Monthly Archives: July 2015

A short fanfare for Adults Learning

I was saddened to hear that Adults Learning – a magazine I edited for 12 years, between 2002 and 2014, and the only UK periodical dedicated to adult education and learning in the round – is to close. Before it disappears into adult education history – unremarked alongside the loss of so much else that is valuable – I thought I would spend a little time remembering it and its place in what we still, in 2002, thought of fondly as ‘this great movement of ours’.

The British Institute of Adult Education (BIAE) was founded in 1921 as a branch of the World Association for Adult Education, an organisation set up by Albert Mansbridge, who also, of course, founded the Workers’ Educational Association (WEA). The institute’s aim, in the words of its first president, Lord Haldane, was to be ‘a centre for common thought by persons of varied experience in the adult education movement’, and both a representative body and a ‘thinking department’, focused not on teaching but on discussion and advocacy. Publication was seen an as important dimension of the work.

The institute became an autonomous organisation, independent of the World Association, in 1925. The following year it set up its own journal, the Journal of Adult Education, a twice yearly publication which became the quarterly Adult Education in 1934. The BIAE’s new Secretary William Emrys Williams (best known perhaps for his work as editor in chief at Penguin books, which included the launch of the Pelican imprint), who had edited the WEA’s The Highway since 1930 (and would continue, at times controversially, as editor until 1939), wanted to turn the institute into a more influential, dynamic voice in the debate about adult education, and to engage a wider audience in that debate.

When Williams assumed editorship of The Highway he told readers he intended to run the journal ‘in the interests of the adult education movement as a whole, and not just those of the Association’. His aim was to make the journal more democratic and participative, very much in the spirit of the WEA itself, which Williams described as ‘not just a federation of students, but a fellowship of all who believe in education and who wish to make it more and more accessible. It stands above all for the abolition of privilege and of competition in educational systems.’ He was true to his promise ‘to provoke opinion and to foster controversy’ in the pursuit of a better national education policy.

Williams’ leadership of the BIAE was energetic and creative, typified by a willingness to push back the boundaries of what was considered relevant to the movement. Up until 1934, the institute saw itself more as ‘a research laboratory’, setting up inquiries and producing a series of reports intended to support ‘the revision and development of educational policy’ (one of its reports, The Film in National Life [1932], resulted in the creation of the British Film Institute). Williams’ far-sighted innovations included the Art for the People programme, which gave working people around the country an opportunity to see important works of art (leading, eventually, to the creation of the Arts Council), and the Army Bureau of Current Affairs, which produced a series of topical short papers to stimulate discussion among troops during the Second World War. Somehow, Williams managed to sell the idea that the troops defending democracy should also be active participants in it.

Williams was very open to the possibilities of different, often new, forms of educational activity, and was concerned always to encourage ‘spectators’ to become participants – the most immediate requirement of adult education, as he saw it. Students’ voices mattered, he believed, and the need to create a better understanding between participants and providers became a theme of his early editorials in Adult Education. The publication became a vital forum for discussing the work of adult educators and adult education’s future as a movement. Williams’ first contribution to the journal – ‘The Institute: Terminus or Junction?’ – invited members to bring their understanding of ‘what is going on in adult education and what ought to be going on’ to discussions of the future of the institute. In another article – ‘The Storm Troops and the Militia’ – he launched a debate among adult educators on how best to reconcile the different needs of the ‘storm troops’ of the three-year tutorial classes with those of the ‘militia army’ of less able or less ambitious adult students. Williams saw the journal not just as a way of communicating institute business to members but as a forum for wider, democratic debate, going well beyond the day-to-day concerns of the institute and attempting to put the work of adult educators in a much broader context.

The British Institute of Adult Education merged with the National Foundation for Adult Education in 1949 to form the National Institute of Adult Education. The NIAE continued to publish Adult Education, under the shrewd leadership of Edward Hutchinson who, adapting to straitened circumstances, took to editing the journal himself (he was also finance officer, conference manager and research and development officer, among other things). Hutchinson grew the organisation into a prominent national source of information and thought about adult education, giving the journal a leading role in developing that thought and supporting others to contribute to it. The Highway had ceased publishing in 1959, leaving Adult Education as the only serious periodical publication in the field.

The journal continued to publish under Arthur Stock’s directorship, which, in 1983, saw the institute again change its name, this time to the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education (NIACE). Alan Tuckett, who took over the directorship of NIACE in 1988, was a social entrepreneur in the tradition of Williams (though, like Hutchinson, he also had a talent for encouraging others). He launched the monthly Adults Learning as a successor to the quarterly Adult Education in 1989, making what Judith Summers described as ‘a statement of intent to reach out actively to a widening constituency’. He also organised the first Adult Learners’ Week (in the teeth of a good deal of internal opposition), launching an idea now copied in countries around the world, developed NIACE’s campaigning and publications operations, and transformed NIACE’s research and policy-making capability, supported by outstanding staff such as Naomi Sargant and Alastair Thomson.

I joined NIACE as editor of Adults Learning in September 2002 having spent the previous few years teaching and researching. The panel that interviewed me included Jane Thompson, one of the best and most influential writers on adult education and a big supporter of the journal. I had worked in journalism in the past but not for the best part of a decade. I knew very little about publishing and had no experience whatsoever of magazine production. I came to it with the idea of creating something that was thoughtful and rigorous, yet accessible to the average reader, while making it look ‘as nice as we can afford to’ (to quote Williams’ reply to a critic of his editorship of The Highway). I also, like Williams, wanted to make it about ‘the interests of the adult education movement as a whole’ rather than the narrower concerns of NIACE (something, I should add, Alan Tuckett enthusiastically supported, recognising that an editorially independent journal was, in some respects, better for NIACE, as well as for the wider sector).

The people who agreed to write for me or be interviewed by me included not only some of the luminaries of the adult education world but also adult education teachers and students. All, almost without exception, were happy to contribute their work without a fee. I was lucky to be able to include the work of some outstanding writers, including regular columnists John Field and Tom Schuller, Alison Wolf, Ewart Keep, Mick Fletcher, Anna Coote, Ian Martin, Ann Walker, Mike Campbell, Mary Stuart, Stephen McNair, Frank Coffield, Jane Thompson, Ken Spours, Ann Hodgson, Lorna Unwin, Kathryn Ecclestone, Gert Biesta, Veronica McGivney, Jim Crowther, Mark Ravenhall, Alastair Thomson and, of course, Alan Tuckett. There are many more and I apologise to those I have omitted to mention. Keen to broaden the appeal of the journal and to highlight the wider relevance of adult education I also interviewed a number of people who, while outside the sector, had things to say which adult educators would find relevant, engaging or inspirational. These included Richard Hoggart, Tony Benn, Maggi Hambling, Esther Brunstein, David Puttnam and the incredible Margaret Aspinall of the Hillsborough Family Support Group (the interview that will stay with me the longest). One-off issues on special themes, such as poverty and low pay, were an attempt to do something similar. I also visited and reported on some remarkable projects, such as the North Edinburgh Social History Group, Tent City University, Lincoln’s Social Science Centre and Liverpool’s The Reader Organisation.

One small coup, in May 2010, was publishing one of the first interviews with new Prime Minister David Cameron (though it was actually written shortly before the election – we also persuaded Gordon Brown and Nick Clegg to answer the same questions). Mr Cameron’s warm words and passionately stated commitment to ‘adult learning and the way it inspires people’ are well worth revisiting in the light of the cuts which have since decimated the sector.

Funding cuts and the decline in policy interest in adult education which accompanied the growing obsession of ministers with skills and employability (narrowly conceived) made it difficult to maintain a journal that was about adult education as a whole, rather than, say, skills or training, or further education. Subscriber numbers fell and, without resources to market or source advertising, it was perhaps inevitable that the journal would close. Nevertheless, I think it did something very valuable in offering a very diverse and often disconnected readership a sense of being part of something bigger, whether that was understood to mean a movement or a sector. As John Field said to me once, it gave people a sense of the whole forest, not just the trees surrounding them. It was a place where it was all brought together: what adult education does, the difference it can make and why it matters, in all its different guises and settings. It helped people think and encouraged them to become participants in the leadership of thought in adult education. It also tried to keep alive the link with adult education’s historic roots. It is a real concern that there is now so little defence of adult education that is about anything other than skills for work. We need to do more to resist this and rediscover some of the values of our past, as well as finding find new ways to talk about them.

I fear there is no bringing back Adults Learning but I do believe there is a need for something that does what it used to, though perhaps in a new form. I’d love hear what people think about this and what their thoughts are as to what might replace Adults Learning, what the sector needs and what would be valuable as a way of developing thinking and advocacy within and about adult education. Please feel free to comment on this post. I’d love to hear what you think.

Some of the material for the article draws on Sander Meredeen’s excellent book, The Man Who Made Penguins: The Life of Sir William Emrys Williams (Darien Jones Publishing, 2007)

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