The shared society and the myth of meritocracy

Theresa May made a revealing foray into the world of ‘blue-skies’ policy thinking at the weekend with the publication of a Sunday Telegraph article in which she described her mission to tackle ‘some of the burning injustices’ that ‘undermine the solidarity of our society’ through the creation of ‘the shared society’. The article is worth reading in full not because the notion of a ‘shared society’ is likely to prove particularly useful or long-lived – the fate of its predecessor, the ‘big society’, suggests otherwise – but because it tells us rather a lot about the kind of society the Prime Minister would like to create. It is, perhaps unsurprisingly, not so very different to the one we already inhabit.

Taking last June’s referendum vote, rather oddly, as a mandate ‘to seize the opportunity of building a stronger, fairer Britain that works for everyone, not just the privileged few’, May promises to address the ‘everyday injustices that ordinary working class families feel are too often overlooked’. More ‘obvious’ injustices – things like child poverty and social inequality, I assume – have enjoyed the spotlight for too long and, while they are no closer to being solved, it seems it is time to move on. Perhaps the problem is that progress against those issues it just too straightforward to evaluate. Instead, May’s focus will be on less tangible and harder-to-measure problems such as job insecurity, the cost of living and ‘getting your children into a good school’. Despite protestations that ‘there is more to life than individualism and self-interest’, she is not prepared to attribute any nobler sentiments to the working-class people she writes about. May’s view of working people’s day-to-day worries is one of unrelenting self-interest. This makes sense, since the appeal May makes is not to lofty ambitions for a better society but to a mean-spirited concern that someone might be getting something they aren’t entitled to. It’s socialism for the small of heart.

May’s vision, she goes on to explain, is of a ‘shared’ society that ‘doesn’t just value our individual rights but focuses rather more on the responsibilities we have to one another’, where the ‘social and cultural unions represented by families, communities, towns, cities, countries and nations are the things that define us and make us strong’. She promises to ‘move beyond the narrow focus on social justice – where we help the poorest – and social mobility – where we help the brightest among the poor’. Instead, her government will engage in ‘wide-ranging’ social reform to give ‘those who feel that the system is stacked against them’ the ‘support they need’. So far, so vague. What specific policies does May have in mind? These will be policies that ‘give a fair chance to those who are just getting by, as well as those who are most disadvantaged’. And more specifically still? ‘From tackling the increasing lack of affordability in housing, fixing broken markets to help with the cost of living, and building a great meritocracy where every child has the opportunity of a good school place, we will act across every layer of society to restore the fairness that is the bedrock of the social solidarity that makes our nation strong.’

There is little content here with which to engage but the use of the term ‘meritocracy’ is particularly revealing. It is an unintentional indicator of where the government’s real values and intentions lie and of the hollowness of May’s rhetoric about social solidarity. The term ‘meritocracy’ was, of course, coined by the social entrepreneur Michael Young for satirical purposes. He applied it to an imagined future society (again, not so very different to our own) in which elites devise a system whereby ‘merit’ becomes associated with the attributes they possess and, by grading all children against their notion of ‘merit’, create a ‘new social class without room in it for others’. Class and racial inequalities are thus ignored, while those in power, overlooking their huge advantages and the overwhelming odds stacked in their favour, come to believe in the myth of natural superiority they have created. As Young put it in a 2001 Guardian article criticising Tony Blair’s misuse of the term:

With an amazing battery of certificates and degrees at its disposal, education has put its seal of approval on a minority, and its seal of disapproval on the many who fail to shine from the time they are relegated to the bottom streams at the age of seven or before. The new class has the means at hand, and largely under its control, by which it reproduces itself.

As Theresa May has made clear in a number of speeches and articles, fairness, for her, is interchangeable with the idea of meritocracy. That is why the first concrete example given by a cabinet minister (Justine Greening) of what policy under a shared society might look like was the government’s planned expansion of grammar schools. This policy, which might be described as the flagship policy of May’s government and which May has personally forced through in spite of the opposition of many senior members of her own party, is regularly cited by the Prime Minster and her education secretary as a policy with fairness at its heart. Yet all the evidence tells us that in areas where selection takes place poorer pupils fare less well. In fact, grammar schools are not about social mobility at all, nor have they ever been. They make it much harder for poorer children to get on; ensuring those who can afford to pay can coach their children into passing the 11-plus. The vast majority of grammar schools admit only a tiny proportion of children from the poorest families. This is the very stuff of Michael Young’s dystopian nightmare, with the testing of children and young people fetishised and educational selection rife.

This, it seems, is what Theresa May understands by meritocracy – a system rigged in favour of those who already hold all the cards, where warm words are offered instead of concrete measures to address the real and entrenched inequalities that do inestimable harm to our society, and where interventions introduced in full knowledge of the harm they will do the poorest are justified in terms of social mobility. May’s latest speech on mental health was a case in point. She promised training for teachers to better identify mental health problems among students but offered no new money or any meaningful measures to address the causes of mental health problems among children and young people: reducing class sizes and moving away from the culture of relentless testing could be two useful measures, just for starters. In fact, May’s meritocracy is precisely what Michael Young satirized so brilliantly when he coined the term: a society organized to perpetuate and validate privilege; one in which the privileged are convinced they deserve whatever they can get their hands on, while those who have little are doubly damned: at once excluded and looked down on for it. If May is serious about addressing the causes of Brexit she should start closer to home – with the belief system which allows the rich to grab an ever-larger share of available wealth while telling those who are denied access to the same resources that they have only themselves to blame.

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“We wanted to change the world without a revolution”

I recall interviewing the historian of adult education John Harrison a decade or so ago. Looking back on his own career and those of his contemporaries, Richard Hoggart and Raymond Williams, he reflected that their aim, as adult educators, had been to “change the world without recourse to a revolution”. His remark, for me, neatly encapsulated the radical aims of the British adult education movement for much of the twentieth century – as well as its rejection of the more incendiary aims of the Marxist left accurately described by Hoggart as “middle class”. As Hoggart realised, Marxism never really caught the imagination of the British working class, whose radicalism took a more moderate, less violent form (Hoggart could make reading poetry seem a radical act – which, of course, it can be).

Those aspirations have fallen away somewhat as adult education has become to a large extent depoliticized and increasingly a tool of economic strategy, with adult educators chasing funding intended to support economic growth and promote employability, usually rather narrowly conceived. There is a tradition in the movement of interpreting these aims rather loosely in order to preserve at least part of its social purpose intent but this has become difficult to sustain in the face of the mass institutional vandalism of several generations of politicians (or both colours) who know the price of everything but see the value of nothing. The cultural infrastructure that enabled Britain to become a global leader in social purpose adult education with a focus on second-chance learners – the libraries, the departments of continuing education, the specialist institutions, the residential colleges, the programmes of part-time higher education, the local authority, adult education services – took many decades to build up and will not be reconstituted in many, many more.

These traditions are often in my mind these days, both because of the decline in the quality and subtlety of thought and ideas among what these days I suppose we might call the moderate left and because of the near-contempt shown by many current left-leaning thinkers and commentators (most of whom would, I guess, place themselves on the radical left) for the people whose interests they claim to have at heart but who, in reality, they appear to blame for most of the things they think are wrong in society: the working class (a similar contempt, I should add, is in evidence in the rhetoric of the right, though it is expressed more in its naked distortion of intent and its use of Orwellian double think, which reached its apogee under David Cameron and is being cheerfully continued by his unelected successor, Theresa May). It is as far as you could imagine from the thoughtful, compassionate and informed ideas of those radical left thinkers who cut their teeth in the adult education movement and knew first-hand the people and communities they wrote about and taught in. Most so-called progressive thinking now takes place in a rarefied space most working people know nothing about and which means absolutely nothing to them.

I read an interview with Alan Tuckett in which he drew a contrast between the significant role played by adult education in the build up to the 1975 referendum on entering the common market and the negligible role it played in the run-up to Britain’s decision to leave the EU – the result, he said, of a gradual shift in focus from political and social education and towards finance and administration. He remained, however, typically hopeful that adult education would find another way to push its roots through the cracks in our broken social and educational infrastructure. I suppose he is right to argue that we cannot go back to the past. Perhaps new and emerging social movements, many of which have used and reshaped traditional approaches to adult education, offer some hope. What troubles me, I suppose, is the huge divide that has opened up between working-class communities and progressive social and political movements and thinking. It is a gap that will not be bridged by any amount of name-calling or finger-pointing.

While I agree with Alan that adult education must, if it is to survive, find new ways to be relevant and useful, I think its traditions still have something important to teach us about how to bridge this divide. The Hoggarts, Williams and Harrisons of this world were, for me, genuinely radical because they took their ideas into the heart of working-class communities (communities, quite often, very like the ones in which they grew up) and saw themselves not as imparters of a gift but rather as learners themselves who took as much, if not more, from the students with whom they opened up a dialogue. We often hear about teachers who inspired students to be the people they became. But I have been just as struck over the years by the stories teachers have told me about their inspirational students. The important thing about the kinds of classes taught by Hoggart and Williams, and the Workers’ Educational Association approach more generally, is that they were seen as a kind of platform for negotiation or co-creation. The curriculum was not enforced, it was agreed. What the tutor brought to the classroom was just the start – the students took it somewhere else. That is what makes them so radical and still today, very often, such incredibly exciting places to be. It wouldn’t hurt the left to try listening for a change.

More than that, in our divided, post-trust society, I see in adult education a chance to span all kinds of divides; social, economic, cultural, religious or linguistic. It creates spaces in which prejudices are challenged, ideas are changed and wounds healed. That seems to me so very relevant to the issues we face today. We may not be able to rekindle “this great movement of ours” from the ashes in which it currently smolders, but its vision of slow, grassroots change, fueled by education with an unabashed social and civic purpose, remains, to my mind, our best hope of achieving something different to and better than the austere, unequal and socially disjointed vision that is the best that our politicians can offer.

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Hope and other casualties: An open letter to Theresa May

Dear Mrs May,

Your recent uncontested appointment as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and leader of the Conservative Party was widely welcomed, I suspect even among those who traditionally support other, more progressive political parties. Certainly, you presented a far more credible, calmer, more moderate and thoughtful leadership option than any of the other real or putative candidates. This feeling was encouraged by comments you made during your brief leadership campaign and in your first days as PM. You promised to fight the ‘burning injustices’ which mean that people born poor die earlier and that people who attend state school are far less likely to reach the top professions. This, I must admit, was music to my ears. I believed you were reaching out beyond the liberal wing of your own party to a wider constituency, politically and geographically, and I took at face value your determination to improve the lot of ‘ordinary working class families’ who have little job security and ‘worry about the cost of living and the quality of the local school’. This is close to my heart too.

It is, I suppose, rather early to form a judgement about your leadership but I must say that your early policy interventions fall some way short of delivering on this promise. In fact, they seem to me likely to make the lives of ‘ordinary working class families’ significantly harder, if implemented. I am thinking, in particular, of your policy on grammar schools, your largely unexamined enthusiasm for faith schools, the proposed cuts to 16-18 apprenticeship funding and the scrapping of maintenance grants. Together, they suggest not a new government full of new ideas and renewed social purpose but rather a tired, short-sighted administration with little option but to brush away the cobwebs and open up the policy drawer labelled ‘rubbish old ideas which have been tried before and failed utterly’. You can probably imagine how disappointed I feel right now. Nevertheless, I believe you were in good faith in your early pronouncements and I suspect you are the sort of leader who is unafraid to change her mind or think again, where the evidence demands it. Certainly, I hope so. With that in mind, I humbly offer three policy suggestions, all quite plausible and readily achievable, which will make a genuine difference to the lives and educational hopes of those whom you fear, quite correctly, have been ‘left behind’ by recent governments hell-bent on slashing the state, squeezing education funding and introducing a market in education.

End selection and scrap private school tax breaks

The first suggestion concerns your much-discussed plan to create more grammar schools. This is a tough one, personally, for you, I know. It is a policy you have enthusiastically championed and which is close to your heart. But it is also a dangerous and stupidly divisive policy, which will see new generations of young people labelled as failures (except, of course, those from middle class families who are unwilling to send their children to a school labelled second or third rate and can afford to send them to private school instead). I understand you went to a grammar school yourself so perhaps you do not fully appreciate the stigma still carried by those who failed their 11-plus and attended secondary modern school, notwithstanding their subsequent achievements. Children, as any teacher will tell you (and you should definitely consider listening to them – they know a lot of useful stuff), develop at different rates. Not everyone’s talents, academic or technical skills, or temperament have emerged fully aged 11. My own academic ability, such as it is, did not become apparent until sometime after I had left school. I was considered a difficult, disruptive pupil but, looking back, I think the problem was that I never really found in school education anything to engage me or that I was interested in. I suspect I would have found it much harder to subsequently work my way through university to postgraduate study and teaching had I had to carry about with me (not physically, of course, it’s much more permanent than that) certificated proof of my own lack of talent and ability.

The evidence, as you must surely know, tells us that in areas where selection takes place poorer pupils fare less well. When you think about it, this stands to reason. Selective schools overwhelmingly benefit middle-class children whose parents know the system and can afford to hire someone to coach them through the entrance exam (the prevalence of such coaching is reflected in the tendency of working-class university entrants to outperform middle-class counterparts with the same A-level scores). They disproportionately harm children from poorer families for whom private schooling isn’t an option and who will have to cope with larger class sizes, and poorer, less well-qualified and less-experienced teachers. The OECD’s head of education, Andreas Schleicher, confirmed this, noting that ‘any kind of one-off test is likely to favour social background over true academic potential … academic selection becomes social selection’. Evidence gathered by the OECD suggests that grammar schools are likely to benefit wealthy families without raising overall standards. This isn’t a big surprise as grammar schools were devised as a second tier in a three-tier education system modelled on existing social distinctions, with private schools at the top and secondary modern schools at the bottom. The upshot of this was a system which routinely wrote off the educational prospects of the majority of children and sent many of them into the world with barely adequate basic literacy and numeracy skills. The system was scrapped because it became clear that it was both cruel and unfair and unequal to the new demands of modern society and the emerging knowledge economy. Do you really think it is equal to the profound social and economic challenges our country faces today?

To introduce a policy in full knowledge of the harm it will do to the majority of pupils, at the same time as cutting college funding for 16-18-year-old apprentices, is not the sort of leadership I would expect from a PM committed to making the lives and life chances of disadvantaged children better. I am equally baffled by your plans to expand faith schools – a policy, once again, out of step both with the reality of life in modern society and the nature of the challenges we face as a society, which include breaking down, rather than cementing, patterns of segregation and discrimination. Allowing faith schools to be entirely composed of children whose parents are of a particular faith is unlikely to promote community cohesion. It does little for social mobility either since, as the Sutton Trust has shown, faith schools tend to select pupils from more affluent backgrounds. The lifting of the requirement that faith schools keep at least half of their places open to local children, regardless of their parents’ religion, is an extremely retrograde step that deserves much greater public scrutiny than it has thus far received.

All of this, to me, speaks not only of a lack of ideas but also of a lack of aspiration. It does not strike me as beyond reasonable ambition that we establish a good school in every neighbourhood, offering a good education to every child. As Mr Schleicher said, what we need is not more grammars or faith schools but ‘more schools that are more demanding and more rigorous’. And that shouldn’t mean more tests – we already test, measure and monitor far too much – it should mean a more flexible, but rigorous and purposeful curriculum, shaped by real need and sensitive to the different characters and life trajectories of young people, delivered by teachers trusted to do what they are best at and funded fairly and adequately, across the board. To increase funding for state schools the government could consider removing the charitable status currently enjoyed by private schools, which grants them highly favourable tax status.

Personally, I would like to see private schools scrapped altogether. They represent an overwhelmingly malign, though rarely remarked upon, distorting factor on our education system and on society more widely; great for a minority, very bad indeed for the rest. Nevertheless, I recognise that much of your core support and many of your Conservative parliamentary colleagues have benefited from this and will be extremely resistant to vote for the ending of a system which ensures the privilege they have enjoyed is passed on to their offspring. You have already suggested that private schools must do more to keep their tax breaks. That should be welcomed. The hard question for you is why institutions designed to benefit a small, already-privileged section of society at the expense of everyone else should be subsidised out of the public purse at all. Removing tax breaks while investing in ‘more demanding and more rigorous’ state schools would be a very useful first step to improving social mobility. You should definitely consider it.

Scrap A-levels and ensure all high-achieving students, whether academic or vocational, have equally good educational and career options

This is another suggestion which has been debated before but defeated by the sort of opposition you would be likely to face within your own party if you sought to remove the charitable status of private schools. There continues to be much talk about achieving parity of esteem between vocational and academic education but not much will be achieved by talk alone. One of your predecessors, Tony Blair, had a golden opportunity to do something meaningful about this when Sir Mike Tomlinson published his review of the English examination system in 2004. Tomlinson proposed incorporating existing qualifications, including A-levels and GCSEs, into an overarching diploma which would ensure all students pass the core skills of literacy, numeracy and ICT, while also stretching the most able students. Importantly, the diploma represented a unified framework of achievement and qualifications with four levels into which all existing exams, vocational and academic, could be incorporated (with A-levels and GCSEs phased out over 10 years). One upshot of this was that all those who achieved a level 4 diploma would have gained a qualification of equal standing, irrespective of whether they were taking an academic or vocational route. Had Tomlinson’s reforms been implemented in full, A-levels and GCSEs would now be a thing of the past. In terms of achieving the long sought-after parity of esteem between academic and vocational, this, really, was the moment. Unhappily, despite almost universal approval for the proposed reforms, Mr Blair chose not to implement them in full, fearful of the backlash from those who wished the A-level ‘gold standard’ (imagine the headlines in the Daily Mail!), which had served them and their children so well, to remain. Retaining A-levels, rather sadly, was Mr Blair’s red line, supported at the time by your own party, despite the prescient warnings from teachers that the diplomas were bound to fail if A-levels and GCSEs were not scrapped. It effectively short-circuited the most promising reform of the school examination system in England in several decades.

So, we continue to wrangle endlessly with the issue of parity of esteem while defending the outmoded qualifications system that ensures it can never properly happen. The neat division between vocational and academic has not been fit for the world we live in for quite some time. Like much else in our education system, it is fit only for a world in which, to quote David Cameron, young people are divided into ‘sheep and goats’ at an early age. A single, unified qualifications system would help bridge the divide, while allowing students to mix their options and move across as well up the ladder. For the moment, we continue to commission review after review considering vocational and technical education in splendid isolation, as though the other working parts of the machine to which it belongs have no bearing on its function or operation.

The latest, led by Lord Sainsbury, also sought to address technical education’s poor-relation status and, like Tomlinson, suggested a number of routes with a common core of English, maths and digital skills, as well as specialisation leading to a skilled profession. However, as with other reforms of this sort, the binary divide between vocational and academic remains outwith its remit, as does our two-caste system of educational attainment. We need bold and radical political leaders prepared to break with the past and tackle endemic problems in the system as a whole, rather than treating issues to do with vocational education as somehow separate and disconnected. It has become fashionable to dismiss the issue of parity of esteem of vocational and academic qualifications as irrelevant or insoluble. I don’t believe it is either. A recent survey by the Association of Accounting Technicians suggested that older adults attach more value to vocational education than young people. This should be of concern to a government committed to using vocational learning as a route to better employment prospects for young people, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Creating clear, accessible, relevant, high-prestige vocational routes is critical both to social mobility and to promoting the development of the kinds of higher-level technical skills we can hopefully agree the UK economy needs.

Restore funding and policy support to adult education

You may know that much of the UK’s adult education system has been destroyed by funding cuts in recent decades, a process that began under New Labour but which was taken to new levels under your immediate predecessor. Mr Cameron oversaw swingeing cuts to adult further education, leading the Association of Colleges to suggest it could become a thing of the past by 2020, and a collapse in part-time higher education, precipitated by the introduction of loans and the escalation in tuition fees. The adult skills budget has been cut by 40 per cent since 2010 (including a 24 per cent cut in one year alone), with recent government figures indicating an 11 per cent drop in the number of adult learners in further education between 2013-14 and 2014-15. At the same time, the University Association for Lifelong Learning says that the number of mature and part-time students at university has fallen by 40 per cent since 2012, while most university centres for lifelong learning, which have traditionally supported adult learners in accessing higher study and provided a link between HE institutions and their communities, have been closed down. Vaughan Centre for Lifelong Learning, at the University of Leicester, appears set to be the next to close, despite a brilliant campaign involving staff and learners which highlighted the huge value of university lifelong learning to communities such as Leicester’s (you can read about it here). The question I would put to you is whether this seems to you to be a sensible response to the challenges of declining social mobility and demographic change.

Politicians of all parties agree that we need to up-skill the working-age population, yet public investment in adult further education and skills continues to fall. They talk about social mobility, yet overlook the hugely important catalytic effect adult education can have on the lives of adults and their families, particularly those who are ‘just managing’ or ‘left behind’. It is well understood that the biggest influence on the educational attainment of children is that of their parents. Closing down opportunities for adults to access learning is not only bad for them as individuals and the wider economy, which increasingly requires people to retrain and upskill throughout their lives, it also limits the life prospects of their children. Adult education has a range of wider benefits too, including improved health and wellbeing, increased tolerance and greater civic engagement. There are also, of course, major social and economic costs to not addressing the poor literacy, numeracy and technical skills of many UK adults. The All-Party Parliamentary Group for Adult Education has called for a new national and regional strategy for adult education. I think this is overdue. The value of adult education needs to be clearly understood and defended, if it is not to be the top of the list when budgets are cut. To allow provision to dwindle away in a policy vacuum is not only short-sighted, it demonstrates callous indifference to the hopes and aspirations of thousands of families across the country.

You, as Prime Minister, have an opportunity to change all of this, and I hope you will. The early signs, however, are not particularly encouraging, to say the least. If you are serious about helping those who are ‘left behind’, you should scrap your plans to expand selection, in its various forms, and instead invest in ensuring there is a good maintained school in every neighbourhood. Your promise to prioritise those who are struggling and have been ‘left behind’ is, I must tell you, wholly incompatible with a commitment to expanding grammar schools. You should also reverse cuts to 16-18 apprenticeships – likely to prove hugely damaging to social mobility – and you should look instead to improve the standing and status of both technical and vocational education and adult education, so often the poor relations of the English education system. I do not believe that we can any more, as a society, afford to neglect and stifle the talents and abilities of so many – the vast majority – of our population. That this has been allowed to happen for so long, at such huge human cost, is cause for shame. Turning things around will require a huge, concerted effort over many years, and it will involve the wholesale transformation of our education system, not just tinkering around the edges. It will, perhaps above all, require a brave, radical Prime Minister who believes in a fair chance for everyone and is not afraid to make new enemies, even among her old friends. As Raymond Williams wrote, ‘to be truly radical is to make hope possible rather than despair convincing’. If you could make ‘hope possible’ for those you rightly identify as ‘left behind’ you will have achieved something truly radical and transformational. But you won’t get there by under-investing in adult and vocational education or by expanding educational selection.

Yours sincerely,

Paul Stanistreet

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‘Reading the past, writing the future’: Adult literacy in the UK

It is 50 years since UNESCO first proclaimed 8 September International Literacy Day. In that time, thinking about literacy in the UK has changed profoundly. Despite growing interest in the achievement of universal literacy in international politics, and a gathering appreciation that this matters to adults as well as to children, it wasn’t until the 1970s that politicians here began to appreciate that adult literacy was an important social issue for developed countries, including the UK. That is not to say that adult basic education has not been a long-standing part of the British adult education movement. It was a major concern of adult educators throughout the nineteenth century. However, with the advent of universal compulsory primary education, adult literacy faded somewhat to the background, both as a concern of the liberal establishment and as a focus of the adult education movement. The attention of the movement in the first half of the twentieth century shifted sharply to opening up higher forms of learning to working-class adults.

By and large, the British system of education was content to allow a large proportion of pupils to leave school with limited literacy skills and just as limited life chances. It codified this approach through a system of selection at 11 years of age which effectively labelled (‘tattooed’ might be better, given how hard many have found it to erase the perceived stigma) the majority of children, who went to secondary modern schools, as educational failures with little potential for learning, while giving those who made it to grammar school greatly enhanced chances of progressing in education and in life (little wonder those who attended grammar schools speak so highly of them!). The social cost of educational selection and inequity began to emerge clearly during the 1970s. The number and scale of adult basic literacy courses delivered by local authorities and voluntary groups had been growing steadily, leading to calls from adult educators, and from the British Association of Settlements, in particular, for a national adult literacy campaign. Gerry Fowler, then Minister of State for Education and science, in 1974 released £1 million for the Right to Read campaign, to be administered by the Adult Literacy Resource Agency (ALRA), set up by the National Institute of Adult Education (later NIACE and now the Learning and Work Institute). This money supported a huge expansion of local authority adult literacy provision, as well as special development projects and new resource materials. The BBC supported the campaign through a series of programmes, first shown in 1975, intended to raise awareness of adult literacy and signpost people with poor literacy to appropriate provision.

The campaign marked the start of a perceptible shift in government thinking about adult learning towards adult basic education, though, increasingly, this was framed in terms of economic necessity rather than human rights and dignity (with an attendant increase in central government interest and control). Provision continued to grow, supported by ALRA and its subsequent incarnations, with continuing government support channelled through local education authorities, which had developed significant expertise in the area and were prepared to be radical, creative and highly innovative in their approach to delivery. However, the 1992 Further and Higher Education Act reduced the role of local authorities and directed funding for vocational and basic education through FE colleges, now free from local authority control. The Act cemented the divide 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. Although, through fierce, intelligent campaigning, NIACE and other groups secured a commitment from government to retain a statutory duty for local authorities to provide ‘other’ adult education, it wasn’t possible to arrest this decline once the vocational/non-vocational divide was set in legislation and funding for the latter began to be squeezed. Although adult basic skills continued to attract significant policy attention, the Act in some respects marked the end of a golden age of innovation and enterprise around adult basic education.

New Labour briefly promised a new dawn for adult education, with David Blunkett’s The Learning Age Green Paper appearing to return to a more comprehensive view of the value and purposes of adult learning, calling for a culture of lifelong learning for all and a ‘learning society’. However, within a few years, this wider, more expansive vision was supplanted by a narrower, more utilitarian approach to policymaking on education. The 1999 Moser report urged the government to ‘tackle the vast basic skills problem’ in the UK, reporting that as many as 20 per cent of adults in the country lacked functional basic skills. The government’s response was the Skills for Life strategy, which set a target to improve the basic skills levels of 2.25 million adults between 2001, when the strategy was launched, and 2010. The strategy came to symbolise the growing prominence of basic skills in the government’s post-16 education policy. It was followed by a new skills strategy (2003), which emphasised the government’s intent to pursue equality and fairness through economic modernisation and underscored its increasing distrust of provision which could not be understood in narrowly economistic terms. A second skills strategy white paper, published in 2005, consolidated this move, while the 2006 Leith report on skills set a new target of 95 per cent of adults achieving the basic skills of functional literacy and numeracy by 2020. The government, seemingly convinced that major productivity gains could be engineered simply through supply-side interventions, took up Leitch’s naive view that driving up qualifications was the critical factor in improving economic productivity.

Despite these interventions, we appear still to be some way off the ‘world class’ skills system promised by Leitch. The OECD’s 2013 international adult skills survey found England to be the only country in the developed world where 55–65 year olds are more literate and numerate that young adults aged between 16 and 24. Out of 24 nations, England’s young adults ranked 22nd for literacy and 21st for numeracy. The OECD’s 2016 survey report, Building Skills for All: A review of England, said that 9 million adults of working age in England (more than a quarter of the working population) had low literacy or numeracy skills or both, while one-third of those aged 16-19 had low basic skills (three times more than the best-performing countries). It urged an improvement in the standard of basic schooling, an increase in basic skills standards at upper-secondary level and the greater use of evidence to guide adult literacy interventions. An analysis by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, published last week, similarly reported that five million adults lack basic reading, writing and numeracy skills essential to everyday life and to securing employment. The picture JRF painted was of large numbers of people let down by the education system with little chance to improve their skills and lives – what new PM Theresa May has described as the ‘left behind’. Huge numbers of young people were entering adulthood without the skills to get by, it said, while those who wanted to improve their skills as adults encountered an offer more focused on gaining qualifications than on positive life outcomes such as securing work or progressing to further education and training.

JRF calls for a renewed drive to ensure all adults meet all basic skills needs (including digital skills) by 2030, arguing for more learning in community settings and in the workplace and more online learning. It also suggests, quite rightly, that learning should be relevant to the everyday lives and concerns of learners. The report chimes with growing concerns among the political class that years of austerity and ministerial indifference have created an underclass of people struggling to get by who feel they have little or no stake in the mainstream political life of the country – people who find it hard not only to see how things can get any better but also, more dangerously, how they can get any worse. As JRF argue, education must play a key role in a joined up strategy to reach these people and lift them out of poverty and civic disaffection. Localism, and the devolution of the adult education budget, may represent an opportunity to make these interventions both more meaningful to learners and more relevant to other local social and economic policy aims. However, the attenuation of local authority expertise in adult basic education and the huge pressures currently being brought to bear on colleges in terms of area reviews and a welter of other reforms such as the Sainsbury review, apprenticeship reform and machinery of government changes (not to mention Brexit, which has huge implications for FE) must raise serious questions about local capacity to respond to the massive expectations currently placed at the door of the devolution agenda. Centralisation and the hollowing out of local government have seriously diminished local-level capacity to respond to this new agenda (though it should be added that one of the tensions at its heart is the government’s reluctance to take its hands of the levers of power – localism, to coin a phrase, must mean localism).

Against this backdrop, the swingeing cuts to the adult education budget, introduced by the government since 2010, appear, to put it mildly, exceedingly short-sighted. And while the current stability in funding levels is welcome it is far from clear that FE is where it needs to be to respond positively to the latest wave of reform, while also rising to the country’s seemingly intractable adult basic skills challenge. It is clear, however, that we cannot get to where we want to be by focusing purely on early years and basic education at school (hugely important though these are). Children learn best when they have the support and interest of their parents and when their parents are able to inspire and motive their children through their own example. And securing a future for one’s children is often the key motivator in getting adults back into learning. Had New Labour had the courage to retain its focus on lifelong learning for all rather than insisting on a dodgy distinction between vocational and non-vocational and adopting a narrow focus on employability, we might by now be surveying a very different scene. The overarching theme of International Literacy Day 2016 is ‘Reading the past, writing the future’. This seems highly appropriate. Failure to learn the right lessons from the past can lead us to repeat its mistakes, as new PM Theresa May seems set to do over grammar schools. However you try to dress it up, grammar schools are not ‘inclusive’ and they do not promote social mobility. However, they do, quite clearly, benefit disproportionately the already well-heeled. For those ‘left behind’, the enduring legacy of grammar schools is one of disaffection and stigmatism, low expectations and reduced life chances – a lost generation of people denied the chance to write their own futures. If they are the answer, Theresa May must be asking a very different question. I wonder what it is.

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‘Sirs, ye are brethren’

I was dismayed to read that Leicester University proposes closing Vaughan Centre for Lifelong Learning – formerly Vaughan College – one of the oldest and most historically significant centres of adult education in the country. It is perhaps unsurprising, given the general decline in university lifelong learning and UK universities’ ongoing neglect of their historic ‘third mission’ of community engagement, that the centre should be seen as an easy target for cost-cutting. Nevertheless, the proposal plainly runs against the grain of Leicester University’s founding settlement and its current commitment to making its knowledge and expertise available to local communities, and it will mean a loss of opportunity for hundreds of adult students for whom chances to learn are increasingly scarce. The university would do well to reconsider it. A reappraisal, even now, would be a welcome indication of a university prepared to swim against the tide, look beyond the easy options, and reassert its place at the heart of its local community.

The college was founded by liberal clergyman and social reformer Reverend David Vaughan in 1862 to provide education for working class men. It began in a local parish school where educated volunteers offered working people classes and lectures in a range of academic subjects, and was soon renamed Leicester Working Man’s College (in line with its founding intentions), as demand and student numbers increased. Teaching and one-off lectures were offered alongside social events and musical evenings. As with many other ‘working men’s colleges’, the aim was not only to make higher study available to working people but also to cultivate comradeship and Christian values. Its biblical motto, ‘Sirs, ye are brethren’, reflected Vaughan’s intention to promote both ‘sound learning’ and ‘Christian intercourse and brotherly love’.

The ambitious aim of colleges such as Leicester was to give working people an opportunity to study academic subjects hitherto considered unsuited to them in an atmosphere similar to that of a university – a recognition of the reformers’ conviction that workers needed a rounder education beyond basic and routine occupational skills. Vaughan’s inspiration was London’s Working Men’s College, founded by Christian socialist F.D. Maurice in 1854, which aimed to promote fellowship and critical debate through a curriculum that included politics, science, literature and the arts. While the focus of these colleges gradually become more practical, the London and Leicester colleges retained their founding focus, although ‘useful’ subjects such as bookkeeping and plumbing became increasingly important. Perhaps because of this, these are the only working men’s colleges to have survived. A greater focus on vocational education brought with it greater competition which, over time, rendered many redundant.

Leicester, on the other hand, continued to flourish, opening up increasingly to women (who were admitted from 1880 and by 1912 outnumbered men) as well as men while retaining a broad educational offer for its students. In 1908, as Vaughan Working Men’s College, it moved into its own premises on Leicester’s Great Central Street, working increasingly with Leicester Workers’ Educational Association. It merged with University College Leicester in 1929, becoming part of the wider department for adult education. This brought greater focus on part-time undergraduate education. In 1962, Vaughan College moved again, to a new, purpose-built building, adjacent to the Jewry Wall Museum and a Roman archaeological site, at St Nicholas Circle in Leicester’s city centre. When I visited a class at the college, in 2003, as editor of Adults Learning, it was a vibrant, popular centre of adult education, still attracting a diverse range of adult students through its broad-ranging curriculum. Things began to change in 2013 when the university decided to close and sell off the site, moving Vaughan to its main campus. At the time, the university gave assurances that this would not be a precursor to the centre’s closure and that adult learning services would be protected. Nevertheless, last week, the Leicester Mercury reported that the centre would be closed under proposals being considered by university management and that staff had been issued with redundancy notices.

Vaughan has played a hugely significant role in the history of Leicester, as well as in the history of the university. Demographic change means that adult education will be increasingly necessary, particularly at higher levels, if our economy is to prosper. Despite the dramatic collapse in part-time higher education numbers precipitated by introduction of the ELQ rule under Labour – effectively cutting funding for adults studying at a level equivalent to or lower than their highest existing qualification – and the escalation in tuition fees under the Lib Dem-Conservative coalition, part-time higher education opportunities for adults are a growing priority. Second chances matter more than ever. It would be good to see Leicester University taking a lead and protecting its adult provision, remembering that institutions such as Vaughan are much easier – and much cheaper – to retain than to set up from scratch. It would be sad indeed to see the Vaughan Centre join the ranks of institutions lost to short-term cost-saving while its students join the lost generations of adult learners denied opportunities their predecessors took for granted. As it is the only provider of its kind in the area, the impact on Leicester, and its social and economic wellbeing, would be considerable. The University of Leicester should think again.

There is a petition to save Vaughan Centre for Lifelong Learning. Please consider signing it (and do read the comments which make the case for retaining the centre very eloquently): https://www.change.org/p/the-university-of-leicester-save-the-vaughan-centre-for-lifelong-learning. There is also a related Twitter account: @savevaughan

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A life in education: an interview with Brian Groombridge

I interviewed Brian Groombridge, fittingly enough at Birkbeck College, in January 2014, some 18 months before he died, last year, aged 89. The piece was to appear in Adults Learning, the first in a planned series on outstanding individuals with careers in adult education. Sadly, my own career as editor did not endure long enough for the piece to appear and Adults Learning itself folded shortly after, an event that would, I am sure, have grieved Brian, who greatly valued it and was a regular and eloquent contributor. I had met Brian on numerous previous occasions and we corresponded regularly throughout my editorship of Adults Learning. He was unstinting in his support and encouragement. I remember meeting him for the first time, at an Adult Learners’ Week event in 2003. I was struck then, as I was at every subsequent meeting, by his kindness, humility and generosity of spirit. Of course, in addition to these very significant personal qualities, he brought tremendous creativity and imagination to his incredibly varied professional work, guided, from a very young age, by a passionate belief in the transformative power of education. I hope I can convey some sense of these qualities here.

Brian’s lifelong commitment to education had its roots in his childhood experiences. While he grew up in a ‘bookless’ household he was, nevertheless, surrounded by culture from an early age. His mother ‘had hardly any education at all’ but was ‘a brilliant singer’ who became an active member of the London Philharmonic Choir. His father could play the piano and would often accompany his mother’s singing. Brian also recalled listening, rapt, to the Master of the King’s Music on BBC radio’s Children’s Hour as a child, perhaps sowing the seeds for his later enthusiasm for educational broadcasting. Brian’s experience of schooling, however, was ‘very, very ordinary’. Had he continued, his expectations would have been to leave school at 14 or 15 and go into a routine office job. The Second World War, however, intervened, and Brian was evacuated to Midhurst in West Sussex, where his father had family. It was at Midhurst Grammar School that he encountered good, progressive education for the first time, thanks largely to its remarkable head teacher, NBC Lucas.

Lucas’s approach was notable for its rejection of rote learning and his belief that pupils learned better when they were treated as individuals and given more control over their activities, both in the classroom and outside of it. ‘The governors of Midhurst Grammas School had remarkably little confidence in him,’ Brian recalled, ‘but when two head teachers left the school they had no choice but to appoint him. What they didn’t know was that “Luke”, as we all called him, was an extraordinarily imaginative man who had thought deeply about the different ways of educating people. For example, boarders were not expected to do everything they were told. They were expected to have meetings to discuss how the boarding arrangements should be run and what kind of help they could give to the staff … he was looking for students who had ideas of their own. The test was not merely do you remember what you were told so you can pass an examination. He was looking for people who had the ability to develop the ideas and information they were given. One consequence of that was that there were boys in the sixth form – there were only boys at that time – who were astonished to find themselves earning scholarships or exhibitions to Oxford and Cambridge. And I was one of the people who were extraordinarily lucky.’

Brian accepted a scholarship to Christ College Cambridge, where he read moral sciences and history. It was, he said, ‘quite extraordinary’ for someone from so ‘ordinary’ a background to have such an opportunity. ‘That was the basis of my enthusiasm for education as such, an education that enabled people to grow in ways they had not necessarily expected,’ he said. However, Brian’s studies soon had to be postponed. In 1945, he volunteered to join the Royal Air Force, training to be a co-pilot in a Tiger Moth. When the war ended a few months later, Brian was obliged to remain in the RAF, serving a further four years. Although this gave him an opportunity to tutor civil servants in current affairs – his first teaching experience – he was mostly engaged in ‘humdrum’ jobs, including checking luggage records at the air ministry offices in Kensington High Street. The airmen had usually finished their allotted tasks by 2pm, which gave Brian the chance to study at Morley College and the City Lit, two iconic institutions in British adult education history. He remembers both as ‘stunningly good’ places to learn, staffed by many outstanding tutors, often very notable figures in their respective fields. He studied English and philosophy, among other subjects. The experience was crucial in convincing Brian to make his career in adult education. One of the tutors he studied with was Rupert Doone, the dancer, choreographer and theatre director, who was instrumental in one of the most unlikely episodes in Brian’s story.

‘He wanted to teach adults how to move on the stage, how to dance,’ Brian recalled. ‘I thought that sounded like it was going to be very enjoyable and very interesting. If I was going to be a lecturer I needed to know what it was like to be visible and to be audible so I was quite interested to know what kind of thing Rupert Doone would be doing. Doone [as a dancer] had been engaged by Diaghilev – his own personal history was remarkable. He took some of us to help out at what was then the Sadler’s Wells ballet company. You may find this hard to believe – I find it hard to believe myself – but I was one of the people chosen to be a non-dancing member of the cast of Sleeping Beauty. I wasn’t a dancer but I had to move about and be part of the palace court. That was because the producer felt it was necessary to have people whose job was standing in command in particular places. I was in act one and act three, learning how to walk on a stage. It was an astonishing experience. This was British ballet at its best … and I was in that for a season. A quite remarkable experience.’

By the time Brian returned to Cambridge to complete his degree he had decided to become a tutor in adult education, going straight from graduation into teaching adults, a ‘quite unheard of’ move at the time. His first jobs were as ‘wardens’ of two adult education settlements, in Letchworth and Rugby, where he encountered education with democratic principles similar to those from which he had benefited at Midhurst. Students would help run the centres and were able to shape their own syllabuses. Both settlements were notable for the wide variety of different adult education opportunities they offered. They combined university extra-mural programmes, local authority courses and Worker’s Educational Association provision with arts and crafts clubs, drama groups, voluntary societies and other groups and activities, according to demand. ‘Nothing was despised,’ Brian said. Staff at the centre encouraged students to set up societies which they ran and organised themselves, a pleasing continuity between settlement adult education, the sort of education Brian experienced under NBC Lucas and the sort of education he would later advocate in helping set up the University of the Third Age (U3A).

In 1957, Brian was invited by National Institute of Adult Education (NIAE) director Edward Hutchinson to work on a new research project. The book that resulted, Education and Retirement, was a study of the relevance of education to the enjoyment of retirement. The first British work to acknowledge the link between education and leisure, it was based both on field research in Britain and on pioneering research and practice from the United States, a first hint of the internationalism that would colour much of his later work. He undertook a wide range of freelance work, including broadcasting work for the BBC and Granada TV and running Michael Young’s Research Institute for Consumer Affairs (RICA), for which he conducted a range of studies on subjects as diverse as estate agents, children’s toys and libraries, before returning to the NIAE, this time as deputy to Edward Hutchinson, in 1964.

Perhaps Brian’s most significant contribution to the institute’s work was to extend and deepen its involvement and interest in educational broadcasting. He was a member of the planning committee for the Open University and drafted the section on broadcasting in the Russell Committee’s report, Adult Education: A plan for development, published in 1973. ‘As a member of the committee and because I was already convinced about broadcasting, I tried to persuade Lionel Russell that we ought to deal with broadcasting as well. You can’t talk about adult education and leave out broadcasting. I’m not sure how convinced he was but I was allowed to say something about how important and relevant broadcasting is to adult education. It got a mention, albeit briefly.’ Around the same time, Brian wrote what he believed to be his best book, Television and the people: A programme for democratic participation. He argued that television must do more to support participatory democracy, with viewers becoming actors rather than onlookers and communities becoming active in the production of programmes. His concern about the ‘gap between those who make the programmes and those who receive them’ is just as relevant today as it was in 1972, when the book was published.

In 1968, Brian was appointed head of education at the Independent Broadcasting Authority, leading a small team responsible for ensuring that the 15 broadcasting companies made local and networked series for schools, adult and further education which met the IBA’s standards and complemented the BBC’s public-service output. ‘That was one of the most productive periods of my career,’ Brian said. ‘The way in which governments have since decided, for one reason or another, to reduce the 15 companies, all of which were very active in their local communities, to one isn’t progress to me.’ Broadcasting represented, for Brian, an answer to the question that faces all adult education organisations: how do you reach everybody? ‘There was a very basic answer, which was two years older than me. I am now 87, I shall be 88 in a few months, and the BBC was set up two years before I was created. Broadcasting is not a novelty. But broadcasting from the very beginning had certain public responsibilities. The BBC was not allowed to do whatever it felt like doing. It was meant to do things which included not only information but education and enlightenment. My own education owed a lot to BBC radio from the beginning of my mental awareness. It is entirely relevant to my continuing respect for what broadcasting can do. Look at David Attenborough. He is quite remarkable, one of the best people to have ever done adult education. Of course, we don’t call it that, but it is adult learning, brilliantly done.’

In 1976, Brian was appointed director of extra-mural studies at the University of London, running the biggest such department in the country, providing part-time adult education opportunities across the whole of greater London. Brian picked out two achievements as being especially significant during this period of his career. The first was the introduction of an academic board to represent the views of academic and non-academic staff (recognizing that non-academic staff were often closer to the learners and more attentive to their needs). The second was his attempt to bring together all the organisations in greater London who shared similar values and interests under the umbrella of the London Association of Continuing Education (LACE). ‘The beauty of LACE was that organisations which had hitherto been separate or even rivals now saw that it would be possible to cooperate. I think that was a good idea, only undermined by a government determined to do away with things.’ Government policy led, eventually, to the department becoming part of Birkbeck College, where it continued to thrive.

One of Brian’s most significant achievements during this period of his life was the introduction of the U3A in the UK. Brian visited a number of universities in France, including Toulouse, which set up the first U3A, on an extra-mural basis, in 1973, to learn about their provision for older adults. ‘It was a great experience. I came back absolutely thrilled by this idea of a university establishment that provided learning opportunities specialising in older people who had always been overlooked or treated with condescension or neglect. The French had broken that pattern. How were we to do it? Well, for a year or so I struggled. I had a very busy adult education department to run, the biggest provider of adult education opportunities in the capital. In the end, I thought maybe Michael Young. So I had a special meeting with Michael at his headquarters in Bethnal Green. He loved the idea but he said we won’t have it run by universities, we will run it, and that was the University of the Third Age, now one of the most successful adult education enterprises in the country.’

After his ‘retirement’, Brian continued to be an active citizen, pursuing his interest in numerous causes related to education across a range of fronts. He continued to work with many different organisations, including Help the Aged, the Voice of the Listener and Viewer, the Scarman Trust and, of course, the U3A. He also deepened his international connections, having taken up numerous opportunities to work with UNESCO, in a number of countries, during his career. His work with the IBA led to meetings with the European Broadcasting Union, where he forged many connections with colleagues in other countries. His links to Finland were, however, of special importance to him. ‘I found myself very much at ease with the Finns, having lots of things in common with them, especially politically,’ he told me. ‘The market doesn’t dominate where the values come from there. I found the Finns, although very reticent, to be very creative people in all sorts of social and imaginative ways.’ Brian forged close links with his counterpart at Helsinki University and was, for some years, on the board of the Finnish Institute in London, helping build political bridges between the two countries. He was made an honorary doctor of the University of Helsinki in 1990 and a Knight of the White Rose of Finland in 1999.

What attracted Brian to the Nordic countries was their confident assertion of human values above those of the market. The cultivation of human rather than narrowly economic values was at the heart of his work. He saw that that needed to continue throughout a person’s lifetime, helping them stay active, interested and engaged, as well as economically useful. ‘It is fundamentally about people having brains and talents which are potentially lifelong,’ he told me. ‘An enormous number of people, when they retire, think what the hell am I supposed to do now. But, if you take the U3A as one example, a particularly good example, people can still learn and discover and something they were vaguely interested in can become something they care about passionately and learn a great deal about. The ability to learn is a lifelong characteristic. Biologically, in all sorts of ways, human beings have an amazing capacity for development, which has historically been neglected. It is no longer being neglected to the same extent, except in that some of the most extraordinary developments in providing learning opportunities for adults have been dismissed or done away with by very, very poor governments. You don’t have extra-mural departments anymore, to give one example. You have to go to Birkbeck, which is a very good thing to do, but how many people can come here compared with the hundreds of people who had opportunities when there were extra-mural departments. We’re talking about the fundamental characteristics of human beings. The principles of adult education have been more and more reinforced and verified but the practice has suffered unduly from governmental aversion and neglect. And we are still working out how to make use of very advanced technologies from an educational point of view. When I started there were quite a lot of promising developments. Now, I would have to say that our governments have successively ruined a great deal of our potential for giving people a variety of educational opportunities, which I experienced firsthand in the course of my first full-time job.’

A special note of thanks to Stephen McNair who (some time ago – sorry, Stephen) loaned me his copy of Television and the People for the writing of this article.

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Adult education must rediscover its radical roots

Adult education has changed dramatically over the two decades I have worked in it. Increased levels of policy attention, beginning with the wonderfully optimistic note struck by Helena Kennedy’s 1997 Learning Works report and David Blunkett’s 1998 green paper, The Learning Age, and for a short while attended also by increased funding and some bright ideas for implementation, have not led us to the promised land of wider participation and political acknowledgement of the wider purposes of education. Instead, like the train Woody Allen finds himself on at the start of Stardust Memories, they have brought us to a vast scrap yard of thwarted and abandoned ambitions in which only courses offering basic or vocational skills, mostly to younger adults, remain pristine, carefully maintained by a succession of journeyman ministers indifferent to the wider value of education. If things continue as they are – and there is no reason to suppose they will not, given the feebleness of the opposition – we will soon reach the point where the aspirations of ‘lifelong learning’ live on only in the dismal and increasingly empty rhetoric of politicians.

The current situation is, of course, in large part the result of cuts in funding, which began under Labour, and have been remorselessly deepened by the current Conservative government and its Conservative-led predecessor. The sharks of austerity have cut back on great swathes of provision, savaged the public library service, hollowed out local democracy, and attacked vital public institutions, such as the BBC, making short-term savings but creating an impoverished legacy for succeeding generations. In further education, where the majority of adults in education learn, the adult skills budget was reduced by 35 per cent between 2009 and 2015. In 2015-16 alone, the government slashed an unprecedented 24 per cent from the budget. As a result of these cuts, there are more than one million fewer adults learning in further education than there were in 2010, with the Association of Colleges estimating that 190,000 adult learning places would disappear in 2015-16 alone. The characteristically measured AoC was moved to predict that, on the current course, adult further education would be a thing of the past by 2020. What a terrible legacy for a government which believes improving UK productivity to be the challenge of our time!

While the sector has been granted some respite from the grind of year-on-year funding cuts, the post-16 area review process is likely to result in still less choice for adult learners and, for providers, a considerable distraction from what should be their core business: teaching and learning. It remains to be seen what impact the devolution of the adult skills budget (along with the absorption of the previously ring-fenced community learning budget) will have, but, with local resources tight, there is clearly a danger that learners whose employability needs cannot be addressed straightforwardly through a narrow focus on training for employment will again lose out, as might providers in the third sector, whose role is less well understood and who are largely absent from the area review process. Skills devolution represents a huge challenge to voluntary sector providers, who play a crucial role in getting adults who lack the confidence or motivation to engage with formal learning to re-engage through less formal routes, but whose voice tends to be drowned out by the bigger players.

In higher education, the Office for Fair Access (OFFA) this month reported that the number of part-time students, the vast majority of whom are adults combining work and study, has fallen by 60 per cent over the past decade. This represents a dreadful act of vandalism about which even the specialist education press has been remarkably quiet. The overall number of mature students in HE has also fallen substantially, by 50 per cent over the same period, according to the report, with universities struggling to tackle the collapse in mature and part-time student numbers. And while progress has been made in attracting students from less advantaged backgrounds, the report found that universities in the elite Russell Group were failing to make adequate progress on access and progression. At the universities with the highest entrance requirements, said OFFA director Les Ebdon, ‘the participation gap between the most and least advantaged remains large and wholly unacceptable’.

The growing lack of diversity, in terms of student age and background, as well as mode of study, in elite institutions is a major concern, at least for those who cling to the old-fashioned belief that higher education should promote social mobility and challenge disadvantage rather than preserve patterns of privilege. We won’t achieve this with a one-size-fits-all system. Ensuring a more diverse, flexible and widely accessible sector is critical to efforts to widen participation. More than a third of the students entering HE last year who count towards widening participation targets were mature students. As Professor Ebdon noted in his report, ‘In order to strengthen the economy and ensure HE truly is open to everyone with the talent to benefit, urgent action must be taken to reverse the long-term decline in part-time and mature students.’ Thus far, we have seen little.

The growing prominence of adult education in policy debate over the past two decades is perhaps unsurprising, given its potential role – and proven benefits – in promoting economic productivity and reducing unemployment, improving health and wellbeing, and fostering social cohesion and active citizenship. Yet the curiosity of politicians has not resulted in increased investment, a more coherent approach to the education of adults or a more stable sector with a clearer sense of its wider role. Just the opposite, in fact, seems to be the case. I fear that in its willingness to adapt, to support and implement government plans and take them at face value, and to talk the language of ministers (albeit, often, through gritted teeth), the sector may, inadvertently, have contributed to its own decline.

As budgets have shrunk, so too has the focus of education policy, to the point where only provision related to employment skills and economic improvement is seen to matter and the education of older adults, in the past the driver of progressive reform across the system, has been neglected in favour of those at or near the start of their career journey. The focus of the sector has, in some ways understandably, followed the funding, resulting in the further marginalization of the wider benefits of learning in public discourse. While the case for genuinely lifelong and lifewide learning continues to be made in some quarters, the calls often seem a little hollow, an afterthought thrown out to placate supporters rather than to influence ministers. This is perhaps because, in the current climate, such calls are unlikely to get much of a hearing and no-one, in a competitive market for contracts, wants to be on the wrong side of the argument when policy is made. For the first time in my two decades working in the sector, adult education lacks a clear, distinct and dedicated voice in its corner.

It seems to me that adult education now has two choices. It can shuffle off quietly into history, acknowledging that its time has passed, or it can look back to its own history as a social movement to rediscover a sense of purpose and redefine a role for itself. I hope it chooses the latter route. If it is to survive in any meaningful form as a movement, adult education must reinvent itself as something more than a vehicle by which adults can become more employable or move on at work. Important though these things are, they are not everything. Increasing equality of opportunity, promoting active, critical citizenship, making people happier, healthier and more fulfilled, making society more socially just, cohesive and democratic; all these things matter too. Adult education should be about the development of the full range of capabilities necessary for human beings both to flourish in modern society and to help shape it. There are still many excellent examples of this sort of practice, in the WEA, the third sector, local authorities, unions and employers, though all face challenges. There remains huge potential across the sector that should be better utilized and better invested in. It should be part of a coherent system of post-16 education, working collaboratively with the rest of the sector rather than scrambling about, competing with potential partners for a diminishing pot of cash. But I don’t think that will happen if we continue to adapt our language and thinking to the latest political wheeze.

Instead, we should be thinking about how we can rebuild adult education as a social movement aimed at giving people and communities the most radical thing any teacher can give their student: the ability to think for themselves, to be critical and to play a full part in society, as a citizen, a parent, a partner, a member of a community, and not just as an employee. Adult education can either continue to dwindle as part of a system in which it has, at best, a restricted place, or it can play a part in creating something better, that can truly address the needs of the present and future. Adult education needs its own distinct, uncompromising mission, grounded in its social purpose, community education roots. It must continue to be about working with those who are most disadvantaged and disenfranchised, not just to give them a leg up into the labour market but, in Freire’s words, to help them ‘deal critically and creatively with reality’ and to ‘participate in the transformation of their world’. Changing calcified patterns of privilege and opportunities skewed in favour of the youngest and richest in society demands nothing less. There are major challenges ahead and adult education will have a huge role to play, if we are to address them adequately. When that truth is, finally, widely acknowledged, we will owe a huge debt of gratitude to those who have kept the flame of this work alive, in spite of it all.

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The rain falls hard on a humdrum town

Thirty years ago I left school aged 16, thoroughly alienated and without a qualification to my name. I don’t think I was a bad student but school didn’t really suit me. Somehow, I never found out what it was I was great at or liked doing. The teachers weren’t particularly good and could be brutal. I recall my PE teacher, Mr Perkins, finding me alone in a corridor of the sports hall, picking me up by my neck and flinging me hard against a wall (I don’t recall why). Not that the school was entirely to blame. I could be disruptive and difficult, particularly when I couldn’t see the value of what I was doing. The continuous ego-bashing bullying I experienced throughout the last two years of compulsory education didn’t help much either. The thought of going into school made me physically sick. I stopped going out after school and after a while I stopped going into school altogether. If my parents were at work I would stay at home. If they were at home I would roam around the park adjacent to the school. I couldn’t face my final exams either, though I told my parents I’d sat them, delaying the inevitable fallout by a few weeks. By the time school finished, formally that is (it had finished for me some time before), I was scared, friendless and utterly lost. After a dismal summer spent dreading the day the exam results came out, I began signing on.

This wasn’t anything unusual at the time. I grew up in a mining town in a period when the industry was being systematically dismantled by the government and most of our fathers were unemployed. After a while, I was told to attend an interview, for a job with British Gas, I think. When I didn’t turn up (my busy schedule of not looking for work, listening to The Smiths and writing terrible poetry didn’t allow it), I was summoned to a meeting where I was told that my unemployment benefit would be stopped if I didn’t go on a Youth Training Scheme at a local glassmaking firm. A year of making tea and running errands ensued (with a bit of mild sexual harassment thrown in). The poetry got a bit better, I read most of the books in Penguin’s Modern Classics series and I started to think about further education and, maybe, doing journalism for a living.

I enrolled at the local technical college, taking the A-levels and GCSEs I needed to get onto an NCTJ ‘pre-entry’ journalism course. It was at the college that I encountered great teaching for the first time, and a brilliant English teacher who made me see myself in a new light. She was smart, funny, interesting and different. She dressed differently and she spoke differently, all of which was pretty inspiring to a lad who was desperate to find a way to be different. Most of all, she was interested and encouraging, quick to see the value in the work her students did and to support them in doing what they did well, better. And she made it plain that we were her equals, jointly negotiating the terms of our learning. That was such an importance difference for me.

This was a time when it was still possible for a working-class kid to get a foothold in a profession like journalism without contacts, parents with cash to splurge on an internship or even a university degree. I had no idea, though, that I was part of one of the last waves of working-class, non-university educated entrants to the industry. The lecturers who interviewed me for a place on my chosen course, at Preston Polytechnic, were both sharp-witted, working-class newspapermen who had got into journalism through local papers and gone on to work for the nationals with some distinction. This was still a well-worn and very common path in the eighties and it wasn’t unusual for people like Harold Evans (who edited the Sunday Times up until 1981) to have emerged in the industry from working-class backgrounds, progressing through regional newspapers, to edit national newspapers, often very brilliantly (as in Evans’s case). And the newspaper industry was all the better for it, reflecting society and its concerns much more roundly than does the present cohort of senior journalists and commentators, most of whom share very similar backgrounds (many also being friends and university contemporaries of the politicians they are charged with holding to account). My course was full of working-class teenagers, school leavers, with a few older adults who were looking to retrain. Within a year, pretty much all of us were employed in regional papers around the country, learning on the job, which is where most journalistic educations really begin. I served my ‘apprenticeship’, gaining an incredibly wide array of really useful skills, including important ‘soft skills’ such as tenacity, the ability to listen and a respect for deadlines – which have been incredibly useful to me since, both academically and professionally – as well as the knowledge, technical skills and general storytelling know-how necessary to become a senior journalist. I was lucky enough to have a few hugely enjoyable years as part of a terrific team of reporters and editors at the Shropshire Star, most, if not all, of them with social backgrounds similar to mine.

Since then, however, journalism has, increasingly, become a profession for middle-class university graduates. Alan Milburn, in his 2009 report, Unleashing Aspiration, described it as ‘one of the most exclusive middle-class professions of the 21st century’ – quite an astonishing shift in such a relatively short period of time. This trend was confirmed in this week’s Sutton Trust report, which found that more than half (51 per cent) of leading print journalists attended fee-paying schools, while 54 per cent attended either Oxford or Cambridge. The private school sector, it is worth remembering, educates just seven per cent of the total population, and Oxbridge less than one per cent. I fear that many working-class children would now think of a career in journalism as something beyond them, socially and economically. And I suspect that, given the longstanding recruitment profile of both the BBC and the Guardian, senior positions in both of which are dominated by the privately educated, many working-class journalists would now not even consider applying for posts with either of these supposed bastions of liberal, democratic values.

I sometimes wonder if I would have made it into the profession at all if I were starting from the same place today. I think it’s pretty unlikely. It might have been conceivable, in the eighties, that I would find a way to university (as I eventually did) and onto a graduate journalism course. Higher education was free at the time, and that was a crucial factor in my decision to give up work to take a first degree. But I think it pretty unlikely, given where I started from and what my expectations were (i.e. not high), that I would have been prepared to take out a loan for my studies, and incur huge debts that would take years and years to pay off. People from working-class backgrounds, with no safety net to fall back on, tend to find it difficult to see the spectre of mounting debt as an investment in their future. Nor, fairly obviously, would I have been in a position to work for free for a period to get a foot on the ladder, as so many new entrants from wealthier backgrounds do; and certainly not in a city as expensive to live in as London.

Does this matter? I think it does. First, it matters because it diminishes journalism and undermines democracy and the civic life of the country. An industry in which high-level new entrants have usually graduated from an elite university, know someone or have parents who know someone, or be wealthy enough to work unpaid for a time, is clearly not going to be very reflective of the concerns of the general population. And, indeed, it is not. What you might expect to result is precisely what we have ended up with: an out-of-touch commentariat of senior journalists who largely share the backgrounds and core beliefs of the political elite and are deeply hostile to or pointedly amused by anyone who doesn’t. Little wonder so many ‘ordinary’ people feel under-represented by the media, angry that their views and the views of those they voted for are routinely derided, under-reported or ignored altogether. But, of course, if you never meet any ‘ordinary’ people, you wouldn’t know that, would you? If your children go to different schools than theirs, you’re probably not going to feel as outraged as I do when I see how the state school testing regime distorts children’s education and alienates young people. If you’ve never been inside an FE college and don’t know anyone who did, you’re probably not going to be overly exercised when government policy pushes the sector to the brink of extinction and all but destroys what must surely be a key part of the mission of any institution offering further education: lifelong learning.

It matters also because it reflects the more general attenuation in opportunity for people from working-class backgrounds, captured, again, very starkly, in the Sutton Trust’s report. It found that the UK’s top professions remain disproportionately populated by alumni of private schools and Oxbridge. In medicine, for example, nearly two-thirds (61 per cent) of senior doctors were educated at independent schools, while 40 per cent were educated at Oxbridge. Only 16 per cent attended comprehensive schools. In politics, nearly a third (32 per cent) of MPs were privately education while over a quarter (26 per cent) went to Oxbridge. Almost half (47 per cent) of the current cabinet attended Oxbridge. In law, 74 per cent of the top judiciary were privately educated and the same proportion attended Oxbridge. And in the senior civil service, almost half (48 per cent) attended independent schools and more than half (51 per cent) Oxbridge. The same trend is also increasingly evident in sport, entertainment and the arts, where it is difficult these days to swing a Bafta without striking an old Etonian. It is hardly surprising that applications to private school remain high big despite increases in fees, when the simple fact of which school your children attend can make such a huge, life-defining difference to their future prospects.

Despite decades of ministerial hot air about improving social mobility, rungs in the social ladder are being hacked away with increasing frenzy, not least by the present government, which appears set on consigning many of this country’s greatest social achievements to history. The education system, which ought to be at the vanguard of challenging unearned privilege and increasing social mobility is, in fact, reproducing privilege and reinforcing social inequality. As Danny Dorling put it in a recent article, education in England ‘is expanding into new extremes of elitism’. Its covert message, ‘that a small elite, made up of superior individuals, should lead us’, gains greater popular assent the more inevitable and immutable privilege appears to be (as does the belief that those at the bottom are there by dint of their own failings). We end up with a self-reproducing ‘meritocracy’, with privilege passed on from generation to generation, all by awfully nice people who are just doing what anyone would do in their position to secure the best for their children. I don’t blame them. The extent of inequality in this country means the stakes are incredibly high, too high to be healthy. But we need, and deserve, an education system which challenges rather than facilitates this. Our schools continue to fail the poorest children while subjecting them and the schools in which they learn to an extraordinary regime of continuous testing, fake ‘rigour’ and accountability, all of which is extremely harmful to our kids, our teachers and our communities. State-maintained schools are subject to constant reform, with policy – criminally, in my view – written to secure headlines rather than to serve our children. It is here we see, more clearly than anywhere else, the truth of Dorling’s charge that the people running state education think of it as ‘education for other people’s children’. The same is true of further education, so often treated with contempt and ignorance by ministers, despite the hugely important role FE colleges have played in our communities for decades. At the same time, in higher education, government policy has engineered a two-tier system, with elite universities, which remain dominated by the privately educated, offering the kind of rounded liberal education wealthy parents expect for their kids, and the others offering, increasingly, vocational education of one sort or another, to meet the more rudimentary needs of the rest. The ‘complex and intimidating’ Oxbridge admissions system seems almost designed to deter working-class applicants. Education for them, training for us. Calcifying patterns of privilege are not the sign of a healthy society. They are like those spots you see on the leaves of dying trees. They are the warning signs that something is not right, something rotten that, left untreated, will bring down the whole tree.

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‘The things that make it worthwhile to live’

As the Lords met this week to debate adult education and lifelong learning, two reports were published indicating the urgent need for more and better adult learning opportunities and the reversal of cuts which have left the sector an emaciated shadow of what it was just a few years ago, punching at a weight far below that necessary to turn around the UK’s ailing productivity.

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) published a review of adult skills in England which reported that nine million adults of working age in England have low basic skills, more than a quarter of all those aged between 16 and 65. These adults, the report says, ‘struggle with basic quantitative reasoning’, such as estimating how much petrol is in a tank from looking at the gauge, or ‘have difficulty with simple written information’, such as the instructions on a bottle of medicine. There is a further worry, the OECD adds, in that young adults in England perform no better than older ones in skills tests, struggling particularly in numeracy. England has three times more low-skilled young people than high-performing countries such as Finland, Japan and the Netherlands.

The OECD’s recommendations included calls to improve transitions from school to work, including through good-quality apprenticeships, to prioritise early interventions in addressing basic skills problems and, more controversially, to divert young people with poor basic skills from university to shorter professional programmes in further education to ‘help to rebalance the English education system towards one which would be both more efficient in the use of public resources and fairer to all’.

The report also had some important messages regarding adult education. Research evidence should be used to develop teaching methods and guide interventions, it said, recognising that ‘successful adult learning programmes need to motivate learners’ (helping children with their homework one possible motivation suggested). Attention should also be given to the development of a high-quality teaching workforce which uses evidence-based teaching methods, including greater use of e-learning and a ‘contextualised’ approach to basic skills. And better use should be made of relevant learning environments, such as occupational and family contexts. The report, again, notes the double benefit of family literacy and numeracy programmes which not only support parents as learners but can also have a transformative influence on their children.

On the same day as the OECD report was published, the UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES) published its employer skills survey for 2015, examining the experience and practice of over 90,000 UK employers. The report highlighted a 130 per cent increase in the number of job vacancies unfilled because of skills shortages over the past four years. ‘Skills shortage vacancies’ now make up nearly a quarter of all job openings, rising from 91,000 in 2011 to 309,000 in 2015, the report said. In addition, two million workers across the UK have skills and experience which are not being utilised in their current job.

Lesley Giles, deputy director of UKCES, said that the UK needed urgently to boost its productivity, which continues to lag behind that of its competitor nations. This, she said, not only demanded a supply of worker with the right skills, but an economy that created ‘good jobs that produce high-quality, bespoke goods and services’. Douglas McCormick, a commissioner at UKCES, noted that the ‘exceptionally strong job creation’ of the past few years has been accompanied by ‘stalling productivity levels. This is unsurprising since, as the OECD report authors argue, weak skills ‘reduce productivity and employability, damage citizenship and are therefore profoundly implicated in challenges of equity and social exclusion’. Both reports agree that improving the skills of the existing workforce is crucial to the UK closing the productivity gap.

The scale of this challenge was highlighted in what was, nevertheless, in general, a very positive debate in the Lords. Lib Dem peer Baroness Sharp, who moved the debate, began by noting both the demographic challenges of an ageing society in which a high proportion of future job vacancies will have to be filled by members of the current workforce and the ‘chronic shortage in vital technical and professional skills which are key to raising productivity’. Evidently, current workers will need to retrain and update their skills regularly if they are to remain economically useful and productive in the face of rapid technological change. Despite this picture of clear and heightening need, the current trends in terms of adult skills and education are not good, she said. Part-time HE student numbers have fallen by 58 per cent since the introduction of full-cost 9,000 tuition fees, the Baroness observed, with the Open University and Birkbeck hit hard and part-time courses closing as they become unviable.

At the same time, she continued, the FE adult skills budget had fallen by 35 per cent since 2009, with adult learners in FE colleges increasingly something of an endangered species. ‘Fifteen years ago, 50 per cent of students at further education colleges were adult students,’ she said. ‘Today it is only 15 per cent’. In the past five years alone, the number of people participating in adult education – including apprenticeships, work-based learning and community learning – had dropped by 1.3 million, she said. There had been a significant and welcome increase in the number of adults on apprenticeships, but too many were of poor quality and at a relatively low level, often going to people already in employment. Efforts to increase the number of apprentices, including the levy on large employers, were welcome, she added, but did not, by themselves, constitute the comprehensive skills strategy we need.

Baroness’s Sharp’s themes were picked up with notable warmth by other speakers. ‘We cannot ignore the vast potential of those who want to continue learning, and we need to enable easy access to opportunities for adult education and skills, whatever one’s age or stage in life,’ urged Baroness Redfern (Conservative), who also stressed the importance of local relationships and new technologies. Baroness Bakewell (Labour) emphasised the need for lifelong education to ‘sustain the skills and expertise that support our jobs and our economy’ and ‘to nourish the sense of who we are, giving depth and insight to our sense of identity and enlarging our common humanity’. Baroness Greenfield (cross-bench) likewise stressed the wider value of adult education, highlighting the ‘impact of adult learning on well-being and hence its clear societal benefits’. Lord Rees (cross-bench) identified ‘a growing national need for flexible part-time education for young people seeking to qualify for gainful employment, for those in later life wishing to update their skills and for those in the third age simply wishing to follow intellectual interests’.

Baroness Stedman-Scott (Conservative) echoed the sentiments of many in the chamber in saying that ‘ongoing training, skills development and education for everyone are critical to our economy. However, to have that, we need capacity and as flexible an approach as is practical, if we are to maximise the potential and ensure that we have the highly skilled and motivated workforce that employers need.’ Not everyone, however, was as sanguine about the prospects for the sector following the cash-terms protection granted the adult skills budget in the spending review. The much-vaunted ‘protection’ follows cuts on an historically unprecedented scale, including a 28 per cent reduction in the last year alone. These cuts, described by Alison Wolf as ‘catastrophic’, have narrowed the learning offer and put in doubt the viability of dozens of institutions which now face the further turmoil of the government’s partial and ill-conceived programme of area reviews. Baroness Kennedy (Labour), who cited her still remarkably relevant 1997 report, Learning Works, warned:

I fear for further education because it is still being neglected – it is poorly funded and never given the esteem it deserves – and yet it is so fundamental to the wellbeing of this nation and the opportunities it provides for so many. Indeed, it could provide so much more in the future. It is a source of regret to me that we are not doing enough with their precious part of our educational world.

Further education, she said, was, traditionally, the place where women returning after having children and people who became disenchanted with school or whose families said education was not for them, can get a second chance. Education, she concluded, had to be ‘at the heart of any inspired project for regeneration’, providing a springboard not only for economic regeneration but also for greater equity and justice in society, helping close ‘the growing gulf between those who have and those who have not’.

By contrast, Baroness Evans, responding for the government, showed little understanding either of the scale of the challenges faced by adult education and skills or of its wider role in addressing inequality and promoting social cohesion. Acknowledging the role of adult education and skills in improving productivity, she said that the government was ‘committed to major improvements in adult education to meet the needs of the economy’. This commitment took the form of the government maintaining the adult education budget in cash terms following year-on-year cuts (what would have happened had the government not been committed to improving adult education doesn’t bear thinking about). The responsibility for funding had to be shared by government, employers and individuals, she said, though, to date, the government has shown much more enthusiasm for cutting funding from the first source than it has for the more difficult task of encouraging and incentivising funding from the other sources. There is the apprenticeship levy, of course, which Baroness Evans cited, but, as Baroness Sharp argued, this does not amount to anything like the comprehensive strategy for skills and education we require. Her understanding of lifelong learning was also depressingly narrow, focused only on how it can contribute to economic growth and employability. She concluded by noting that area reviews were making sure FE was ‘more efficient, financially resilient and locally responsive’. The reality on the ground, however, is likely to be fewer colleges and less choice for learners, with opportunity increasingly subject to a postcode lottery. The review process is a rushed and short-term response to swingeing cuts that have left many institutions in danger of financial collapse and not the sort of thoughtful, wide-ranging review of how to deliver the skills and capabilities we as a society actually need that would have real and lasting value.

Baroness Sharp’s call for a comprehensive approach to adult education and skills grounded in much closer collaboration between colleges, universities and training providers, local authorities and other public sector organisations warrants serious consideration. We also need more partnership and coherence across government, as well as relief from the near constant churn in policy and policymakers, which has afflicted the FE sector, in particular, for decades. Increased resource will be essential too both in supporting breadth of provision and fair opportunity for all and in ensuring the recruitment and retention of a high-quality teaching workforce to deliver the step change we need. Colleges are already reporting difficulty in recruiting and retaining staff, with the significant added pressure of equipping young people with the English and maths qualifications they didn’t get at school making retention still more difficult. I regularly hear stories of FE teachers leaving post, with no job to go to, because of the pressures they face at work. I hear a lot of positive things too but it seems clear that, in places, teacher morale is becoming a serious issue. This needs to change if the sector is to attract and retain the high-calibre workforce the OECD says we need.

Crucially too, as Baroness Sharp also argues, these arrangements must attend not only to skills but to adult education more broadly as well (a dimension Baroness Evans conspicuously failed to acknowledge). This is critically important. We need a broader, more expansive curriculum that not only develops occupational skills but the skills of adaptation, resilience, creativity, citizenship, critical thinking and lifelong learning other speakers talked about. Part of our problem is the narrowness of our thinking about skills, our tendency to think of ‘hard’ and ‘soft’, ‘cognitive’ and ‘non-cognitive’ skills as somehow separate and unrelated when in fact they occupy the same complex and interconnected ecology. Ultimately, the ongoing narrowing of adult education’s mission to focus almost exclusively on skills directly do with employment has failed to achieve even the limited aim of improving the UK’s productivity. It should not surprise us that the skills that make an economy successful are also those that help make us more thoughtful, creative, happy, cooperative and passionate about learning new things. To echo cross-bench peer Lord Hennessey’s quotation of RH Tawney during the Lords debate, adult education should be concerned ‘not merely with the machinery of existence, but with the things that make it worthwhile to live’.

 

 

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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.

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