A short fanfare for Adults Learning

I was saddened to hear that Adults Learning – a magazine I edited for 12 years, between 2002 and 2014, and the only UK periodical dedicated to adult education and learning in the round – is to close. Before it disappears into adult education history – unremarked alongside the loss of so much else that is valuable – I thought I would spend a little time remembering it and its place in what we still, in 2002, thought of fondly as ‘this great movement of ours’.

The British Institute of Adult Education (BIAE) was founded in 1921 as a branch of the World Association for Adult Education, an organisation set up by Albert Mansbridge, who also, of course, founded the Workers’ Educational Association (WEA). The institute’s aim, in the words of its first president, Lord Haldane, was to be ‘a centre for common thought by persons of varied experience in the adult education movement’, and both a representative body and a ‘thinking department’, focused not on teaching but on discussion and advocacy. Publication was seen an as important dimension of the work.

The institute became an autonomous organisation, independent of the World Association, in 1925. The following year it set up its own journal, the Journal of Adult Education, a twice yearly publication which became the quarterly Adult Education in 1934. The BIAE’s new Secretary William Emrys Williams (best known perhaps for his work as editor in chief at Penguin books, which included the launch of the Pelican imprint), who had edited the WEA’s The Highway since 1930 (and would continue, at times controversially, as editor until 1939), wanted to turn the institute into a more influential, dynamic voice in the debate about adult education, and to engage a wider audience in that debate.

When Williams assumed editorship of The Highway he told readers he intended to run the journal ‘in the interests of the adult education movement as a whole, and not just those of the Association’. His aim was to make the journal more democratic and participative, very much in the spirit of the WEA itself, which Williams described as ‘not just a federation of students, but a fellowship of all who believe in education and who wish to make it more and more accessible. It stands above all for the abolition of privilege and of competition in educational systems.’ He was true to his promise ‘to provoke opinion and to foster controversy’ in the pursuit of a better national education policy.

Williams’ leadership of the BIAE was energetic and creative, typified by a willingness to push back the boundaries of what was considered relevant to the movement. Up until 1934, the institute saw itself more as ‘a research laboratory’, setting up inquiries and producing a series of reports intended to support ‘the revision and development of educational policy’ (one of its reports, The Film in National Life [1932], resulted in the creation of the British Film Institute). Williams’ far-sighted innovations included the Art for the People programme, which gave working people around the country an opportunity to see important works of art (leading, eventually, to the creation of the Arts Council), and the Army Bureau of Current Affairs, which produced a series of topical short papers to stimulate discussion among troops during the Second World War. Somehow, Williams managed to sell the idea that the troops defending democracy should also be active participants in it.

Williams was very open to the possibilities of different, often new, forms of educational activity, and was concerned always to encourage ‘spectators’ to become participants – the most immediate requirement of adult education, as he saw it. Students’ voices mattered, he believed, and the need to create a better understanding between participants and providers became a theme of his early editorials in Adult Education. The publication became a vital forum for discussing the work of adult educators and adult education’s future as a movement. Williams’ first contribution to the journal – ‘The Institute: Terminus or Junction?’ – invited members to bring their understanding of ‘what is going on in adult education and what ought to be going on’ to discussions of the future of the institute. In another article – ‘The Storm Troops and the Militia’ – he launched a debate among adult educators on how best to reconcile the different needs of the ‘storm troops’ of the three-year tutorial classes with those of the ‘militia army’ of less able or less ambitious adult students. Williams saw the journal not just as a way of communicating institute business to members but as a forum for wider, democratic debate, going well beyond the day-to-day concerns of the institute and attempting to put the work of adult educators in a much broader context.

The British Institute of Adult Education merged with the National Foundation for Adult Education in 1949 to form the National Institute of Adult Education. The NIAE continued to publish Adult Education, under the shrewd leadership of Edward Hutchinson who, adapting to straitened circumstances, took to editing the journal himself (he was also finance officer, conference manager and research and development officer, among other things). Hutchinson grew the organisation into a prominent national source of information and thought about adult education, giving the journal a leading role in developing that thought and supporting others to contribute to it. The Highway had ceased publishing in 1959, leaving Adult Education as the only serious periodical publication in the field.

The journal continued to publish under Arthur Stock’s directorship, which, in 1983, saw the institute again change its name, this time to the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education (NIACE). Alan Tuckett, who took over the directorship of NIACE in 1988, was a social entrepreneur in the tradition of Williams (though, like Hutchinson, he also had a talent for encouraging others). He launched the monthly Adults Learning as a successor to the quarterly Adult Education in 1989, making what Judith Summers described as ‘a statement of intent to reach out actively to a widening constituency’. He also organised the first Adult Learners’ Week (in the teeth of a good deal of internal opposition), launching an idea now copied in countries around the world, developed NIACE’s campaigning and publications operations, and transformed NIACE’s research and policy-making capability, supported by outstanding staff such as Naomi Sargant and Alastair Thomson.

I joined NIACE as editor of Adults Learning in September 2002 having spent the previous few years teaching and researching. The panel that interviewed me included Jane Thompson, one of the best and most influential writers on adult education and a big supporter of the journal. I had worked in journalism in the past but not for the best part of a decade. I knew very little about publishing and had no experience whatsoever of magazine production. I came to it with the idea of creating something that was thoughtful and rigorous, yet accessible to the average reader, while making it look ‘as nice as we can afford to’ (to quote Williams’ reply to a critic of his editorship of The Highway). I also, like Williams, wanted to make it about ‘the interests of the adult education movement as a whole’ rather than the narrower concerns of NIACE (something, I should add, Alan Tuckett enthusiastically supported, recognising that an editorially independent journal was, in some respects, better for NIACE, as well as for the wider sector).

The people who agreed to write for me or be interviewed by me included not only some of the luminaries of the adult education world but also adult education teachers and students. All, almost without exception, were happy to contribute their work without a fee. I was lucky to be able to include the work of some outstanding writers, including regular columnists John Field and Tom Schuller, Alison Wolf, Ewart Keep, Mick Fletcher, Anna Coote, Ian Martin, Ann Walker, Mike Campbell, Mary Stuart, Stephen McNair, Frank Coffield, Jane Thompson, Ken Spours, Ann Hodgson, Lorna Unwin, Kathryn Ecclestone, Gert Biesta, Veronica McGivney, Jim Crowther, Mark Ravenhall, Alastair Thomson and, of course, Alan Tuckett. There are many more and I apologise to those I have omitted to mention. Keen to broaden the appeal of the journal and to highlight the wider relevance of adult education I also interviewed a number of people who, while outside the sector, had things to say which adult educators would find relevant, engaging or inspirational. These included Richard Hoggart, Tony Benn, Maggi Hambling, Esther Brunstein, David Puttnam and the incredible Margaret Aspinall of the Hillsborough Family Support Group (the interview that will stay with me the longest). One-off issues on special themes, such as poverty and low pay, were an attempt to do something similar. I also visited and reported on some remarkable projects, such as the North Edinburgh Social History Group, Tent City University, Lincoln’s Social Science Centre and Liverpool’s The Reader Organisation.

One small coup, in May 2010, was publishing one of the first interviews with new Prime Minister David Cameron (though it was actually written shortly before the election – we also persuaded Gordon Brown and Nick Clegg to answer the same questions). Mr Cameron’s warm words and passionately stated commitment to ‘adult learning and the way it inspires people’ are well worth revisiting in the light of the cuts which have since decimated the sector.

Funding cuts and the decline in policy interest in adult education which accompanied the growing obsession of ministers with skills and employability (narrowly conceived) made it difficult to maintain a journal that was about adult education as a whole, rather than, say, skills or training, or further education. Subscriber numbers fell and, without resources to market or source advertising, it was perhaps inevitable that the journal would close. Nevertheless, I think it did something very valuable in offering a very diverse and often disconnected readership a sense of being part of something bigger, whether that was understood to mean a movement or a sector. As John Field said to me once, it gave people a sense of the whole forest, not just the trees surrounding them. It was a place where it was all brought together: what adult education does, the difference it can make and why it matters, in all its different guises and settings. It helped people think and encouraged them to become participants in the leadership of thought in adult education. It also tried to keep alive the link with adult education’s historic roots. It is a real concern that there is now so little defence of adult education that is about anything other than skills for work. We need to do more to resist this and rediscover some of the values of our past, as well as finding find new ways to talk about them.

I fear there is no bringing back Adults Learning but I do believe there is a need for something that does what it used to, though perhaps in a new form. I’d love hear what people think about this and what their thoughts are as to what might replace Adults Learning, what the sector needs and what would be valuable as a way of developing thinking and advocacy within and about adult education. Please feel free to comment on this post. I’d love to hear what you think.

Some of the material for the article draws on Sander Meredeen’s excellent book, The Man Who Made Penguins: The Life of Sir William Emrys Williams (Darien Jones Publishing, 2007)

Learning Through Life: a missed opportunity but a live agenda nonetheless

Five years ago this autumn, the two-year Inquiry into the Future for Lifelong Learning, sponsored by NIACE and led by a group of expert commissioners, published its final report, Learning Through Life. The report posed a challenge to policymakers to create a framework for lifelong learning which was fit for the early twenty-first century, and the unprecedented technological, demographic and economic changes we face. It is a challenge which, to put it mildly, is some way still from being met.

That is not to say that the report has not had influence. Its argument for access to lifelong learning as a human right, related to personal growth and emancipation, prosperity and community solidarity, is widely cited and influential, particularly internationally; and some of the more practical ideas it formulated have grabbed the attention of policymakers and sector organisations, for example its argument for mid-life career review, which has been developed by Stephen McNair and successfully piloted, with further roll-out likely.

But, beyond this, and more substantively, the news is less good. At the heart of the inquiry’s approach was a proposed shift to a new model of the educational life course – comprising four key stages: up to 25, 25-50, 50-75 and 75-plus – with learning resources ‘fairly and sensibly’ rebalanced to reflect the changing social and economic context. Regrettably, despite much rhetoric to the contrary and one or two positive interventions, we are no closer to such a settlement. In fact, in a number of key respects, we seem set on undoing previous hard-won gains, leaving us, if anything, further away from what is, after all, a fairly modest and very well-evidenced proposal.

The allocation of learning resources across the four life stages reported by the inquiry has changed little since 2009 when it was split, approximately, as follows: 86; 11; 2.5; 0.5. The report proposed a rebalancing in all public and private spending on education, by 2020, to: 80; 15; 4; 1. The costs of this adjustment, it said, would be significantly reduced by the projected reduction in the number of young people in the population over the next decade. At the same time, within each age group, ‘specific attention should be given to the fair and equitable distribution of resources’, including consideration of which groups benefit the most and which are excluded. This, the report argued, was essential to ensuring ‘a continuing commitment to equalising opportunity’, covering ‘equity both between sectors (HE, FE, community etc) and within them’.

The rationale for this reallocation of resources was, then as it is now, perfectly clear. The 18-24 population was predicted to decline by nine per cent by 2020, while the third and fourth stage populations were projected to rise by 18 per cent and 28 per cent respectively over the same period. With people both living longer and spending longer in the workplace, the educational challenges – in terms both of up-skilling and re-skilling, and remaining active and engaged in society later in life – were obvious. Yet the big story (in England, at least) in the funding of post-compulsory education in the last five years has not been a shift in the distribution of resources across the age groups but the move from a system of state funding to one of state financing through loans – a very high-stakes gambit justified on the (it turns out, spurious) grounds that it would save the taxpayer money. This began in higher education and has been extended into further education. In both cases the impact on adult participation has been dramatic.

The story in higher education is familiar. While enrolments among younger students held up, despite the trebling of tuition fees, there was a dramatic decline among mature students, and among part-time students in particular, with a drop of 46 per cent in part-time undergraduate entrants (the vast majority of whom are mature) between 2010-11 and 2013-14. These students – people attempting to develop new skills or improve existing ones while juggling family, work and other commitments – are precisely those we need to engage in learning if we are to respond to the challenges of an ageing and, increasingly, low-wage, low-skill, low-productivity economy. Their loss in such numbers suggests we are some way from the coherence of approach looked for in Learning Through Life.

Strong part-time recruitment has been one of the big, if unsung, success stories of UK higher education. It has taken a long time and a great deal of effort and inspiration to build up. Now it seems in irreversible freefall, abetted by the longer-term decline in university lifelong learning. This was accelerated when the previous administration introduced the notorious ELQ rule, denying state support to any student studying for a qualification at a level lower than or equivalent to one they already possess. And while the extension of loans to part-timers brought welcome (if partial) parity with full-time students, the majority of part-timers remained ineligible (largely because of the ELQ rule), priced out by a system which is becoming ever more polarised, unequal and unfair.

It is telling that it is the high-tariff, elite institutions – those which do least well in terms of widening participation – that have gained the most under the new system, while the lower-tariff institutions – those which do the heavy lifting when it comes to ensuring fair access – are doing the worst. This hardly demonstrates the commitment to ‘equalising opportunity’ the report was seeking. I suppose though it is unsurprising that a society so committed to putting everyone in their proper place should develop a higher education system which so heavily qualifies the success of so many of its graduates. This might suit the already privileged (which is why it is so hard to challenge) but it is hardly what we need if we are, as a society and an economy, to get the most from the talents and creativity of every citizen.

A similar high-risk strategy has been pursued in further education in the form of FE loans for students aged 24-plus studying at Level 3 or 4 – with similar, highly predictable (but, perhaps just as predictably, largely ignored) consequences. In 2012-13, more than 400,000 people aged 24 or over took part in learning at Levels 3 and 4. Government figures for 2013-14, when funding was withdrawn for a range of courses for over-24s and the loan scheme introduced, show that only 57,000 students aged 24-plus took up loans at this level. The latest figures show that only 43,830 applications for the loans have been made between April 2014 and September 2014. This suggests both that there has been a very substantial drop in participation among older adults at this level and that recruitment is showing no signs of recovery. This bodes ill indeed for a future in which the development of a high-skill economy will depend on adults’ capacity to retrain and up-skill.

But perhaps a high-skill economy is not where we are headed. As Learning Through Life argued, the debate on skills has been too dominated by an emphasis on increasing the volume of skills, with too little focus on how skills are actually used. Since the report’s publication the conviction that there is something wrong in the way in which we approach skills has taken stronger hold. We have seen a welcome increase in jobs, but they are, very largely, jobs characterised by low wages, low skills and job insecurity. Despite numerous skills strategies and near-incessant reform in the sector, the UK economy compares poorly to its neighbours in terms of productivity. Wage inequality continues to act as a drag on growth. Making better use of skills and creating the workplace conditions in which innovation and creativity can flourish are becoming increasingly significant policy concerns. A sustained, resilient, inclusive and long-term recovery depends on it. And, of course, the equity issue identified in the report, that access to training diminishes the further down the status ladder you go, remains as pressing a concern today. Far too few workplaces offer the kind of expansive learning environment the inquiry recommended. Those that do, as last month’s Smith Institute report on good work suggests, can expect to reap rewards in terms of enhanced staff commitment and productivity. But there remain far more for whom such a step would involve an almost unthinkable shift in culture.

Skills remains an area in which the pace of reform (and the turnover of ministers) is frenetic. One of the biggest equity issues in post-compulsory education concerns the relative esteem in which the further education and skills sector and higher education are held. Incessant reform in FE is a symptom of this. So is the comparative lack of autonomy enjoyed by further education colleges, though there has been greater recognition of this since Learning Through Life appeared. Still, there is an evident lack of trust and confidence in the sector and its workforce, as well as an impulse to cut further education resources, almost unthinkingly, whenever budgets are tight. In a way, this is unsurprising. Few in the Treasury have any direct experience of further education, and most senior politicians these days seem to have followed the gilded path from public school to Oxbridge before walking straight into a political career for which they have merely academic qualifications. No wonder a coherent national strategy, in which all parts of the tertiary sector are recognised as essential and important, remains elusive. It may be that it will continue to elude us, unless we can find a way to widen the political gene pool.

Despite the failure of the current generation of politicians to engage adequately with – or, for the most part, even to acknowledge – the challenge of an ageing and increasingly unequal society, the agenda set out in Learning Through Life remains relevant – a pertinent invitation to any political party prepared to think seriously about the challenges of demographic, technological and economic change. It has important things to say about credit transfer, localism, learning entitlements and improving the capacity of the lifelong learning workforce. And it has good ideas about making the system more intelligent and more coherent. As the report argued, national frameworks matter. Governments have a responsibility here, in creating the conditions in which lifelong learning can flourish, as they do in describing the values and vision which inform the sector’s work. They have a role too in ensuring the resources are there to deliver what is needed, though, as Learning Through Life makes clear, it is not expected that all these resources come from the public purse. We need a sensible, rational approach that balances personal, state and employer contributions. There may be an increased cost to developing a system fit for the twenty-first century but, as the report shows, it is one we can bear. The cost of doing nothing is much greater. Given the scale of the challenge we really must do better than hide behind the cloak of austerity, affecting to have no choice but to implement reforms which have little to do with saving money and everything to do with ideology.

The next issue of NIACE’s journal Adults Learning – due out later this month – will assess the legacy of Learning Through Life, with contributions from its authors, David Watson and Tom Schuller, as well as from David Hughes, Karen Evans, Stephen McNair, Tom Wilson, Claire Callender, Ewart Keep, Ruth Spellman, Jim Crawley, Keith Wakefield, John Field, Mark Ravenhall and Alan Tuckett.

Learning Through Life was published by NIACE in 2009. Many of the inquiry’s papers are still available to download from: http://www.niace.org.uk/lifelonglearninginquiry/.