Uncritical friends

When I began work for NIACE (the National Institute for Adult Continuing Education, since merged to become the Learning and Work Institute) in 2002, the institute had entered into close partnership with a Labour government that was, at least in its first few years in office, strongly committed to progressive reform and investment in the adult learning and further education. NIACE’s approach was not universally acclaimed. Many in the sector – or the ‘movement’, as we still thought of it then – opposed NIACE’s approach. Critics felt that there was a danger of NIACE becoming too close to government, that accepting significant amounts of government funding for project implementation would tie its hands when it came to resisting regressive or potentially harmful policy reform.

NIACE was well aware of these objections and took them seriously. However, the view of director Alan Tuckett and his policy consigliere Alastair Thomson was that it was better to be at the table with ministers and civil servants, 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. I have written elsewhere that this calculation was, on balance, a sound one (even if it meant that NIACE could not take everyone in the field with them). NIACE was able to exercise a strong influence on policy (in some cases, effectively writing it), to keep adult education at the forefront of ministers’ minds, and to effect significant reversals in policy where the prospects of adult learning and adult learners were perceived to be in danger. Although I was sceptical about this approach at first, I came to admire it and to see the value in NIACE’s willingness to put outcomes for adult learners above recognition (and, for some, credibility) in the field. As I have observed before, much of NIACE’s best advocacy work ‘was conducted sotto voce, with the institute preferring to be privately effective rather than publicly lauded’ (perhaps, one day, Alan or Alastair will tell this story – it would make a fascinating book).

What made this approach work and kept NIACE, as it were, honest, was the institute’s willingness to bite that hand that fed it, to tell ministers when their policies were likely to prove harmful to adult learners and to campaign with partners against regressive policy, in the interests of learners. NIACE styled itself as a ‘critical friend’ of government. This did not mean that the institute was unable to offer meaningful criticism but, rather, that the criticism it gave was frequently delivered privately and always in a constructive way, as a means of improving learning outcomes. As the Labour government lost sight of the animating spirit of David Blunkett’s The Learning Age, with its invocations of enlightenment and its aspiration to create a ‘learning society’, and focused funding increasingly on basic skills and employability, NIACE became more publicly critical of the direction of policy (see Alan Tuckett’s TES columns from 2003 on) while nevertheless maintaining good relationships with key ministers and civil servants, which meant that the government was aware of what the institute was doing, even if they could not be expected to like it. This enabled the institute to reduce some of the negative impact of policy, but it was unable, in the end, to change its direction. As funding for other types of adult learning shrivelled up and learner numbers went into steep and, as yet, unarrested, decline, NIACE’s approach cannot be declared an unmitigated success, but it was, to my mind, the right way to go and remains a useful template for advocacy in education.

One of its successes was to transmit the institute’s vision for adult education and lifelong learning to the incoming secretary of state and minister for further education, Vince Cable and John Hayes, respectively, following the 2010 General Election and the advent of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government. NIACE had cultivated a strong relationship with John Hayes and his adviser Scott Kelly when they were in opposition and, indeed, Hayes’s first speech as minister was given at an Adult Learners’ Week policy event. Cable too was a long-standing friend of NIACE, with personal experience of the benefits of adult education. These relationships helped ensure that adults learners were protected from the worst possible effects of austerity-induced cuts (for example, the anticipated withdrawal of ‘safeguarded’ funding for adult and community learning) and that further education survived the threat of having all of its funding withdrawn (a proposal put to Cable by a department civil servant). Nevertheless, the broad drift of policy – driven by an ideologically motivated desire to shrink the public sector – was hugely damaging to adult education, as part-time and mature student numbers went into freefall and the crisis in adult participation in further education was deepened. For all the talk about the wider benefits of adult learning – in 2010, for example, new Prime Minister David Cameron told Adults Learning that ‘adult learning and the way it inspires people is crucially important’ – the view that adult education is about the development of workforce skills increased its hold on policy, and the enthusiasm of ministers frequently amounted to little more than hot air. As I recall Alan Tuckett’s successor at NIACE, David Hughes, remarking, adult education now enjoys warm rhetorical support from ministers and shadow ministers alike, but this is rarely translated into policy. Still less is it reflected in outcomes for learners.

Undoubtedly, organisations such as NIACE that choose to work closely with government in shaping policy, and that accept money for support in implementation, do so at some cost to their independence and credibility among supporters. Despite this, as NIACE also showed, it is possible to achieve meaningful positive outcomes and to be critical, both privately and publicly, in an effective and useful way. However, sharing the table with policy-makers assumes a climate in which values and objectives are also, to a large extent, shared and where commitments made can be taken at face value. What I suspect we have seen in recent years is, on the one hand, an increasing preparedness among those in power to say one thing in public but think another, entirely incompatible, thing in private, and, on the other, a growing unwillingness among organisations dependent on public funding to call out policies that fail to live up to the avowed values of politicians, or indeed their own values. The broad nature of the impact of austerity has meant that organisations with an unhealthy dependency on government support have not been able to diversify their funding base (a long-standing problem faced by NIACE, which was never, to my understanding, adequately resolved). At the same time, the quality of political debate has declined, with policy-makers eschewing evidence in favour of the opinions of experts with whom they agree. Such unequal relationships cannot reasonably be termed friendships, still less critical ones.

In the best of friendships, values are to the fore, as is mutual respect. Where values move too far apart or respect diminishes, relationships break down or become abusive and unequal. If we remain in these circumstances, we run the risk of aiding damaging behaviour, or of being complicit in it. This has increasingly become my concern about the relationship between the key advocacy groups in the adult and further education sector in the UK and the government. When we agree to work closely with the government in implementing reforms necessitated by austerity, are we abetting that policy? When we accept the latest prime ministerial promise concerning further education at face value and flag up our willingness to work with the government to make it a reality, are we really doing the best for the learners and providers we represent? Rather than celebrating the support of politicians, shouldn’t we be calling them out as hypocrites who attach too little value to keeping their promises? This has always been a difficult road to walk and some degree of compromise is certainly inevitable. And, of course, much of the good work these groups do is not visible. But I have to wonder if we now have the balance right or whether we need to take an altogether more sceptical approach to our work with government and use our influence not only to secure the survival of our bit of the sector but also to assert our values and widen the diversity and authenticity of voices at the policy table accordingly.

What made the NIACE model work was the fact that the institute had an unarguable bottom line – it was about defending the interests of adult learners of all kinds and across all sectors. It was not simply banging the drum for one bit of the sector or one group of providers. This is what made it such an important and irreplaceable part of the education policy community, and is the reason the Learning and Work Institute, for all its excellent work, cannot be said to occupy quite the same space or to fulfil quite the same purpose. I do not want to say that we have reached a point where the values and objectives of government are so removed from the progressive values of the further and adult education community that we can no longer sit around the table together. But the conversations we have there should reflect our understanding that we no longer operate in a particularly benign or progressive political environment. They should also acknowledge the fact that core values are not negotiable and come as a package – one cannot be sacrificed or silenced for another. There is also something dissatisfying about the prevailing one-dimensional, high-level model of policy influencing. We strengthen the branches but neglect the roots. I would like to see advocacy groups do more to strengthen their links with civil society and rediscover the social purpose ethos that has underpinned the adult education movement in the UK for well over a century. Time spent rediscovering our shared mission is never wasted because it reminds us that learners do not care about who is providing what – they want, and deserve, solutions that work for them, and that places on the sector an obligation to advocate holistic solutions that do not involve robbing Peter to pay Paul. We are the guardians of our mission and values. If we do not call out policies and practices that fail to live up to them, who will?

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