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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Locked into poverty: Britain’s political choice

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights has been in Britain. He described a country in which ‘areas of immense wealth’ exist uncomfortably alongside areas of acute deprivation, characterized by cash-strapped and overstretched public services, rough sleepers and food banks, where millions of children are ‘locked into a cycle of poverty from which most will have great difficulty escaping’. His report pulled few punches. A fifth of the British population – 14 million people – live in poverty, with 1.5 million destitute, unable to afford basic essentials. By 2022, child poverty rates are projected to be as high as 40 per cent. ‘For almost one in every two children to be poor in twenty-first century Britain is not just a disgrace,’ he wrote, ‘but a social calamity and an economic disaster, all rolled into one’. Worst of all, and most importantly, he pointed out that all of this was a political choice, the result of ‘mean-spirited, often callous policies’ about which the British government remains ‘determinedly in a state of denial’.

The reality described by Philip Alston will, I suspect, be familiar to most people living in Britain. Food banks are now commonplace, as are families who rely on them. The Trussell Trust, Britain’s biggest food bank network, handed out 1.2 million food parcels to families and individuals in need in 2016-17. The Independent Food Aid Network estimates that there are more that 2,000 food banks in operation around the UK. Homelessness has also increased significantly since 2010, according to the National Audit Office (NAO), with a 60 per cent rise in the number of homeless families (including 120,540 children), driven, the NAO said, by government welfare reforms. The shocking rise in the number of rough sleepers is evident in every town and city in the country. Work is no longer a sure-fire route out of poverty. Some 60 per cent of people in poverty in Britain are in working families, often struggling with debt and poor housing, sometimes doing multiple jobs to make ends meet. It is a similar story for many of those living just above the poverty line, juggling low-paid, low-quality and insecure work, combining long hours with demanding family commitments and living in impoverished neighbourhoods where hope is in short supply. All of this – the poverty, the job insecurity, the homelessness, the stress and hardship of low-paid work, and, perhaps most of all, the absence of hope of things getting any better – are feeding Britain’s growing mental health crisis, not to mention the slow-down in life expectancy the UK is experiencing. These are all signs of a society in crisis.

Professor Alston’s analysis of the causes of this crisis are similarly hard-hitting. ‘Austerity’, he argues, has been driven not by a commitment to economic reform (the ‘living within our means’ mantra) but rather ‘a commitment to achieving radical social re-engineering’, a ‘revolutionary change in both the system for delivering minimum levels of fairness and social justice to the British people, and especially in the values underpinning it’. ‘Key elements of the post-war Beveridge social contract are being overturned,’ he continues. ‘In the process, some good outcomes have certainly been achieved, but great misery has also been inflicted unnecessarily, especially on the working poor, on single mothers struggling against mighty odds, on people with disabilities who are already marginalized, and on millions of children who are being locked into a cycle of poverty’. Local authorities, especially in England, ‘have been gutted by a series of government policies’, effectively halving their funding and preventing them from playing their vital role as a ‘social safety net’. Libraries, meanwhile, ‘have closed in record numbers, community and youth centers have been shrunk and underfunded, public spaces and buildings including parks and recreation centers have been sold off.’ The costs of austerity have fallen disproportionately on the poor, women, ethnic minorities, children, single parents, and people with disabilities, the same groups likely to be hit hardest by Brexit.

In his conversations with ministers, Professor Alston encountered a combination of ignorance, disbelief and indifference, a refusal to accept that in-work poverty exists and an unwillingness even to engage with the issues in a serious way. He will not, therefore, have been surprised by the reactions of the Prime Minister’s office, which said that Mrs May ‘strongly disagreed’ with the findings, or the Work and Pensions Secretary, Amber Rudd, who declared the report to be ‘political’ and couched in ‘inappropriate’ language. These reactions were predictable, perhaps inevitable from a government which has carefully spun a number of myths about itself, notably the myth that austerity has been unavoidable, a necessary measure justified by the need to save the country from bankruptcy in the wake of the previous (Labour) government’s overspending on schools, hospitals and social care. This narrative has a powerful hold on the public’s imagination in Britain, where a substantial proportion of the electorate believes that decent schools for all and a well-funded health service are unaffordable, despite the very obvious examples to the contrary offered by neighbouring northern European countries. Professor Alston challenges this narrative, arguing that the reforms were neither necessary nor, in purely economic terms, effective. While billions have been taken from the benefits system since 2010, they have been offset by the costs created elsewhere as underfunded hospitals, mental health centres, local authorities and police forces attempt to deal with the problems created. ‘Austerity could easily have spared the poor, if the political will had existed to do so,’ Professor Alston writes in the conclusion of his report. ‘Resources were available to the Treasury at the last budget that could have transformed the situation of millions of people living in poverty, but the political choice was made to fund tax cuts for the wealthy instead.’ Little wonder the government would rather attack the language and political nature of the report than deal with its substance.

The findings of the UN envoy represent a wake-up call and should prompt urgent action and a substantive change of direction from the government. Sadly, this seems unlikely from a government that is so in thrall to the fantasy narrative it has created that it is prepared to legislate against problems it knows do not exist, while allowing real problems such as poverty, probably the biggest challenge we now face as a society, to fester, unchecked. Nevertheless, the report represents an opportunity to take stock of where we have come to and to consider whether we really want to continue along this road. It can be read as a sort of draft manifesto for positive change in Britain. Alongside the misery of child poverty, the calamity of homelessness and the personal tragedy of women forced to sell sex for money or shelter, Professor Alston also recognised ‘tremendous resilience, strength, and generosity, with neighbors supporting one another, councils seeking creative solutions, and charities stepping in to fill holes in government services’. These are all things on which we can build, but I fear it will be to little avail if we are unable to create a different political narrative for Britain, one in which voters are not blinded by a false choice between austerity and bankruptcy. This is hugely difficult in a country increasingly divided by class, political perspective and geography, but it is essential that we find ways of talking to one another across these divides, of developing a meaningful consensus based on shared values. We need to decide who we want to be.

Poverty and inequality make these conversations difficult. Part of the reason poverty is so little reported is that it is simply not a factor in the lives of most leading journalists, who are drawn increasingly from backgrounds of privilege. Unsurprisingly, millions of people in Britain now feel wholly unrepresented by the media, their voices unheard, their views – or a caricature of them – routinely attacked or ridiculed. They feel acutely the ‘disconnect’ Professor Alston refers to between their own lived experience and the rhetoric of government ministers. As economically and socially damaging as Brexit is likely to be, it may also be an opportunity to reassess. We surely do not want to go further down the line of cutting back on public services, welfare, workers’ rights and conditions, in order to fund further tax cuts for the wealthy. This option is on the table and is, as I write, a strong possibility, but it would be a disaster on an unprecedented scale, a bonfire of Beveridge and the welfare state and a shredding of the social contract that has been weakened by stealth by successive governments. We need to find ways to mend this fabric, restoring the role of local authorities in fostering community and connection, reversing the appalling loss of important public spaces such as libraries, community centres and adult education centres and creating opportunities for people to access education that is not narrowly about training for a job. We need to revive education for democracy, for public value, citizenship and a good society. The government has been fond of telling us it will not pass on the legacy of debt to future generations. Instead, it seems set to pass on something immeasurably worse, an impoverished and divided society, shorn of its values and compassion, in which privilege is hoarded and poverty is a life sentence. It is about choice. I hope Britain makes the right one.

Ways of making sense: Adult education and democracy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Politics, democracy and the NHS

In the early 1990s, my grandmother became seriously ill. She had a stroke; caused, it turned out, by a tumour in her brain. One morning she was taken by ambulance to a crowded NHS hospital in Liverpool. No beds were available. She was placed on a trolley in a corridor where she remained, untreated and undiagnosed, for the next eight hours. The tumour, we later discovered, was inoperable, and she died not long after, cared for by family and the excellent MacMillan Nurses.

This was what the NHS was like at the time. Chronically underfunded, under-resourced and terribly stretched, often past breaking point. Stories of people being left on trolleys for hours because of the shortage of beds were common. Nevertheless, things got better. Funding was increased, waiting times improved, and, within a decade, the service was unrecognisable to the one we encountered that day in Liverpool. Of course, the economy was doing well, but it is not always the case that when the economy improves so too do our public services. Most importantly, healthcare became a priority of public policy.

Of course, there remained occasional examples of truly appalling care, notably in Mid-Staffordshire, but these were very much exceptions. Yet while the crisis persisted, many commentators pointed to the NHS’s funding model: Yes, of course, we all love and value the NHS, they explained patiently, we all want it to remain as it is, free to all at the point of care with the same quality of care available no matter what your income, but it just isn’t affordable, I’m afraid. We have to change the funding model. Privately, politicians drew up plans for a private healthcare system in the UK.

Now, once again, the NHS is in crisis. As before, the background is cuts to funding and a lower than average (compared to comparable countries) spend on health and social care as a proportion of GDP. And, as before, the funding model is in question, with commentators pointedly wondering whether it is possible to have an adequately funded system in which access is unrestricted and the level of care universally good. Clearly, funding is a huge challenge. But before we throw away what is truly great about our healthcare system, we need to think hard about what we want it to be, who we want to be, as a society, and what our priorities really are. We should not just talk about the NHS as though it is a closed system, with a discrete funding stream on which decisions made elsewhere don’t impact. We need to think much bigger, taking into account issues such as poverty and wellbeing which place a strain on health services.

I do not want to say that the NHS is perfect or that it could not operate more efficiently and effectively. There are clearly things we could change, such as its focus on treatment rather than prevention. There are major cultural and educational issues too. And we need to be smarter when it comes to promoting active ageing, ensuring, in particular, that older people have opportunities to continue learning (a hugely important area which appears to have fallen out of fashion, even among its traditional advocates). But the NHS remains one of the most efficient health services in the world, despite its funding concerns, and the challenges it faces, principally demographic, while substantial, face every health service where populations are ageing. Furthermore, as the OECD has pointed out, ‘There is no health care system that performs systematically better in delivering cost-effective health care’. And general taxation remains an efficient way of raising funds, as the King’s Fund has pointed out.

Evidently, we will have to pay more in future but that is something most, I suspect, would be prepared to do. We should at least be aiming to match the EU average for health care spending. The argument that since other, different European healthcare systems are doing better in some respects, the NHS funding model doesn’t work, ignores the fact that these systems are better funded. There is, in other words, no prima facie case for abandoning the healthcare funding model we already have. The point I want to make is that, by all means, let us have a conversation but let us at least have an honest and open one in which all options are on the table.

The problem we face in the UK is that genuine choices, matters of our priorities as a society, are presented to the public as unavoidable outcomes of circumstances over which we have no real control. There just isn’t enough money to go around. Choices made by other countries, to better fund their health services or their education systems, are made to seem extreme, utterly unaffordable, the stuff of fantasy. Even the relatively modest proposals presented by the Labour Party in its last manifesto would ‘bankrupt the country’, we are told. Instead of the informed national conversation we so desperately need, we have a shouting match between those who supposedly think everything is affordable and those who think nothing is (or pretend to).

This is what I find so utterly discouraging about political debate in the UK. Not only do we lack a consensus as to the kind of society we want, or any meaningful sense of a social contract which might encompass all of us, we also have a media and political class which seem determined to prevent such a discussion taking place. When Jeremy Corbyn become leader of the Labour Party, promising a different, gentler style of politics, I hoped that he might be open to an inclusive debate within the party, to bring its different wings together – something that mirrored the kind of conversation we need to have as a country. Instead, the party now reflects its own divisions and those of the country more clearly than ever.

I don’t agree with those who believe that progressive policies can’t win at the ballot box. But I do think that meaningful, lasting change, needs inclusive politics that brings people out of their echo chambers and makes genuine debate possible. You cannot expect change to last if it is imposed on people who do not understand it and do not feel included in it. The British political landscape is a terribly divisive place right now, and there are far too few straws in the wind to make hope of change realistic. With Brexit looming ever closer, we are coming face to face with a reality which seems inevitable but which many people cannot bring themselves to accept, given the huge costs to the country it represents, and the damage it will do to people’s lives, particularly in places that are already struggling. The evidence on which people voted in the referendum is tainted, as are many of the people and organisations who campaigned on the leave side. Yet, even in these circumstances, there is hardly any mainstream political challenge to Brexit.

People feel unrepresented. In very many cases, they also feel desperate. Schools are struggling. The NHS is in crisis. Politics itself is in disarray. We are drifting into the future with no destination in mind and no map to guide us. Those who suggest we might pause a while to think about where we are going are pilloried in the press. How can we be dashing towards such radical change without any hint of a conversation about what kind of society we want to be? There is a gaping hole in the middle of British politics where just such a conversation should be taking place.

Politics is about choices. And democracy should mean we get to have a say about those choices. Any attempt to deny or limit those choices is, in effect, a subversion of democracy. There are many more options on the table than we are led to believe. We cannot have everything but we can have more and we can have different. We need to start being honest about who we are and what we want to be.

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.

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.