Education and Britain’s inequality crisis

Britain has an inequality problem. It is probably the biggest problem it faces and it is getting worse. Increasingly, how long you live in Britain depends on where you live. Life expectancy has stalled since 2010 and in some cases has gone into reverse. People living in rich parts of Kensington and Chelsea can now expect to live on average 16 years longer than their poorer neighbours in the same council area. Wage growth has stalled for all but the already very rich, whose salaries continue to soar (executive pay went up 11 per cent last year alone). The mean pay ratio between FTSE 100 CEOs and the mean pay package of their employees was 145:1 in 2017 (compared to 128:1 in 2016). Income inequality, already higher in Britain than in almost all other European countries, is growing. Work in Britain is no longer an effective defence against poverty. One in eight workers live in poverty – 3.7 million – and, of the 12 million working-age adults and children in poverty, 8 million live in families where at least one person is in work. Meanwhile, a fractured and self-contradicting government, tied up in introspective knots as it steers the country towards a Brexit outcome that only a minority of right-wing zealots want and that will worsen the lives of the worst-off still further, has no answers and seemingly no interest in doing anything about it. 

Britain looks increasingly like a country in need of an intervention. We are locked in a cycle of self-destructive behaviour, aware of the harm we do ourselves and others but seemingly unable to stop doing it. Politicians often talk about the problems Britain faces, commissions are set up and inquiries launched, critics are co-opted and reports published, often with the best of intentions – but there is no appetite in government to deal with the underlying causes, or even to talk about them openly. And for much of the mainstream media, the day-to-day struggles of people living with poverty are simply off-radar – a foreign country which, in the best English tradition, they would rather sneer at than try to understand. We are, increasingly, in denial about who we are and where we are going, puffed up by self-delusion and beset by imaginary bogeymen, frequently mistaking our friends for our enemies. We need to acknowledge this and begin talking honestly about the challenges we face. The starting point for any intervention – and the first step to recovery – is acceptance: we must, first of all, accept that we have a problem with inequality and that we are, as a society and as individuals, in crisis because of it. We also need to accept that none of this is inevitable – it is the result of the choices we have made – and that we can change it.

It is increasingly clear that the inequality crisis means that very many people in Britain now face difficulties that make their lives unmanageable. Inequality, as Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson show in their new book The Inner Level, is not just about material goods and wealth; it ‘eats into the heart of our immediate, personal world’, increasing the social distance between people and making us ill at ease with each other, becoming, in short, ‘the enemy between us’. They point to evidence from a Mental Health Foundation Survey, which found that 74 per cent of adults in the UK were so stressed at times in the past year that they felt ‘overwhelmed and unable to cope’, with one-third reporting suicidal thoughts. Socioeconomic inequality ‘strengthens the belief that some people are worth much more than others’, they say. ‘In more unequal societies we come to judge each other more by status and worry more about how others judge us … [Inequality] increases status anxiety in all income groups, from the poorest ten per cent to the richest tenth’. This can take the form of ‘lack of confidence, feelings of inferiority and low self-esteem’, resulting in ‘high levels of depression and anxiety in more unequal societies’ and leading to greater alcohol and substance abuse. Those living in relative poverty, no matter what their material living standards, tend to experience a feeling of failure and a ‘strong sense of shame and self-loathing’, while the rich tend to flaunt their worth and achievements, to ‘self-enhance’; and ‘become narcissistic’. Interestingly, Pickett and Wilson report, more unequal societies are also more likely to have high levels of personal debt as people ‘try to show that they are not “second-class people” by owning “first-class things”’.

Inequality is corrupting, in all sorts of ways. Not only is it a driver of depression, alcohol and substance dependency, debt and acquisitiveness, it is also inimical to the health of our democracy, allowing the wealthy to exercise a disproportionate influence over government and its institutions. As the Economist reports, the political influence of the rich tends to increase as inequality grows – they are able to spend more on political donations and are much more likely to have regular personal contact with elected officials. More insidiously, they have the power to shape public opinion, through ownership of media outlets, the financing of ‘nominally apolitical think tanks’, and so on. These efforts are sometimes ‘used to influence the result of a particular vote’, such as the vote on Britain’s EU membership. However, ‘it is often deployed more subtly, to shape public narratives about which problems deserve attention’, focusing attention on matters of ‘social order’, such as crime and immigration, rather than issues of economic justice.

Inequality also inhibits social mobility – the gaps between the rungs of the ladder make the risks of failure that much greater, and make education a high-stakes, high-risk endeavour, which incentivises system-gaming of one form or another. This means that the wealthy are better able to monopolise positions of power and influence within society, something that is exacerbated by systems of first-rung internships and the prohibitive costs of living in London. This, in turn, helps ensure that senior positions in the media are dominated by people from wealthy, privileged backgrounds, pushing the lives and concerns of working-class people still further down the news agenda. Much of the bias this creates is unintentional. The appalling neglect of further education and technical qualifications in the national media, for example, is down as much to ignorance (they are for ‘other people’s children’) as it is to a deliberate policy of exclusion.

We seem to be approaching what Danny Dorling describes as ‘peak inequality’, a situation where ‘the town you live in is so segregated that the school-aged children do not mix – not between schools, not socially, not at all. Peak inequality is where the best-off people in your workplace demand “housing allowances” because they could not possibly live near those who clean their workplace, or those who ensure the photocopier works, or who keep the computer servers working night and day.’ If this situation is not immediately familiar to you, you probably do not live in Britain. As Dorling notes, inequality now ‘pervades every aspect of our lives in Britain in ways we now accept as normal’. We see it in our over-crowded railway carriages (and often near-empty first-class carriages), in our under-funded public services, our impoverished schools and hospitals, our booming (and publicly subsidised) private-school sector, our shabby, sometimes derelict public spaces and the ongoing ‘cleansing’ of old working-class neighbourhoods. Inequality is everywhere. It is saddening to see how accustomed we have become to political failure, to things no civilised society should tolerate.

So, what can we do to change things? Education has a crucial, underpinning role to play, although it is only one part of the story. To really change things, we need a huge shift in political will, backed by a broad national consensus about the kind of society we want to be. Such change would inevitably involve a substantial redistribution of wealth, a reduction in health inequalities and a properly funded health service, fairer pay and greater pay equality (with curbs on soaring executive pay, which has leached also into the public sector), and more affordable housing. But education can often be the start of such change, which is why I attach so much importance to it. Specific educational interventions can make a big difference. I want to talk about three.

First, we need to level the educational playing field to ensure equal opportunities for all. Britain is a complete outlier internationally in deliberately perpetuating a two-tier school education system, in which the majority of wealthy parents send their children to private schools, where they meet other privileged children and greatly improve their chances of attending an elite university and being successful later in life, and the rest send their children either to a state-supported selective school (often dependent on living in the right area, access to academic coaching, etc) or to a ‘bog-standard’ state school, which, like the parents who send their children there, is likely to be struggling to provide basic educational necessities for their kids. The current government has deliberately exacerbated an already bad situation, by reducing real-terms funding for state schools while finding extra money for selective schools to expand. Astonishingly, and in the face of all evidence, ministers implementing these policies claim to be acting to promote social mobility. This is an example of the kind of Orwellian doublespeak now routinely employed in government departments, and it is a particularly bare-faced example. The reality of their policies is a reinforcement of social inequality, selection based on class or wealth, with middle-class parents (who have the knowledge and resources to do it) incentivised to game the system in favour of their children, panic among parents desperate to get the best option available for their kids, and greater consciousness of failure in selective areas among children who have not made it to a selective school (in effect, the presence of a selective school turns neighbouring state-maintained schools into ‘secondary moderns’). The great irony of this is that all of it, including the elite private-school system, is subsidised by ordinary tax-payers. Getting poor people to pay for this must rank among the greatest con-tricks on public opinion of all time.

The term ‘bog-standard comprehensive’ was coined by Tony Blair’s attack dog in chief, Alastair Campbell, to justify his government’s promotion of specialist schools and academies. Subsequent Conservative-led governments have reinforced this rhetoric, emphasising choice and diversity rather than uniformity of quality, and systematically reducing the funding available for the education of ‘other people’s children’. It became perfectly clear, particularly under Michael Gove – the worst, most arrogant and irresponsible education secretary in living memory – that the life chances of poorer children were a price worth paying for the government’s experiments in selective education and their attacks on ‘the blob’, the rump of experts, academics and teachers trying to educate kids in spite of the mess created by Gove and his moronic acolytes. Parents want choice, we were/are told. But in fact parents want nothing of the sort. What they want is bog-standard schools – schools that are of a bog-standard high quality and offer the same opportunities to every child – and a system that is fair for everyone, no matter where they live or how wealthy they are.

Uniformity of quality in school education is generally regarded as rather a good thing in countries other than Britain. No-one minds sending their kids to a ‘bog-standard’ school when the standard is uniformly good. When I moved to Hamburg a couple of years ago, people looked at me uncomprehendingly when I asked where the best schools in the city were located. Generally speaking, they told me, they are all good. There is no mainstream private school alternative and the social mix of state schools reflects that. The parents of the children in my son’s school include neurosurgeons, architects, GPs, teachers, nurses, lawyers, police, retail workers and cleaners – not a mix you would find in many British schools where social segregation is, for the most part, the norm. The reason for this is that the British education system has developed to perpetuate privilege rather than to challenge it, to compound advantage and to stifle equality of opportunity rather than to promote it. If we had set out from scratch to design a system for just this purpose, it would look something like the system we now have. To change this we need to follow the example set by Finland, as set out by Melissa Benn in her excellent Guardian ‘long read’, by abolishing divisive, privilege-entrenching fee-paying schools and establishing a genuinely nationwide comprehensive system. The reforms in Finland, as Benn notes, helped close the attainment gap between the richest and poorest students and turned Finland ‘into one of the global educational success stories of the modern era’. With sufficient political will, we could achieve this in Britain too. The best and surest way to improve our education system and ensure it is fair and well-funded is to have a single system in which every parent is equally invested. We would soon see public funding for schools rise. Taking away the multi-million pound state subsidy for private schools and redirecting it to struggling state schools would be a step in the right direction, but it is nowhere near enough.

My second intervention is to increase support for those who have already been through compulsory education to improve their lives and prospects and those of their families, particularly their children. The past two decades have seen a remarkable erosion in opportunities for adults to learn, whether in the community, in work, in further education colleges or at university. It is important that this decline is reversed, and in a way that acknowledges the importance of wider learning: learning that makes us more creative, confident, ambitious, resilient and sensitised to learning, as well as work-ready. Adults who have been failed by our faulty and systemically unfair education system deserve a second chance. This is crucial not only for them but also for their families. Parents are desperate to support their children through school but many lack the knowledge, skills and confidence to do so. Working-class parents in particular often still bear the scars of their school education: some need support with basic skills such as literacy and numeracy, others, labelled ‘thick’ or ‘stupid’ at school, find the classroom a scary, intimidating place. These are all issues they need to overcome to engage fully in their children’s education. This is why I think family learning is a particularly useful intervention, and something that should be a much more recognised – and much better funded – feature of our educational terrain. It not only provides parents with a powerful incentive to engage in learning, often for the first time since school, but has also been shown to have a substantial positive impact on the attainment of their children. When it comes to pupil performance, there really is no substitute for parental engagement. And when it comes to adult engagement, there really is no more compelling motive than the desire to better support our children.

Family Connections, a Belfast-based project funded by the children’s charity, Barnardo’s, provides an excellent example of how family learning works. The project takes as its premise the idea that ‘children will do better at school if their parents are involved in their education’ and aims to build ‘the capacity of parents to embed learning in the home environment’. It has four main complementary and connected strands: work with children; work with parents; work with children and parents; and work with community. Each strand reinforces the others, inspiring kids and parents alike, and supporting them in creating the sorts of rich learning environments more-privileged children can take for granted. This kind of support is critical in enabling children to do well in education. It can be as simple a matter as reading with a child. Reading for pleasure has been found to be an even more important predictor of future educational success than socio-economic background, and home environment is the critical factor in fostering this. Research also suggests that if we can get more people reading we can increase empathy, improve their relationships with others, reduce symptoms of depression and improve wellbeing. The value of family learning includes but, importantly, goes beyond improved educational achievements for children and parents, and includes well-attested benefits in terms of confidence, self-esteem, motivation, self-efficacy, health and well-being, employability and increased community involvement. Despite the well-documented benefits, funding for family learning has been in decline.

A third and, for me, absolutely critical intervention is to invest in people’s civic and political education. We need to revive spaces in which people can come together and discuss the things that matter to them and their communities and we need to revive the tradition of education for active citizenship, which has been part and parcel of the British adult education system for well over a century (though it has been in deep retreat for several decades). People need to find a way out of their algorithmic echo chambers, to find means of locating common ground with others, including, especially, those they disagree with. Rather that hurling insults across the cyber divide we should be seeking out common spaces in which to exchange ideas, persuade and discuss – spaces in which, in Hannah Arendt’s words, we can ‘think against the grain of received opinion … question and challenge [and] imagine the world from different standpoints and perspectives’. Democratic governments have a responsibility to support this, as do the leaders of all educational institutions in receipt of public funding. It is, for example, a crucial, though neglected, part of the mission of our universities. We can learn here from Sweden, where adult education came to be seen as an essential part of ‘building democracy from below’ and of including and empowering excluded members of the population. As Magnus Dahlstedt puts it, ‘adult education was understood as a domain of democratic fostering’ whereby ‘adult learners learn how engage in a debate, listen to other’s arguments’ and are, by participating, ‘fostered into democratic citizens’. This tradition is still alive in Sweden though it is largely forgotten in Britain, where, not so long ago, it was the primary concern of adult educators, and from where the Swedish model took much of its early inspiration. Raymond Williams described it as the ‘central ambition’ of the adult education movement in Britain, ‘to be part of the process of social change’ rather than just a consequence of it.

Renewing this neglected part of our educational tradition is particularly challenging but I think it is of growing importance, given current threats to democracy, the polarising effects of social media and the distorting mirror our unrepresentative and unaccountable media, dominated by private interests and private money, holds up to reality. As a society, we desperately need to have an informed, open and collegial conversation about the sort of society we want to be, not more self-defeating group-think. Do we want to continue subsidising private schools to the tune of millions of pounds while funding for state education is cut? Do we want a two-tier education system in which opportunity is so unevenly and unfairly distributed, to the extent that we routinely write off the chances of half the school-leaving population? Do we really want to continue running our public services down, hollowing out local government and under-funding health services, while the already wealthy take more and more to the point where they can afford to turn a blind eye to the civic vandalism taking place all around them? What is our collective vision for the future of the country post-Brexit? These are important questions that we need to ask ourselves that concern actual choices, not facts of life or unchangeable laws of national life. At this crucial point in British history, we need an informed, national and local conversation, supported by civic and political education.

Our failure on inequality is in part a failure of the imagination – a failure to think differently or to believe things can be different. It is also a failure of values, conscience, courage, optimism and critical thinking. The statistics quoted at the start of the article have become depressingly normal, as have the excuses, the pretence that inequality is either inevitable or justified by the superior talents of the rich. We have grown accustomed to the idea that we cannot possibly have the nice things the Scandinavians, or for that matter the French or Germans, take for granted – decent state schools in every neighbourhood, a good, inexpensive transport infrastructure, pleasant, well-maintained public spaces, a well-functioning health service, an education which does not load poorer students with a lifetime of debt. But inequality is not inevitable – it is the result of political choice and it can be changed. To change things, we need real political will and vision from government, as well as a willingness to talk frankly about what the challenges are and what options are available to us, including, crucially, the option to do things differently. One reason for people’s alienation from politics is that, in most cases, this latter option simply does not seem to be on the table. We need to empower people to play their own part in shaping the country of the future. Years of ideologically driven austerity, tolerance of outrageous pay inequality, the neglect of working-class communities around the country, a profoundly cynical and undemocratic media and our continuing support for an education system that compounds privilege have brought us to crisis point. But what happens next is in our own hands. We can continue down the current road, ignoring the warning signs and allowing the poison of poverty and inequality to spread, or we can turn around and go in another direction. I very much hope we will do the latter.

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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.

The instrumentalist turn

Book review: UNESCO’s Utopia of Lifelong Learning: An Intellectual History by Maren Elfert

This fascinating and highly readable book describes how the United Nations Scientific, Educational and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) shaped the notion of lifelong learning and promoted its adoption as a global educational paradigm. It offers an account of UNESCO’s utopian thinking about lifelong learning and the forces that shaped this, while also considering critically the tensions and ideological challenges that resulted in the prevalence, globally and at country level, of a less-than-utopian, instrumentalist approach to lifelong learning some distance from the expansive humanism of its early theorists.

It is a book that Maren Elfert is, perhaps, uniquely qualified to write. As she notes in her introduction, she worked for many years for the UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning (UIL) during which time she ‘became increasingly troubled by the gap between UNESCO’s humanistic discourse and the reality of “results-based management”’. One manifestation of this, she notes, was the demand of funders for a narrow, instrumental approach to projects which left little room for the organic development of the work and treated human beings ‘as means rather than ends in the teaching and learning process’. This approach, she found, ‘contradicted the humanism and the concept of education as a human right that UNESCO propagates’.

The dissonance Elfert identifies between these two distinct perspectives, and her evident, keenly felt discomfort with it, is the fuel for the book. I suspect that Elfert’s unease will resonate with many readers and not only those who work in lifelong learning at an international level. In more than a decade working for NIACE (the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education) in the UK, I witnessed the dramatic narrowing of policy-makers’ thinking about adult education and lifelong learning, and experienced the sharp contrast between the warm, expansive language used by politicians to talk about lifelong learning and the depressing instrumentalism of their actions. These actions, in which all three main UK political parties were complicit, resulted in a profound and sustained constriction in adults’ opportunities to learn, and the destruction of much of the lifelong learning infrastructure that had been many decades in the making. Another casualty of diminishing political support for lifelong learning broadly conceived was NIACE itself, and while its successor organisation, the Learning and Work Institute (the result of a merger between NIACE and the Centre for Economic and Social Inclusion), continues to include lifelong learning within its remit, the loss of a distinctive, dedicated voice has been keenly felt.

Elfert describes the evolution of UNESCO’s thinking about education from the immediate post-war period, when the organisation was founded, through the publication of its two landmark reports on lifelong learning (Learning to Be and Learning: The Treasure Within) to present-day economistic approaches to lifelong learning. Much of UNESCO’s early thinking about education was spurred by its response to the misuse of education for political purposes during the war and the atrocities to which it contributed. A ‘humanistic and emancipatory approach’ emerged, Elfert writes, that ‘aimed at bringing out the full potential of human beings and enabling them to shape their societies towards greater democratization and social justice’. This utopian strain of thinking saw education as a human right with ‘intrinsic’ value and rejected any form of instrumentalism in education, which is to say, any attempt to subject education to other, extraneous purposes.

Elfert deftly describes how ‘lifelong education’ emerged as an educational paradigm during the 1960s, with much of the impetus deriving from Paul Lengrand who popularised the notion of éducation permanente, in France, as one of the founders of popular education movement Peuple et Culture, and internationally, as head of UNESCO’s adult education department. It was not until the Faure report of 1972, however, that lifelong education was presented as a key organising principle of UNESCO’s work. Faure’s report, Learning to Be, represented ‘the first time the organization launched a report setting out a vision for the future of education globally’, seeking to establish lifelong education as ‘the new global “master concept”’ for education. The report reasserted the ‘humanistic’ vision for education set out by UNESCO’s founders and defended it against what Faure saw as the growing prevalence of an ‘economistic’ worldview in education. It proposed the creation of a ‘learning society’ in which education was available ‘for all throughout life, inside and outside of institutions’. The aim of lifelong education, the argument went, was not merely to produce economically useful workers, but to foster the development of a new type of society, in which opportunities for personal fulfilment and active democratic participation were evenly distributed.

As Elfert describes it, while Faure produced ‘an inspirational document that was ahead of its time’, its immediate influence was limited by a combination of economic recession, political pragmatism and escalating Cold War tensions. It appeared at a moment when neoliberal thinking about education was becoming more and more prevalent and human capital theorists were popularising an understanding of education as, essentially, a tool of economic development. This change was being felt within international organisations such as UNESCO, as well as within nation states, and it wasn’t until 1996, and the publication of Learning: The Treasure Within, better known as the Delors report, that UNESCO again presented so ambitious a statement of the value and wider purposes of lifelong learning. Delors consciously contrasted the position taken in his report with the ideologically alien ‘neoliberal’ thinking that had become politically dominant in Britain and in the United States (under Thatcher and Reagan, respectively). He resisted the idea that education was a means to an economic end, and argued instead for education as a right, a means of supporting people to reach their full potential and of creating a fairer and more socially just society. The report emphasised ‘learning throughout life’ and stressed both its ‘lifelong’ and ‘lifewide’ dimensions, noting the relevance of leaning to all spheres of life. Famously, this vision was expressed in terms of the ‘four pillars of learning’: learning to know, learning to do, learning to be and learning to live together.

While the adult education community received the report favourably, Elfert writes, many critics ‘did not consider it practical enough and criticized it for resorting to “the language of idealism and dreams”’. It was overshadowed by the Education for All agenda, on which it had little impact, and by ‘the hegemony of a neoliberal lifelong learning discourse’. As a result, as Elfert notes, it had ‘negligible’ impact at the level of education policy; it was a ‘non-event’, in the words of Kjell Rubenson. Even within UNESCO, interest in it was ‘short lived’. In the meantime, ‘education moved further down the economistic path, jeopardizing more and more UNESCO’s utopia of a just society’. In a final chapter, Elfert shows that while lifelong learning became an established part of educational discourse around the world, lifelong learning policies ‘display a predominantly economic and instrumental interpretation that focuses on the provision of skills for individuals for job-related purposes, which has little to do with UNESCO’s “maximalist” version of lifelong learning’. The language of rights has been replaced by a discourse of responsibilities – principally, the responsibility to acquire and maintain the skills necessary to be a productive worker. The success of lifelong learning as an important educational paradigm has been achieved at the cost of its ‘revolutionary’ and political aspects.

This attenuated vision of lifelong learning as an endless cycle of training and retraining, shorn of its all-important lifewide dimension, will be familiar to UK readers who will have witnessed the systematic destruction of the country’s once world-leading adult education system over the past two decades. The trend has been exacerbated by a prolonged period of austerity and retrenchment in public spending, in the UK and elsewhere, following the financial crash. For UNESCO, Elfert notes, this climate has resulted in a tension between its ‘humanistic tradition’ and the demands of its donors. Nevertheless, I think she is right to argue for the continuing relevance and importance of the ‘maximalist’ notion of lifelong learning, which both Faure and Delores defend, and to assert its relevance to the ongoing struggle between ‘humanistic-emancipatory’ and ‘technocratic-rationalistic’ worldviews. A Elfert notes, lifelong learning is inextricably bound up with the ‘hope that human beings can change their world for the better’. Current threats to the democratic way of life, and the ongoing transformation of the world of work, certainly seem to point in the direction of a broader notion of lifelong learning, which recognises the importance of creativity, resilience, adaptability, and political and civic understanding. The story Elfert tells is a fascinating and important one, and she tells it wonderfully well. While the subject matter may appear relevant only to a fairly niche audience, I found it directly relatable to the national context in which I worked for many years, in ways that helped illuminate it. It also poses important questions to those who advocate for lifelong learning at an international level. I hope it will be very widely read, as, certainly, it deserves to be.

 

 

Making the connection: Health and adult education

The third Global Report on Adult Learning and Education (GRALE 3), published by the UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning in 2016, highlighted the impact of education on health and wellbeing and urged policymakers to strengthen the links between education and health. Adult education, in particular, it reported, had a demonstrable positive impact on:

  • general health, reducing absenteeism at work and in education and enabling people to better fulfil their family and community responsibilities;
  • behaviours and attitudes (e.g. reductions in alcohol consumption and smoking and increased sexual health awareness), stimulating greater personal responsibility for health;
  • life expectancy and an extended period of life without limiting disabilities; and
  • mental health, lowering rates of depression and promoting better coping strategies and greater life satisfaction.

Self-esteem and self-efficacy are other important outcomes of learning, relevant to improved mental health and wellbeing in particular, as highlighted by Cathie Hammond in The wider benefits of Learning: The impact of education on health, family life and social capital (Schuller, Preston, Hammond, Brassett-Grundy and Bynner, 2004). Hammond also reminds us that education and wellbeing need not always have a positive impact on self-esteem and self-efficacy, for example if a student’s experience raises expectations that cannot be met or reinforces negative self-impressions. Nevertheless, the picture overall is an overwhelmingly positive one.

At a societal level, these individual benefits result in increased human capital and more active citizens, a reduction in healthcare costs due to increased use of outpatient care and a decreased use of inpatient care, and a more active, productive, self-reliant population. The benefits are well-evidenced (through the work of the Centre for Research on the Wider Benefits of Learning, for example), yet, in practice, while most countries say they recognise the benefits of adult education to health, few do much to support or promote these benefits, and effective coordination between health and education budgets is rare.

It is increasingly obvious that this needs to change. The cost of healthcare has been a hotly debated topic in the UK in recent weeks, for example, with many questioning whether the NHS funding model is broken and universal, fee healthcare no longer affordable. However, the problems facing the NHS are not unique to the UK’s healthcare funding model. They are typical of all countries where populations are ageing (and, in fact, far from being broken, the direct taxation model remains, according to the King’s Fund, among the most efficient ways to fund healthcare). Nevertheless, with costs rising steeply, something has to give, and endlessly increasing investment in treating illness is not much of a blueprint for the future. With people living and working longer, it is crucially important that countries find ways to coordinate their policies on health, mental health and education, especially adult education.

As GRALE 3 shows, even small investments in education can have large returns for health. Yet in many countries – and certainly in the UK – investment in adult education has been declining. Adult learning is often squeezed out when education budgets are cut and the tendency of policymakers to work in silos makes it difficult to make a persuasive case for using a portion of health spending, however small, to fund adult education. Equally, it is a challenge to convince employers that it is worthwhile investing in staff development opportunities that are not directly related to job performance. Employers are understandably reluctant to invest in something that seems to be of no direct benefit to them and tend to regard it as an unaffordable luxury, but, in fact, organisations such as MerseyTravel and Arriva in the UK, which have adopted such policies, often in collaboration with unions, report real benefits in terms of staff morale, loyalty, retention, absenteeism and the culture of the organisation. Ford’s new campaign to raise mental health awareness in the workplace is another example of a company recognising that worker health is not a peripheral concern but something employers must take seriously and invest in.

One of Sir Alan Tuckett’s innovations as Director of the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education was to introduce a scheme to fund the small-scale learning of all staff – the one condition was that the learning had to have absolutely nothing to do with their day jobs. This was a brilliant idea, which led people in all sorts of different directions – I recall one colleague taking a butchery course, while another took ukulele lessons (later touring with a band). But what was interesting, I think, was the impact this had on people’s sense of wellbeing at work, their feeling of belonging and the intellectual culture of the place. This kind of ‘seriously useless learning’, to borrow Alan’s phrase, can give people a start in a new career, help them cope with depression and other difficulties, improve their self-esteem and confidence (and consequently their relationships with others), reacquaint them with learning after a lengthy absence, and ignite a real passion for learning. And, of course, these benefits ripple out, into people’s families and communities. The scheme was a great example of an organisation living the kind of change it wanted to see in wider society.

Even in times of severe financial constraint, the case for investment in adult education as a means of reducing health costs and supporting the health and wellbeing of populations is strong. However, as GRALE 3 makes clear, it is not only a matter of investment and, in fact, relatively modest increases in spending can have a huge impact here. Equally significant is the coherence of policy-making and the coordination between sectors. Yet, in too many cases, compartmentalisation and poor interdepartmental collaboration limit the positive impact of education on health and wellbeing. Only 20 per cent of respondents to the GRALE 3 survey felt collaboration between health agencies and adult education providers was effective. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is, in effect, an invitation to this sort of collaboration, as GRALE 3 points out. Its 17 goals are ‘inseparable’, which is to say they cannot be achieved singly but only through considered attention to all and the way in which they interact. It demands that areas usually kept apart in policymaking are brought together and encouraged to talk. There is something here on which policymakers can build.

The truth though is that none of this will happen without far more engagement and proactivity from the wider public, to whom the goals of the 2030 Agenda are largely unknown. Disparities in engagement reflect deeply entrenched inequalities in education and health, which, of course, compound each other. Another key finding of the Centre for Research on the Wider Benefits of Learning was that engagement in adult education courses predicted greater levels of civic and political participation. Countries serious about addressing these inequalities will already be investing in the lifelong and lifewide learning of their citizens, recognising that without intervention the benefits of education for health will tend to coalesce among those who have already benefited the most. The societal and economic benefits are considerable but many countries, I fear, will consider an increase in civic participation to be a cost rather than a benefit. Nevertheless, the cultivation of a culture of lifelong learning is probably the most constructive thing any country struggling with the rising costs associated with an ageing population can do, and it is arguably a precondition for achievement of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals. Certainly, those goals will not be met without the civic and political engagement of citizens.

Some countries are already moving along this road. Others, such as the UK, seem to be moving backwards. The failure to invest in the skills, talents, aspirations and creativity of everyone in society, at every stage of their lives, looks increasingly wrong-headed, given the challenges we now face. Countries need healthy, active, resilient and flexible lifelong learners who are able to adapt and retrain throughout life if they are to be competitive, productive and successful. And people need and deserve the opportunity to realise all they can be, whoever and wherever they are, as a matter of social justice. After a decade or so when many governments, the UK included, have substantially reduced investment in the learning of adults, despite the increased acceptance of the wider benefits of lifelong learning, maybe it is time to change course.

‘I thought that through education we could help people move forward without a revolution’

I was sad to read of the death of the great historian of adult education, John Fletcher Clews (J.F.C.) Harrison, on 8 January 2018, aged 96. John was one of the generation of ‘extra mural’ adult educators that included E.P Thompson and Raymond Williams. He saw in adult education a catalyst for social change and his writing – marked, Thompson wrote, by its clarity and ‘unhurried, authoritative, economical style’ – was notable also for striving to reach beyond a narrow audience of academics to an ‘informed general public’.

For John, as for his contemporaries, adult education was a desperately serious business, with a clear social, political and civic purpose, in which learning ‘for leisure’ had no place. I was fortunate enough to be able to interview John for Adults Learning, in 2004, I think. He was an extremely kind, affable and gracious interviewee. I asked him what he thought were the prospects for the radical tradition of working class education. Much of what he had to say is still acutely relevant. The interview is reproduced below as it appeared in Adults Learning.

In his book, Learning and Living, John Harrison charted the history of adult learning understood ‘in terms of social purpose rather than institutional form’, a radical movement instrumental in the growth – and forever at the frontiers – of democracy. The work demonstrated how, within this largely voluntary tradition, adult education strove for liberation ‘personal and social’. As tutor for the University of Leeds’ extra-mural department in the 1950s, Harrison crossed great swathes of West and North Yorkshire to give tutorial classes to the region’s agricultural, steel and textile workers. However, the social changes that he hoped adult education would produce failed to materialise and nothing, he thinks, in the present political climate suggests a reverse. With universities ‘dumbing down’ their courses and the traditional subjects of the radical movement increasingly marginalised, the time, he thinks, is ripe for adult education to reconsider and build on its roots within a broader, popular movement.

Learning and Living, 1790-1960: A Study in the History of the English Adult Education Movement (1961) stemmed directly from Harrison’s experiences as an extra-mural lecturer in Yorkshire. He joined the Department of Extra-Mural Studies of the University of Leeds in September 1947. Harrison mostly taught WEA-organised evening classes in the towns and villages of the North Riding, sometimes travelling 70 miles to give a class on social history or international relations, then 70 miles back. He taught steel workers just off the night shift over breakfast in a Teeside Working Men’s Institute, hard-worked and poorly paid agricultural workers in the vale of York, textile workers in the West Riding. Driven on by its forceful and persuasive architect, Sidney Raybould, the department emphasised classes for manual workers. ‘Raybould would be very disappointed if we could only get a class of housewives, however worthy,’ says Harrison.

‘We took our lead from the famous sayings of Tawney, the great pioneer of adult education and the WEA. He said that he had learned a great deal about economic and social history from his students, that it was not just a one-way process, where the tutor gave out to the students, but that the students would give back from their experience and the tutor learn as much as he gave out.’ Tutors, Harrison says, did their best to honour this. ‘It didn’t always work. They didn’t always have a great deal to give back, just as we were often very tongue-tied with the questions they put to us. But it was very worthwhile. When I talked to steelworkers in Teeside about Beveridge and explained what it was, what it was looking for, I felt I was doing something worthwhile. It wasn’t just academic. It was helping people understand where they were and, insofar as they were active in their unions and other organisations, where they were going. And that, of course, is what they wanted and where the questioning came in. In a tutorial class it was partly presentation by the tutor and partly discussion by the students. The idea that you lectured for an hour and then had discussion for an hour was abandoned early on. We would talk for perhaps 10 minutes and then throw it open. And from the discussion you would get the next clue and then you would take it up and go on from there.

‘As a teaching method this, of course, was very exacting, but very useful indeed. When I became an internal lecturer I found very few of my contemporaries appreciated this, but the students did. This two-way exchange, which Tawney always talked about and which Raybould always said should be there, was a very real thing. If you didn’t get that, and in some classes you didn’t, it used to be sticky going. A two-hour session if there’s no comeback can be pretty horrific. You really must know your subject. You can’t prepare for something and then just put it across like you can if you are giving a 50-minute lecture in a university. That’s not how adult education was conceived, not how it went on. It was give-and-take. It was very exacting. That’s why adult tutors tended to be very good tutors. Those who weren’t fell by the wayside.’

The department Harrison joined already had a reputation as one of the finest of its kind anywhere in the country. Its policy was guided by the ideas and personality of Sidney Raybould. Born and bred in the Cleveland district of Yorkshire, Raybould led a team of outstanding teachers and academics, including Harrison, Roy Shaw and E.P. Thompson. The inheritor of the tutorial class tradition built up in Yorkshire by former WEA District Secretary George Thompson, Raybould was driven by the idea that an extra-mural department should do work of genuine university quality. Yet, often, Harrison confides, it was work that failed to meet this criterion that turned out to be the most valuable. ‘These were some of the most worthwhile classes. The agricultural workers I taught were some of the best students I had. Not because they achieved great academic prominence, they certainly didn’t, but because of what I helped them to do. Against the farmers, it was really the only thing they had ever come across that gave them any strength. The union was difficult to organise in that area, besides, as I discovered, agricultural workers are a very conservative bunch.’

Harrison’s teaching was mostly confined to history, modern history or ‘international relations’ at first, but, increasingly, as interest among students grew, social history – ‘the history of ordinary people’. This was in line with the vision of education Raybould inherited from George Thompson, who insisted that the subjects taught should reflect the seriousness of the educators’ intent. ‘George Thompson didn’t have much time for the arts,’ Harrison says, ‘he thought they were all really peripheral. Literature and certainly music, things like that, were alright for those with leisure, but for the workers it had to be economics, and a certain amount of social history, basically what Tawney had taught. ‘Learning for leisure’ wasn’t the way we were going. It seemed to be deflecting us from the very serious intent of adult education.’

Such an approach, Harrison concedes, is unlikely to attract mass participation. ‘There was a problem here after a while with getting programmes running sufficient to keep a large staff of extra-mural tutors in business. This is where the WEA had great difficulties, in recruiting enough students who were prepared to commit themselves for three years to do work of a university standard, but if we couldn’t do that it meant that some of our staff tutors didn’t have classes, which was a tragedy for the university. The WEA had a missionary motive always. They were convinced that it was not enough to provide adult education; you had to stimulate people to want it. We always said that you have got to convince people of the need to come to the classes. Whether you did it through the earnestness of your approach or you did it by other things, you had to convince them.

‘All the students, of course, were voluntary, unlike internal students who had to attend their lectures, or who were supposed to. If people wanted to leave they could. And it was up to the tutor to hold the class together. It wasn’t just a matter of giving something out, it was a question of creating the class as it went along. The students were not prepared to accept everything you said as being necessarily so. They had all got inquisitive minds, otherwise they wouldn’t have come in the first place.’

Nevertheless, while Harrison and his colleagues saw themselves as part of a tradition that was genuinely popular, in the sense of being of the people, they were aware that they were reaching only a minority. ‘We tried very hard to get over this and to get beyond it. But, being honest, we knew very well that this was almost impossible. We didn’t look on adult education as being a fun thing. Raybould would have been shocked to think it was just something you did in your leisure. You had to give up precious time in order to take up study. This is a very old tradition in England, this idea that study isn’t something to do when you’ve got nothing better to do. You do it because it is worthwhile and will improve your whole life and not only because you are making yourself more socially effective, but in your personal relationships as well. That’s part of the English tradition that we inherited. The great triumph of the WEA was when, as a result of a class, some of the students went on to other forms of local action, becoming local councillors or trade union activists. This was what made it worth while.’

‘We talked a lot about voluntary bodies,’ Harrison says, ‘this was the great phrase that you don’t hear much now. The WEA was one of the great examples of that. But there were others and we tried to work with them as well, all kinds of bodies which, at the time, we thought of as, theoretically, being the basis of democracy. There were various arguments being put forward that this was the essence of western democracy, that there are centres other than government with which people can identify and only when you have got these bodies can you have a really functioning democracy. When the Second World War finally ended, there was enormous relief and, at the same time, a great grasping to go forward, which was why Beveridge was so well received. Adult education was part of that and adult learning, in all its forms, benefited from this. It wasn’t just the people who came out of the forces who wanted this, everybody did.’

Much of that impetus, Harrison thinks, has now evaporated. The biggest disappointment of all, he says, is the Labour Party. ‘All that we worked for in the past seems to be dependent on a very liberal government, which we always supposed would be a Labour government. That doesn’t seem to have worked out. New labour is really the new Toryism. The old labour politics have been ditched. And most of the things that I had hoped for from adult education have been lost as a result of that. My own conviction is that English society is extremely conservative. It’s very difficult to get change in this society. I knew that a long time ago. I had hoped that in the future things would get better. But they really haven’t.’

What changes would he like to see? ‘I think real support for the universities instead of multiplying them. What we need is something in the way of training in vocational subjects for people who want to be craftsmen and technicians and so on.’ He is suspicious of the Government’s 50 per cent participation target for 18–30-year-olds in higher education and of the likelihood that resources will be made available to make it work. ‘It seems to be a bit of a political ploy, quite frankly’. Universities – especially new universities – have been forced into competition, he says, ‘and competition, in our type of society, means dumbing down, offering things which, academically, don’t stand up in the way the old subjects used to do.

‘Of course, the context is so utterly different now from 50 years ago. Television was a social influence we didn’t have to deal with. Whether we could have coped with that, I don’t know. I look back now and see us as the last of the old tradition of adult education, beginning with the WEA and the universities. I put so much faith in education as a young man. I thought it would solve all these problems. When I went up to Teeside to talk to steel workers I didn’t see them as potential agents of the revolution. I thought that through education we could help people move forward without a revolution.’

 

Creativity matters and not just to the privileged

I grew up in a house with few books. I think I can probably recall them all: Reader’s Digest editions of Pride and Prejudice and Wuthering Heights, a battered paperback copy of Smiley’s People, with Alec Guinness’s bespectacled face on the cover, and a collection of Roald Dahl short stories called Kiss Kiss. There was also a four-volume collection of William Shakespeare’s plays. All of them mattered to me in some way – my recollection of them is extremely vivid – but it was reading Wuthering Heights as a teenager that really opened up the world of books to me. Although in some ways completely removed from the life I was leading at the time, it also felt incredibly relevant and compelling to me. The rawness and violence of the connection between the two main characters set sparks flying in my teenage brain.

There may not have been many books in our house but I did grow up with a sense that creativity and culture were important. My mum loved jazz and painting – was and is still a very gifted amateur painter, now running her own informal learning group for other artists – and we grew up to the sound of Billie Holiday and Bessie Smith. All of this fed my love of literature and culture. Leaving school at 16 and being forced to join a YTS, I would head into Liverpool each weekend and scour the book shops, devouring the Penguin Modern Classics series: Kafka, Camus, Sartre, de Beauvoir were bringing me to life, connecting me with other worlds but also making me feel somewhat out of synch with my own. Music was important too, especially literary bands such as The Fall and The Smiths, whose work, particularly the writing of Mark E Smith, set my mind on new, unvisited pathways. The door was open.

Without this early exposure to culture, I doubt I would have taken the choices I subsequently took – to become a journalist, to go to university, to try my hand at writing, to undertake research and editing – or to do any of the jobs I have been employed to do. I would have accepted the verdict of my teachers. More than that, I suspect I would never have known about the world of books or felt comfortable in it. None of this, I should note, was stimulated or reinforced at school. I couldn’t relate to Shakespeare. I didn’t respond to John Steinbeck. I wasn’t given a chance to study music having failed a test intended to identify musical aptitude (not having understood what we were doing I copied my answers off the girl next to me – I can still recall the sick feeling I had on realizing that something I hadn’t attached any importance to was in fact very important indeed – there was no second chance). And my audition for the school choir lasted only a few bars into ‘Morning has broken’. So disengaged was I that, despite having a half-decent brain, I left school without any qualifications; in most cases not even turning up for my exams. Had I not found my own way in I would never have got to explore this new world or discovered in it some talent and interest of my own.

I mention this because I believe that everyone has talent and creativity and that it is only through exploration and discovery that they have the chance to find it and, if they are fortunate, find a way of living in the world that also satisfies them and answers their passions. This, to me, is so important. It is what, I believe, education is primarily about. Education opens doors: it shows us the world, it pulls back the curtain, it lets the light in. The thing that struck me most on my first experience of university was the latitude, the openness of it all, the chance to switch subjects, learn different things, the bloody amazing library. If you wanted, you could spend the day reading a novel you had picked up off the shelf. And the next day you could enroll on a short course about the author. One of my best experiences at university was a brilliant short course on Chekhov’s plays. Reading them aloud really brought them to life.

Of course, books and literature are not for everyone. But everyone deserves the chance to find that out for themselves. I have written elsewhere about how anxiety drives our education system – that anxiety is driven by the relentless sound of door after door closing on the future prospects of children and young people, far, far too early. We have created an educational culture which is characterised by high-stakes risk – for students, teachers and institutions – and which discourages experiment and discovery and leads inevitably to a narrowing of the curriculum and a consequent loss of opportunity. Access to a wide, culturally rich education is hugely important for everyone, but particularly for those least likely to encounter the creative arts at home. This was captured eloquently by David Blunkett in his famous foreword to the 1998 Green Paper, The Learning Age, for me still the high watermark in policy thinking about education in my lifetime (it also lends this blog its name). Mr Blunkett wrote:

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

Sadly, the Learning Age Green Paper has proved less of a blueprint for subsequent policy-making and more of a marker for how far our ambitions have declined, for our country, for ourselves and for our children. In the 20 years since it was published, we have seen the education system gripped by a wholly wrong-headed utilitarian focus on skills, conceived narrowly as skills for work or economically useful skills. Adult education is now unrecognisable. Opportunities for adults to study creative subjects have dried up, to the point where such opportunities are now very few and far between, a trend only to a limited extent addressed by a growth in self-organised learning. At the same time, non-elite universities have been under pressure to narrow their study options and focus on subjects with direct employment outcomes.

Perhaps most criminally of all, schools – state-maintained schools at least – have seen creative arts subjects progressively squeezed out. A BBC survey of secondary schools found that 90 per cent of schools had had to cut back on lesson time, staff or facilities in at least one creative arts subject. Extra-curricular activities were also being cut back on, as schools dealt with real-terms cuts to their budgets, the report said. The latest cuts only reinforce the direction set under Michael Gove, who combined the characteristics of being the worst education secretary in living memory with being also the most arrogant. He believed that creativity had to be grounded in formal learning, failing to see what is obvious to any teacher: that creativity is a part of learning, and a vital part at that.

Depressingly, many are prepared to greet this grim, utilitarian reduction in opportunity as progress. Amanda Spielman, Chief Inspector of Ofsted, told the BBC this week that a focus on core academic subjects represented the best route to higher study, particularly for working-class children. It is a depressing coda to our society’s failure to develop a fit-for-purpose twenty-first century education system that children are considered a resource to be only selectively invested in. I object to this on grounds of social justice. Why should the already privileged horde these opportunities? Why should millions of people have to live their lives with limited understanding of creative culture or the arts, forever at the window looking in?

But even from the narrow perspective of those responsible for the shameful devaluation of our educational offer, it makes no sense to squeeze the arts out of education. The creative industries bring billions into the economy and represent one of the few areas in which Britain might be said still to lead the world. Furthermore, creativity and the willingness to learn are key to our future economic competitiveness, in a global market that is changing, fragmented and transnational. As Ken Robinson argues, creativity is, at bottom, about ‘fresh thinking’, finding different ways of thinking about and doing things. It is also highly diverse – different, indeed, in every case – which means that only a truly broad, all-encompassing curriculum can hope to capture and develop every talent. It also means jamming each door firmly open and ensuring opportunity is genuinely lifelong.

For much of the twentieth century, the adult education movement in Britain sought to correct the imbalances of an education system that prepared the wealthy for a long, rounded, fulfilling life and the working class for work (and a much shorter, less commodious life). Not only do those imbalances remain, they have been getting wider. The pioneers saw an opportunity to create a better society without the need for massive political upheaval. Perhaps that is what those who disparage the role of the arts and creativity fear. Do we want a stale society in which privilege is endlessly reinforced and the fruits of culture restricted to an elite, albeit under the guise of meritocracy, or do we want a vibrant culture to which people of all classes contribute, freely and fully, and have an equal opportunity to lead active, engaged and creatively fulfilling lives? I know which kind of society I would prefer to live in.

Towards a national strategy for lifelong learning

The Chancellor will shortly announce the details of his autumn budget. As usual, education advocacy groups will be watching closely to see if their part of the sector gets favourable mention.

Often, in education at least, good news in one part of the system is bought at the expense of another, less fortunate, part – usually FE or adult education. It’s a depressing indicator of the lack of coherence and system-wide thinking that has blighted education policy-making in England for years.

If I have one wish for this year’s budget it is that Mr Hammond will give us some indication that the government will move beyond this robbing-Peter-to-pay-Paul approach and demonstrate some understanding that the overall coherence and consistent, fair funding of the UK education system matter.

The budget will be viewed, quite rightly, as an opportunity for the government to consider realistically the challenges and opportunities Brexit presents and to set out, in broad brush strokes at least, how the it proposes to respond. The nature of these challenges and opportunities is such that the government really has no option but to put education at the heart of its plans for the future – that is if it is serious about making a success of Brexit for everyone and not just the folks at the top.

The problem for the Chancellor is that for some time now successive governments have been heading in the wrong direction, underfunding the education system as a whole, while slashing funding for less-protected areas to prevent schools and universities feeling the pinch too much. The result has been a system that is incoherent, unfair and increasingly underfunded.

Only the steady flow of imported talent from outside the UK, mostly from the EU, has kept our vital services supplied with the high-level skills they require to run effectively. Until the Brexit vote, I think people were generally fairly happy to let this state of affairs continue, quietly brushing under the carpet our Premier League style poaching of talent cultivated at great expense elsewhere. But, really, it’s not ok. If we had asked tougher questions earlier, perhaps we wouldn’t be in the mess we are in now.

No part of the sector has suffered more from the underfunding of education in the UK than further education, and no part of society has been more neglected by our education system than adult learners.

For years, further education has been kicked from pillar to post by politicians keen to make their mark but with, by and large, little grasp of how the system works or what is at stake for the learners who populate it. On the rare occasion that a minister or secretary of state who cares about and understands the sector is appointed, their best efforts serve only to steady the ship, not change its course, before the next tsunami of myopic and narrowly conceived reform hits, usually driven by a determination to reduce costs or introduce competition into the sector.

It would be hard to find anyone in or around the sector who thinks the government has got it broadly right when it comes to further education, but we carry on as though, with only a few adjustments, it could all be ok. The looming spectre of Brexit means we can no longer afford to do this. Frankly, we never could. The cost of our failure to invest properly in the talents of our homegrown population can be seen everywhere, in the blighted hopes and aspirations of the young people and adults who leave compulsory education labelled as failures by a system that selects on the basis of wealth not talent.

Nowhere is the government’s failure to invest adequately more evident than in adult education. The latest government data show steep declines in the numbers of adults learning basic skills (six per cent in 2016-17 alone) and in the numbers participating in community learning, a critical means of engaging reluctant learners and empowering individuals and communities who have been left behind. It is often left to the providers of community learning to step in and pick up the pieces for those who leave the school system utterly alienated from education. For adults afraid of entering a classroom, whose educational experience has taught them to value themselves less not more, such providers offer critical, safe entry points, often leading to work or into further learning. This means that cuts in this type of provision are likely to have direct consequences for participation in other types of learning, as well as in the economy.

With an ageing population that scores low in international literacy and numeracy league tables, a long history of poor productivity hinging very largely on our tendency to neglect the educational needs of the majority of our people, and an overreliance on imported workers at both ends of the skills chain, recent cuts to adult and further education funding are, to put it mildly, counter intuitive.

These cuts have been both savage and unnecessary. In one year alone the adult education budget was cut by a quarter – and that on top of deep cuts inflicted in the preceding years. At the same time, part-time higher study has collapsed utterly, squeezing adults out of HE at a moment in history when the need for adults to reskill and move careers has never been more acute. As the OU’s Peter Horrocks pointed out last week, there has been a 56 per cent drop since tuition fees were trebled.

University lifelong learning, for so long a driver of progressive change in the system, has also been considered a price worth paying for a system which pulls off the neat trick of being both costlier to the tax payer and dizzyingly expensive for students with spiralling debts. In terms of costs to students, the English education system is now pretty much an outlier. And our eye-wateringly expensive system increasingly offers two kinds of education: a traditional liberal arts education for the mostly already privileged student at elite institutions; a vocationally flavoured higher education experience for the rest. In England, what you get for your tuition fees is determined not so much by what you pay as by what you can afford.

While increased investment is urgently needed across the board, it is important too that money is spent intelligently and coherently. This means ensuring that the expansion in apprenticeships is complemented by training which ensures people are ready to take on an apprenticeship as well as well-funded careers advice. It means acknowledging that family and community learning make a crucial contribution to getting adults furthest from education engaged in learning once again, and funding it accordingly. It means making sure ESOL provision is adequately funded so it can make a full contribution to the creation of flourishing, cohesive communities. And it means recognising that the benefits of education are not purely economic and represent a substantial public good that we should all be prepared to invest in. Employers too.

The failure of successive governments to see that the value of education cannot be measured purely in pounds and pence has significantly impoverished our education offer, in schools, in the community, in colleges and training providers, and in the university sector.

In light of these challenges we need nothing less than a national strategy for lifelong learning, with adult education at its heart. We need a strategy that joins up all the different interrelated strands and demonstrates active understanding of how they relate to and complement each other. Labour’s plan for a National Education Service, with its intellectual roots in David Blunkett’s much-admired Learning Age Green Paper (from which this blog takes its name), is a step in the right direction. It’s promise of greater coherence, fairer funding and wider access, and its recognition of the public good of education, represent at the very least something concrete to build on and improve. Above all, it offers the kind of definitive shift in the narrative we need. If the government is serious about making a success of post-Brexit Britain, it must act, decisively and comprehensively, to reverse years of underinvestment and reinvigorate our over-stretched, incoherent and underfunded education system, starting where the cuts have done the most damage: adult education.