the hard reality of life for a large proportion of our children under lockdown.

There is, of course, another class of schoolchildren in the UK, living lives and having educational experiences, including during lockdown, starkly different to poorer children whose daily lives are blighted by poverty and profound disadvantage. It is unlikely that any single force exerts as much influence over British political life as the independent school system. While independent – or private – schools educate only 7 per cent of the school population in the UK, their pupils dominate access to elite higher education, as well as to elite professions. Between 30 and 40 per cent of Oxbridge undergraduates are privately educated, while, according to a 2019 study by the Sutton Trust and the Social Mobility Commission, 65 per cent of senior judges, 59 per cent of senior civil servants, 44 per cent of newspaper columnists and 39 per cent of cabinet politicians went to fee-paying private schools. Almost half (46 per cent) of all hereditary peers in the House of Lords went to a single school, Eton (and none of them, of course, is a woman).

The connections made through the private school system, and the culture of nepotism it fosters, are important, of course, but so too is the quality of education received: 300 per cent more on average is spent on private school pupils’ education than on that of state school pupils, while class sizes in private schools are approximately half those in state schools. And, as if that were not enough, some private schools use their freedom from the kind of high-stakes accountability to which state schools are routinely subject, to game the system, for example through exaggerating exam grade predictions for their lowest-performing students ‘to facilitate application to a more selective university’.

Tolerance of this gross inequality of educational opportunity is one of the distinctive, not to say defining, features of education in Britain, though it is too little remarked on. A study from the University College London’s Institute of Education found that private schooling continued to be a ‘significant pathway through which some families obtain long-term advantages for their children’, one which all parents, irrespective of background, in a sense support through the tax subsidies these institutions still receive. Such schools exist, of course, to ensure social advantage is reproduced; they are a conduit through which wealthy families gain privileged access to elite institutions. And the system works. The more affluent a child’s background, the more likely they are to attend an elite university. The Department for Education found that 5 per cent of school pupils entitled to free school meals went on to study at a Russell Group university, compared to 11 per cent of school pupils who were not eligible. It is remarkable how little challenged the institution of private schooling remains (there is little mainstream debate about the place and influence of independent schools on our education system, despite the obvious unfairness), but perhaps it is not so surprising given the hold the privately educated have over most of our key political, legal and cultural institutions.

The past decade has also seen a significant entrenchment of inequality in tertiary education, both within further education and higher education, and between them. In higher education, the reforms introduced by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government in England in 2012 allowed universities to increase full-time course fees to £9,000 and to substantially increase part-time fees (the cap on part-time fees went up to £6,750 a year), while introducing, for the first time, tuition fee loans for part-time students (mostly mature students with jobs and families who turned out to be predictably debt averse). Combined with the previous Labour government’s introduction of the ELQ (equivalent or lower qualification) rule – which denied funding to students studying at a level lower or equivalent to that to which they were already qualified – these reforms resulted in a massive loss of part-time and mature students, and a subsequent drop in the proportion of students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Between 2010 and 2018 there was a 61 per cent fall in part-time learner numbers, representing a decline in the proportion of part-time students in the system from 40 per cent to 20 per cent.

Not only were most of these part-timers older students (the figure is even higher for students aged over 25) combining work, family and study, but a large proportion of them were drawn from disadvantaged backgrounds. A paper from the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) estimated that the loss in part-time numbers equated to 17 per cent fewer students from disadvantaged backgrounds accessing higher education. John Butcher, author of the HEPI paper, observed that ministers’ statements about record student numbers ignored or downplayed the drop in part-time learner numbers. ‘When they are included, a big drop in the number of students from disadvantaged backgrounds is revealed,’ he said, noting that ‘For adult learners from disadvantaged backgrounds, the higher education sector has appeared increasingly exclusive and less flexible. In contrast to regular headlines, participation overall has narrowed.’ Working-class kids who do make it to an elite university often encounter an elitist culture that shames and alienates them, feeding the widening gap in drop-out rates between richer and poorer students.

While private school pupils swell the ranks of elite universities to a disproportionate degree, and understandably feel more at home there, state school pupils are more likely to apply to less prestigious higher education institutions, where their degrees are likely to have a stronger vocational dimension, or further education, which offers a range of technical and vocational courses for young people and adults, alongside basic skills, GCSEs and A-levels, apprenticeships and higher education. While it is often derided as being for ‘other people’s children’, further education offers working-class young people a way into a career and provides a second chance for adults who have been let down by the school system. It populates the workforce with mechanics, construction workers, engineers, health and social care workers, and many other professions the contribution of which has been found to be essential during lockdown. However, here, too, funding cuts have reduced student numbers and resulted in a diminished curriculum and a less diverse student body. Between 2010–11 and 2017–18, funding per student aged 16–18 in further education fell by 8 per cent in real terms. The £300 million funding increase for 2020–21 announced in the 2019 spending review will still leave funding 7 per cent down on 2010. Funding per student in school sixth forms has fallen even more steeply, by 23 per cent since its peak in 2010–11.

The most swingeing cuts, however, have been imposed on adult students. The Institute for Fiscal Studies reported in 2018 that funding for adult education and apprenticeships had fallen by 45 per cent in real terms between 2009–10 and 2017–18, while the total number of adult learners fell from 4 million in 2005 to about 2.2 million by 2016. The Learning and Work Institute reported in 2020 that the number of adults taking part in learning had dropped by about 10 percentage points since 2010, equivalent to 3.8 million fewer adults, with adults from lower-income households half as likely to take part in learning than those in higher-income groups. The Local Government Association (LGA) estimates that the government would need at least to double the adult education budget (from £1.5 billion to £3 billion) to reverse the drop in learner numbers since 2010.

The dramatic downturn in adult learner numbers is particularly concerning as this is the route through which those who have been failed by the initial education system gain a second chance to engage with education, to acquire new knowledge and skills or, in many cases, to regain confidence and a sense of purpose and self-worth (often essential first steps in returning to formal education or the workforce). The depth of the cuts administered by the coalition and its Conservative successor government led the usually circumspect Association of Colleges, in 2015, to warn that state-supported adult education and training could very well disappear altogether by 2020. It continues to function but in spite rather than because of government action.

Behind the frankly shocking numbers – a 35 per cent reduction in spending between 2010 and 2015 alone – are stories of thwarted or frustrated ambition, diminished life chances and untapped potential, of deepening inequality and neglected communities. But there is another kind of loss, another kind of inequality, which is also being deepened here. For much of the twentieth century, the adult education movement supported adults to engage with civic and political life, to become active in their communities and to realise their human and democratic potential through learning. The cuts have not only affected student numbers but the range of topics adults are able to study, as Labour’s growing – well-intentioned but misguided – focus on learning for skills and employability from around 2003 on was taken up avidly by successive governments.

Increasingly, the wider political, social and intellectual benefits of a liberal education are available only to the already privileged, while the rest of us must make do with ‘training for employment, in one form of another, and the prospect of spending the rest of our lives paying for it’. One of the reasons that this matters is because, as socio-economic inequality grows, so too does the political influence of the rich and powerful. Adult education has tended to curb this influence – many of the first generation of working-class Labour MPs entered politics directly from this tradition – and to give working people the opportunity to debate political issues and to effect positive, progressive democratic change in their communities and in society at large. In an era of renewed political populism, polarisation and disinformation, flags  and fake news, the loss of this type of provision, and the more general loss of spaces in which people can come together and discuss the issues their communities care about in a safe, tolerant and collaborative way, has been keenly felt.

Despite these evident inequalities, of wealth, opportunity, influence, education or health, the myth of meritocracy endures in Britain, and remains a favoured aspiration of politicians. The term ‘meritocracy’ was popularised by social entrepreneur and Labour thinker Michael Young in a 1958 satire, which warned that sieving and judging human beings in terms of a particular, narrowly drawn kind of merit would lead to the creation of a new social class ‘with the means at hand, and largely under its control, by which to reproduce itself’. Young saw too that ‘the poor and disadvantaged would be done down’, ‘demoralised by being looked down on so woundingly by people who have done well for themselves’. This is the danger of educational selection. It creates not just winners but losers too, and in a society in which educational merit (narrowly construed) is so valued, being judged to have little or none, and to be little capable of acquiring any, can be devastating – is devastating. People feel left behind, and they often live in communities of people who feel much the same, about themselves and about the place in which they live.

The truth about educational selection is quite different to the ideological fantasy. As Young predicted, those who have wealth and privilege find ways to reproduce it, whether through expensive schools, private tutors, exaggerated predicted scores or familial influence of one kind or another. Clutching their awards to their chests, the beneficiaries strut the national stage, puffed up with self-importance, ‘insufferably smug’, as Young puts it, ‘much more so than the people who knew they had achieved advancement not on their own merit but because they were, as somebody’s son or daughter, the beneficiaries of nepotism’. With morality, thus, ‘on their side’, members of the elite suffer ‘almost no block on the rewards they arrogate to themselves,’ Young goes on. ‘The old restraints of the business world have been lifted and … all manner of new ways for people to feather their own nests have been invented and exploited’. Salaries and other rewards shoot up and inequality becomes both ‘more grievous’ and more acceptable. It is easy to imagine, in such circumstances, how government ministers might conclude that privilege and connections trump real-world expertise and experience, for example in the supply of personal protective equipment to frontline NHS workers.

Educational selection widens the gap between rich and poor, it breeds arrogance among its winners and despair among its losers, yet it is stubbornly resistant to change. Whenever calls are made for fairer admissions to Oxford or Cambridge, cries of ‘social engineering!’ and ‘discrimination!’ can be heard from among the massed ranks of privately educated newspaper columnists. But if everyone who makes it to Oxbridge through the private school system really is there on merit ahead of their state-educated peers, what purpose, we must wonder, does private education actually fulfil? If everyone ends up where they end up purely by dint of their own natural talents and persevence, why do wealthy parents spend a fortune on private tutors or fund their kids to participate in internship schemes in top firms? And why, on entering university, do state-educated students tend to out-perform privately educated students with the same A-level grade?

The answer to these questions, of course, is that independent schools are engines of inequality the primary purpose of which is to reproduce patterns of privilege. As with all forms of meritocratic selection, they confirm not only the superiority of the better-off but also the inferiority of the disadvantaged. The elite among these institutions are at the top of a kind of sliding scale of esteem and dissatisfaction, regulated by the kind of value society attaches to your achievements – a system in which almost everyone, to one degree or another, is (or feels themselves to be) a loser, and some, those left far behind by the march of the meritocrats, experience utter hopelessness.

The educational divide is not only personal, it is regional too. While, on average, across England, 7.5 per cent of adults have no academic qualifications, the figure is as low as 1.5 per cent in places such as Fareham, in Hampshire, and Harrogate, in Yorkshire, and as high as 20 per cent in places such as Sandwell, in the West Midlands, and Pendle, in Lancashire. Other areas in the post-industrial north and midlands score poorly, among them Wolverhampton, where 17.3 per cent of the adult population up to 64 have no qualifications, Leicester (16.9 per cent), Dudley (16.4 per cent) and Burnley (15.1 per cent).

The purpose of this paper is to ask whether, after decades during which governments have made inequality worse, we can do better. After decades of tinkering with the imagined levers of social mobility, can we stop pretending inequality doesn’t really matter, or is a kind of natural phenomenon which can neither be questioned nor reversed, and try to address the issue that is really at the heart of the problems with our education system: Britain’s inequality problem? It does this through an analysis and comparison of two important policy agendas to which the UK, in different ways, is committed, and a reflection on what they mean, in particular, for the one part of the education system that has been worst hit by austerity politics: further education. Further education is important because it is the part of the system most sensitive to the changing political and economic weather, the ‘adaptive layer’. It is also the part of system that ‘honours the ordinary’: ‘ordinary’ people and their ‘ordinary’ jobs, lives and aspirations, even if, during the current crisis, they have been found to be not quite so ordinary after all.

The paper focuses first on the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development: the ambitious framework of universal goals, targets and indicators to reduce poverty and inequality, promote healthy lives and wellbeing, and ensure inclusive and quality education for all, among other themes, to which the United Kingdom signed up in 2015. The agenda, which comprises 17 distinct goals, including one on education, undertakes to ‘leave no one behind’ in pursuit of a peaceful, prosperous and sustainable future. This is an international agreement but it is one which, importantly, is intended to apply universally, as much in developed as in developing countries, at home as well as abroad.

The second focus of the paper is more homegrown: the UK government’s plan for national and regional renewal, the so called ‘levelling up’ agenda, on which Prime Minster Boris Johnson’s Conservative government stood for election in 2019 and which remains the administration’s leading idea. Its broad aim is to drive change in parts of the country ‘left behind’ by previous governments, and by much of the socio-economic progress of past decades. And although much obscurity still surrounds the agenda – until recently it remained not much more than an election slogan – and the programme of action intended by the government, arguably its first solid policy intervention was the recent further education white paper, Skills for jobs: Lifelong learning for opportunity and growth, which promised a ‘revolution’ in FE and skills. The white paper’s focus on reforming further education ‘so it supports people to get the skills our economy needs throughout their lives, wherever they live in the country’ puts it at the heart of efforts to level up and makes it an interesting case study for this short paper.

The paper will consider both these agendas in turn, making comparisons and assessing the UK government’s intent, achievement and level of ambition in relation to both, with particular reference to further education. It concludes with some forward-looking reflections on what more we might do to close the inequality gap and create a genuinely inclusive education system which values everyone and leaves no one behind.

‘Leave no one behind’

In September 2015, the UK government, with 192 other United Nations member states, agreed to adopt a new set of goals to eradicate extreme poverty, fight inequality and injustice, and leave no one behind. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the successor to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), and its 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were the result of an extensive consultation involving governments, public and private sectors and non-governmental organisations. The SDGs and their 169 associated targets committed signatory countries to making specific progress on issues such as climate change, gender equality, education and sustainable economic growth, production and consumption by 2030. The SDGs are intended to be universal with ‘all signatories expected to contribute to them internationally and deliver them domestically’. Ban Ki-moon, then UN Secretary General, said at the launch: ‘This is the people’s agenda, a plan of action for ending poverty in all its dimensions, irreversibly, everywhere, and leaving no one behind.’

The UK was one of the leading national players in the formulation of the goals, seeking to build on what Prime Minister David Cameron termed the ‘extraordinary progress’ of the MDGs (Mr Cameron had been co-chair of the United Nations’ Secretary General’s High-Level Panel on the Post-2015 Development Agenda, set up to advise on the creation of a successor to the MDGs). Although Mr Cameron indicated that he would have favoured fewer goals, 12 at the most and 10, preferably, he warmly welcomed the outcome of the negotiations, observing in his launch speech:

This is a clarion-call to the whole world. To eliminate, for the first time in human history, the scourge of extreme poverty … I am delighted that ending extreme poverty forever is at the heart of these new goals. It is something that I pushed hard for. And I’m delighted that we’ve recognised that to end extreme poverty, we need to put the poorest, weakest and most marginalised first – to leave no-one behind …  We need a new global partnership, to ensure that all our policies – on things like tax, trade and transparency – really help to deliver progress for the poorest. The UK will lead the way on this internationally … So, I say to leaders in government, business and communities around the world: If you’re committed to making progress towards these goals, the UK is on your side and we will work with you on our shared quest.

However, while Mr Cameron stressed the importance of climate justice, gender equality and fair and transparent government in tackling poverty, it was clear that he understood this ‘shared quest’ not so much as a challenge to all governments, at home and abroad, to up their game on poverty reduction, improving education and tackling inequalities, but as a responsibility developed countries had to support the progress of countries in the developing world.

The 17 SDGs include goals to eradicate poverty (SDG 1), end hunger and achieve food security (SDG 2), ensure healthy lives and promote wellbeing for all ages (SDG 3), ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all (SDG 4), achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls (SDG 5), promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment, and decent work for all (SDG 8), reduce inequality within and among countries (SDG 10), and combat climate change and its impacts (SDG 13).

The fourth goal, SDG 4, on education and lifelong learning has a number of targets relevant to further education, including:

  • ‘equal access for all women and men to affordable and quality technical, vocational and tertiary education’ (4.3);
  • increasing ‘the number of youth and adults who have relevant skills, including technical and vocational skills, for employment, decent jobs and entrepreneurship’ (4.4);
  • eliminating ‘gender disparities in education’ and ensuring ‘equal access to all levels of education and vocational training for the vulnerable, including persons with disabilities, indigenous peoples and children in vulnerable situations’ (4.5);
  • ensuring that ‘all youth and a substantial proportion of adults, both men and women, achieve literacy and numeracy’ (4.6); and
  • ensuring ‘all learners acquire the knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development, including, among others, through education for sustainable development and sustainable lifestyles, human rights, gender equality, promotion of a culture of peace and nonviolence, global citizenship and appreciation of cultural diversity and of culture’s contribution to sustainable development’ (4.7).

In addition to SDG 4 on education, there are a number of other goals to which education can make an important contribution, including on poverty reduction, gender equality, health and wellbeing, decent work and economic growth, industry, innovation and infrastructure, climate change, and sustainable cities and communities.

This is important since the 17 goals are designed to be essentially interconnected, in such a way that progress against one is possible only if progress is made against the others. Their value lies, essentially, in their interconnectedness, and their call to collaboration. They represent, in other words, a challenge to nation states and national-level politicians and policymakers to think holistically, and for the education policy community (the 2030 Agenda acknowledges education’s special reach into other policy areas), in particular, to work across sectors and departments and to develop integrated, cross-sectoral approaches to policy and governance, that contribute not only to SDG 4 but to the other 16 goals too. It is not just the goals that matter, in other words, but the relationships and interdependencies between them.

As Mr Cameron’s speech suggested, the UK’s interpretation of the goals has been largely focused on support for less developed countries, with responsibility for implementation falling on the shoulders of the Secretary of State for International Development. The Department for International Development (DFID) provides overall leadership and oversight within government of the 2030 Agenda and the SDGs. DFID’s 2015 policy note, Leaving no one behind: Our promise, confirmed the focus on international work rather than the UK’s own ‘left behind’ communities. However, the Cabinet Office has since been charged with supporting domestic implementation, and each department of government has been given responsibility, in theory at least, for its respective policy area and for delivery against the goals.

Nevertheless, despite these welcome efforts, the International Development Committee in 2016 described the UK government’s early response to domestic implementation of the SDGs as ‘insufficient for a country which led on their development as being universal and applicable to all’, and highlighted ‘a worrying lack of engagement in, or ownership of, the SDGs by departments across Government’. It expressed scepticism as to whether domestic implementation should lie with the Secretary of State for International Development, and noted that the SDGs had not been included in the 2015–2020 Single Departmental Plans of government departments. The committee observed that without a commitment to a ‘strategic and comprehensive approach to implementation of the Goals’ it was likely that ‘areas of deep incoherence across government policy could develop and progress made by certain departments could be easily undermined by the policies and actions of others.’ Highlighting the lack of any cross-government plan for implementation, it called for the SDGs to be ‘aligned to existing national priorities and developed through a country-led process with opportunities for democratic engagement by citizens and civil society’.

The government in its response argued that it was already taking a coordinated approach across Whitehall, noting the existence of ‘robust mechanisms to facilitate inter-departmental Ministerial discussions on the implementation of the Goals’, including the Cabinet itself. It also resisted calls for a national plan of action, arguing that the manifesto on which the government had stood for election in 2015 would guide its efforts to implement the SDGs, and pointing out the direct relevance of some of its manifesto commitments. However, while the manifesto announced the government’s intention to raise the income tax threshold and build new starter homes, it also included plans to freeze per-pupil spending on schools and to turn more failing and ‘coasting’ state secondary schools into academies and create more free schools. There can be little doubt too that cross-government collaboration was inhibited by the pressure on government departments from the Treasury to reduce spending.

The government produced a report on its approach to implementing the SDGs in 2017. Entitled Agenda 2030: The UK Government’s approach to delivering the Global Goals for Sustainable Development – at home and around the world, the report gave emphasis to what it termed the ‘primary purpose of the Goals … to eradicate global poverty’. However, it gave roughly equal weighting within the report to domestic and international implementation, and included a commitment to embedding the goals in Single Departmental Plans. The section on the implementation of SDG 4 highlighted the UK’s support to the education of children from the poorest countries, but also noted government interventions at home to increase access to early childhood education, create more free schools and academies, and to support 3 million apprenticeships by 2020. However, there was nothing to suggest that the government had a cross-departmental strategy for the implementation of the goals, or had recognised the importance of an integrated approach to policy or the interdependent nature of the goals. Nor was there acknowledgement that the increases in school and apprenticeship funding would be paid for with real-terms cuts in regular local authority school and further education funding, while the government was in the process of dismantling the successful early-years programme Sure Start.

A 2018 report from independent network the UK Stakeholders for Sustainable Development (UKSSD), focusing in the main on domestic implementation of the agenda, found that the UK government was performing well on 24 per cent of the targets, had performance gaps on 57 per cent, and showed little to no policy change or otherwise poor performance on 15 per cent. The authors noted that while there was much to celebrate in the UK’s effort, ‘the most vulnerable people and places in our society are increasingly being left behind’, with wide disparities evident between and within communities, compounded by ‘emerging challenges to do with work, health, trade and productivity’. It made clear that the SDGs could not be achieved by government working alone or in silos, and urged government to do more to recognise the links between the goals and targets, and to work more collaboratively, both within Whitehall and more widely with business and civil society. While noting, under SDG 4, that most school-age children in the UK receive an ‘appropriate quality education’, the report noted that ‘progress on technical and vocational training has been limited by successive governments across the UK giving this insufficient political priority and by the absence of significant employer investment’. It highlighted too the low status of further education in comparison to other parts of the UK’s education system, and the failure of the UK to address low levels of numeracy and literacy among young adults and low participation in learning among older adults.

The report also expressed concern about the UK’s performance in eliminating poverty and hunger and reducing inequality. It observed that progress in poverty reduction in the UK had stalled in recent years and that poverty was expected to increase sharply in the next few years (a situation surely not helped by the government’s refusal to acknowledge that poverty – and especially child poverty – really exists in the UK). There had been a rise in in-work poverty, in particular, it noted, with work no longer a ‘sure-fast route out of poverty’. There was ‘less explicit primary concern’ to reduce poverty, and the ‘direction of travel’ of the government militated against achievement of SDG 1 by 2030. It also reported that the UK was struggling to address malnutrition in all forms, with the UK among the worst countries in Europe for food insecurity and obesity on the increase, particularly in the poorest parts of the country (SDG 2). There was a widening gap in life expectancy at birth between the most and least deprived, while people living in more deprived urban areas were more likely to be exposed to poor air quality, high-levels of crime and greater risk of road traffic accidents (SDG 3), the report said. There had been a sharp rise in insecure work (SDG 8), and income inequality was projected to rise, with tax and social security measures since 2012 having had a severe effect on people on lower incomes and disadvantaged groups (SDG 10).

In June 2019 the UK submitted its report on progress against the SDGs to the United Nations High Level Political Forum for Sustainable Development. The main messages of the UK’s Voluntary National Review focused on international development but it noted too that the 2030 Agenda had stretched the UK’s ‘thinking about the quality of our cities, the strength of our communities, the air that we breathe, our nature and landscape and the way we preserve our heritage for future generations’. The report itself highlighted the UK’s high-quality health service, ‘high and rising’ standards in education and increasing employment among the country’s strengths, noting too the need to intensify efforts to tackle injustice, address climate change, improve housing and respond to changing mental and physical health needs in the population. It highlighted the importance of good-quality disaggregated data in understanding who is in danger of being left behind, and underscored its commitment to ensuring ‘everyone is included in economies, societies, institutions and service provisions’.

The section on SDG 4 acknowledged that ‘much more needs to be done to close the attainment gap between disadvantaged young people and adults and their more affluent peers’ and that the quality and perception of technical and vocational education needed to improve to ensure the country had a skilled workforce. It highlighted the increase in participation in full-time higher education (SDG 4.3) among 18-year-olds from the most disadvantaged areas (from 13.5 per cent in 2010 and 18 per cent in 2015), but failed to factor in the loss of part-time learners which has meant that, overall, HE in England is less diverse in terms both of student age and socio-economic background.

The report also acknowledged the importance of lifelong learning in ‘future-proofing’ the economy, noting the roll-out of 24+ Advanced Learner Loans and the importance of the Adult Education Budget in England (4.4, 4.6). However, a 2018 evaluation of the new loans found that their introduction was associated with ‘a marked drop in the volumes of both learners and learning aims being studied on eligible courses.’ Similarly, the Adult Education Budget, as noted above, had been subject to eye-watering cuts since 2010 (by 35 per cent in five years), resulting in the loss of millions of adult learners. While the report analysed participation in England in terms of gender and disability, it did not address the substantial drop in overall adult learner numbers. And while the report foregrounded some positive and well-intentioned interventions, such as the Blueprint for Fairness in widening access to higher education in Scotland and the Education in Wales programme of school reform, there was little attempt to look beyond the aims of policy and assess the effectiveness of these interventions or to deal with the structural issues underlying inequality, poverty and disadvantage in the UK. This is important. As noted above, UK governments frequently have given a social mobility rationale for policies which have deepened existing inequalities and reduced social mobility.

In July 2019, the International Development Committee published its assessment of the UK’s Voluntary National Review process and outcomes. It reported that the eight-month timetable for the review had been ‘unnecessarily tight’ and that consultation with stakeholders had been ‘inadequate and disappointing’, with undue focus on the collection of case studies. Individual departments’ engagement with stakeholders was ‘ad hoc’, the report said, and much of it took place late in the process, with little evidence that it had been coordinated from the centre or that it had had any influence on the final review. The review process has also highlighted how little awareness there was of the SDGs within government, with ‘some departments having virtually no knowledge of the agenda at all’. It criticised again, in even stronger terms than before, the location of responsibility for the SDGs within DFID, an internationally focused department with ‘few, if any, domestic levers’. This gave out the message that ‘the SDG initiative is one for developing countries (when the whole point of the agenda is the shared and global nature of the goals)’.

The published review, it concluded, ‘lacked coherence, depth and breadth of analysis’, preferring instead to focus ‘on “cherry picked” data and case studies at the expense of facing up to the challenges that remain to be tackled in the UK and around the world’. It urged the government to show more ambition and use more contextualised data and analysis to show the trends and comparisons with other countries to illuminate the UK’s performance against the SDGs.

The committee highlighted the UK’s failure to meet domestic targets on poverty or to engage, in the review, with SDG 1.2: ‘By 2030, reduce at least by half the proportion of men, women and children of all ages living in poverty in all its dimensions according to national definitions’. While the review states that ‘the UK is committed to tackling all forms of poverty, including childhood disadvantage and in-work poverty’, it does not indicate how the UK performs against the above target, or consider any other ambition on UK poverty reduction. Similarly, the committee noted, while the review indicates that the government is increasing monitoring of food insecurity in England, ‘No systematic exploration of why food insecurity might exist in England, who is most affected, or how it might be remedied, is undertaken’. ‘Selective referencing’ is also in evidence under SDG 4, where the review chooses not to consider SDG target 4.1 on quality education for all or the UK’s progress on the key global indicator on pupils attaining minimum expected levels of reading and maths, and SDG 8, where ‘there is no mention of target 8.8 covering precarious employment, health and safety at work, and compliance with ILO regulations, nor of zero-hours contracts under target 8.3, even though this data is available’. The committee expressed surprise that ‘the UK’s withdrawal from the EU did not merit discussion under Goal 17 on strengthening the means of implementation and revitalising the global partnership for sustainable development’.

The government’s review also failed to engage with the United Nations Special Rapporteur’s report on extreme poverty and human rights in the UK, published in late 2018. The rapporteur, Professor Philip Alston, described a country in which ‘areas of immense wealth’ exist alongside areas of acute deprivation, characterized by under-funded and overstretched public services, homelessness and rough sleeping, and food banks, where millions of children are ‘locked into a cycle of poverty from which most will have great difficulty escaping’. One fifth of the British population – 14 million people – live in poverty in the UK, Professor Alston’s report noted, with 1.5 million of them destitute, unable to afford basic essentials. Relative child poverty rates were expected to increase by 7 per cent between 2015 and 2021, he wrote, with overall child poverty rates projected to reach close to 40 per cent: ‘For almost one in every two children to be poor in twenty-first century Britain is not just a disgrace, but a social calamity and an economic disaster rolled into one’.

Most damningly, the report observed that all of this resulted from political choice, from ‘mean-spirited, often callous policies’ about which the British government remained ‘determinedly in a state of denial’. Government reforms, he wrote, have denied benefits to people with severe disabilities, made single mothers ‘far worse off’, worsened care for people with mental illnesses, and ‘slashed’ teachers’ real-terms salaries.

While, in the past, ‘the worst casualties of these “reforms” would have received at least minimal protection from the broader social safety net’, austerity policies had ‘deliberately gutted local authorities and thereby effectively eliminated many social services, reduced policing services to skeletal proportions, closed libraries in record numbers, shrunk community and youth centres, and sold off public spaces and buildings including parks and recreation centres’. The bottom line, Professor Alston wrote, ‘is that much of the glue that has held British society together since the Second World War has been deliberately removed and replaced with a harsh and uncaring ethos’.

The special rapporteur identified within the UK government an unwillingness to listen to people experiencing poverty or to acknowledge their grievances. He encountered an ‘ingrained resistance to change’, and a gap between the explicit goals of government policy and their outcomes, which often left local authorities in England and Wales and devolved authorities in Scotland and Northern Ireland ‘frantically trying to “mitigate” or counteract the worst features of the Government’s policies’. The driving force, he suggested, was not economic but rather ‘a commitment to achieving radical social re-engineering – a dramatic restructuring of the relationship between the people and the State. Successive Governments have brought 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.’

The government’s response confirmed Professor Alston’s impression of an administration convinced that ‘all is well and running according to plan’. In his conversations with ministers, he encountered a combination of denial and indifference, a refusal to accept that in-work poverty exists and an unwillingness to engage with the issues in a serious way. Prime Minister Theresa May had already indicated that she did not accept his preliminary report, so he will not have been surprised to find that Mrs May ‘strongly disagreed’ with the findings, as did then Work and Pensions Secretary, Amber Rudd, who found the report to be ‘political’ and couched in ‘inappropriate’ language. These reactions were predictable, given the myths the government has spun 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. The big lie that overspending on public services caused the financial crisis – or, in the more refined version, exacerbated it – remains powerful and has been used not only to justify the Tories’ prolonged assault on the public sector, but also to convince the electorate that increases in public spending are unaffordable or affordable only at the cost of something else of value.

The picture we get from the UK government’s own review of its progress against the SDGs and its response to the report of the special rapporteur is of a government largely blind to the consequences of its policies. It is certainly also a government fully prepared to tolerate high levels of inequality and poverty, and to allow disadvantaged groups to bear the brunt of austerity policies, when, as Philip Alston noted, it could easily have acted to spare the worst-off further unnecessary pain: ‘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.’ Such measures are often counter-productive, with cuts to the benefits system creating costs elsewhere, for example in health budgets and the criminal justice system. It makes little sense for a government that has cut adult education funding to then direct money to programmes to reduce loneliness (one of the success stories highlighted in the government’s Voluntary National Review). This is indicative of the lack of join-up and cross-government thinking in policymaking identified by the International Development Committee.

The costs of austerity have fallen disproportionately on the poor, ethnic minorities, women, children, single parents, people with disabilities, and other disadvantaged groups – many of the groups hit hardest by the COVID-19 pandemic and who will likely be hit hardest also by Brexit. People’s growing reliance on food banks and the rise in rough sleeping reflects a harsh reality in which work is often insecure and offers no guarantee of an escape from poverty, poor housing or crippling debt. Many of those in poverty have multiple low-paid, low-quality jobs, working long hours to keep food on the table and the lights and heating switched on.

For such people, for whom both time and money are in short supply, education offers little in the way of hope. Local authority adult learning, which has typically provided a first step out of poverty for excluded adults, has been in steep decline following a decade of funding cuts. There was a 32 per cent decline in participation in community learning between 2008–9 and 2018–19. Public spaces in which people can get together and try to change their communities for the better have also been disappearing fast. Loneliness, disaffection and the absence of reasonable hope that things will get better are all driving Britain’s mental health crisis. It is disappointing that the government did not take the comments of the special rapporteur as a wake-up call or a prompt to urgent reflection but instead merely confirmed his assessment of them as ‘disconnected’, unwilling or insufficiently interested to tackle the awful blight of poverty and inequality, or affecting, in defiance of what everybody in the country surely knows, to believe such problems do not exist in the UK.

The failure of the government to adequately fund further and adult education is indicative of its failure to ensure no one is left behind. SDG 4 gives priority to ‘inclusive and equitable’ quality education and emphasises the promotion of ‘lifelong learning opportunities for all, in all settings and at all levels of education’. This is an important commitment in its own right. But education, and adult education in particular, are especially significant in virtue of their wide intersectoral reach. Education, in other words, has a wide range of societal benefits that transcend the simple private benefits of an apprenticeship or a degree. These include improved physical and mental health and wellbeing, increased job satisfaction and productivity, higher levels of interpersonal and social trust, social connections and community engagement, and a reduction in crime and anti-social behaviour. The Framework for Action for the achievement of SDG 4 notes that education is ‘a main driver of development and in achieving the other proposed SDGs’, such as those on poverty, gender equality, health and wellbeing, inequality and the environment. The cuts to further education, and especially adult further education, between 2010 and 2020, and the attendant loss in learner numbers, represent a closing up not just of opportunities for personal and professional development, but of avenues of social and economic renewal across a range of fronts. As we look to a future likely to be characterised by uncertainty and upheaval, in politics, in the workplace and in the environment, demanding the kind of flexibility, resilience and creativity fostered by learning, the loss of the UK’s adult education infrastructure, not so long ago the envy of adult educators around the world, and the narrowing of further education provision, could prove very costly indeed. 

‘Levelling up’

Despite the abysmal record of successive governments on reducing inequalities over the past two decades, it has become a tradition among incoming Prime Ministers to foreground their commitment to social justice and the promotion of social mobility. David Cameron pledged to build a ‘big society’, disclosing his ‘great passion’ for empowering communities and advancing people power. Theresa May used her first speech as Prime Minister to promise to prioritise ‘not the mighty nor the wealthy nor the privileged’ but working-class people who are ‘just managing’ but want to ‘get on in life’, correcting in the process the ‘burning injustices’ of educational disadvantage, economic exclusion and systemic racism. And so, in a similar vein, current PM Boris Johnson undertook to ‘change the country for the better’ by delivering Brexit, ‘answering at last the plea of the forgotten people and the left-behind towns’, renewing ‘the ties that bind us together’ as a nation, and ‘closing the opportunity gap’ by ‘levelling up’ in education, wages, housing and other areas of disadvantage.

The ‘levelling up’ agenda emerged as a winning (in both senses of the word) slogan, designed to appeal to communities up and down the country that felt let down and left behind, disenfranchised and ignored by successive governments – communities that, as Mr Johnson put it, ‘lent’ the Conservatives their votes, partly as a means to ‘get Brexit done’, but also in the hope that they might, finally, ‘take back control’ of their communities from those forces, real and imagined, that held them back. While these communities once looked to Labour for support and were considered bricks in the party’s ‘red wall’, they now seemed prepared to try something different, stung, no doubt, by what they experienced, with some justification, as the Labour Party’s metropolitan indifference and disdain.

To pledge to reverse entrenched regional inequalities could be characterised as a calculated attempt to capitalise on the split in traditional political allegiances caused by Brexit. But, if so, it is a risky one, likely quickly to be found out. The test of this agenda, and of the seriousness of intent of Mr Johnson and his Cabinet, lies, of course, in its implementation. What is clear is that the dissatisfaction of ‘left-behind’ communities deserves to be taken seriously and that no politician warrants the support of these communities unless they are prepared to listen to their concerns and try to understand them.

The challenge of ‘driving lasting change in parts of the country forgotten by successive governments’, as Mr Johnson put it, is, of course, enormous, particularly given how deeply ingrained inequality between regions is in the UK. The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS), in a 2020 report, described it as ‘daunting task’, noting that the UK is one of the most geographically unequal countries in the developed world; ranking near the top of the league table on most measures of regional economic inequality, with ‘substantial differences in earnings, wealth, health, educational attainment and social mobility across the country’. British regional inequalities are ‘deep-rooted and complex’, the IFS reported, and ‘even well-designed policies could take years or even decades to have meaningful effects. “Levelling up” will need to be a long-term, multifaceted agenda if it is to succeed where other governments have failed in the past’. No single intervention is likely to make a lasting difference in these parts of the country. Complex needs require complex, integrated solutions, encompassing a range of policy agendas, supported in an intelligent cross-sectoral way, and funded adequately. But, as the IFS report notes, while ‘levelling up’ is a stated priority of this government (it was mentioned 11 times in its manifesto), and an important one, ‘precisely which areas are to be “levelled up”, and how, remains to be seen’.

The lack of meat on the bones is partly a result of the unprecedented circumstances in which the government has found itself over the past 12 months. The challenge of levelling-up was deepened dramatically by the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and, indeed, by the slowdown – in some case, shutdown – in trade precipitated by Brexit, both of which have hit the post-industrial towns, coastal resorts and rural areas where, according to the IFS, left-behind places and people are concentrated, particularly hard. The impact of lockdown on the poorest has been devastating. While high earners have been able to save the money they did not spend on holidays, transport and leisure, people on low incomes have been forced to spend what savings they had, and even go into debt, to pay the bills and keep food on the table.

At the same time, the attention of the government, across a range of fronts, has been focused disproportionately on fighting the pandemic and dealing with its consequences, though the unequal impact of the virus has made the agenda seem still more urgent (and, of course, Mr Johnson will want to fight the next election able to demonstrate that this policy agenda has been effective, particularly in places where seats may readily change hands). One area that the government has highlighted as a priority is adult and further education, with the Prime Minister promising ‘radical’ changes and reforms to the funding system to bring an end to the ‘bogus distinction’ between academic and vocational learning. It was no surprise then that the first fully developed policy intervention of the agenda (though it made surprisingly little direct reference to it) was the further education white paper, published in January 2021, Skills for Jobs: Lifelong Learning for Opportunity and Growth.

The much-delayed, much-trailed and highly anticipated paper undertook to set out how the government plans to ‘reform further education so it supports people to get the skills our economy needs throughout their lives, wherever they live in the country’. Secretary of State for Education Gavin Williamson in his foreword to the paper promised a ‘blueprint for the future’ – a future in which the ‘pivotal role’ of further and technical education would be reinforced and stronger links between employers and FE would ensure an ‘agile and adaptable workforce’ and a ‘world’s best’ economy. To this end, the white paper proposed a wide range of reforms intended to ‘increase productivity, support growth industries, and give individuals opportunities to progress in their careers’, organised around the following five key areas of action:

  • Putting employers at the heart of the system so that education and training leads to jobs that can improve productivity and fill skills gaps.
  • Investing in higher-level technical qualifications that provide a valuable alternative to a university degree.
  • Making sure people can access training and learning flexibly throughout their lives and are well-informed about what is on offer through great careers support (the ’flexible lifetime skills guarantee’).
  • Reforming funding and accountability for providers to simplify how funds are allocated, give providers more autonomy, and ensure an effective accountability regime which delivers value for money.
  • Supporting excellent teaching in further education.

The ambition to put employers at the heart of post-16 skills would be achieved by giving them a central role working with further education colleges and other providers and other local stakeholders in developing new ‘local skills improvement plans’, the main mechanism through which skills provision would be matched to local labour market needs. The plans will be trialled in some areas, led by accredited chambers of commerce and other business representatives, in collaboration with providers. They will be based on a ‘credibly articulated and evidence-based assessment of skills needs to which providers will be empowered to respond’.

The paper indicated that strategic development funding would be made available to colleges in a number of pilot areas to support this. Employers will also have a central role in designing and developing ‘almost all’ technical qualifications and training so as to better align technical education with skills needs. The government, meanwhile, would continue to ‘improve and grow’ apprenticeships, improve the quality of traineeships to better support young people to transition to apprenticeships and other occupations, and support participation in English, maths and digital training to meet employers’ needs and support people to progress in employment or further study. Proposals would be invited through the Strategic Development Fund to establish college business centres within FE colleges to work with employers in a designated sector in responding to ‘locally agreed priorities’.

To promote advanced technical and higher technical skills, the white paper proposed using the new £2.5 billion National Skills Fund to enhance funding to support adults to upskill and reskill, including an offer for all adults to achieve their first full Level 3 qualification as part of the lifetime skills guarantee already set out by the Prime Minister. It also undertook to expand the institutes of technology programme to every part of the country by the end of the parliament, to spearhead an increase in higher-level technical skills in science, technology, engineering and maths. ‘T Levels’, new technical courses launched in September 2020 which follow GCSEs and are equivalent to three A-levels, would be further rolled out, while higher technical education (levels 4 and 5) would be reformed with a new approval system based on employer-led standards. There would also be clear progression routes for students towards higher-level technical qualifications.

The new ‘lifetime skills guarantee’, promised by Boris Johnson in a speech at Exeter College in September 2020, would take the form of a ‘lifelong loan entitlement’ to the equivalent of four years of post-18 education from 2025. The government would consult on the detail and scope of the loan entitlement during 2021, it said. As part of the guarantee, adults without a Level 3 qualification will be given an opportunity to acquire one. The white paper also indicated that the government would make it ‘just as easy to get a loan for a higher technical course as it is for a full-length university degree’. Pilots would be introduced to stimulate higher technical education and incentivise more flexible and modular provision, while the government would determine how best to stimulate credit transfer between institutions and courses. It would also look to improve how teaching is delivered so that it is more accessible, with the use of digital and blended learning, and seek to provide clear information about career outcomes through occupational maps, wage returns data and ensuring providers give pupils information about all options.

The white paper also included plans to make providers more responsive and to reform accountability, governance and intervention by simplifying and streamlining funding to ‘support high-value provision relevant to the labour market’, giving providers longer-term funding certainty and greater autonomy in delivery, introducing new accountability structures to underpin the delivery of local skills improvement plans, and giving the Secretary of State for Education new powers to ‘intervene quickly and decisively in cases where there are persistent problems’ in delivery. The government would, furthermore, set out clearer expectations, requirements and support for governors to ‘empower weaker colleges’ to address problems earlier. Further investment in the college estate was also promised. Outstanding teaching would be supported through a national recruitment campaign for FE teachers (though with no increase in their pay, which continues to lag behind that of teachers in other sectors), initial teacher education on employer-led standards, higher-quality professional development, and a stronger relationship between industry and providers.

The Department for Education described the white paper as ‘revolutionary’, and it is certainly ambitious in its scope and detail, but there is much too that is familiar in this set of reforms (indeed, many of the main reforms had, in fact, been announced before), and a good deal that has been tried before in one way or another, with little evident success. This is a serious problem with the paper. As Professor Andy Westwood noted, while many of the proposed interventions in the white paper are important and ‘potentially transformative’, it feels as though it has been ‘developed in a vacuum’ without ‘knowledge or understanding of past policy failures’ in areas such as skills development by employers and with little sense of how the new reforms will articulate with other areas of recent government reform such as devolution and their associated architecture. The lack of employer engagement in the further education and skills system in the UK has been a problem for decades, with UK employers typically investing less in the training and development of their staff than their European counterparts. Yet, while many secretaries of state have put this at the top of their policy shopping list, none has succeeded to any degree worth noting. What have we learned from our past mistakes that would convince us that, on this occasion, things will be different? Why, this time, would we expect employers to behave with anything other than the blithe disregard they have, on the whole, displayed for similar interventions in the past? How do we reverse the current trend of employers investing less in training and development and the recent spike in the number of employers offering no training at all? If Gavin Williamson has answers to these questions – and we must hope he does – he does not share them in the white paper.

This concern notwithstanding, it must be said that there are some good and positive things in the paper. First of all, there is welcome evidence that the government is, finally, taking FE and skills seriously. After a decade of cuts to further education, it is refreshing to find the government putting further education at the heart of its core programme of reform and pledging to challenge the UK’s obsession with schools and universities and its comparative neglect of FE. Mr Williamson is surely right in thinking that Labour’s commitment to 50 per cent participation in higher education led to a neglect of the majority of young people who did not go to university, yet who also deserve educational opportunity, dignity at work and a good life.

It is also good too to see the link being made, or at least implied, between further education and social mobility and the reduction of poverty and inequality, not to mention with economic growth and productivity, to which further education is also essential. The move towards parity of treatment of further education and higher education is also long overdue, as is the acknowledgement that the two should work in a more collaborative way, though this needs to be reflected too in relative funding levels, currently skewed in favour of HE. The strong focus on supporting learners into decent employment is also positive, and is a key dimension of the social inclusion agenda, particularly with unemployment at a four-year high and expected to rise higher. As Department for Education research has shown, long-term unemployment can have a devastating impact on the mental health of young people. The government is also surely right to focus its efforts in this direction around place and to stress the importance of flexibility and modular learning in widening access and participation.

Another promising idea in principle is the flexible lifetime skills guarantee, which will give adults without a Level 3 qualification the chance to get one, backed with lifelong learning loans for flexible learning at any time of life. Welcome too is the undertaking to make loans available in FE and HE on an equal basis, though there is a clear danger that this will increase indebtedness and deter less-advantaged students. However, much will depend on the detail of what remains quite a vague undertaking, including the amount of flexibility and learner choice that the scheme will enable and the provision of grant support for poorer students. The 2025 roll-out date seems a rather distant prospect, given the challenges we face now. Among the unanswered questions is how adults currently out of learning, in unskilled and low-paid jobs, those not ready to undertake a relatively high-level technical qualification, will progress up to Level 3 and on to decent, secure employment? There is no hint of a policy or strategy to help people caught up in the vicious cycle of low pay and low aspiration scramble up the ladder to Level 2 and beyond.

This is an important omission in a white paper that is about ‘levelling up’, ‘building back better’ and supporting social mobility. While disadvantaged adults with the lowest qualifications are the group with the most to gain from participation in learning, they are also the least likely to access it, with around half having had no training since leaving school. For the hardest-to-reach adults it is not simply a matter of walking through the doors of their local college and enrolling on a course. Disadvantaged adults often face multiple barriers and may have complex needs which make accessing learning both daunting and difficult. We need approaches that meet such people where they are, in their communities, combining outreach provision with other kinds of essential social support. We also need more focus on basic skills and the 9 million adults with low literacy and numeracy skills. This kind of first-step, bottom-up provision isn’t an optional extra. It should be an essential part of any educational strategy to engage the ‘left behind’.

A second important omission is any consideration of learning that supports the acquisition of skills and capabilities other than those needed to do a job, critical though that is, despite Mr Williamson’s claim in his foreword that the proposals are ‘about fulfilment and enrichment on a personal level’. ‘Levelling up’, if it is to mean anything at all, must mean more than helping people get a job. It must mean also the opportunity to become creative, well-rounded and thoughtful people, to be active, informed citizens, to develop critical thinking skills, to engage with the arts, music and literature, to gain confidence and self-worth, and to foster one’s own mental and physical wellbeing. All of this is conspicuous by its absence in the white paper. We must remember that learning has a much wider role and much wider benefits, and acknowledge that, in a society committed to reducing inequality and treating everyone fairly, these benefits should be open to all, not just the privileged. Such provision has been one of the casualties of the Gradgrind-like focus on skills for employment and employability that has gripped education policy for the past two decades. The secretary of state’s warm words are all very well – and I suppose they would feel more welcome had we not heard them before, from the lips of numerous previous secretaries of state and ministers – but there is nothing in the white paper to suggest that the cuts to this kind of provision will be reversed or the learners brought back. Still less are we given any reason to suppose that the government has a richer, more expansive vision of the purposes of education than the meagre, philosophically attenuated vision of the past 20 years.

The report is, on the whole, far too employer-centric, with little sense of the need for wider community engagement and activism (the paper does not even mention trade unions). It has been the aim of successive governments to put employers at the heart of the skills system. The title of the white paper locates it firmly in this tradition, equating ‘opportunity and growth’ with training for work, and lifelong learning with skills for jobs. There is something touchingly naïve about the government’s continuing faith in this agenda, given how little it has delivered in the past and the historic reluctance of the UK’s employers to invest in the development of their workforce. It should go without saying that employers must have a voice in skills development, but it is less obvious that they should lead and set the agenda on this, or that they have the capacity to do so. In fact, given the challenges posed by Brexit and the impact of the pandemic, and, in many cases, the attendant need to restructure or downsize, it seems unlikely that employers will have the energy or time to invest much more (time or money) in skills development.

It is also far from clear that it is their role to do so. It is one thing to know what skills a business needs at a given moment to deliver against existing commitments – no doubt it is the businesses themselves that know most about this, and this knowledge matters, of course – but it is quite another to anticipate what skills will be needed five or 10 years from now, or to make value judgements about the future economic development of towns and cities, regions and, indeed, the country, taking into account a wide range of factors transcending the usual interests of business. It is clear, furthermore, that employers want different things (as do communities); they do not speak with one unified voice, and, even if they did, there is no guarantee they would come up with the right answers. But we shouldn’t expect them to. We are looking in the wrong place.

Understanding the learning and skills needs of communities demands a much wider dialogue, led by and taking place within the communities themselves, with the involvement of learners, employers, unions, providers, local authorities and other relevant stakeholders, across public, private and voluntary sectors. Addressing these needs involves, necessarily, a willingness in government to let go of some of the levers of power. Yet, what we see in the white paper is a shift towards greater centrism, with new systems of accountability and oversight (as yet undefined) and new powers for the secretary of state ‘to intervene locally to close or set up college corporations, bring about changes to membership or composition of governing bodies or review leadership’.

There is nothing in the paper about strengthening the relationship between providers and the communities they serve, or ensuring democratic accountability of governance to the community. Instead, the focus is on tightening the government’s grip on the levers of accountability and enhancing its capacity to intervene directly where colleges do not deliver according to the government’s expectations. This is disappointing, particularly given this and previous governments promising talk of skills devolution. High-stakes accountability has created a climate of anxiety in the sector which is not conducive to thoughtful, creative, community-centred leadership. The government needs to find a more collaborative way of relating to further education providers, based on trust rather than fear.

But perhaps the most grievous omission in a white paper with the acknowledged aim of levelling up and reviving ‘left behind’ communities is the lack of join up with other areas of policy. An integrated approach is essential in engaging with areas of complex need. There is nothing in the paper about how the proposed local skills improvement plans will articulate with the existing architecture of devolution in different parts of the country, and little about the role of local authorities in skills and further education. How, for example, will the new panels work with the existing skills advisory panels, local partnerships established in mayoral combined authorities and local enterprise partnerships to identify and address local skills priorities and strengthen the link between employers and skills providers? And where is the link to agendas in other relevant departments such as the Department of Health, the Department for Work and Pensions or the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government? How, for instance, will the proposals mesh with other reforms such as the DWP’s Kickstart scheme on jobs for young people and its Restart scheme to get Universal Credit claimants back into work? And how will the Department for Education work across government to support a joined-up, intelligently articulated agenda without duplication or unintended negative consequences? Just as disappointing, there is little in the paper on how these reforms will link to the reform agenda in universities and schools, and too little focus on further education providers other than colleges, particularly local authority adult and community education, institutes for adult learning and voluntary sector providers. The lack of join-up is a major fault, which threatens to undo much of the promise in the white paper.

This lack of systemic thinking reflects, in part, the so far unfulfilled promise of the Augar report on post-18 education and funding. The government launched a short ‘interim’ response to the report, published in May 2019, alongside the white paper. Although the white paper takes forward some of the report’s recommendations, notably the lifetime skills guarantee (Augar argued that all adults should be entitled to their first level 2 and 3 qualifications for free) and the development of higher technical qualifications (Augar wanted to see demand for technical education increased and progression improved), it falls short of delivering the kind of parity between FE and HE demanded by the independent panel. There is not enough here to deliver the unified and coherent post-18 education sector envisaged by Augar, with strong technical routes and flexible access at every stage of life. There is nothing to correct the imbalance in funding between HE and FE, no undertaking to reverse the cuts to further education and adult learning that have taken place over the past decade, and no plan to increase investment in the FE workforce. The £500 million that the government proposes to spend on the National Skills Fund each year will only reverse one-fifth of the funding cuts imposed since 2010. And there is no understanding of the problems posed by siloed policymaking, policy teams and regulatory and funding systems, still less any attempt to address them. We remain some distance from a truly tertiary education system ‘genuinely animated by the same connecting sense of core purpose’.

The white paper also chose to ignore the relevant and important findings of the Education Committee’s Plan for an adult skills and lifelong learning revolution and the Independent Commission on the College of the Future. The Education Committee’s report was the outcome of an inquiry into Adult Skills and Lifelong Learning (ASALL), launched in March 2020, which received 76 written submissions (themselves very well worth reading). The report made a number of recommendations that are relevant here. To rectify the UK’s performance on adult education, it urged the government to adopt ‘an ambitious, long-term strategy for adult skills and lifelong learning – a comprehensive and holistic vision for lifelong learning that works for every adult in every community’. The foundation of the strategy must be what it terms the ‘four key pillars to revolutionise the adult education system’: a community learning centre in every town; individual learning accounts with a ‘truly lifelong emphasis … to revitalise training and upskilling’; the revival of part-time higher education; and a skills tax credit to revitalise employer-led training. The committee also identified a number of other areas requiring urgent reform, including: childcare for adult learners, English provision for speakers of other languages, modular learning, local skills offers, information, advice and guidance, and adult learning for those with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND).

The committee’s plan addresses two key areas that the white paper does not address, but which would support its radical ambitions. First, it acknowledges the importance of adult community learning and its vital role in bringing learning into disadvantaged communities and ‘providing a lifeline for adults furthest from qualifications and employment’. This is not acknowledged in the white paper, which, as noted, has little to say about engaging those furthest from decent work and formal education. The committee noted that it was not persuaded ‘that the Department fully grasps the value and purpose of community learning. Nor does it appear that the Department has a vision or strategic approach for boosting this vital area of lifelong learning.’

Second, the committee report recognises that adult education has social, health and community benefits as well as economic ones. It calls for a long-term ‘comprehensive and holistic’ vision, with an ‘ambitious funding settlement’ and underpinned by ‘more flexible, modular learning’ and ‘much better careers advice to help adults find the best learning opportunities for them’. The report also underlines the importance of part-time education in reaching disadvantaged students, the need for local authorities to have an enhanced role, with commensurate powers and funding, and the necessity of finding ways to encourage employer engagement, which the white paper takes for granted. The committee also called on the government to reverse its lamentable decision to axe the Union Learning Fund.

The final report of the Independent Commission on the College of the Future likewise urges the UK and devolved governments to ‘articulate a long-term vision for the post-16 education and skills system’ from schools to adult skills and training. This vision, it says, must ‘describe the wider role colleges play in place-making, as anchor institutions within their communities’, as well as the ‘complementary relationship of different component parts of the system’. The relationship between education and skill policy and other areas of public policy, such as health and energy, should be an integral part of the post-16 education and skills strategy.

This is important and reflects the commission’s attempt to recognise the role of FE both as a ‘touchpoint’ for people throughout their lives and in fostering ‘healthy and connected communities’. The report also supports a statutory right to ‘affordable and relevant lifelong learning opportunities’, with funding ‘equalised’ across further and higher education routes and flexibility to all individuals ‘to build up their skills over time to match both their evolving career development needs and their personal circumstances’. A ‘vital public asset sitting at the heart of communities’, colleges ‘provide a critical pivot between all other parts of the education and skills system, as well as offering a tremendous breadth of provision themselves – and can and must be centres of lifetime learning’.

Both reports demonstrate the limited scope and paucity of ambition in the white paper, particularly when judged from the perspective of the government’s pledge to ‘level up’ communities that have been ‘left behind’. There is little in the paper for the 50 per cent of disadvantaged adults who have been out of education since leaving school, and no evidence of the kind of joined-up, cross-sectoral thinking that will be required to lift these people and the communities in which they live out of the vicious cycle of poverty, low pay, disaffection and hopelessness. There is no sense of the distorting effect other parts of the system have on educational inequality, for example independent schools and free schools and academies, still less any attempt to address the social justice issues raised by an education system that apportions opportunity according to wealth or where a student happens to live (also, usually, determined by wealth).

And there is no understanding of the impact of the cuts of the past two decades, the deplorable withdrawal of learning opportunities, particularly for adults and young people from the poorest communities, and the wanton destruction of the infrastructure of lifelong learning, from university continuing education departments to public libraries. We have perhaps grown numb to the depressing statistics – the adult education budget cut by half, the 32 per cent drop in adult community education, the 61 per cent drop in part-time learner numbers – but we should remember that behind these numbers are millions of frustrated hopes and aspirations, and thwarted life chances, mostly in communities that have been on life support for years, all silent monuments to decades of political indifference.

Most telling, though, from the perspective of levelling up, is the narrowness of the white paper’s vision. Though it promises more, it is, at bottom, about training for employment, though even on those narrow terms it is inadequate. And while getting a decent job is important, it is not everything, far from it. Education should not only prepare people for work, it should prepare people to be good, active citizens, good parents, useful and cooperative members of the communities in which we live. It should encourage us to think critically, to spot ‘fake news’ and disinformation, to resist authoritarian thinking and to understand how to begin to make our communities better. And it should give us the means through which to engage with art, literature and philosophy, while cultivating our own creativity, as the best adult education always has. None of this makes it into the white paper, nor, I strongly suspect, is it in the government’s thinking. Instead, we must look to expand our horizons and deepen our understanding of the world on a diet of training for work, while access to culture and a liberal education, the so-called classics, remains a defining marker of class difference, a kind of secret curriculum, used, as the Prime Minister uses it when he fires off a bit of ancient Greek, to reassure the privileged and remind the poor of their place.

The white paper is simply not radical enough or brave enough or bold enough, not by half. We need to think big and think wide, prepared to assert education’s cross-sectoral role and unafraid to take on areas of policy that are usually considered off-limits. As the TUC response to the white paper noted, most of the big issues have been kicked down the road. There are no undertakings to reverse the brutal cuts of the past decade, in fact there are no substantial financial promises at all. And now, as we look to emerge from the pandemic, the Chancellor warns that it is time, once again, to ‘balance the books’. Will this mean yet more pain for the poorest, more ideological assaults on the welfare state? The decision to close the Union Learning Fund, which provides low-cost opportunities to learn to a quarter of a million men and women each year through partnerships between unions and employers, says a lot about the government’s outlook. While cutting the fund directly harms the learning and life chances of thousands of learners, most of whom would not otherwise have engaged in education, it will save the government a paltry £12 million a year. A 2018–19 study by unionlearn, the TUC’s learning and skills arm, found that every £1 invested in the fund produced an economic return of £12.30. The decision is political, not economic. It makes inequality in education worse, not better.

The vision of the white paper is short-term, narrow and insufficient. The absence of any link between lifelong learning and positive mental health is particularly unfortunate, given the toll taken by COVID-19. This needs to be part of the government’s plans for post-pandemic renewal as well as the levelling up agenda, given how unequally the impact of the crisis has been felt. It is important to think about the learner in the round, and not just as a worker or consumer. One of the main problems with the white paper is that it hardly thinks of them at all. There is no attempt to empower learners, connect them to their communities or take their agency into account, and no vision as to how we might use learning to ‘harness the collective power of society’. Even if we accept the white paper’s economic rationale, it is simply not the case that only skill-based education and training is of benefit to the economy – other kinds of learning and the wider benefits they have should count too. Centralised policy tinkering to improve take up of technical courses in subjects where there is employer demand is helpful, no doubt, and we should applaud the initiative, but it is not levelling up and it will not turn around the fortunes of our ‘left behind’ people and places. A revolution this ain’t. I’m not sure it’s even a plan.

A decent life for all

The white paper appeared in a moment of crisis, one in which we still find ourselves. We can see a way out now, as the roll-out of the vaccine programme continues apace, but we must be careful in our clamour for a ‘return to normal’ not to throw away the opportunity to reflect on where we are going and consider doing things differently. We have an opportunity to do this on inequality, to build back not only better but also fairer. As Arundhati Roy wrote in the Financial Times back in April 2020, ‘Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next’. We can decide whether we continue on our current course, gesturing weakly in the direction of social mobility while inequality worsens and the country drifts listlessly towards a future characterised by low wages and few protections for workers (what politicians usually mean when they rail against ‘red tape’), or we can walk boldly towards something better, prepared to consign old orthodoxies and prejudices to the dustbin of history. We can do better on inequality, that much is clear. What is less clear is whether we or the government are serious about tackling it.

Perhaps we give our leaders too much credit when we take their promises at face value. We have an education system that does not realise the potential of most of our children and young people, and restricts ‘second chance’ learning later in life. This should not come as a surprise because it is not meant to do these things. The restricted opportunities on offer to working-class children and young people are narrow by design. It is the result of political choice. We have instead an education system which is about selection, hierarchy and the reproduction of privilege, with funding massively skewed towards those born at the top and the odds just as massively stacked against those at the bottom. Education means different things to different people. If you are born into privilege you can expect to leave your independent or selective school with a knowledge of the classics, an appreciation of culture, some understanding of history and philosophy, and some knowledge of classical languages – the hidden curriculum of privilege used to socially police access to the professions.

For disadvantaged children, a different experience awaits. You are likely to find your school underfunded, perhaps in a state of disrepair, and struggling to afford some of the basic essentials of learning. Classes will be overcrowded. Some pupils will be disruptive. Teachers will be less well-qualified. Your home life will be less conducive to homework, and your parents less able to support your learning. There is no money for outside activities or private lessons. The curriculum will be narrower, with a greater focus on literacy and numeracy (driven by a punitive, high-stakes accountability regime), more emphasis on employability and a reduced offer in the arts, drama and the humanities. You will be tested often. You are likely to be anxious, perhaps depressed. You worry about your mental health. When you see how well turned-out and confident your wealthier peers seem, you may feel inferior, you may start blaming yourself for being stupid. Your experience at school is more regimented. You are asked to do things without understanding why. You do not need to know. You may not feel respected. You may feel your parents are not respected by your teachers. You may become alienated from the education process. You may think it is hopeless anyway. You’ll never be as good as the kids from the academy. When, finally, you are tossed, unready, into the world, you are more likely to have few or no qualifications, you may still struggle with literacy and numeracy. The idea of returning to education is likely to be off-putting, perhaps humiliating. You get a job, probably low-paid, low status. A lot of your mates do the same. Your life, like theirs, is characterised by hard, insecure work, worry about debt, and little hope of anything more, with few opportunities to return to education without incurring stacks of additional debt – unthinkable for people like you.

This sounds grim, and it is, for many. It approximates the experience of millions of adults (the author among them), though their story is one we rarely hear. For many of them, adult education presented a lifeline. It gave them what cultural theorist and adult educator Raymond Williams described as ‘resources of hope’, a reasonable prospect of something better in their lives, a way to engage creatively and critically with the world, to better understand that world and, in many cases, to change it. Adult education has enabled adults to break the cycle of poverty and low attainment, to find decent work, to go on to study and in many cases to teach at university. It has given people the chance to properly support their children, to give them the example and opportunities they never had. It has given them a chance to meet other people, to encounter new ideas, new cultures, and new perspectives, and to learn how to communicate their ideas to others, to build consensus and behave cooperatively, even where they find themselves in disagreement with others. The loss of so much of this provision and the infrastructure that supports it, over the past 10 years and earlier, going back several decades, is a calamity and a disgrace.

The ‘levelling up’ agenda is, therefore, welcome, but it does not seem that the government grasps the scale of the challenge or, if it does, puts enough of a priority on it to really make a meaningful difference in terms of inequality and social justice. Levelling up is not the same as leaving no one behind. Lifting up some is not the same as lifting up all. Enabling a few to get out of their impoverished towns and into the professions is not going to make much difference to inequality, or improve the lives of the left behind (in fact, it makes them worse). The government has no plan to equalise opportunity, or to correct the systemic injustices of the education system. There is no bold strategy to rebuild the social, economic or educational foundations weakened by austerity, or to redistribute power, wealth and opportunity in a serious, sustainable way. The emphasis on social mobility and the tolerance of growing inequality that has characterised policy under the Conservatives and under Labour before them, is inadequate to the challenge we face. Our focus should not be on getting more people through A-levels and into university, but to find ways to improve the lives of everyone, while recognising the essential contribution made by people who don’t have a degree. This recognition is overdue, as the pandemic has so plainly highlighted.

We would need to do much more to meet the stretching targets of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, and we would need to take a much more integrated, intersectoral approach, ensuring that we utilise not only the galvanising power of the goals but the links between them. Few of the goals can be achieved without, for example, effective, well-funded and well-targeted programmes of lifelong learning. We would need, too, to make people and place much more central to our thinking, giving voice and power to people, and letting them drive the agenda forward. This is especially true for those people who have been left behind, who, for some decades now, have felt despised and ignored by those in power. In the context of both the 2030 and levelling-up agendas, connecting people to their communities in this way is perhaps the most powerful thing you can do.

The problem with international agreements, though, is that they are interpretable in different ways. What does it mean to ‘reduce inequality’ or assure ‘quality education’? Should we worry about eradicating poverty at home when the world is so imbalanced and unequal and we can make a difference here too? While Britain is not alone in its poor progress against the SDGs, nor is it the only country with an inequality problem, it faces a special problem to do with its past and the shadow it casts, which is holding it back. Britain likes to thinks of itself as a player on the world stage, a former colonial power which still has lots of influence. While much of Britain’s former empire has shrugged off the influence of the imperial ‘motherland’, Britain remains in thrall to it, from our dysfunctional royal family to the hallowed playing fields of Eton, from our weird, ancient systems of deference, privilege and cronyism to our segregated, wasteful education system, founded on a pretend meritocracy.

Colonialism lives on in many of our poorer communities, with non-resident landlords, living in richer parts of the country, charging exorbitant rents to local businesses, stifling enterprise and killing local high streets, while spending the wealth they thus acquire elsewhere. We cannot change where we are, but we can do better. I think we have to. However, doing so demands a rethink about our aims and purposes, what we want to be as a country, our role in the world and our obligations to each other. The challenge of the 2030 Agenda is to forge an understanding of the goals that works in our own distinctive context and that we can build consensus around. One of the main barriers to progress, and not just in Britain, is the lack of public ownership of the agenda. Most people – in common, it would appear, with most politicians – have little idea of it, still less the commitment required to achieve it. Changing this, and building the consensus and political leverage we need, is a Herculean task. But it is essential. We cannot be someone new until we let go of who we used to be.

If we are to heal the rifts in our society, we need to take inequality seriously and approach it in a much more systemic, integrated way. We need to think long-term and we need a vision for the future most of us can get behind. Above all, we need to be brave enough and confident enough in ourselves to let go of what we were, accept what isn’t working and build something new, different and better. We should acknowledge the learnings of the pandemic and in particular the lesson that everyone contributes, in one way or another, to the common good, from the shop floor to the board room, and that all deserve both dignity – in education, in work and in society – and the resources to live a decent life. Further education, broadly understood, is at the heart of this. It is here that many of the people who have stepped up during the pandemic, demonstrating not only skill, but courage, leadership and agency, have been prepared for work and life. Levelling up means little if we cannot invest more in the places where such people live and learn, while the tributes of politicians and the appreciation of the public will continue to ring hollow (like Oscar Wilde’s sentimentalist, we want ‘the luxury of an emotion without paying for it’). It is important that we build a consensus around these issues and move forward, to the greatest extent possible, together.

Below are five areas of action in education that would significantly reduce inequality in the UK if they had public and political support. They are deliberately ambitious and, while some run against the grain of government thinking and perhaps also public sentiment, it is hoped that they will, at least, provoke debate and reflection on issues which, while often marginalised in policy thinking, are nevertheless of the utmost importance in levelling up and leaving no one behind.

First, we need a national strategy for lifelong learning, widely framed, with reach across every kind of education provision and into every relevant sector of policy. Colleges should be at the centre of this. They should be, as the Independent Commission on the College of the Future urged, ‘centres of lifetime learning’, connecting people to their communities and to the world of work. But the strategy should encompass other kinds of learning, including adult community learning, and not be restricted to learning for work. It should encompass adult literacy and numeracy, digital literacy, active citizenship education, learning for health and wellbeing, and aim to foster not just skills for employment, but creativity, critical thinking, democratic deliberation and (of course) fun! Lifelong learning should prepare us for the radical uncertainties of the emerging world. As recommended by the Centenary Commission on Adult Education, it should ‘engage the whole of government while recognising the importance of devolved decision making’, and be supported by the appointment of a minister with specific responsibility for adult education and lifelong learning.

Second, we should reverse the cuts to further education and adult education over the past decade, as a first step to rebuilding the broken infrastructure of FE and lifelong learning.  The government should take steps to reverse the 4 million reduction in adult learner numbers since 2010, first by restoring funding to pre-2010 levels and second by improving adult guidance and support. The government should also actively promote participation in adult education and part-time higher education and consider how to incentivise universities to diversify their provision and give students more flexible options to study. Many institutions, particularly the elite institutions of the Russell Group, are far too fixated on the traditional three- or four-year model of residential study applicable mainly to 18-year-old school leavers. This model is no longer fit for purpose. We need to recognise that adults do not – and, indeed, cannot afford to – discontinue their learning in their mid-20s. Universities should look to recruit more widely, including among disadvantaged and older groups, and also seek to revive their traditional civic mission, offering outreach and continuing education programmes in their communities. As recommended by the Education Select Committee, we should revive individual learning accounts, considering past failures and ensuring they are both flexible and learner-led. The new funding settlement for lifelong learning and further education should be long-term.

Third, we should begin a national conversation about the integration of independent schools into a common state system, following the example of Finland, which, 30 years ago, legislated to make it illegal for institutions to charge for education. This would have the double benefit of making these schools locally accountable (something all publicly supported institutions should be) and nullifying their capacity to distort and engineer educational outcomes. At the same time, state schools should be strengthened, with funding increased, partly (eventually) through the redistribution of some independent school assets (including, as a first step, their state subsidy), with the aim of giving every child, wherever they live in the country, the opportunity to have a good school education, with access to a broad curriculum that does not eschew creativity and liberal arts. The fragmentation (and social segregation) introduced through the increase in selection over the past two decades should be reversed and a national commitment to excellence throughout the system reaffirmed. While the integration of private schools is certain to be a protracted and contested process, an intermediate step should require elite universities to match their student intake to the proportions of pupils that come from different school backgrounds: 93 per cent from state school, 7 per cent from independent schools (corresponding to a motion adopted at Labour’s 2019 conference). While such reform might seem a long way off, and is a daunting political prospect, with resistance certain, it is time we began to talk seriously about whether an institution that fosters systemic unfairness, hierarchy and social segregation is what we want for our country, or is, for that matter, fit for purpose in the modern world.

Fourth, we should follow the recommendation of the Education Committee and ensure there is a community learning centre in every town and village in the country. The Department for Education, the committee says, does not fully grasp ‘the value and purpose of community learning’. Nor does it appear to have ‘a vision or strategic approach for boosting this vital area of lifelong learning’. This should change, as the committee suggests, with the department working with the sector ‘to grasp what data exists on community learning and where any gaps might be’. This is an essential step in giving adults access to learning in their community and, in particular, to engaging those adults the farthest distance from education and the workplace in learning. As is the case with the best local authority adult learning, these centres should ensure that adult education is co-located with other services, for example early years, family learning, social housing, libraries and health, mirroring the cross-sectoral approach of central government, as well as its commitment to devolution, as recommended in a recent HOLEX report. Rochdale Borough Council provides a compelling example of how this might work. Since 2014, it has pursued a place-based approach to fulfilling the learning and other needs of its residents. Working in areas of highly complex need and disadvantage, the authority has demonstrated how working in a more connected way across services, and putting learning at the heart of these interventions, can promote positive change while reducing social costs. The council estimates that for every £1 invested across the system there is a £4.05 return in terms of reduced police call-outs, preventing children going into care and reduced calls on ambulance and doctor’s services. There must also be a commensurate investment in the places and spaces in which community learning takes place. An increased, long-term funding settlement for community learning is essential.

Fifth, and finally, we should put people at the centre of our thinking about education, and give them the opportunity to shape provision in their communities, alongside providers, employers, unions, local authorities, the voluntary sector and other key stakeholders. We need to make education more democratic in its management, planning and delivery. Localising dialogue in the community itself, trusting learners to make sound decisions about their future and that of their community, while involving other key players, would represent something close to the white paper’s promised ‘revolution’. It should be supported by democratic partnerships, probably coordinated by local authorities, and conducted in a spirit of collaboration rather than competition. The government should adopt a wider understanding of the value and purposes of education, and this should be reflected in the kind of partnerships that are enacted at local level. Further education must be at the heart of this, as should the people who work and study in it. We should think of further education not simply as a matter of preparing people for a job, to make a living and pay their taxes, but as the means through which people make their full and essential contribution to the common good.

Delivering these proposals would require something more: a renewal of the collective spirit in British politics and a conception of education which stresses not only its private benefit but its public value; something we recognise as supporting the common good, across a range of fronts, that must be provided throughout life, not frontloaded at the start, and available to everyone. We are, it seems, still some way from this, but that does not mean that we should not at least try, and advocate together for change in a way that eschews competition and embraces, instead, a shared conception of what is valuable in education and how this vision can be delivered. We need people on all sides to recognise that advantaged parents should not be able to pass on their advantage to their children (and we need to be able to talk seriously about this). And we need to understand that education is not just about private rewards and the measure of success not just the money we make (or inherit). Education, rather, is about maximining everyone’s potential contribution to social, civic and economic outcomes in which we are all, whether we realise it or not, invested. We need to restructure educational opportunity around the idea of a ‘common public education’ that affirms and reinforces our sense of shared identity and interdependence rather than militating against it.

It is a matter of who we are and who we aspire to be. Do we want to be the sort of society that routinely writes off the life chances of most of our kids and young people, where privilege is reproduced from generation to generation, and poorer children have little chance of ever exceeding the achievements of their parents? Do we want a society of winners and losers in which most of the losers never had a chance anyway yet, in many cases, still blame themselves for their ‘failure’? Do we want a politics that fosters nepotism and corruption, in which the people who make the laws and shape public policy went to the same schools as the people who write and interpret the news? Or we do want to create a fairer, more just and harmonious society in which opportunity is evenly shared out and our education system honours not only the aspirations of the powerful but those of every child, young person and adult in the country – a society in which, truly, no one is left behind? While the entrenched and contested nature of inequality in the UK might make it seem almost impossibly difficult to change, the challenges we face as a society – from demographic and technological change to the climate crisis – and the lessons of the pandemic should make a return to business as usual unthinkable.

As Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson have shown, inequality not only makes us all worse off in terms of public health and wellbeing, education and social mobility, it also alters how we think, feel and behave, making us distant and anxious, and, as Michael Young foresaw so brilliantly, more likely ‘to define and value ourselves and others in terms of superiority and inferiority’. It is ‘the enemy between us’. It erodes trust and social cohesion, makes people unhappy and unhealthy, corrupts our politics, and debases democracy. It is in all of our interests to change and replace Britain’s hierarchical, multi-tiered education system with one common, integrated public system that provides opportunity and a roughly equal chance of success and a decent life to all. The condition for human flourishing in society should not be a private education or a degree form a posh university, still less the circumstances of a child’s birth. The coming generations deserve a better, fairer future. That truth alone should give us hope that a new social and educational settlement is possible.

Back to Beasley Street

I grew up in the eighties, in one of those grey, uninteresting towns they now call ‘left behind’. It was the time of the miners’ strike and mass unemployment, football hooliganism and the National Front, race riots and (perhaps worst of all) Wham! School was, at best, an inconvenient, pointless grind, and, at worst, a dangerous, humiliating ordeal. The teachers, like the students, were alternately bored, scared or violent. For the most part, we were going through the motions. Outside of school, there was nothing to do; at least, no one seemed to be doing anything. Come dark, we would gather in the local park (we were the ‘Parkers’, the boys that lived near the park!), facing off against a rival group of kids (the ‘Heath-ers’ [‘heath’ as in blasted], the Sharks to our Jets). It seemed, at the time, to be the thing to do. Nothing much ever happened until we heard the howl of the Black Marias and scattered, hysterical with laughter, into the neighbouring streets.

This, or similar, was the grim reality of life in the eighties for millions of people. It was brilliantly captured in John Cooper Clarke’s poem Beasley Street, which described a Thatcherite dystopia of unemployment, ill-health and emotional dislocation, at once boring and dangerous, mundane yet frightening, where an unnamed, stabbing, semi-permanent sense of longing is punctuated by untimely death and casual violence: ‘people turn to poison, quick as lager turns to piss’. It is a political poem, as well as a personal one. John Cooper Clarke was describing a place, certainly not a community, impoverished in every sense, where people turn against one another and themselves (‘their common problem is that they’re not someone else’), and which politicians hold in ill-disguised contempt (‘Keith Joseph smiles and a baby dies in a box in Beasley Street’). It conveys a sense of the multi-dimensional nature of poverty and inequality, as something not just material or economic but also emotional, social, environmental, psychological and political; something pervasive and all-consuming that gets into your brain and lungs and under your skin.

For me, the prevailing emotion of those years, living in my own Beasley Street, was fear, caught between two unthinkable alternatives: more education or a job. Fear was carefully and deliberately cultivated. The government was strongly mobilised against people like me. I was in no doubt that the government hated me. They hated my family, friends and neighbours too. They hated my culture and my values. Every new announcement, I felt, was aimed at some moral deficiency of mine or my family’s. I had to be coerced into work for which I was neither fit nor ready. Politics was personal. I knew I was the same as the lazy, feckless, shiftless, stupid people responsible for the long queues at the unemployment offices, people unprepared to ‘get on their bikes’ and move to where the work was. All the adults in my house worked hard or tried to but I knew we weren’t one of the ‘hard-working families’ the government said it wanted to help. I knew I wasn’t good enough, and that where I lived wasn’t good enough either, that I would have to be compelled to accept work I didn’t want and a life I wasn’t prepared for. I was uncivilised, thick, violent and workshy. And I knew exactly what Thatcher, Tebbit, Joseph, and their chums in the press, thought of me and my kind. Their language was violent and hateful, and it scared and scarred. It was meant to.

In retrospect, we were living through a period of social and economic adjustment, a kind of soft revolution, though the outcomes were anything but soft. The government was at war, not with the Argentines, but with its own people: the unions, the unemployed, the working poor, Black people and Muslims, gays and lesbians, Labour councils and ‘unauthorised’ migrants, single mums and ‘Marxist’ teachers. The Falklands was one front in the war, as was the miners’ strike and the government’s determination to challenge union power, and the constant attempts to demonise working-class communities and working-class values and culture. These were divisive issues which split voters traditionally aligned to Labour and opposed to the Tories. From the point of view of Thatcher’s revolution, they were necessary fractures. Turning communities against themselves was essential in pushing through reforms that made life worse for most people, and reversed decades of progress in education, social mobility and the reduction of poverty and inequality. There had to be outsiders, others, an ‘enemy within’. Stopping those people getting things they weren’t entitled to became an important lever in getting people to accept less across the board: fewer rights, lower incomes and higher debt, worse conditions at work and escalating inequality. The moral deficiency and low intelligence of the working class, of single mothers and social security recipients, was a core belief of the ideology of Thatcherism. Demonising them was an important strategic political choice.

The divisions created by that most divisive of governments still fester, and Thatcher, fittingly, remains the most divisive figure in recent British political history. We are still reckoning with the damage caused. Much of the framing of political debate in Britain remains unchanged since the 1980s, though the anti-prole, anti-Black, anti-gay rhetoric has been toned down a bit (reassuringly, Liverpool remains the one thing most Tory politicians, and, it seems, much of the rest of England, can agree to hate). The ‘othering’ of migrants and refugees and the fear of difference, usually in those places least likely to encounter it, was one of the main drivers of Brexit, and continues to pollute our political discourse. The long-term unemployed are still regarded as lazy and feckless, while the government continues to promise to support ‘hard-working’ families. Fear of the ‘something for nothing’ culture, supposedly to blame for cycles of deprivation in our ‘left behind’ towns and villages, has enabled successive governments to cut welfares costs, already among the lowest in Europe, and make it harder for people to escape from poverty. Anti-union rhetoric is still common, and was evident in the vindictive cancelling of the successful Union Learning Fund. It has helped prevent unions in the UK from playing the kind of partnership role they play with employers in other countries in Europe, and contributed to the suppression of wages in Britain. Meanwhile, immigration has been allowed to take the blame for the political neglect of post-industrial communities, while the rhetoric of choice is still being used to sneak more and more selection into the education system, stacking the educational odd higher and higher against working-class kids. 

Forty years on, we have another self-consciously divisive government, aware that its electoral majority rests on the split in the traditional Labour vote caused by Brexit. It is a government that is prepared to stoke the flames of anti-immigrant sentiment to bolster support in ‘left behind’ places, and while it has achieved its main aim of ‘getting Brexit done’, it continues to use the EU as a conveniently divisive adversary. The so-called ‘culture wars’, the fake outrage about ‘cancel culture’ and the ‘woke’ media, represent a new front – new but familiar to anyone who remembers the eighties. The cynical mobilisation of police resources is also all too familiar. And while Britain cuts an increasingly ridiculous figure on the international stage, seemingly unaware of its diminished place in the world, its tough-guy posturing and world-beating rhetoric goes down well with the domestic audience for whom it is intended. At the same time, pretend policies are floated to client journalists to provoke outrage on the ‘woke’ left and, in turn, offence among its supporters, further polarising opinion on social media. The same can be said about the now obligatory union flags that sit behind every cabinet minister when they are interviewed, whether at home or at work. Outrage on one side means offence on the other, all grist to this government’s mill.

In fact, while the government wraps its arms around our treasured statues of racists, slave traders and war criminals in the name of its war against cancel culture, it has been quietly at work cancelling culture for working class young people and adults. State school funding has been reduced in real terms over the past decade, while the curriculum has been narrowed, focusing increasingly on literacy and numeracy and skills for employment. The arts and humanities are under threat throughout the state-funded sector, as they are in many places around the world. Cuts to adult education funding since 2010 have seen adult learning for purposes other than basic skills and employability almost disappear from the further education curriculum, while the breath-taking assault on part-time higher education and university lifelong learning has reduced not only the diversity of students in the higher education population, but also the diversity of subject opportunities available for adults. The hierarchy is clear. Private school pupils can expect a rounded liberal arts education, and to leave school with some appreciation of literature, the arts and philosophy, and knowledge of an ancient language (the hidden curriculum of advantage), ready for the transition to an elite university. Most state-educated kids, on the other hand, have to enrich themselves on a meagre diet of basic skills-plus and training for work, and are much less likely to study in a Russell Group university, still less the dizzy heights of Oxbridge. The lessons of compliance and conformity they learn at school are reinforced by the substantial debts they can expect to leave education with, and the precarity they encounter in the world of work.

While we have been squabbling among ourselves, successive governments have continued to pull at threads in the social fabric, all the while depriving us of the resources we need to imagine something different and better. Rights have been stripped away unnoticed, opportunity has shrunk, communities have been put on life support, all while we were looking the other way.  As before, the government is promoting and managing division as a deliberate political choice, despite its high social cost. The ‘war on woke’ is at bottom a contemporary spin on Thatcher’s efforts to save the country and its values from an imagined fifth column of teachers, unions and lefty local authorities. As one Tory MP put it, people who do not feel pride in ‘our flag or queen … don’t have to live in this country’. The problem is that a lot of people just don’t share these values, don’t buy into the chocolate-box version of British history that forms part of our national understanding of empire and our justification of privilege, and don’t accept a hand-me-down culture of kings and queens, and plucky up-against-it under-doggery – yet they live here too. They shouldn’t have to leave the country because they don’t agree with politics of the Conservative Party. People were quick to point out that the MP was using the language of the National Front, but really it was just the same old divisive politics we have seen in the mainstream over decades, still pumping poison into our national life. The more outrage provoked on one side, the more offence is caused on the other, the greater the distance becomes between us. And while we fight over how great or world-beating our country is, more and more of it disappears, and there is less and less to be proud of, and fewer and fewer opportunities to change it. Fortunately, culture is difficult to cancel. No matter how hard things get we keep seeing the ‘rainbow in the road’. And there is hope in that.