Ways of making sense: Adult education and democracy

What would Britain be like if the governing principle of policy-making was to ensure the maintenance of a well-functioning democracy in which everyone had an equal opportunity to belong, have a say and be successful? Clearly, it would be a radically different society to the one in which we live now. For one thing, it would be a society with a clearly defined and well-understood social contract, a wide consensus that adequate public funds should be collected to support a range of basic services essential to human flourishing, and that they should be supported at a decent level. This would mean a clear-headed and informed commitment from those with the most to give up a greater share of what they have in order to maintain good-quality schools, hospitals, libraries, infrastructure, etc. And it would imply a political culture in which it was possible to propose increased investment in public services without being told that your plans will bankrupt the country or lead to communism. This imagined Britain would probably also be a place where economic considerations did not overrule all others and where leaders who espouse views inimical to our own commitment to democracy and decency would be challenged rather than courted. Finally, and importantly, it would be a society in which a far wider value was attached to education and where adult education, widely conceived, was recognized as essential to the successful functioning of democratic society, and supported appropriately.

I was thinking about these issues in relation to Brexit and the UK’s 2016 referendum on membership of the EU. The referendum was a hugely flawed democratic exercise, notable for the well-documented interference of a foreign power bent on undermining European unity, obscure and extremely shady funding arrangements, the breaking of electoral law (by the Vote Leave campaign), the misuse of private data, the complete absence of any programme for delivering a workable Brexit, and the outright lies and distortions of senior politicians and press supporters, mostly in the cause of leaving the EU. It also managed to deliver perhaps the worst possible result, from a democratic perspective: a 52/48 per cent split in the vote. This made the genuine will of the people impossible to discern, particularly as a very substantial majority either voted against leaving the EU or did not feel sufficiently exercised by the matter to vote at all. It was not helpful either that the question presented to the British public was simplistic to the point of being purposefully stupid. In such circumstances, perhaps the worst thing a government could do would be simply and uncritically to take that verdict as the will of the people and ignore the concerns of close to half of those who bothered to vote. Yet not only has the government resolutely pursued this line, making zero attempt to find a compromise or a way of addressing the will of the 48 per cent, still less to launch a national conversation on the matter, it seems now set on a course that will deliver a ‘no deal’ Brexit, with the Prime Minister unable to command support within her party for a deal that would be acceptable to the EU and reduced to putting forward a plan she doesn’t believe in, in full knowledge that it will be rejected.

The referendum was called by David Cameron in order to bring peace among warring factions of the British Conservative Party. Instead, it gave extremists within the party the opportunity to take their fight to a larger stage, where it is the future of the country, rather than just a political party, that is at stake. Still more troublingly, that struggle has been effectively hijacked by Putin’s Russia and other interests determined to break up the EU. As he has in America, Putin has supported and forged links with racist politicians and other populist forces at national level in the UK to challenge and undermine national and international democratic institutions and structures. While the extent of Russian influence is unclear, there can be no doubt that Putin will be delighted with the outcomes both of the last US presidential election and the UK EU referendum, as well as with the chaos that has ensued from both. The remarkable spectacle of a US president, fresh from humiliating a feeble and flailing UK Prime Minister determined to forge a trade deal at any cost (including to her dignity and that of her office), publicly taking the word of a corrupt and murderous autocrat above that of his own intelligence service, was perhaps the most notable milestone to date in the decline of western liberal democracy.

Democracy is being challenged by new forms of autocratic government, abetted by a foolish, disreputable and reckless US president and a feckless and divided UK government (and opposition), which is drifting away from Europe without map or rudder at a time when democracies (if that is what they are and want to be) desperately need to stand together and defend their values. All of this is symptomatic not only of the rise of populism around the world but of the failure of western democracies to defend their values adequately at home. The UK is a case in point. Over the past decade, the language of fascism has been allowed to creep back into British political discourse, while dangerous, ill-founded and racist views have been given a platform in the mainstream media without sufficient critical challenge. This is perhaps no big surprise when it comes to much of the right-learning press, which has pumped out xenophobic and anti-EU bile for decades (and, of course, the Daily Mail has form when it comes to backing fascists). But the BBC too must take a large share of the blame for its uncritical, evidence-free presentation of opposing views and for the repeated exposure it has given to the likes of Nigel Farage, without challenging their views or credibility, or asking where their funding and support comes from. Perhaps more importantly, though, most politicians and most of the media have been prepared to quietly write off the hopes of communities around the country and the people who live in them. It is ironic that these neglected communities in voting to leave the EU have invested their faith in people who very largely see their lives and futures as wholly acceptable collateral damage in their efforts to stick it to the EU, cut workers’ rights, dismantle the NHS, keep their party together, avoid EU tax scrutiny or further their desire for power (please select as appropriate).

Watching all of this unfold can be an incredibly disempowering and isolating experience. This is particularly so if you are poorly informed or lack the capacity or opportunity to really engage critically with what is going on. For far too long, as a society, we have failed to take seriously the notion that an engaged and well-informed citizenry is the best route to a flourishing, resilient democracy and the best defence against its erosion by malign internal and external forces. This came home to me while reading about the Army Bureau of Current Affairs (ABCA), a remarkable experiment in education and democracy that developed – under the inspired guidance of social entrepreneur W.E. Williams – during the Second World War. It was established in 1941 by the War Office to provide weekly current affairs talks and discussions for service people, led by regimental officers and supported by the fortnightly publication of pamphlets on issues ‘of topical and universal importance’. These sessions included discussion of alternative ways of organising society and were supplemented by a scheme to provide military personnel with three hours of compulsory education per week, one hour for military training, one for general subjects and personal interest, and one for education in citizenship. Williams felt strongly that serving men and women should not only have access to basic information about the war, but also have the opportunity to take part in the discussions that would shape the country that emerged from the conflict. This was, in the words of General Sir Ronald Adam, President of the British Institute of Adult Education, ‘a great manifestation of democratic faith’. It demonstrated both a remarkable trust in the capacity of ordinary people to contribute to the future shape of post-war Britain (through Churchill personally intervened to block a paper on the Beveridge Report being published) and a lived commitment to raising political awareness to stimulate democratic engagement.

This understanding of education as a vital support to participatory democracy has been part and parcel of the adult education movement in Britain since the 1919 Report and earlier, in the commitment of the Workers’ Educational Association to ‘true education’ which ‘directly induces thought’. This has been intermittently recognised by government across the decades but this recognition has become increasingly rhetorical, as funding has been systematically redirected to adult education for basic skills and employability, and education for wider purposes has been cut, ruthlessly, by successive governments, but particularly under the austerity-themed governments of Cameron and May. Adult participation in further and higher education has been in freefall while many of the spaces in which non-formal adult education has traditionally taken place, such as public libraries and community centres, have disappeared with the savage reductions in public support for local government. We often hear about the public’s diminishing faith in politicians and the political process, but little is said of the corresponding decline in politicians’ faith in the public: to make decisions about their country’s future, to decide what is best for them educationally, to exercise meaningful, informed choice at elections or to engage meaningfully with political decision-making within their own communities. Both these trends nourish and support each other, creating a downward spiral in mutual esteem and respect that is (as we have found) extremely harmful to democracy and the political process. I spoke recently to a Swedish academic who expressed surprise that in the run-up to the EU referendum there had been no attempt to stimulate engagement through adult education – this, he said, had been the case in Sweden in the run-up to the 2003 referendum on membership of the Euro. It was also characteristic of the lively build up to the referendum on Scottish independence, where local authorities, adult education providers and civil society groups took the initiative in creating spaces in which discussion on key issues could take place. Instead of promoting this kind of meaningful engagement, both leave and remain campaigns plumped for a mixture of lies, fear-mongering and mud-slinging, with a spot of Nazi-inspired, racist propagandising thrown in for good measure. What should have been an opportunity to stimulate a genuine national debate was squandered in the cause of jingoism and complacency.

The loss of critical and creative adult education spaces has never been more keenly felt. With much of the adult education infrastructure systematically dismantled we face a long, upward struggle to reconceptualise adult education as something more than a source of basic and workplace skills. We are some way from the Swedish example, where the links between adult education and democracy are acknowledged and the infrastructure for a campaign of mass adult education exists. But perhaps the current vacuum in British politics created by Brexit, in which the government does not govern and the opposition no longer opposes, also creates a space for other alternative ways of doing democracy. The Swedish study circle model, in which adult learners come together to share views on a particular topic and to learn from one another, is an excellent example, fostering both democratic engagement and inclusion. If we are serious about education for active citizenship, then education must go beyond simply describing what democratic citizenship is about – it must give people the opportunity to participate in democratic deliberation, recognising this as a signifier of inclusion in a democratic society, while acknowledging that democracy’s mutable nature requires continuous engagement, as well as constant vigilance. Adult education can create spaces for attentiveness and remembering, where cynicism can be challenged, hope fostered and preconceptions overturned. It encourages agency, critical thinking and respect for others and their opinions. In times when democratic values and institutions are under attack and ‘alternative facts’ vie with the truth for airtime, learning can be the basis of resistance and simple connection with others can be a revolutionary act. As the wartime pioneers of adult education realised, when darkness is closing in around us, education is the bright hope that can guide us to another place.

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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.