1919 and all that

1919

This year we will mark the centenary of a milestone in the history of adult education in the UK and, indeed, internationally: the publication of the final report of the Adult Education Committee of the Ministry of Reconstruction, better known as the 1919 Report. The report represents a hugely important statement of the value of adult education and its role in creating and sustaining successful democratic societies, animated by shared civic, social and economic goals. It not only recognised the wide impact adult education can have on society, notably in responding to the massive social, economic and political challenges of the time, but also accorded government, national and local, a direct responsibility for ensuring its adequate supply. Adult education, it argued, is not a luxury – as governments subsequently have tended to see it – but is in fact indispensable to national recovery and to sustainable, effective democracy.

This farsighted and ambitious perspective emerged at a time when the country was in profound crisis and the need to learn from past mistakes was acute. Prime Minister Lloyd George’s government created the Ministry of Reconstruction in 1917, charging it with the task of overseeing the rebuilding of ‘national life on a better and more durable foundation’ once the Great War had ended. It set up numerous committees to consider different aspects of life in Britain, including labour relations, local government, housing and the role of women in society. One of these committees was on adult education. It included luminaries such as Albert Mansbridge, founder of the WEA, Basil Yeaxlee, who oversaw the YMCA’s programme of adult education during the war, and chair Arthur L. Smith, Master of Balliol College and another key figure of the British adult education movement. A young R.H. Tawney drafted much of the final report. The Committee’s remit was ‘to consider the provision for, and possibilities of, adult education (other than technical or vocational) in Great Britain’. However, in practice, it went somewhat beyond its terms of reference to consider all forms of adult education, including technical and vocational, on which it makes a number of recommendations.

The final report was presented to the Prime Minister in 1919. It emphasised the social purpose of adult education in supporting enlightened and responsible citizenship and in creating a ‘well ordered welfare state or Great Society’ organised around ‘the common good’. The main purpose of education, Arthur L. Smith noted in his covering letter to the Prime Minister, was ‘to fit a man [sic] for life’, including not only ‘personal, domestic and vocational duties’ but also ‘duties of citizenship’. The ‘goal of all education’ must therefore be citizenship, he wrote, ‘that is, the rights and duties of each individual as a member of the community; and the whole process must be the development of the individual in relation to the community’. He argued that the main political, social and economic challenges faced by the country could be tackled only with the help of a greatly expanded, publicly funded system of adult education. Not only did peace between nations rest on a ‘far more educated public’ but so too did the health of British democracy, harmonious industrial relations and the elimination of the social ‘cankers’ of drink and prostitution. The ‘necessary conclusion’, Smith wrote:

is that adult education must not be regarded as a luxury for a few exceptional persons here and there, nor as a thing which concerns only a short span of early manhood [sic], but that adult education is a permanent national necessity, an inseparable aspect of citizenship, and therefore should be both universal and lifelong … the opportunity for adult education should be spread uniformly and systematically over the whole community, as a primary obligation on that community in its own interest and as a chief part of its duty to its individual members, and that therefore every encouragement and assistance should be given to voluntary organisations, so that their work, now necessarily sporadic and disconnected, may be developed and find its proper place in the national education system.

The members of the committee had been greatly impressed with the progress made by the adult education movement in the nineteenth century and in the early part of the twentieth. The report surveyed these developments in detail – tracing the history of adult education in Britain from the early adult schools (probably the first recognisable and distinctively adult education provision in Britain) to the mechanics’ institutes, the cooperative movement, people’s colleges and university extension programmes – but placed particular stress on ‘the recent expansion of adult education … sprung spontaneously from the desire of working people for a more humane and civilized society’. This new approach, the report noted, was reflected in the support given by trade unions to Ruskin College and the foundation and expansion of the Workers’ Educational Association and other ‘collegiate institutions’ such as the Working Men’s College and Morley College in London, Swarthmore in Leeds, Fircroft residential college in Birmingham and Vaughan Memorial College in Leicester. The WEA, in particular, had ‘combined in one organisation a large number of working-class and educational bodies … to stimulate and give effective expression to the growing demand for higher education among adult men and women’.

This explosion of voluntary activity, combined with the improvement in adult teaching represented by the ‘tutorial classes’ offered by universities as part of extra-mural courses, often organized in conjunction with the WEA, had been the main inspirations for the expansion in non-vocational adult education, the report said. It put particular stress on two factors. First, it highlighted the work of voluntary bodies in demonstrating ‘the necessity for the recognition of the peculiar needs of adults and for methods of education and methods of organisation and administration appropriate to the satisfaction of these needs … Non-vocational studies have developed in recent years largely because attention has been concentrated upon the formulation of methods in harmony with adult needs’. Second, it emphasised the importance of the university tutorial class model, noting the ‘seriousness and continuity’ of the students’ commitment, their growing ability to understand and evaluate sources and direct their own learning, the high quality of their work and the tendency of the classes to challenge and overcome intolerance. ‘Dogmatism does not easily survive question, answer and argument continued at weekly intervals for several months, and students learn tolerance by being obliged to practise it,’ it said.

The report sought to build on this ‘remarkable renewal of interest in adult education’, particularly among working-class people, and the growing trend towards ‘extending and systematising’ provision. The advance of the adult education movement was, it noted, in part an ‘expression of the belief that a wider diffusion of knowledge will be a power working for the progress of society, and the ideal which it places before its students and members is less individual success of even personal culture then personal culture as a means to social improvement’. The ‘primary object’ of such education was ‘not merely to heighten the intellectual powers of individual students, but to lay the foundations of more intelligent citizenship and of a better social order’. Technical training, while ‘necessary and beneficial’, and an ‘integral part of our educational system’, was not to be thought of as ‘an alternative to non-vocational education’, thus conceived. ‘The latter is a universal need; but whether the former is necessary depends on the character of employment,’ the report argued.

The committee urged substantial development in adult education, supported by public funds. In particular, it called for an expanded role for universities in delivering adult education, especially through the establishment of extra-mural departments, more and better-paid staff, and an increased role for the WEA and other voluntary organisations. Universities, the report said, should not look only to schools for their supply of students but ‘to the world of men and women, who seek education not as a means to entering a profession, but as an aid to the development of personality and a condition of wise and public-spirited citizenship’. They should make ‘much larger financial provision’ for adult study with the support of ‘liberal assistance … from public authorities, both national and local’, and reframe their priorities to reflect the importance of adult education, including by establishing an extra-mural department for adult students in every university. The Committee viewed extra-mural departments as a crucial link between universities and the wider, non-academic world.

Local education authorities were encouraged to see non-vocational adult education as ‘an integral part of their activities’, including through organisational and financial support for university tutorial classes and the creation of ‘non-vocational institutes as evening centres for humane studies’. These centres would have a special focus on the education of young adults and operate in cooperation with voluntary agencies. Authorities were also recommended to form ‘Adult Education Joint Committees’ within their local area ‘to receive applications for the provision of adult classes’. Ultimately, though, the report argued, the volume of educational activity would be determined ‘not by the capacity of universities and education authorities to provide facilities, but by the ability of organising bodies to give shape and substance to the demand’. The agencies should be regarded as ‘an integral part of the fabric of national education, in order to give spontaneity and variety to the work and to keep organised educational facilities responsive to the ever-widening needs of the human mind and spirit’. Their work, therefore, should be ‘maintained and developed’, supported though not directed by the state (the report put great stress on ‘self-organisation’). The ‘large expansion of adult education’ would only be possible with a ‘considerable increase in financial contributions from the State’. This in turn would require a system of inspection to ensure the education was ‘serious and continuous and, because of its quality, worth supporting’.

The 1919 Report, like the 1942 Beveridge Report that founded the British welfare state from amid the ashes of the Second World War, represents an attempt to renew and repurpose society in the wake of the most appalling destruction and loss. Its particular importance lies, in the words of R.H. Tawney, in demonstrating that adult education was ‘an activity indispensable to the health of democratic societies’. The Committee saw in adult education an opportunity to foster the capacities and attributes necessary in creating a new, fairer, more democratic society (including, importantly, the knowledge and understanding required by women who, following the extension of the franchise, had new roles as citizens). It sought to capitalise on the desire it identified among working people ‘for adequate opportunities for self-expression and the cultivation of personal powers and interests’ and the deeply rooted links between adult education and ‘the social aspirations of the democratic movements of the country’. The report recognised that all men and women had the capacity to participate in a ‘humane’ liberal education and to contribute to the democratic life of the country. It also saw that different approaches to teaching and organisation were required for adults, emphasising both the realities of their lives and the breadth of their interests, along with their need for ‘the fullest self-determination’ in their learning. Its focus on the role of education in supporting participatory democracy drew on the intellectual origins of the movement and its insistence on the importance of ‘true education’ which ‘directly induces thought’ and promotes active citizenship and social understanding. This perspective shaped and influenced the practice of British adult educators for decades to come, informing their view of their work as invested with ‘social purpose’.

The report led, among other things, to the creation of an Adult Education Committee to advise the Board of Education on the development of adult education provision. The Committee argued for a stronger coordinating role for local authorities and sought to expand the range of ‘responsible bodies’ involved in adult learning, alongside universities and the WEA, through the 1924 Board of Education (Adult Education) Regulations. This was, in part, a recognition that the report’s limited focus and relative neglect of the vocational dimension of adult education (which makes it, in places, a slightly awkward, unsatisfactory read). The Committee was evidently not entirely comfortable working within the limitations of its mandate. While it appreciated that a more comprehensive approach was desirable and necessary, it is undeniable that the report perpetuated the damaging distinction between vocational training and academic study, and underscored the relatively low level of esteem accorded the former in comparison with the latter – an issue that continues to dog education policy in the UK a century later.

The British Institute of Adult Education was founded in 1921, in the wake of the report, as a ‘thinking department’ focused on research and advocacy on adult education (it became the National Institute for Adult Continuing Education in 1983; and is now the Learning and Work Institute). Its remit was in part to ‘revive interest’ in the report and its recommendations, which, it was felt, had not been sufficiently noticed by the public. However, while it put strong emphasis on the involvement of local authorities, it quickly moved away from its early focus on university extension classes to take an interest in what it termed ‘various auxiliary services’, meaning the wide array of voluntary agencies, usually with a primary purpose outside adult education, involved in creating less formal, but often more accessible, opportunities for adults to learn. Its activities included collaboration with the BBC on developing an educational use for the wireless, a commission on educational and cultural films, an inquiry into public reading habits and a national advisory committee, set up with the National Council of Social Service, to develop educational work for the unemployed.

Later, under the direction of Secretary W.E. Williams, the Institute initiated a number of cultural projects, which led to the creation of the British Film Institute and the Arts Council. During the Second World War, Williams oversaw the work of the Army Bureau of Current Affairs (ABCA), established in 1941 by the War Office to provide weekly current affairs talks and discussions, led by regimental officers and supported by the fortnightly publication of pamphlets on issues ‘of topical and universal importance’. 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. General Sir Ronald Adam, President of the British Institute of Adult Education from 1945 to 1949, told the Institute’s 1945 conference that the ABCA programme was ‘a great manifestation of democratic faith’.

While voluntary organisations kept the recommendations of the report alive, albeit according to their own changing understandings of the needs of adults, the response from successive governments was cool. As Harold Wiltshire notes in his introduction to the University of Nottingham’s 1980 reprint of the report, the years that followed its publication were marked by economic crises and cuts to education spending, which lasted from the early 1920s well into the 1930s (when local authorities were instructed to make all non-vocational adult education classes self-supporting). This helped ensure that the recommendations of the Committee were widely ignored. It was not until the 1944 Education Act that education authorities were given a responsibility to provide ‘adequate facilities’ for full-time and part-time further education ‘for persons over compulsory school age’ and ‘leisure-time occupation, in such organized cultural training and recreational activities as are suited to their requirements, for any persons over compulsory school age who are able and willing to profit by the facilities provided for that purpose’. As a result of the 1944 Act, the number of evening institutes offering courses for adults more than doubled between 1947 and 1950, from just over 5,000 to nearly 11,000, while the number of students increased from 825,000 to 1,250,000. The 1943 White Paper on Educational Reconstruction, which preceded the Act, described wartime developments in army education as a catalyst for adult education reform and stressed the need for training in democratic citizenship through adult education, effectively reviving the idea of education as a civic project.

As Wiltshire argues, the 1919 Report’s lasting influence resides less in its direct practical or political impact or application than in ‘its general and pervading influence’ in establishing adult education as a ‘distinctive domain of education’, elucidating its ethos and purposes, and highlighting its problems and possibilities. For that reason, it remains a critical text, a reference point for advocacy and a landmark statement of the value of adult education. Reading it today, however, reminds one of how our much our political aspirations and ambitions for education have shifted. As Alison Wolf wrote in 2002:

[We] have almost forgotten that education ever had any purpose other than to promote growth … To read government documents of even fifty year ago … gives one a shock. Of course, their authors recognized that education had relevance to people’s livelihoods and success, and to the nation’s prosperity. But their concern was as much, or more, with values, citizenship, the nature of a good society, the intrinsic benefits of learning.

This shift is reflected in the shocking decline in part-time and mature higher study, the closure of university adult education departments, the reduction in opportunities for adults to learn for reasons other than employment and employability, cuts to adult further education so deep they now threaten it with extinction and in the narrowing of the school curriculum. Outside education, local authority funding has been dramatically cut, on the altar of austerity, resulting, among other things, in the loss of many public libraries, highlighted in the 1919 Report as answering a vital need of adult students. When Philip Alston, the United Nation’s special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, visited the UK at the end of 2018, he noted that more than 500 children’s centres had closed between 2010 and 2018 and more than 340 libraries between 2010 and 2016, an act of social and cultural vandalism ‘of particular significance to those living in poverty who may need to access a computer or a safe community space’. There is nothing woolly about this idea. Anyone who has lived in or around poverty knows how potentially lifesaving and life-changing such spaces can be.

The infrastructure of adult education in the UK has been effectively and efficiently dismantled; all at a time when the challenges posed by changes in technology, climate, demography and politics would seem to demand much more adult education, not less. Where once the rest of the world looked to Britain for guidance and inspiration in adult education, it now regards us with ill-disguised concern and sadness. It would be charitable indeed to suggest that this destruction of this tradition and complete disregard for public value in education policy was the result of anything other than informed political choices. The centenary of the report provides a much-needed moment for introspection and reflection on what we think education is for and why we value it. It is an opportunity to put adult education, once again, in the spotlight, to recognize the importance of engaged, thoughtful and civically responsible citizenship, and to show how adult education can help us renew our democracy and become a kinder, smarter, more cohesive, open and prosperous society. Let’s raise our voices once again.

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Education in an age of anxiety

We live in worrying times, don’t we? We test our children remorselessly and from an inappropriately early age because we are worried their performance is falling behind international standards. We send them to school earlier and press them harder than do most comparable countries; we also invest significantly less than most of them, citing our worries about money and the escalating debt. We continually reform our national skills strategy because we worry our skills system is less than ‘world class’ and our economy is becoming uncompetitive, putting huge pressure on further education to adapt and deliver on reduced budgets and under constant threat of a clobbering from our oppressive accountability system. And young people accept the reality of huge post-graduation debts because they fear the even greater costs of failing and slipping down the ladder. Wealthy parents spend a fortune gaming the system because they too are beset by the fear of downward social mobility – a grave risk indeed in our appallingly unequal society.

For very many of us, anxiety is the governing principle of our lives. Young people are wracked with anxiety about how they will ever be in a position to buy a house while those who do own their own homes are often weighed down by huge debts, unable to save or to think about retirement and forced, in many cases, to take on multiple jobs just to stay afloat. In some ways, I think Theresa May, in the brief honeymoon period of her dismal premiership, was right to highlight the plight of those ‘just struggling’ to get by. There are very many people out there who are stretching themselves to breaking point to do no more than simply exist. Where Mrs May was wrong, of course, was in thinking that she and her party were the solution to the problem rather than one of its foremost drivers.

It was, after all, her predecessor in power (another child of privilege so unacquainted with failure he couldn’t imagine it happening to him) who so successfully closed down debate about how much we should spend on public services by promoting the idea that overspending on things like health and education caused the financial crisis (and that another was looming – you know, like Greece – should we even think about spending as much on our children’s education as the Germans or the French spend on theirs). And it is her party that has ratcheted up the testing regime in schools, introduced more selection into schools (bad news and another cause of anxiety unless you can afford to rig the system and of course it is a system designed to be rigged), and made education dizzyingly expensive in a way that we are encouraged to think is financially necessary but which, in fact, is out of kilter with the cost of education in all comparable countries.

And somehow, in the midst all of this, we have voted repeatedly to be governed by those with least comprehension of the day-to-day toll of our anxiety-laden lives; a party of privilege and inherited wealth many senior members of which actively despise those at the bottom of the pile and have never experienced the worry of not knowing where the next meal is coming from or how they will afford a new pair of shoes or school uniform for their kids. Theirs is a different world of trust funds, debt-free liberal education, expensive internships, closed networks, risk-free investment and endless opportunities.

Doubtless they believe these opportunities should be available for them and their children – who wouldn’t – but it is equally clear that they do not want them to be available to us or our children. This is clearer nowhere else than in education. Building on the work of the last Labour government, which introduced and increased tuition fees, narrowed the further education curriculum and limited funding for part-time higher education, the governments of Cameron and May have overseen an enhanced vocationalism in FE and skills, cultivated a greater focus on selection (‘choice’) while reducing the overall budget for state-maintained schools, and created a hugely expensive two-tier system of higher education with elite universities, which offer a traditional liberal arts curriculum, dominated by young people who attended expensive private schools, while the rest, driven in part by anxiety about the career risks of non-vocational study, largely go to less prestigious institutions which offer more practical courses related to a job or vocation.

At the same time as countries such as China and Singapore began investing heavily in lifelong learning, recognizing the critical importance of skills renewal among the adult population and the need for education to prepare people not just for a job but for a life, the UK government, set on reducing the size of the state by any means and at any cost, took a wrecking ball to its own once enviably advanced lifelong learning system. The number of part-time students in higher education has fallen for seven consecutive years; last year alone by eight per cent – an overall decline of 61 per cent since 2010, when the coalition government introduced its funding reforms. The vast majority of part-time students, of course, are mature, adults who are already in the workforce who are combining higher study with a job, a family and other financial commitments.

Unsurprisingly, in this era of escalating anxiety, it is those with the most commitments, financial and otherwise, who have found themselves most excluded by the fees hike and the introduction of loans (this seems to have come as a surprise to the architects of the scheme though it was highlighted as a likely consequence, by NIACE and others, as early as 2010). As most part-time mature students tend also to come from less well-off, non-traditional backgrounds, this decline has also had a – largely unreported – impact on the social mix of our universities and on efforts to widen participation. As Claire Callender writes, the fall ‘has been greatest among older students, those wanting to do “bite size” courses, and those with low-level entry qualifications – all typically “widening participation” candidates.’

This shocking decline has caused barely a wrinkle in the brows of successive universities ministers. The present one, Jo Johnson (another politician who has had to claw his way to the top) has done little to suggest he considers the collapse of part-time higher education to be anything more than a minor inconvenience; regrettable, for sure, but a price worth paying to maintain the integrity of our costly and evidently failing higher education funding system. The line seems to be to stress the system’s relative success in increasing the numbers of young people from less-advantaged backgrounds (though the ‘top’ universities remain stubbornly resistant to change, continuing to act as finishing schools for the children of the very wealthy). Of course, this would look like less like success if part-time students were included in the same calculation – and it starts to look like serious failure if we also consider the institutions to which ‘widening participation’ candidates tend to gravitate.

The picture is no rosier in further education, where the government has savagely reduced the adult education budget to the point where usually conservative commentators were warning of its complete disappearance by 2020. Since then the government has attempted to restore some stability to the budget, but the cuts have been eye-watering, limiting the breadth and quantity of opportunity for older learners. In 2016-16 alone 24 per cent of the budget was cut, on top of year-on-year cuts amounting to 35 per cent of the total adult skills budget between 2009 and 2015. The range of provision on offer has narrowed too, reflecting largely discredited government choices about the skills that are economically useful, but also, I suspect, the tendency of people, driven by anxiety, to opt for courses they think will have a direct economic pay-off. Of course, this approach neglected – and continues to neglect – the importance of a range of other crucial skills, which are important in the workplace and in life more generally, such as resilience, creativity, problem-solving and, perhaps most importantly of all, a love of learning. As this year’s OECD Skills Outlook report suggested, the neglect of such skills makes little economic sense and is almost certainly harmful to productivity, where the UK traditionally performs extremely poorly.

Of course, the anxiety which drives people away from education and into compromised choices which do little justice to their real talents and aspirations, is part of a wider anxiety, fed by cuts to public services, rising household debt, growing inequality, pay restraint, insecure work and rising costs of living. For too long, the question of how much we should spend and on what has been off the agenda, as though we were too impoverished a nation to make serious choices about the kind of society we want to belong to. This year’s general election appears to have opened debate a little wider, though it takes place in the face of bitter resistance from the mainstream media and those who control it (who, by and large, whatever their populist pretentions, are rather happy with a status quo that privileges them and stifles the vast majority). My hope is that we can have a serious national conversation about tax and public spending in spite of this.

An Oxfam inequality index ranked the UK 109th in the world for the proportion of its budget it spends on education – behind the likes of Kazakhstan and Cambodia (no disrespect intended to those nations but the UK is evidently a significantly wealthier country with very well-established education institutions and a well-documented need to increase both its productivity and the basic skills of its population). Oxfam’s report also noted that tuition fees in the UK are the highest in the industrialised world, with the burden of student debt disproportionally borne by poorer students. It noted too that UK corporation tax has been cut further and faster than in most other rich countries, ranking the UK’s tax system 96th in terms of commitment to reduce inequality.

The government has approached Brexit without a plan – even for the Brexit negotiations themselves. Sabre-rattling and political posturing are, it turns out, no preparation for lengthy, complex and highly detailed negotiations across a huge array of topics. Little wonder EU counterparts are privately talking with thinly veiled contempt about David Davis and his team. But the government has let us down in a more profound way. It has purposefully stifled debate about the sort of society we can be, while effecting to have no choice about deliberate and ideologically driven decisions about funding which have had a calamitous impact on people’s lives. In doing so, it has denied hope of change or a better life to many thousands of people.

Lifelong learning – an idea whose time has finally come?

Political interest in adult education is experiencing one of its periodic spikes. Time will tell whether the interest is sustained or whether, as has so often been the case, it amounts to little more than a rhetorical flourish, a knowing half-nod to the changing zeitgeist rather than an attempt to capture it. Brexit, of course, is the unknown quantity with the potential to change the game and make lifelong learning a genuinely pivotal component of mainstream political thinking in the UK. A dawning (and, frankly, rather belated) appreciation of its far-reaching implications is the likely driver of this latest shift in perception.

The government’s green paper on the development of a new industrial strategy makes much of the role of adult skills in post-Brexit economic renewal and demonstrates a rare awareness of the need to ensure better articulation between the demand for skills and their supply. This has been a niggling issue with UK skills policy for decades, with successive skills strategies seemingly concocted in a sealed civil service laboratory, some distance from the stubborn and not always particularly agreeable realities of British economic life. The result, too often, was training for training’s sake and a pretty shoddy return on public investment. Fortunately for the dozens of journeyman politicians who have passed through this territory, tolerance of failure in this neglected area of policy has tended to be high. Only a handful – John Hayes and Vince Cable notable among them – have offered any vision or sense of a wider role for FE and skills, and that in spite of a largely uncomprehending civil service (one short-sighted civil servant famously suggested to Cable that all public funding for FE be withdrawn to meet the department’s budget reduction target).

The new industrial strategy is an opportunity to change all this. It includes skills as one of 10 ‘pillars’ which will drive growth and raise productivity. The green paper highlights a number of ‘key issues’ concerning skills which, it says, we need, as a country, to address. These are: poor levels of basic skills, particularly among younger adults; a shortage of high-skilled technicians below graduate level; skills shortages in sectors that depend on science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM); skills shortages specific to certain sectors, which force some employers to look overseas to fill certain vacancies; the poor quality of careers advice; and ‘the accelerating pace of technological change’ which ‘means there is a growing challenge with lifelong learning: supporting people to up-skill and re-skill across their working lives’. People, the green paper continues, are ‘living and working longer’ at the same time as ‘training across working life is going down’, particularly among older workers and low to medium-skilled groups (those, it notes, whose jobs are most likely to be replaced by technology in the next two decades).

To meet these challenges, the green paper proposes a number of actions to improve basic skills (including by reviewing current policy and supporting further education colleges in becoming ‘centres of excellence’ in maths and English), build a new system of technical education (with clearer routes, better teaching and institutes of technology in every region), boost STEM skills, and raise skills levels in other poor-performing areas. It also undertakes to publish a ‘comprehensive careers strategy’ and to ‘explore ambitious new approaches to encouraging lifelong learning, which could include assessing changes to the costs people face to make them less daunting; improving outreach to people where industries are changing; and providing better information’.

There are some good ideas here, as well as some welcome notes of realism. The government’s willingness to review the effectiveness of current policy on lifelong learning and skills is encouraging and should act as a prompt to membership and advocacy groups to make their strongest case. However, we should not allow ministers to play down the scale of the task or to obscure the role played by government policy in creating the problems the green paper describes. Putting skills at the heart of the UK’s industrial strategy will require more than a review of policy effectiveness and a willingness to embrace new approaches. It will mean the effective reversal of decades of political neglect and under-funding of adult education, with substantial investment to restore the huge gaps in our lifelong learning infrastructure that have emerged as a result of austerity politics (a catastrophic and costly failure which is being quietly swept under the carpet – not unlike the equally calamitous political career of its chief architect, David Cameron). The latest figures in both further education and higher education confirm the damage done.

In further education, there is some good news for the government, in that it is on target to meet its target of three million new apprenticeship starts by the end of this parliament (with almost 900,000 new apprenticeships in 2015-16). However, the latest data also show that participation in learning other than apprenticeships in England is in sharp decline. There are 800,000 fewer adults in FE (excluding apprenticeships) than there were in 2011-12, with some 300,000 fewer adults on English or maths courses. The proportion of unemployed adults taking part in learning had also fallen sharply. This trend in participation is the direct result of cuts to funding for adult skills, with the government, in 2015 alone, cutting as much as 24 per cent from the adult further education budget. At the same time, funding for ESOL provision has been savagely cut – by 60 per cent since 2009 – again, denying opportunities to learn to adults who are desperate to do so. As if this were not bad enough, the sector has been given little chance to adapt to straitened circumstances, with funding cuts accompanied by near constant reform, experimentation and ministerial churn. There is limited policy memory in further education and little scope for leaders, struggling to adapt to curriculum and funding changes while meeting the requirements of an overbearing accountability system, to think about how to respond creatively to the challenges they face.

In higher education in England, the numbers are just as dramatic, and the challenge equally stark. The latest figures confirm the ongoing decline in part-time higher education. According to a House of Commons Library Briefing, total part-time entrants to HE have fallen by 45 per cent since 2009-10, with mature learners combining study with work forming the vast majority. This is the result, principally, of the introduction of loans and the rise in tuition fees. New data on student nursing enrolments confirm the lack of enthusiasm for loans (or debt) among older learners, with applications falling by 23 per cent (29 per cent for those aged over 21) since grants were converted into loans to support the provision of more places. Moreover, applications to full-time undergraduate courses by over-25s fell by 18 per cent in the last year, confirming a general trend of dwindling participation in HE among adults. Overall, the higher education system is becoming less diverse, less accessible to older adults and less relevant to the challenges of modern society. All of this, it should be added, has been an entirely predictable result of the policies adopted by the government.

These are all trends which must be not only halted but thrown decisively into reverse if the government is to achieve its ambitions and lifelong learning is really to help deliver the step change in growth and productivity the green paper sets out as its objective. A cohesive industrial strategy, with an ‘ambitious new approach to encouraging lifelong learning’ at its heart, is a big step in the right direction. But it will require a major shift in culture to deliver it, with ministers and civil servants looking beyond schools and elite universities, recognising that education is for adults too, and making a long-term commitment to supporting it. As Ruth Spellman, Chief Executive of the Workers’ Educational Association, has argued this week, a national strategy for lifelong learning would not be a bad place to start.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A life in education: an interview with Brian Groombridge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adult education must rediscover its radical roots

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘The things that make it worthwhile to live’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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