Learning to live together: Adult education and society

My mum organises a group for local artists in her village. It’s a friendly, well-established and tightly knit group, mostly made up of older people in their sixties and seventies. Members meet weekly and pay a small contribution to cover the costs of room rental and the life model’s fees, but expenses are kept low so that even those on the most modest incomes can afford to attend. It’s a brilliant example of the sort of vibrant self-organised informal learning that John Denham envisaged when he was Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, and that David Cameron spoke of with notable warmth shortly before assuming office.

Over the past few months, however, my mum’s group has been obliged to change location repeatedly, as a succession of community venues have closed down. The Conservative club where they met for many years has been sold to pub chain Wetherspoons. The British Legion club they moved to next was, within a few months, pulled down to build a large private house. For a while they met in a room above a pub, before incurring the wrath of a prudish and ill-tempered landlord who threw them out without notice. They are currently meeting in a portacabin in a train station car park; the only affordable venue they have been able to find.

It’s a story that will, I suspect, be familiar to informal learners around the country, as important community resources, such as public libraries, adult education centres and voluntary sector providers close down, squeezed out by the ongoing withdrawal of local government funding. Safe, affordable (public and private) spaces in which people can come together, to learn or share an interest, or just to get out of the house – where, in short, they can be more than just individuals – are in increasingly short supply. The disappearance of the ring-fenced community learning budget – so passionately defended for so many years but now quietly subsumed within a larger adult education budget – is likely to mean a further squeeze on less formal kinds of provision. This is a largely unnoticed but extremely costly loss. These critical resources, while scarcely visible to some (for the most part, we pass them by without noticing they are there or having the vaguest idea what goes on inside), are, nevertheless, of life-saving and life-changing importance to others. The government, in shrugging off yet another ‘unintended consequence’ of its programme of public sector cuts, looks likely to bequeath to coming generations a legacy far more poisonous than the fondly invoked ‘mess’ it says it ‘inherited’. It will leave behind a severely diminished and dysfunctional civil society.

At the same time, more formal opportunities for adults to come together and learn have been disappearing at an unprecedented rate, to the point of near extinction. More than two million adult learning places in further education have disappeared since 2003; 1.3 million of them since 2010, according to Skills Funding Agency figures. This year alone, the adult skills budget has been cut by 28 per cent (in this context, the chancellor’s announcement of cash-terms protection for non-apprenticeship adult skills funding looks like a bit of a fig leaf). Part-time mature student numbers in higher education have fallen by more than 40 per cent since loans were introduced for part-time students and fees escalated, while the Open University has seen student numbers drop by 30 per cent. In an ageing society, where people are living and working longer, where changing technology demands more and more of us as learners, where people’s separateness and isolation threatens the cohesion of communities, it is surely not unreasonable to expect government to do more – something – to arrest this decline. Yet, as the recent higher education Green Paper demonstrated, ministers remain fixated on the idea of initial – rather than lifelong – education and particularly the gilded path through A-levels to university. Part-time higher education, so plainly in need of intervention, was scarcely mentioned. The attitude of ministers to further education has also been disgracefully complacent. The Public Accounts Committee chair Meg Hillier noted today that the government has been ‘desperately slow off the mark’ in responding the ‘looming crisis’ in FE and urged it to ‘act now to ensure FE is put on a stable financial footing’.

Britain has a proud tradition of second-chance learning, community self-help, workers’ education and university lifelong learning (though the latter was decimated by Labour’s daft ELQ rule, which withdrew funding for students studying at a level equivalent to or below their highest existing qualification). Most UK governments, for most of the twentieth century, broadly supported and recognised the value of adult education, though with varying degrees of enthusiasm and understanding. The growing focus on courses with a direct pay-off in terms of employment or employability from the early years of this century saw a sharp narrowing of opportunity, both in terms of learner numbers and the richness of the adult education offer. We have now reached a point where publicly supported adult education could soon be a thing of the past, at a time when, you might think, it is more necessary, relevant and important than ever, given the social and economic challenges we face. Its decline has coincided with an explosion of interest in MOOCs, yet this development, while holding out many exciting possibilities, should not be thought of as a replacement for face-to-face or group-based learning. In an ideal world, it should complement it. Place matters to learning, and so does community.

I was struck by how impoverished the language we use to talk about adult education in the UK has become when I read the European Association for the Education of Adults’ Manifesto for Adult Learning in the 21st Century. Adult education, it says, can change lives and transform society, making a significant contribution to a range of important policy agendas, including the promotion of active citizenship, the development of key life skills crucial to mental health and wellbeing, and the creation of a more socially cohesive, fairer and more equal society capable of dealing with demographic change and migration. It also notes the role adult education has to play in delivering economic growth, employment and innovation, and in promoting environmental sustainability. The breadth of ambition reflected in these aims echoes Jacques Delors’ ‘four pillars of lifelong learning’: ‘learning to know’, ‘learning to do’, ‘learning to be’ and ‘learning to live together’. As Alan Tuckett suggested in his recent inaugural lecture as Professor of Education at the University of Wolverhampton, we are guilty of stressing the first two of these pillars – which concern the development of knowledge and skills – to the almost complete exclusion of the last two, learning for personal development, which is now largely the preserve of the better off, and learning for social cohesion and active democratic participation, which is now almost completely neglected in policy and funding terms. It is through these latter kinds of learning that we become more civil and decent, healthier and happier, and develop the attitudes and values that support the growth of a more democratic, socially cohesive society. Adult education should be seen not just as a means of producing a job-ready, compliant workforce, but as a crucial policy tool in promoting democracy and social inclusion.

It is critical, of course, that people have a good initial education and develop skills that enable them to make a living and contribute to the economy. But we also need education that is both genuinely lifelong and supportive of people’s desire to lead fulfilling lives as part of strong, thriving communities. This has long been part of the adult education tradition in the UK. One of the strongest of the movement’s threads has been that of its social relevance, the idea that adult education can make society fairer and more equal, cohesive and democratic. In pursuit of that aim, adult educators have created spaces for people to come together not only to make sense of their own lives and problems but also society’s; spaces in which people can engage in democracy, politics and citizenship in a way that is surely more meaningful than the prevailing model in which people attempt to direct their concerns to distant politicians who largely ignore them and, for the most part, don’t understand them. As Hannah Arendt argued, education is the point at which ‘we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it’. The safe space it provides to question and dissent, to challenge and, just as importantly, be challenged, is absolutely critical, both to democracy and to community, which is why such spaces should be open, to everyone, whatever their age or stage of education. The more isolated we become, the more fissures and fault lines arise in society, the more challenged we are to change and do things differently, the more important, I think, such spaces become. As generations of educators have realised, change is only possible if people are engaged, informed, cooperative and willing and able to contribute, when they have, in Arendt’s terms, ‘assumed responsibility’.

No-one, of course, expects government to pay for everybody’s post-compulsory education, at every level; the creation of a lifelong learning society has to be a cooperative endeavour in which everyone is involved and contributes fairly. But it is clear that we need more from government, including recognition of the wider value of adult education, a strategy for its long-term survival and a more generous basic settlement to help secure the future of both formal and informal types of adult learning, for everyone, and not just those who can afford the fees. A joined-up national policy for adult education, drawing on the wide body of existing research into its multi-layered and far-reaching benefits and acknowledging the importance of place, community and informality in learning, would be a useful start. That research demonstrates, among other things, that our politicians’ ambitions for education are just not bold enough, and that their thinking is simply not brave or coherent enough; not if we are to address the very real challenges we are faced with.