What was Margaret Thatcher’s legacy to adult education?

Under Margaret Thatcher’s government adult education came to be seen as more central to policy-making, but the attention also led to more central control, distrust of teachers and the maginalisation of large parts of the traditional adult education offer

What was Margaret Thatcher’s legacy to adult education? Her tenure as Secretary of State for Education and Science in the early seventies is probably best remembered for her ending the policy of free milk in schools (though she also raised the school leaving age and oversaw the opening of more comprehensive schools than any other Secretary of State), but Mrs Thatcher was also responsible for signing off the influential Russell Report on adult education, one of the key reports in the sector’s history, though she received it coolly, and few of its recommendations were implemented. The report is a useful place to start.

The Russell Committee was set up by Labour in 1969 to review non-vocational adult education in England and Wales and to recommend ways of obtaining ‘the most effective and economical deployment of available resources to enable adult education to make its proper contribution to the national system of education conceived as a process continuing through life’.

When the final report was published in 1973 it was criticized by some for its lack of vision, and its failure to provide a grand plan for adult education – though this criticism ignores its somewhat limiting terms of reference. Nevertheless, the Russell Report did emphasise the necessity of ‘a great development of non-technical studies … vital to provide the fullest opportunities for personal development and for the realization of a true conception of citizenship.’

Too great an emphasis, it argued, ‘had been laid on material consideration and too little regard paid to other aspects of life’: 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.

The committee asserted that adult learning, in all its forms, should aim to meet the needs of adults in all the various roles they play in life, whether as parents, carers, employees and employers, family members, members of a local community or as active citizens. The report put particular stress on the need for more targeted provision for ‘disadvantaged adults’, those excluded from social and community life by virtue of personal capacity, social disadvantage or economic disadvantage.

The report was submitted to Margaret Thatcher in December 1972. The reaction of Mrs Thatcher and the Conservative government that received the proposals, however, was unenthusiastic. There was to be no endorsement of the committee’s broad vision for ‘a comprehensive and flexible service of adult education, broad enough to meet the whole range of educational needs of the adult in our society’, while the oil crisis of 1973-74 and the public expenditure cuts of the 1970s made the implementation of its recommendations, which called for a ‘very modest rise in total expenditure’, unlikely.

The first recommendation – that the Secretary of State should ‘establish a Development Council for Adult Education for England and Wales’ – was implemented but only four years later, when the new Labour Secretary of State Shirley Williams set up the more modestly titled – and resourced – Advisory Council for Adult and Continuing Education (ACACE), under the chairmanship of Richard Hoggart. It was succeeded, under Mrs Thatcher’s government, by UDACE (the Unit for the Development of Adult Continuing Education). Another key recommendation, calling on the government to take action to stimulate adult learning by giving guidance to local authorities with regard to their responsibility to secure provision, was not implemented either; while a third – to expand the National Institute of Adult Education (now NIACE) through a five-year DES-funded development programme, which included regular surveys of learners – helped shape the Institute’s programme of activities over the next decade, though funding failed to materialise.

Mrs Thatcher’s cool reception of the report was, in many respects, a missed opportunity which helped ensure that adult education remained marginal to government policymaking for the next few years – though the report, with its calls for an adult education system which met the needs of the whole community by taking account of difference, had a more enduring influence on adult education practitioners, particularly those who saw their work as socially purposeful.

The years after Mrs Thatcher became Prime Minister saw the work of these educators become more difficult and, ultimately, more marginalised. Adult education came to be more and more shaped by the priorities and actions of government and these, increasingly, focused on unemployment and basic skills. At the same time, there was a progressive decline in public expenditure on education which meant that, as a non-statutory provision, adult education was particularly vulnerable to cuts in public spending. Providing bodies found themselves forced to reduce programmes and increase fees.

Government funding focused increasingly on vocational education and training and, while some of this reflected the priorities of the Russell Report, particularly the emphasis on the unemployed, many felt that the impetus given to socially progressive adult education in the wake of Russell was being stifled and subverted. Learning for its own sake was coming under attack.

The incoming Conservative government in 1979 made clear its intention to reduce national funding for adult education not directly related to employment or skills. The profile of adult learning began to change, with spending on training activities increasing threefold between 1979 and 1991. Various initiatives were introduced during that time, including REPLAN – a government initiative concerned with improving, increasing and extending educational opportunities for unemployed and unwaged adults – and PICKUP – a pump-priming scheme intended to encourage further and higher education institutions to undertake ‘professional, industrial and commercial up-dating’ – but they had limited success in reversing Britain’s ‘historic backwardness’ when it comes to vocational training.

The government aimed to increase employers’ involvement in training and development, and (then as now) there was much rhetoric about employers leading the sector. There was some good and innovative workplace training practice in the period, but much of the best of it was not government inspired. The Ford Motor Company, for example, through its Employee Development and Assistance Programme (EDAP), offered all employees £200 per annum to spend on a range of personal and career development education in their own time, and had real success in engaging non-traditional learners. But such initiatives remained the exception rather than the rule.

Naomi Sargant’s 1991 survey, Learning and Leisure, found that while vocational subjects increased in popularity during the 1980s, the arts and social sciences, and academic subjects generally, all declined. The survey was timed to mark the dismantling of the Inner London Education Authority (ILEA) in 1990, a result of the Education Reform Act 1988. ILEA’s adult education service had been responsible for much of the most creative and innovative practice in adult learning during the seventies and eighties. The survey underlined how much was being lost. In 1986-87 ILEA was responsible for 14 per cent of all non-vocational adult education in England and Wales, including large programmes in arts and crafts, ESOL, adult literacy and numeracy, foreign languages, music and drama.

Nevertheless, political interest in adult learning as a means of achieving key social and economic policy objectives continued to grow under Thatcher’s government, though the forms that interest took were not always welcome. One outcome was that central government established unprecedented levels of control over schools, colleges, universities and local authority adult learning, and demonstrated increasing levels of intolerance for teachers who appeared to have an agenda different to the government.

A critical moment came in 1991, with the publication of Education and Training for the 21st Century, a White Paper heralding the 1992 Further and Higher Education Act. The White Paper proposed the formation of a new quango, the Further Education Funding Council (FEFC), with a role to plan and fund national priorities for the improvement of skills and qualifications. The personal, community and social value of learning was dismissed. The FEFC would have a statutory responsibility to fund only further education courses which led to a vocational or academic qualification – what the White Paper characterised, provocatively, as ‘useful’ learning – effectively writing publicly supported adult learning out of the post-compulsory education script.

Many adult educators argued vigorously against the proposal, explaining that it would almost certainly prove fatal to all sorts of socially valuable adult education provision. A coalition, involving NIACE, NATFHE (the further and adult education lecturers’ union), the National Federation of Women’s Institutes and others (characterised by DES minister Tim Eggar, laughably, as ‘the forces of darkness’), campaigned against the moves and, after six weeks of furious letter-writing from WI branches across the country, as well as from providers, learners and other supporters (including Conservative MP and, later, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State in the Department of Education Tim Boswell), led to a recognition that elements of adult learning other than the vocational mattered, and the retention of the statutory duty on local authorities to ensure ‘adequate’ provision of adult education outside the FEFC remit.

Nevertheless, the 1992 Act further cemented the gap between vocational and qualification-bearing courses and adult education for personal and community interest, satisfaction and growth, and precipitated an abrupt decline in local authority adult education. It removed further education colleges from local authority control (colleges became freestanding corporations in receipt of central government funding through the FEFC) and created a newly defined further education sector responsible for securing adequate provision of certain categories of education, listed in Schedule 2 of the Act, including vocational and qualification courses, higher education access courses, adult literacy and numeracy, ESOL and skills acquisition for people with learning difficulties. Local education authorities were left with a statutory duty to secure ‘adequate’ non-Schedule 2 adult education, that is, recreational, social and leisure provision. They could provide Schedule 2 learning if they so decided but their main task would be as providers or commissioners of non-Schedule 2 activity. Critically, though, the notion of adequacy was never defined and LEAs, understandably, felt supporting local schools was a greater priority.

As a result, many authorities significantly reduced funding for non-vocational adult education in their areas and there was a reduction in cooperation between LEAs and voluntary and community organisations. The Act did increase opportunities for adults to learn, particularly in formal learning institutions, provided the courses studied met formal vocational objectives, but just as significant was its effective demotion of a wide range of adult learning, in terms of both funding and status. There was a growing separation between courses approved by the state – qualification or credit-bearing courses – and courses organised locally, through local authorities, with low status and no funding. It prompted a flight to FEFC budgets in all things – French for Beginners became French Level 1, for example – so that funding could be secured. It was the start of a process whereby adult education services gradually lost touch with informal, self-organised learning.

While mainstream interest in adult learning continued to grow, the 1990s saw a further serious erosion of what Roger Fieldhouse terms adult education’s ‘fundamental commitment to serving a collectivist social purpose – to make the world a better place’. At the same time, Fieldhouse adds, adult education was presented with ‘a vast new challenge’ to ‘introduce its social values into the mainstream’. The emphasis on basic skills and employability that emerged under Mrs Thatcher’s government, continued under her successors, as did the interest in making use of adult education to achieve certain policy objectives, particularly on the economy.

The newly elected Labour government and the Secretary of State for Education and Employment, David Blunkett, wasted no time in signaling their enthusiasm for adult education. Mr Blunkett’s 1998 Green Paper, The Learning Age, called for the creation of a ‘learning society’ and argued that the ‘key to success’ was ‘the education, knowledge and skills of our people’. The government, he said, would put learning ‘at the heart of its ambition’. The Green Paper inspired many. However, its open, expansive vision was quickly succeeded by the narrow, utilitarian philosophy that shaped successive skills strategies and became characteristic of learning and skills policy in the later years of New Labour. The distrust of teachers, so evident under Mrs Thatcher, had become an abiding feature of policymaking, with central control, micro-management and a target culture undermining the professional standing of teachers in post-16 education.

What, in conclusion, can we say about this most divisive of politicians and her legacy to adult education? There are some important progressive measures here – the setting up of REPLAN and UDACE (the Unit for the Development of Adult Continuing Education), which succeeded ACACE, for example – and there was growing interest in adult education as a useful tool in other (mainly economic) policy agendas. But there was a heavy price, paid by traditional liberal and social purpose adult education, which found itself increasingly marginalised. The professional status of teachers was also undermined (they had a special place among the fifth-columnists Mrs Thatcher thought of as ‘enemies within’), a process that was accelerated under New Labour, as micro-management replaced trust and professional respect. Despite the rhetoric, politicians under the coalition show little real appetite for the relinquishing of centralised control over education, particularly over the school curriculum. For good or ill, Mrs Thatcher’s legacy continues to inform the context in which all of us in the education sector work.

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