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.

Class, Corbyn and the cult of austerity

The difficulty in understanding what is really going on in Britain, Raymond Williams wrote in 1960, ‘is that too much is being said by too few people’. The same is true today, only more so. Not only is the current Westminster commentariat small in number, it is exclusive in background, in terms of schooling, political outlook, ethnic background and social class, to an extent that would have surprised even Williams, I suspect. It would have been difficult, from the vantage of the 1960s, to have predicted quite how unequal and divided a society we would become in so short a time.

Of course, as Sadiq Khan said eloquently about his wealthy mayoral opponent Zac Goldsmith, having a privileged background does not exclude you from empathy, and it certainly does not mean that your opinion is wrong or lacks value. But it is a clear indictment of the quality of our democracy – and the failings of our education system – that those charged with interpreting politics for the general public – those, in other words, with the most influence over public opinion about politics – are, like the politicians they talk to and write about, drawn overwhelmingly from a narrow, privileged section of society. This perhaps explains the degree of indulgence (so far) afforded to David Cameron in the reporting of alleged indiscretions during his student days. It is hard to imagine this relatively sympathetic coverage being extended to Jeremy Corbyn.

It would be surprising, given this background, if the range of opinion on offer in our print and broadcast media was broad and inclusive. And, indeed, it is not. The range of debate in the mainstream media is extremely narrow. The broad consensus in the media about the need for austerity cuts contrasts with the substantially more varied spectrum of opinion among economists and the general public. As a result, there has been little real scrutiny of the government’s economic position. Compare this to the aggressive, often hectoring tone in which opposition policy is questioned, and it becomes clear that this unfair and unbalanced approached to political reporting and commentary is threatening (perhaps preventing) the successful functioning of our democracy.

This is not only about social background. There are powerful, fiercely defended vested interests shaping UK media coverage. But the fact that so many of our leading journalists come from privileged backgrounds – the Sutton Trust reported in 2006 that most ‘leading’ journalists went to independent schools, compared to seven per cent of the population as a whole, while just 14 per cent had attended comprehensive school (compared to 90 per cent of the population) – and have, quite often, to varying degrees, a stake in these same interests, makes it much more likely that the artificial confinement of debate will go unchallenged. There is a stark contrast between the cosy affability and rough uniformity of opinion to be found in most UK political programming and the desperate desire for change felt by so many ‘ordinary’ people who believe their views have no outlet.

All of this has been thrown into sharp relief by the election of Mr Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party, a remarkable turn of events which sent much of the mainstream media into a state of deranged frenzy. Almost all of the media – like the other three Labour leadership candidates – have, to differing degrees, accepted a heavily politicized version of recent political and economic events, committing to the necessity of austerity politics and the myth that Labour overspending was a contributory factor in the financial crash (either in directly causing it and thus crashing the economy or, in a more polished version for the better educated, in leaving the country unprepared to cope with it). Winning this ‘argument’ has been critical for the Conservatives, and gave them the platform they needed to win a majority in the general election (credit where it’s due: they couldn’t have done it without the support of the Liberal Democrats). It provided the ultimate justification for the huge cuts in public spending and the misery they are causing to poor and vulnerable people across the country (those, the story goes, whose demands on the public purse plunged us into economic crisis in the first place). The problem with Corbyn, from the point of view of the mainstream media and of mainstream politics more generally, is that his success was due largely to his rejection of this view.

Unsurprisingly, the media would prefer not to have this debate. The same is true of our politicians. Tony Blair described Corbyn’s outline economic plan as ‘Alice in Wonderland’ politics, while the new leader of the Liberal Democrats, anxious to occupy what he wants us to believe is the centre ground, said this week that Corbyn was engaged in ‘fantasy’ economics. None of this of course constitutes a debate. It is an attempt to close it down. But there is, at the very least, a serious debate to be had here. Most of what Corbyn is proposing, including borrowing to finance investment, national ownership of the railways and quantitative easing to finance public services during time of recession, is not unreasonable or untested, and has the support of many mainstream economists. And while you may not agree with all of Corbyn’s views, on Trident, for example, they are surely worth a serious, national debate, if only because they are shared by many thousands of UK voters. They certainly do not deserve to be derided as childish, dangerous, backward-looking or foolish. The effort being made to close down these debates reflects the remarkably shallow and unequal nature of our democracy.

One of the main uses to which austerity politics has been put is to convince people that moral and political choices are facts of life they cannot change, and that they really have no option when it comes to the kind of society they live in. Political decisions, often driven by ideology, are passed off as tough choices necessitated by difficult times over which politicians have no control. It’s vital to the health of democratic society that people understand that change is possible. Much of what we now value and admire about our society – universal suffrage, for example – is the result of the efforts of difficult, awkward people who were derided as childish, dangerous, backward-looking or foolish. No society, as R.H. Tawney argued, can be too poor to seek a ‘right order to life’ – or so rich that it does not need to. We shouldn’t be discouraged from asking difficult questions because people who believe they know better tell us things can’t change. We are not obliged to put economic considerations before human ones. This is, in itself, a moral and political choice that can be challenged and resisted. As Tawney recognised, the creation of a ‘right order of life’ is the first business of politics. Those who try to convince us otherwise should be viewed with suspicion.

Tawney poses an interesting question here. It’s one that will, I think, resonate with those who work in adult education, particularly with next month’s spending review looming large and the new secretary of state reportedly keen to impress by taking a huge hit to his departmental budget (an odd form of initiation but perhaps not the oddest I can think of). The small but important adult and community learning budget, long protected (though only in cash terms), is once again under scrutiny, with sector leaders preparing to make an economic case for something that is, like adult education more generally, of far wider value. We have been doing this for some time, playing the Treasury’s game while privately finding other ways of valuing the work we do. In fact, despite the economic case having been made exceptionally well, backed by a strong body of research, including that produced by the Centre for Research on the Wider Benefits of Learning, publicly funded adult education is facing its end game. Adult further education is widely predicted to be a thing of the past by 2020 while part-time higher education continues to decline rapidly with ministers happy to turn a blind eye as long as full-time numbers hold up. Yet it’s obvious that we need much more of both. The economic case is clear, well made, yet ignored. Perhaps it is time to take a different tack, offering a wider vision for adult education tied to a more optimistic view of what is possible for us, as a society. It may be that by adopting the language and values of those who do not, by and large, understand us, we are inadvertently contributing to our own demise.

Taking a line for a walk

On 7 May 2015 the UK electorate voted in a majority government on a platform of more austerity and increased hardship for the most disadvantaged and vulnerable in society, precipitating, among other things, Labour’s almost immediate resignation as a true party of opposition – convinced, seemingly, that it is only by endorsing the Tory fiction of its fiscal irresponsibility in office that Labour can restore the country’s faith in it as a party of, erm, fiscal responsibility. Like many other left-leaning voters, I feel trapped in a bad dream in which it is always 10pm on election night and that exit poll in replayed, over and over again, forever, to a soundtrack of Michael Gove endlessly congratulating himself.

Two things particularly struck me during the general election campaign. First, the narrow and impoverished nature of the debate and the utter failure of the mainstream media to do anything to dispel the statistical fog of claim and counterclaim or to take a step beyond the confining narrative established by the coalition in its first few months in office and enthusiastically taken up by its friends in the press. And second, the way fear – whether of economic ‘chaos’, a disgruntled business community or a minority Labour government controlled from Edinburgh – was endlessly and very effectively stoked, in the end trumping any sense of hope or solidarity. In politics, as in life, it is fear that prevents us taking creative chances, whether that is a leap of imagination or a leap of empathy and understanding.

Labour’s subsequent capitulation in the myth that it overspent in office and caused or (in a more nuanced spin for the economically better-informed) exacerbated the economic crisis (a capitulation with qualifications, I know, but who has time to read the qualifications?) could be said to make a very effective case for more political education. But it also, it seems to me, represents an implicit concession that the language of empathy, informed compassion and solidarity have little place in modern politics, and that only tough-guy posturing, usually in the face of imagined or invented demons (‘uncontrolled’ immigration, benefit cheats and Greek-style economic collapse are three of the most popular phantoms), can win over the electorate.

Politics, of course, is not the only area of life where empathy is in short supply. The hostile and at time callous language used by the media (and, indeed, by politicians) to describe asylum seekers, refugees and immigrants is another case in point, stereotyping and scapegoating migrants while overlooking their positive contribution and over-reporting the problems they create (it is telling that while people’s perceptions of the extent of these problems diverge ridiculously from reality, they are broadly in line with the priority given them by the parts of the media). Social media too, for all its virtues and possibilities, seems at times almost a test lab for every kind of meanness, closed-mindedness and spite, often in the guise of some sort of moral crusade; usually one fatally detached from any sense of human sympathy or fellow-feeling. As Adam Smith argued long ago, it is this sympathetic imaginative effort to put ourselves in other people’s shoes that is at the heart of morality and virtuous behaviour.

If, as Smith believed, the imagination is the faculty responsible not only for populating our moral world but also for the entire creative sphere of commerce and the arts and sciences, it is surely something we should cultivate. This was something strongly hinted at by the Governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, in an interesting interview on the Today programme in May. Productivity, Carney said, was the way forward for the UK economy, yet it was faltering because of under-investment and the disproportionate number of low-paid, low-productivity jobs created by the economy, prompting the Bank of England to downgrade its growth forecasts. Productivity, he went on, could be improved through investment in skills and innovation, empowering people at work, and more creativity. This reiterated points he was able to make at greater length in a speech about pay and productivity at the TUC congress last year. ‘Skills levels need to be raised continually,’ he said. ‘That is, of course, first and foremost about education. But crucially it also means access to lifelong learning, both on and off the job, available to all.’

What I particularly like about these comments is the link Carney makes between creativity, education, skills and productivity. We need a school curriculum that is geared to delivering the skills and resources young people need to thrive in the modern world, and that includes, critically, creativity, resilience and imagination, and, perhaps just as importantly, a willingness to think of themselves as learners throughout their lives. We also need a system of lifelong learning that unlocks people’s creativity later in life, when and where they need it. As John Dewey wrote, ‘the object and reward of learning is continued capacity for growth’. The alternative is a continued decline in productivity relative to our competitors and an economy characterised by poorly paid, low-skilled jobs and calcified patterns of inequality.

Carney’s remarks point to a great deal that is wrong about the government’s approach to education. This is in some ways typified by education secretary Nicky Morgan’s comment that studying an arts subject ‘holds pupils back for the rest of their lives’, but it is also evidenced in the government’s more general denigration of arts and culture in the curriculum, prompting the Warwick Commission last year to wonder why it is that ‘the English educational system is not focusing on the future needs of the cultural and creative industries and the broader needs for innovation and growth in the UK?’ Not only is the curriculum narrowing, with arts subjects steadily downgraded and excluded, but the pressures brought to bear on teachers and school leaders are making it increasingly difficult for schools to bring a creative ethos to teaching and learning. Morgan used her first public appearances following the general election to warn that ‘failing or coasting’ schools would have their head teachers removed and be forced to join an academy chain (though she failed to specify why this would help – for the very good reason that there is no evidence that it would). It is doubtful whether the threat of this kind of punitive intervention is the best way to improve teaching and learning outcomes for pupils, particularly in a context of declining funding and rising costs, where teachers and school leaders already struggle with excessive workload, driven by an inspection system that encourages them to value looking good above doing good. Little wonder schools are struggling to recruit and retain teaching staff.

But perhaps the most vivid example of the short-sightedness of the government’s approach is in adult further education, which has seen the deepest cuts of any part of the education sector. Further education as a whole is having a tough time. The coalition’s near-obsessive focus on apprenticeships, combined with a willingness to put the interests of other sectors ahead of those of FE, has seen courses cut, staff made redundant and sector morale plummet. As a result, options for students are narrowing. Further education appears to have few friends in parliament – and has one supporter less with the significant loss of Vince Cable. Adult further education has seen the most devastating cuts of all, reduced by 25 per cent between 2009-10 and 2014-15, with a further 24 per cent cut to non-apprenticeship adult learning planned for 2015-16. The Association of Colleges is warning that adult further education could be a thing of the past by 2020.

As Mark Carney suggests, the loss of these opportunities is nothing short of disastrous. It represents the continued prevalence of a narrowly conceived economism in education, an approach which is a failure, even on its own terms. Opportunities to learn should be available to all, at every age, on and off the job, with funding following the learner rather than the prejudices of ministers. Instead, we are moving towards a two-tier, one-chance education system in which most children are trained for employment, with a fully rounded creative and cultural education available only to those following the gilded path to an elite university – overwhelmingly those who start out privileged – and few opportunities to return should things not work out first time around. Education should not be about joining the dots of a picture someone else has already sketched. It should be about (to borrow Paul Klee’s phrase) ‘taking a line for a walk’, gaining the resources we need to learn and develop in our own way – and that, above all, demands a wide curriculum and a creative one, as well as opportunities for second, third and even fourth chances. To quote Dewey again, it is ‘illiberal and immoral to train children to work not freely and intelligently but for the sake of the work earned, in which case their activity is not free because it is not freely participated in.’

Sadly, our schools and colleges increasingly resemble factories churning out young people with the requisite qualifications to gain employment and not much more (and often failing to do even that). The economic pay-off at the end is everything, the consequences of failure enormous and second chances are increasingly squeezed. As the OECD reported recently, the skills gap between young people not in employment, education or training and those in work is significantly wider in England and Northern Ireland than in other developed countries. The scale of social inequality makes the consequences of slipping down the ladder still graver, as every good middle-class parent knows. And we make sure our children feel the pressure as early as possible through a regime of testing that begins ludicrously early. As they get older, study further, and take on the huge debts now associated with a decent education, the pressure to remain on the treadmill, to work not reflect, to accept not criticise, grows greater. We are a society increasingly governed by our private and public fears, unwilling to take risks or think creatively, unable, seemingly, to expand our moral horizons, even to include people in mortal peril. It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that we are stuck with the education system we have rather than the one we need.

Adult education and austerity

Adult education matters. It matters at home, in work, and in the community. It matters to families, to the economy and to our health and wellbeing. It makes society fairer, more resilient, more creative and more democratic. It ought to matter in the ballot box too. Its demise is indicative of the huge price this and future generations are set to pay for the politics of austerity.

The figures are stark. Since the coalition came to power in 2010 more than a million publicly funded adult learning opportunities have disappeared. Over the same period, according to the Association of Colleges (AoC), funding for post-19 further education has been cut by 35 per cent. The 2015–16 adult skills budget is to be cut by a further 24 per cent – a move which has prompted the AoC to warn that state-supported adult education will be a thing of the past by 2020 if the next government does not offer a change of direction.

At the same time, the escalation in tuition fees in higher education has prompted a dramatic decline in mature student numbers, particularly in part-time provision, which has all but collapsed. The new vice-chancellor of the Open University, Peter Horrocks, described the slump as a ‘tragedy’ for individuals, family and society. The OU has lost a quarter of its total student numbers since 2010, while, across the sector as a whole, the number of people studying part-time for an undergraduate degree has fallen by 37 per cent.

Yet it could not be clearer that we are living through times that demand more adult education, not less. We need more of it if we are to respond to growing skills gaps in engineering, technology and construction, for example. We need more if we are to respond to the productivity gap – productivity in the UK lags woefully behind that of our economic neighbours – and develop a higher-skill, higher-wage economy in which the benefits of growth are shared more equally. Ours is an ageing society. The jobs of the future cannot be filled by young people alone. If we are to fill those posts adults need more and better opportunities to refresh their skills and to learn new ones, adapting to the rapid, incessant pace of technological change. What we have seen, instead, is a relentless squeeze on such opportunities.

But adult education matters in other ways too. Crucially, it gives people let down by our enduringly class-ridden education system a vital second chance to succeed. We are far too willing to divide our children up into winners and losers. That’s not what education should be about (though, all too often, that is precisely what it is about). School isn’t for everyone, for a range of different reasons (most, seemingly, inexplicable to those who followed the gilded path from public school to Oxbridge before washing up at the Treasury). It’s a matter of social justice that we do not brand those who have not succeeded at school as failures. They are not, as anyone who works in adult education will tell you. They want to succeed, to make a positive difference for their families and communities, as much as anyone. What they lack, increasingly, is the opportunity to do so.

There is, for me, another crucial function of adult education, which perhaps goes along with a commitment to a fair and equal society in which everyone, and not just the wealthy, has the opportunity to live a meaningful, fulfilled and happy life. I believe adult education is as an essential part of the fabric of any civilized, democratic society. It is not just about employability – and that should be reflected in the sort of provision on offer to adults. Adult education provides safe, open and collaborative spaces in which difference and diversity are tolerated, where people can question and challenge, provoke and create, where they can ask awkward questions and develop the skills of political engagement. It engenders solidarity, makes us feel less powerless and hence more willing to engage politically, and, crucially, helps us learn to live and think together. These may not be popular values within a coalition government which has maintained its hold on the electorate’s imagination through a smoke-and-mirrors approach to policy debate, frequently happy to confuse, frustrate and obscure rather than speak truth about the challenges we face as a society. Nevertheless, they are absolutely essential if we are ever to build a fairer, more equal and democratic society, populated by creative, resourceful and resilient citizens.

The funny thing is, many politicians would agree with much of this, publicly at least. What is lacking is the political will and imagination to make it a reality. It’s far too easy to cut adult education. As the civil servant who urged Vince Cable to withdraw all funding from further education advised, ‘nobody will really notice’. And we may get to this point yet, if the massive cuts planned for the next parliament are implemented. The scale and immediacy of the cuts planned by the Conservatives, in particular, are likely to wreak yet more devastation on a beleaguered further education sector, followed, no doubt, by the usual hand-wringing and disingenuous protestations about ‘the need for tough decisions’. But all the main UK parties are, to some extent, pro-austerity; they all make a fairly urgent priority of ‘balancing the books’, though they differ as to the scale and pace of cuts. Given the protection afforded to other budgets, however, this makes further cuts to adult education more than likely, whoever is in power (though, as the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) has argued, the differences in scale and pace are not insignificant).

Unsurprisingly, then, adult education has not featured much in the main parties’ manifesto thinking, despite the acknowledged threats of demographic change, low productivity and skills shortages. In fact, the manifestos, as a whole, do not have much to say directly about post-compulsory education beyond universities, and there is little appreciation of the well-documented role adult education can play in supporting related agendas, such as health care. There are, however, some important commitments, including that of Labour and the Liberal Democrats to protect in real terms the education budget, including some post-16 provision, and a few welcome shifts in emphasis, notably the Lib Dems’ pledges to establish a cross-party commission on lifelong learning and to enable more part-time study, and Labour’s promise to raise the standards and status of vocational and technical education (including turning high-performing colleges with strong links to industry into specialist ‘institutes of technical education’). The focus on apprenticeships, from all the main parties, also deserves a cautious welcome though it remains the case that many still are not deserving of the name. It should also be acknowledged that apprenticeships, though important, are not for everyone, and are not the answer to every one of the challenges of vocational education. It shouldn’t be paid for at the cost of the adult skills budget.

The elephant in the room in all of this is, of course, the resumption of austerity politics, and the certainty of still more massive cuts to government spending, though no party of course is prepared to detail them. The growth we have seen over the last couple of years has coincided with the coalition taking its foot off the austerity peddle. We can expect an enhanced push towards austerity in the new parliament, particularly if the Conservatives are in charge, with the IFS warning of ‘colossal’ spending cuts to come: £55 billion’s worth – on top of £35 billion already cut. This won’t be achieved without significant damage to the faltering recovery and a great deal of pain, including the loss of a significant part of what many of us regard as the architecture of a civilized society.

Adult education is part of this architecture. Its demise is important not only for the reasons set out above, but also because it is indicative of the high price we are set to pay for austerity politics and our own acquiescence in an unwarranted drive to reduce drastically the size of the state. It is incredibly short-sighted, and all, I fear, for a goal that is ideological rather than economic. This will be the real legacy of debt the two coalition parties leave for future generations. Under the cover of austerity they have imposed cuts that put at risk institutions critical to the humane functioning of our society. A new cycle of austerity cuts would see some of the notable achievements of our civilization, adult and continuing education, public libraries, an NHS run for patients rather than profit, lost. Resisting the narrative of austerity – and the supporting fiction that it was excessive public spending that necessitated it – must, realistically, be part of any attempt to save these institutions. If we don’t make our resistance felt, the world our children grow up in is likely to be colder, crueller, poorer, more indifferent, less caring and thoughtful, more divided and less cohesive, less well resourced, less democratic, less resilient and less hopeful. And of course it will be less skilled and more unequal too.

A society without second chances

Suddenly, if belatedly, adult education is in the news. Planned cuts to adult further education, amounting to 24 per cent of the total budget once apprenticeships – the government’s shamelessly over-hyped, all-purpose panacea for the gathering skills crisis – are taken out of the equation, have prompted a petition to reverse the move and provoked some unusually strong (some would say overdue) words from college groups and others. There have even been one or two articles outside the specialist education press. Finally, the staggering and deplorable withdrawal of learning opportunities for adults is making ripples outside the world of adult and further education.

The latest cuts are massive, inflicted in full knowledge of the damage they are certain to cause. It’s nice to see Vince Cable launching a well-intentioned consultation on adult vocational education but it is hard not to think that this is far too little, far too late. When you consider the scale of cuts already made by the government – a 35 per cent reduction in spending on adult skills resulting in the loss of one million learning opportunities for adults since 2010 – it is easy to understand why the Association of Colleges is forecasting that state-supported adult education and training will have ceased to exist altogether by 2020. The loss will be huge. These are not just numbers. They represent the frustrated ambitions, aspirations and life chances of hundreds of thousands of people, their families and their communities.

In research published today, the Association of Colleges estimates that more than 190,000 further adult learning places could be lost next year alone as a result of the latest cuts, with courses in health, public services and care, and information and communication technology likely to be hardest hit. It notes that funding cuts to adult education have already resulted in a 17.9 per cent drop in adult students participating at Level 3 between 2012-13 and 2013-14. If the government continues to cut adult education at the same rate, it says, there will be no adult education system left to support students aged 19 and over by 2020.

It says a lot about the government that it has been prepared to oversee this near collapse in what was, for many years, a vital and vibrant part of our education system, something that took decades of effort and inspiration to build up. And this at a time when the need for adults to access education throughout their lives has never been more pressing or evident. As the AoC notes, the proportion of over-50s in the workforce is set to rise to a third of the workforce by 2020 – from 27 per cent now – while 50 per cent of workers aged over 55 are proposing to work beyond the state pension age. These people will need affordable, accessible opportunities to upskill and reskill, to improve their prospects at work or to start a new career. The government talks a decent game, publicly at least, when it comes to the skills and education needs of adults but, privately, it has been happy to see the sector which supports adults in accessing second chances to learn all but destroyed.

But it isn’t all about the economy and it isn’t all about skills. Even if we accept the government’s narrowly economic rationale for funding provision, the current obsessive focus on apprenticeships is certain to be self-defeating if people aren’t equipped with the more basic, lower-level skills necessary to undertake one. We shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that we face a major challenge in improving UK adults’ literacy and numeracy skills, still terribly poor by international standards, despite decades of interventions. These are not only economically useful, they are basic requirements for any adult who dreams of living a happy, fulfilled life. But there is a deeper point here about the kind of society we aspire to be. Do we want to be the sort of society where the wider benefits of a broad, liberal education are available only to the already privileged, while the rest of us have to make do with training for employment, in one form or another, and the prospect of spending much of our adult lives paying for it? Or do we want to be a society populated by thoughtful, caring, active and engaged citizens, with inquiring, resilient minds, willing and able to learn new things and embrace new challenges throughout their lives?

These are important questions, but you won’t hear them on the lips of mainstream politicians, not publicly at least (and not privately either for the majority of them). Instead, the main parties have used the false but compelling narrative of austerity and deficit reduction to affect to have no choice over what are, truthfully, ideologically driven decisions with massive social implications. The things we are losing – part-time higher education, adult further education, the public library system, and much else – may seem a price worth paying now, but, faced with the task of rebuilding what is, after all, part of the essential infrastructure of any civilized society, it may seem very expensive indeed to the future generations who will pay the real cost of our current short-sightedness.

I’m constantly taken aback by the senselessness of all of this. How can we have got to a point where the idea of education as an important public good has been all but superseded by the notion that education has only private benefits and so should be funded very largely by the private individuals who benefit from it? How can the devastation of something so valuable – to individuals, to employers, to society more widely, both economically and in terms of social inclusion – be met with such public and political indifference? How can we have failed to see that spending in this area is a critical investment in all our futures (amply repaid by the clear economic and social benefits), not just another cost to be disposed of in the march of austerity? There is not much left of what we used to think of as ‘this great movement of ours’. What remains is pretty embattled, with even the most illustrious institutions forced to recast their values and sense of mission in order to survive. But second-chance learning is not a luxury. If we want a fair society, a vibrant, humane democracy in which everyone has a decent chance of success and the circumstances of a person’s birth are not the overwhelming determinant of their life chances, we need a flourishing system of lifelong learning as surely as we need strong, fairly funded schools and world-class, widely accessible universities.

Please sign the University and College Union petition opposing the cuts. More than 20,000 people already have.

Creativity, culture and the ‘true worth’ of education

Last week, education secretary Nicky Morgan suggested that qualifications should be linked to income in order to show their ‘true worth’. This week, the Warwick Commission on Cultural Value warned that creativity, culture and the arts are being ‘systematically removed from the UK education system’. These developments are not, of course, unrelated. They highlight a deplorable – and largely unchallenged – narrowness in current policy thinking about education, a grotesque reduction of the value of education to a crude utilitarian calculation of future earnings typified in the steady erosion of lifelong learning and the disappearance of vital public learning spaces such as libraries. The critical infrastructure that is being lost includes some of the jewels of the British education system, such as university continuing education, and will be incredibly difficult – perhaps impossible – to replace.

Nicky Morgan’s words were shockingly blunt and, in black and white, look pretty crass, but they are not particularly surprising. In fact, they articulate one of the most fundamental principles of this government’s approach to education, one that now runs through policy in every part of the education sector, from primary level to university: the only real value is economic value – and the only education a skeletal state impoverished by an ideologically driven programme of austerity measures can afford to support is education that has an economic return.

It was this thinking that, under the previous government, drove the introduction of the ‘ELQ’ rule denying funding to anyone studying in higher education at a level equivalent to or below the highest level at which they had previously studied. And it is this thinking that has driven the current government’s attempts to introduce a market into the skills system by putting money directly in the hands of employers and in its recasting of university students as consumers. It is felt by primary school children as young as five who face inappropriate tests and selection at an age when children in most developed countries haven’t even begun formal schooling and are learning in other, less pressured ways. And it is experienced by every prospective adult learner who finds that the opportunity to return to education has either disappeared, narrowed beyond recognition or relevance, or become prohibitively expensive.

Of course, all of this is part of a bigger trend towards the marketisation of parts of our lives in which, formerly, the market was thought not to have a place – or at least to have only a marginal place. As Michael Sandel argues, once we begin to put a price on goods such as education, health and political influence it becomes much harder to be poor. Increasingly, wealth determines access to health, good schools, higher education (especially the elite universities) – and, of course, politicians. In a society such as ours the poor are not only poor, they are disenfranchised, excluded, without access to many basic goods (not just material ones), and, for very many of them, also without hope (the absence of hope is perhaps the greatest unexplored public health issue of our times). Perhaps worst of all, when markets become an end rather than a means, political debate is stifled, it becomes trivial, managerial and, for the vast majority of people, incidental. The gap between politics and the people politics is about – those, at any rate, who are not in a position to buy access – grows ever greater.

Behind all of this, justifying everything and making the impossible possible in policy terms, is the spectre of austerity: an unnamed threat so amorphous and ill-defined, so universally endorsed by the mainstream parties and political journalism, that it can make almost anything seem a price worth paying. And because the implied cause is excessive public-sector spending – and not, of course, the financial crisis and reckless rich so seldom mentioned in connection with austerity – it is here that cuts must be made: disfiguring, anti-society cuts which penalise the poorest and most vulnerable (those whose reckless demands for decent schools and health care have put us in this mess), and in which all three main parties are to varying degrees culpable.

The impact of this trend can be seen very clearly in education, where it has distorted our values, our ways of talking and our sense of value as professionals – even our capacity to articulate clearly what it is that we think valuable about what we do. This is no better illustrated than in adult education. Since David Blunkett, in his foreword to the 1998 Green Paper The Learning Age, stressed learning’s ‘wider contribution’ in helping ‘make ours a civilised society’, developing ‘the spiritual side of our lives’ and promoting active citizenship, strengthening family, neighbourhood and nation in the process, there has been a steady attenuation in policy thinking concerning the benefits of education (despite large amount of evidence to the contrary). Skills and employability became the order of the day as funding focused increasingly on young people and shifted to provision that was expected – in some magical way, almost – to secure our economic future. The results included a much narrower and more expensive offer for adults, the closure of university lifelong learning departments across the country and the loss of well over a million adults to publicly funded provision. Despite our decade-long pursuit of ‘world-class skills’, under Labour and the coalition, the UK continues to show poorly in international league tables, with productivity proving equally resistant to improvement.

Labour’s ambition had narrowed so much that shortly before the 2010 election, when I approached the three main party leaders to set out their position on adult learning, David Cameron was able to position his party in the space the Labour government had lately abandoned, expressing a view of learning as being ‘about broadening the mind, giving people self-belief, strengthening the bonds of community’ – values, he added, that ‘Labour don’t seem to get’ – and citing its wider benefits, particularly in boosting active citizenship and helping make savings in other areas, such as health and crime. Despite the warmth of the Prime Minister’s words, the reality has been rather different. The coalition has continued to press for ‘world class’ skills, making employment and economic demand the drivers of their education reforms – and, like Labour before it, choosing to focus on the supply side of skills rather than address underlying issues concerning the demand for skills and skills under-utilisation. Despite playing well in the context of the coalition’s early emphasis on ‘big society’, the wider benefits of adult education were quickly forgotten.

This trend has been reinforced by the onward march of austerity, which has seen funding cuts in all areas of education, but particularly in adult education. Funding for adult qualifications not considered economically useful has been withdrawn, while further education colleges have had to cope with massive cuts – amounting so far to around £260 million – to the adult skills budget. Promises to protect schools funding will make this budget even more of a target in the next Parliament.

In higher education, mature students have been the main casualties of the coalition’s reforms to HE in England. Between 2008-09 and 2012-13 the number of first-year mature (21-plus) students in the English system fell by 37 per cent, with post-1992 institutions, which traditionally cater for more mature students, hit particularly hard. The story is even starker for part-time students, the vast majority of whom are mature. Part-time student numbers in England fell by 46 per cent between 2010-11 and 2013-14, according to HEFCE. And while it has performed better than national trends, the Open University has lost more than a quarter of its total student numbers. The causes of the decline in part-time and mature study are complex, but involve a toxic combination of increased fees, debt aversion among older people, wage stagnation and the prevailing economic climate, employer reluctance to invest in the education of their workers and the ineligibility of part-timers to maintenance support.

Elite higher education remains geared to young people and, in particular, to highly privileged young people who understand how to work the system and are supported by state-sponsored private schools in doing so. Despite the sterling work of outreach teams within many of these institutions, the in-built advantage they offer to pupils from wealthy backgrounds ensures that they continue to maintain privilege and perpetuate disadvantage. Sadly, this division is characteristic of the whole education system, where, increasingly, a rounded, liberal education – one that encourages creativity and cultivates an interest in literature, culture and the arts – is largely available only to the rich, who can afford it. The Warwick Commission report found that creativity and the arts are being ‘squeezed out’ of schools, with big drops in arts subjects at GCSE. Pupils from families with the lowest incomes fare the worst. Children from these families, the commission found, are least likely to be employed in the creative industries, while people from privileged backgrounds are overrepresented. This divide was reflected in the lack of diversity in arts audiences, the report said. The wealthiest, best educated and least ethnically diverse eight per cent of society make up nearly half of live music audiences and a third of theatre-goers. There was a danger that we were creating a ‘two tier creative and cultural ecosystem’, one commissioner warned. What happens at school is reinforced by the internship system which effectively denies a start in many creative industries to any but the most affluent.

As the Warwick Commission points out, this is bad both for the economy and for society. It is difficult to see how we can thrive as a nation while we deny so many the opportunity either to discover or develop their talents. But we lose more than this. A rounded creative education makes people more open, critical and tolerant. It helps them engage as citizens and fosters an interest in equality and democracy. It makes people question and it makes them hope. Crucially, perhaps, it makes them want more, for themselves and for their communities – something governments may be reluctant to encourage given how unequally social, cultural and economic goods are currently split. These are all critical functions which, for much of the twentieth century, adult education helped provide for many of those who were failed by the education system first time around. I think we need this more than ever. Children require an education which prepares them not only for the workplace but for civil society and democracy, which helps them become good parents, good neighbours and active citizens. And adults need spaces in which to access second chances and the resources they need to stay engaged – they need creativity and context as well as workplace training. I don’t say government should be paying for all of this but it has a role and responsibility which it shouldn’t be permitted to duck. To talk as though these things don’t matter or are not a crucial part of what makes us who and what we are is a kind of betrayal. To respond to the challenges we face as a society and as an economy we need to be smart, resilient, creative, open and engaged, as well as literate, numerate and job-ready. And, as the Warwick Commission argues, everyone has a right to a ‘rich cultural education and the opportunity to live a creative life’. Our failure to cultivate and support these capabilities, in our adults and young people, is a much more dangerous legacy to pass on to our children than the legacy of public debt.

Education in the age of austerity

The three main parties have begun to unveil their manifesto promises ahead of the general election in May and education has been centre stage. Last week the Prime Minister promised to protect the schools budget though, it turned out, only in cash terms. This means that, under a Conservative government, the budget will go up as pupil numbers increase, but per-pupil funding will, in real terms, fall as inflation and other demands on the schools budget increase. The Liberal Democrats were more generous (in the circumstances they can, perhaps, afford to be), undertaking to ‘guarantee education funding from nursery to 19’ and pledging to protect the schools budget in real terms. Nick Clegg promised to fight ‘tooth and nail’ for these commitments in any coalition negotiations. Then, yesterday, Labour leader Ed Miliband pledged to protect the Department for Education budget, also in real terms, maintaining investment in schools, sixth-forms and further education colleges (for 16 to 19 year olds) and protecting early-years provision, if Labour wins the general election.

The schools budget has, up until now, enjoyed real-terms protection, in line with undertakings made by Chancellor George Osborne in 2010. The loss of the ring-fence would leave schools in the unprotected territory so familiar to further education colleges, many of which have struggled to remain viable in the face of eye-watering cuts. Even if it is maintained in real terms, and increases in line with projected increases in pupil numbers, rising pension and National Insurance costs will take funds away from teaching and learning. Funding for 16 to 18 year olds in England has already been heavily cut, from £7.7 billion in 2009–10 to £7 billion in 2013–14, with a 17.5 per cent cut to the funding rate for 18 years olds from last September (while schools funding has been protected, the overall DfE budget fell by 7.5 per cent between 2010–11 and 2014–15). Stability in funding for this age group is expected this year but there could be more pressure on this budget and it will be interesting to see if Conservative plans for cash-terms protection for schools extend to 16–19s.

Funding stability for schools is to be welcomed. But in the prevailing policy climate there is bound to be a cost. Ring-fencing areas of public spending has a huge effect on the areas outside the ring-fence, as further education has discovered over the past five years. The overall Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) budget was reduced by a quarter between 2010–11 and 2014–15, with a further six per cent cut imposed this year. Ewart Keep has estimated that, on current projections, the overall reduction in the BIS budget between 2010 and 2018 will be 42.5 per cent. The bulk of the cuts so far have fallen in adult further education. The government’s February 2014 skills funding statement included a 19 per cent cut to the adult skills budget by 2015–16, which means an overall fall in adult skills funding from £2.8 million in 2010–2011 to £2 billion in 2015–16. Professor Keep suggests that ‘cumulative cuts of 60 per cent or more in funding for adult skills do not seem an unrealistic expectation’. The continued privileging of certain parts of the education budget could mean even bigger cuts in a sector with which few politicians or civil servants are even remotely familiar (as the current skills minister admitted shortly after his appointment). This poor level of recognition combines with further education’s unprotected status to make the sector a relatively easy target for cuts.

Further massive reductions in spending on post-19 further education and skills are all but certain. Perhaps that is why adults did not feature noticeably in the education announcements of any of the major parties. Few would disagree with Ed Miliband’s statement that the emergence of a new, stronger and more resilient economy depends on investment in ‘the talents and education of all our young people’. But it surely does not depend only on the education of young people. The fact that 70 per cent of the 2020 workforce is already in employment – while half of the current workforce is not qualified beyond Level 2 – demonstrates just how important adult education is in meeting the needs of an economy in which higher-level skills are becoming increasingly important. Of course, it is right to put the needs of children and young people first. Getting things right at school pays dividends in every area of national life and is, without doubt, the smartest investment any government can make (provided it gets it right). But, for various reasons, some more entrenched than others, it does not work for everybody – far from it – and we simply cannot afford to write off those who do not succeed first time around. Of course, we should maintain schools investment, but we need to invest strongly and intelligently in the skills and education of adults as well.

Unhappily, it seems, increasingly, that we unable or unwilling to do both. Whichever party holds the balance of power come May, austerity will continue, with spending reductions biting ever deeper into an already beleaguered sector. All the main parties support ‘cutting the deficit’ and ‘balancing the books’ – they differ only as to timescale. There is little challenge to this consensus, notwithstanding the devastation austerity politics is causing in parts of the public sector. Since 2012 the pace of deficit reduction has slowed and the government has allowed its targets to recede somewhat. The economy has begun to grow and employment is rising (though tax receipts have not followed suit – a reflection on the sort of low-pay, low-status jobs the economy is creating). But, as the Institute for Fiscal Studies warned in the wake of the Chancellor’s autumn statement, the pace of austerity will soon again quicken, with ‘colossal’ cuts to come in the next parliament. Although £35 billion of cuts have been made thus far, £55 billion more are still to come. The Treasury has scheduled an average 17 per cent real-terms reduction in spending across government departments between 2015 and 2019 – and with schools and health protected that will mean much bigger cuts in other areas. As the Office for Budget Responsibility noted, public spending as a percentage of GDP will fall to 35.2 per cent by 2019–20, its lowest level since the 1930s, with a further one million public sector jobs set to go as a result. Those who remain in public sector employment will face continuing pay restraint at least until Treasury books are balanced.

Difficult choices are inevitable, particularly for colleges which will have to make yet more stark choices as to which areas of provision they retain and which they let go (with obvious implications for their own sense of mission which seems likely to further narrow). BIS will have to cut funding steams it has previously fought to protect (the modest but important community learning budget so far protected in cash terms will come under even greater pressure). But there will also be increased pressure on schools to achieve more with less (political expectations rarely diminish in line with resources), while pay restraint and the pressures of accountability (reflected in teacher responses to the DfE’s workload challenge) will continue to press heavily on teacher morale. There is, however, something to welcome in the recognition that falling levels of investment in education won’t deliver economic success, and in some of the more specific commitments made by the main parties, particularly, for me, Ed Miliband’s espousal of a broad and balanced curriculum offering creativity and an equal focus on academic and vocational skills (though the challenges here are enormous – and the opposition to meaningful reform likely to be intense, as Mike Tomlinson discovered when he recommended replacing A-levels with an overarching diploma for both academic and vocational subjects). However, as Nick Clegg will no doubt confirm, manifesto pledges are not written in stone – however hard we promise to fight for them – and delivery will depend, in part, on whether the election delivers a majority, a coalition or a minority government. The unpredictability of contemporary politics makes it less likely than ever that you will get what you vote for. And the seeming inevitability of further deep and damaging cuts means it is also less likely than ever that you will really know what you are voting for. As long as the narrative of austerity – that reducing the deficit must be our number one priority (rather than a means to a more ideological goal) – prevails, we can expect more of the same, and worse, with a continuing reduction in state-funded adult learning. In an important sense, the big decisions are already made. We just await the detail. The march of austerity continues to strip our public discourse of its important civic and moral dimensions, narrowing not only the options for public policy but the space in which alternative ideas can be debated and developed. What remains is not pretty.