Why adult education is worth saving

Learning isn’t just about consuming chunks of knowledge in order to be able to do a job. It’s about broadening the mind, giving people self-belief, strengthening the bonds of community … Adult learning has a really important role to play in encouraging active citizenship … Going along to college means meeting people, discussing what’s going on in the world, boosting your belief in what you can do. It’s that self-belief that leads people to get involved in their communities and become more active citizens. Given that my vision for this country is for all of us to get involved and play our part in national renewal, I believe adult learning and the way it inspires people is crucially important.

David Cameron, Adults Learning, May 2010

The government’s 2015 comprehensive spending review looms large, with yet more large-scale reductions expected to the budget of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, the policy lead for adult education. Another round of cuts – perhaps, this time, mortal ones – are predicted for adult further education, while the safeguarded adult and community learning budget, which has been ‘maintained’ at £210 million for the past decade, is under renewed scrutiny. The sharks of austerity are circling.

That this small but, nevertheless, critical budget line has been retained at all is a minor miracle. Successive ministers have appeared to take great pleasure in deriding this sort of learning, dismissing it, variously, as ‘holiday Spanish’ (John Denham), ‘Pilates … and over-subsidised flower arranging’ (Alan Johnson) and ‘Australian cake decoration’ (Phil Hope). Yet it continues to signify the government’s recognition that there is value in learning that does not necessarily lead directly to qualifications or vocational skills. Its survival owes much to the quiet, persistent advocacy of organisations such as NIACE, the Workers’ Educational Association and Holex, and the passionate support of John Hayes, who was coalition skills minister during the 2010 comprehensive spending review. Hayes and his secretary of state, Vince Cable, to their great credit, saw the value of adult education and of further education more widely, and held firm in the face of Treasury scepticism and the ill-judged advice of their civil servants.

Sadly, such ministerial support is now in short supply. Adult and further education have few obvious friends in government. Even with the support of Hayes and Cable, the budget for adult and community learning has stagnated, while the proportion of resources spent on adult education has shrunk (the eye-catching 24 per cent cut to the adult skills budget for 2015/16 followed other substantial funding cuts to adult FE). This is partly, I think, because adult and further education is poorly understood by ministers who, in most cases, have no experience of it and (with the above honourable exceptions) little sense of its value, and partly because, with no powerful public or political lobby to back it, it is reckoned a low-risk target for cuts. What Alan Tuckett, writing in Adults Learning in 2005, described as a ‘rich mix of worthwhile learning that sits outside the narrowness of the national qualifications framework’ is now very much less rich thanks to more than a decade of cuts, under Labour, the coalition and the Tories, and the now entrenched view among ministers that education (with the exception of some higher education) is fundamentally about developing skills for the workforce.

While ministers, and even Prime Minister David Cameron, have paid lip service to the wider value of adult and community learning and ‘other’ further education, this narrowly economic view of the purposes of education has, in reality, carried all before it. Post-compulsory education, with the exception of universities, is now organised around the principle set out in Sir Andrew Foster’s 2005 review of further education, that the mission of a further education college is ‘to improve employability and skills in its local area, contributing to economic growth and social inclusion’. Social objectives are acknowledged but they are to be met by the same means through which economic growth is to be achieved: by helping people ‘gain the skills and qualification for employability’. However cleverly this shift in emphasis is spun, the outcome is the same: the destruction of great swathes of provision with huge social value but no direct pay-off in terms of employability and vocational skills.

The stagnation of the adult and community learning budget and the dramatic reductions in adult further education are symptomatic of the view that only education and training which deliver skills directly related to employability are worth funding. Even on its own terms, this narrow view does not bear up to scrutiny. With an ageing population and a third of the British workforce projected to be over 50 by 2020, it is obvious that the economy needs both older workers to retrain and reskill and disengaged adults (young and older) who were failed by the education system first time around to return to education and training. This won’t be achieved simply by offering courses which deliver vocational skills. Adults the furthest distance from the labour market often need multiple points of entry in settings in which they feel safe and which offer something different to their experience of schooling. As David Cameron argued in 2010, they often need to build confidence and self-belief, something that can take numerous tries, in settings some distance from the workplace or the conventional classroom.

By investing in people’s education at this stage we contribute to their employability by making them more confident, reasonable, cooperative and resilient, so supporting economic growth and productivity. Just as important though are the numerous social outcomes. There is a strong body of research attesting to the benefits of adult learning in terms of mental and physical health and wellbeing, civic and community engagement, crime reduction and family life (including the educational attainment of children). Even accepting the government’s overarching emphasis on productivity (as Tawney argued, ‘a confusion of means with ends’), it is obvious that cutting provision with these outcomes is going to prove counter-productive. If the government is serious about improving UK productivity it needs to combine a focus on vocational skills with investment in more basic, community-level education, as well as in a broader post-16 curriculum offer capable of delivering the more general sort of education taken for granted by, for example, apprentices in Germany, where productivity – in my view, not unrelatedly – is much higher.

There are other troubling signs too. UK employers continue to lag behind their international competitors in terms of investment in training while fee increases and the limited availability of loans have led to a dramatic reduction in part-time student numbers. Given that part-time students are typically older adults combining work and family life with study in order to up-skill or change career, this is plainly a pretty dreadful outcome when it comes to improving productivity. It also runs contrary to what David Cameron argued for in the 2010 interview quoted above, a university system that recognises ‘that people’s lives are messy and varied’ and that ‘[m]any don’t fit neatly into the shape of traditional university or college education’. At the same time, many further education colleges, which traditionally have offered adults a local, affordable chance to change direction, think again or simply get on, are likely to face closure or merger, as a result of the government’s local area reviews. This is certain to mean a further narrowing of opportunities for adults to learn. With its focus on young, full-time residential HE study and its obsession with apprenticeships (the answer to some of life’s questions but surely not all of them), the government is squeezing out other kinds of provision and modes of delivery which are not only important in their own right but critical to the fair and successful functioning of our education system, and, therefore, the economy, as a whole. There is little evidence to suggest that ministers recognise that education is a system and that changes in one part of the system affect the successful operation of others, as well as of the system itself.

Adult education has always been about the economy. But it has also always been about other things too, as David Blunkett acknowledged in his 1998 green paper, The Learning Age (from which this site takes its name). Blunkett wrote of learning:

It helps make ours a civilised society, develops the spiritual side of our lives and promotes active citizenship. Learning enables people to play a full part in their community. It strengthens the family, the neighbourhood and consequently the nation. It helps us fulfil our potential and opens doors to a love of music, art and literature. That is why we value learning for its own sake as well as for the equality of opportunity it brings.

By limiting the availability of this sort of broader, liberal education to elite universities and the sons and daughters of privilege, the government is sending a clear message to those who were not fortunate enough to follow the gilded path from school, through A-levels into higher education: music, art, literature etc are for other people – stick with what you know. By cutting the adult and community learning budget, it would be sending an equally clear and uncompromising message to those with the greatest distance to travel to formal education and a job: you’re on your own – if you want a better life, don’t expect any help from us. This, to me, goes against what every civilised society should aspire to: a decent education and opportunities to succeed whoever you are, wherever you are from and whoever your parents happen to be. That must mean not just first chances, but second, third and fourth chances for everyone, at every stage of their lives and careers. In terms of economic competitiveness and productivity, social cohesion, and the development of a healthy, resilient, creative and engaged population, I can’t think of a better, more cost-effective or sensible investment.

The Workers’ Educational Association has launched a petition to stop further cuts to adult education. Please consider signing it.

To learn more about the campaign to save adult education go to: http://fefunding.org.uk/.

Class, Corbyn and the cult of austerity

The difficulty in understanding what is really going on in Britain, Raymond Williams wrote in 1960, ‘is that too much is being said by too few people’. The same is true today, only more so. Not only is the current Westminster commentariat small in number, it is exclusive in background, in terms of schooling, political outlook, ethnic background and social class, to an extent that would have surprised even Williams, I suspect. It would have been difficult, from the vantage of the 1960s, to have predicted quite how unequal and divided a society we would become in so short a time.

Of course, as Sadiq Khan said eloquently about his wealthy mayoral opponent Zac Goldsmith, having a privileged background does not exclude you from empathy, and it certainly does not mean that your opinion is wrong or lacks value. But it is a clear indictment of the quality of our democracy – and the failings of our education system – that those charged with interpreting politics for the general public – those, in other words, with the most influence over public opinion about politics – are, like the politicians they talk to and write about, drawn overwhelmingly from a narrow, privileged section of society. This perhaps explains the degree of indulgence (so far) afforded to David Cameron in the reporting of alleged indiscretions during his student days. It is hard to imagine this relatively sympathetic coverage being extended to Jeremy Corbyn.

It would be surprising, given this background, if the range of opinion on offer in our print and broadcast media was broad and inclusive. And, indeed, it is not. The range of debate in the mainstream media is extremely narrow. The broad consensus in the media about the need for austerity cuts contrasts with the substantially more varied spectrum of opinion among economists and the general public. As a result, there has been little real scrutiny of the government’s economic position. Compare this to the aggressive, often hectoring tone in which opposition policy is questioned, and it becomes clear that this unfair and unbalanced approached to political reporting and commentary is threatening (perhaps preventing) the successful functioning of our democracy.

This is not only about social background. There are powerful, fiercely defended vested interests shaping UK media coverage. But the fact that so many of our leading journalists come from privileged backgrounds – the Sutton Trust reported in 2006 that most ‘leading’ journalists went to independent schools, compared to seven per cent of the population as a whole, while just 14 per cent had attended comprehensive school (compared to 90 per cent of the population) – and have, quite often, to varying degrees, a stake in these same interests, makes it much more likely that the artificial confinement of debate will go unchallenged. There is a stark contrast between the cosy affability and rough uniformity of opinion to be found in most UK political programming and the desperate desire for change felt by so many ‘ordinary’ people who believe their views have no outlet.

All of this has been thrown into sharp relief by the election of Mr Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party, a remarkable turn of events which sent much of the mainstream media into a state of deranged frenzy. Almost all of the media – like the other three Labour leadership candidates – have, to differing degrees, accepted a heavily politicized version of recent political and economic events, committing to the necessity of austerity politics and the myth that Labour overspending was a contributory factor in the financial crash (either in directly causing it and thus crashing the economy or, in a more polished version for the better educated, in leaving the country unprepared to cope with it). Winning this ‘argument’ has been critical for the Conservatives, and gave them the platform they needed to win a majority in the general election (credit where it’s due: they couldn’t have done it without the support of the Liberal Democrats). It provided the ultimate justification for the huge cuts in public spending and the misery they are causing to poor and vulnerable people across the country (those, the story goes, whose demands on the public purse plunged us into economic crisis in the first place). The problem with Corbyn, from the point of view of the mainstream media and of mainstream politics more generally, is that his success was due largely to his rejection of this view.

Unsurprisingly, the media would prefer not to have this debate. The same is true of our politicians. Tony Blair described Corbyn’s outline economic plan as ‘Alice in Wonderland’ politics, while the new leader of the Liberal Democrats, anxious to occupy what he wants us to believe is the centre ground, said this week that Corbyn was engaged in ‘fantasy’ economics. None of this of course constitutes a debate. It is an attempt to close it down. But there is, at the very least, a serious debate to be had here. Most of what Corbyn is proposing, including borrowing to finance investment, national ownership of the railways and quantitative easing to finance public services during time of recession, is not unreasonable or untested, and has the support of many mainstream economists. And while you may not agree with all of Corbyn’s views, on Trident, for example, they are surely worth a serious, national debate, if only because they are shared by many thousands of UK voters. They certainly do not deserve to be derided as childish, dangerous, backward-looking or foolish. The effort being made to close down these debates reflects the remarkably shallow and unequal nature of our democracy.

One of the main uses to which austerity politics has been put is to convince people that moral and political choices are facts of life they cannot change, and that they really have no option when it comes to the kind of society they live in. Political decisions, often driven by ideology, are passed off as tough choices necessitated by difficult times over which politicians have no control. It’s vital to the health of democratic society that people understand that change is possible. Much of what we now value and admire about our society – universal suffrage, for example – is the result of the efforts of difficult, awkward people who were derided as childish, dangerous, backward-looking or foolish. No society, as R.H. Tawney argued, can be too poor to seek a ‘right order to life’ – or so rich that it does not need to. We shouldn’t be discouraged from asking difficult questions because people who believe they know better tell us things can’t change. We are not obliged to put economic considerations before human ones. This is, in itself, a moral and political choice that can be challenged and resisted. As Tawney recognised, the creation of a ‘right order of life’ is the first business of politics. Those who try to convince us otherwise should be viewed with suspicion.

Tawney poses an interesting question here. It’s one that will, I think, resonate with those who work in adult education, particularly with next month’s spending review looming large and the new secretary of state reportedly keen to impress by taking a huge hit to his departmental budget (an odd form of initiation but perhaps not the oddest I can think of). The small but important adult and community learning budget, long protected (though only in cash terms), is once again under scrutiny, with sector leaders preparing to make an economic case for something that is, like adult education more generally, of far wider value. We have been doing this for some time, playing the Treasury’s game while privately finding other ways of valuing the work we do. In fact, despite the economic case having been made exceptionally well, backed by a strong body of research, including that produced by the Centre for Research on the Wider Benefits of Learning, publicly funded adult education is facing its end game. Adult further education is widely predicted to be a thing of the past by 2020 while part-time higher education continues to decline rapidly with ministers happy to turn a blind eye as long as full-time numbers hold up. Yet it’s obvious that we need much more of both. The economic case is clear, well made, yet ignored. Perhaps it is time to take a different tack, offering a wider vision for adult education tied to a more optimistic view of what is possible for us, as a society. It may be that by adopting the language and values of those who do not, by and large, understand us, we are inadvertently contributing to our own demise.