Tag Archives: democracy

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.

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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.

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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.

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Learning, talking, thinking, dreaming: Some thoughts on International Democracy Day

Whatever the result of Thursday’s vote on Scottish independence, the referendum has given rise to a notable resurgence in grassroots democratic activism north of the border, with a corresponding increase both in people’s intentions to vote and in the blustering resistance of those in power who see increased democratic engagement as a threat. For once, people have a sense that what they think matters.

What could have been a dry, cynical and negative campaign – and, indeed, started out that way – has been transformed by a combination of community engagement, education, social media and the bullish refusal of Scottish voters to be cowed by the intimidation of parts of the establishment – all that and a very evident passion for democracy and political debate. The result of all this is that the people of Scotland have had the debate they wanted, not the one most mainstream politicians and the media wanted them to have.

I went up to Edinburgh a year ago to hear from some of the projects adult educators had set up in response to the referendum. Frustration at the quality and integrity of debate and the prevalence of negative campaigning was obvious. It was also clear that the debate the adult students I met wanted to have was not one primarily about economics – though everyone agreed that mattered – but one about identity. They wanted to know more – the lines of partiality driving the campaigning meant reliable information was in short supply – and they also wanted spaces in which to think about the kind of Scotland they wanted. Adult educators, through projects like the Workers’ Educational Association’s Talk Scotland programme, and the Edinburgh Active Citizenship Group’s series of public seminars, have been at the forefront of creating such spaces – filling a real gap and making a real difference to the quality and purpose of what has been, by and large, a remarkably civilized debate.

Time will tell whether this results in a real, long-term democratic shift in Scotland, with greater, wider political engagement from all sections of society and more power in the hands of citizens rather than elected politicians and the unelected moguls, corporations and markets whose influence comes at the expense of ordinary people. Whatever the outcome, it is to be hoped that the grassroots debate and argument the referendum has unleashed continues, and spreads to other parts of the UK. However, if that is to happen, I think we need two things: more political education and more spaces in which to discuss things that matter to people. Adult education is key to both. But we need to think about adult education as being about more than preparing people for work – and find ways to realise its contribution to wider democracy in creating spaces in which people can learn, talk, think and dream.

Many adult educators across the UK still see themselves as working within this social-purpose tradition, but most will acknowledge too that they are swimming against the tide. Social purpose adult education – which has its roots in the (middle-class) idea that working-class people need opportunities to engage fully in culture and democracy – has been in decline for decades, replaced by a crude but utterly pervasive kind of economic utilitarianism, which makes it difficult for us even to talk about the things we think are most valuable about what we do. Increasingly, the fruits of a liberal education – among them, an appreciation of the arts and culture, an understanding of science, history and politics and an ability to think critically and question norms – are the preserve of the privileged few. For the vast majority of everybody else, education, at its heart, means not much more than preparation for work. Adult education’s role is to correct the failings of the school system, to support people in acquiring new skills for work or to help them update old ones.

This is all hugely important, of course, and, for many, this sort of intervention can be transformational. I don’t mean to disparage it. But if we are serious about developing a genuinely democratic society, we need adult education to be about more than vocational training and basic skills. We need more than employability skills to turn around foundering lives and failing communities. We need imagination, creativity, bravery, resilience, mental toughness, as well as a range of practical skills about engaging with the democratic process, starting up businesses, building up networks, and so on. There is more to empowerment than giving people the skills and know-how to get a job.

The Scottish independence debate has shown, among other things, that people are not necessarily disengaged from politics – at least, not as long as they feel that what they think, and the things they want to talk about, matter. As any adult educator will tell you, with the right sort of opportunity and encouragement, people will set their own agendas. Yet one result of our highly stratified education system is a democratic deficit, in which the vast majority of people feel politically disengaged, powerless to effect change. Party politics is peopled by ‘experts’ who, in such a vacuum, are able to make policy without democratic mandate, justified by empty rhetoric and half-truths. This is some way from the kind of democracy for which adult educators sought to prepare the first waves of Labour MPs, many of whom were former students of the WEA. Genuine democracy is dependent on continuing, lifelong education – the sort that opens up possibility rather than closing it down. It’s all well and good knowing the right answers, but we need to be able to question too.

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‘The challenge is to get across without selling out’

I interviewed Richard Hoggart, who has died aged 95, in 2005. I’d read The Uses of Literacy at university and several other of his books since and hugely admired the man and his writing. I was a bit in awe of him, but he was welcoming, generous and kind; everything, in short, we hope our heroes will be. We talked in the main about broadcasting and democracy, but he also told me about his passion for adult education and his belief in the transformative power of  culture, all in that familiar voice: honest, straightforward and eloquent, all underpinned by a fierce sense of social justice.  Here’s the interview in full 

The British system of broadcasting is among the country’s outstanding achievements. But the notion of public service broadcasting is under threat and the new Communications Act, which opens up parts of the British broadcasting network to foreign ownership, is likely to do further damage, Richard Hoggart tells Paul Stanistreet

‘Triviality is worse for the soul than wickedness’, said R.H. Tawney. It is an axiom Richard Hoggart is fond of quoting and an apt one, he believes, for policymakers and programmers reviewing the condition of British broadcasting in the light of the new Communications Act. In the 40 years since the Pilkington Committee – on which Hoggart served – published its landmark report criticising the funding of commercial television and defending a public service broadcasting philosophy, the slippage from the outstanding early achievements of British broadcasting has been dramatic. People can no longer expect to be led ‘beyond familiar boundaries’ by the television they watch. Instead, Hoggart says, they get a regular diet of celebrity trivia and ‘reality’ TV, with the occasional sop – such as BBC4 – to satisfy those who still fondly recall all three verbs of the BBC’s founding remit. With the Communications Act opening the door to foreign ownership of parts of the British broadcasting system, there is no sign that the tide is about to turn.

The Pilkington Committee report – sections of which were drafted by Hoggart – was published in 1962, at a time when commercial television was widely perceived to be ignoring public service provision and pushing less audience-grabbing programmes to the margins. Its key recommendation – the separation of programming and advertising functions – was rejected by the Conservative government of the day. Since then, Hoggart argues, successive governments have failed to grasp the nettle in respect of declining broadcasting standards. Although he had the satisfaction of seeing Channel 4 established along lines set out in the Pilkington Committee’s report, Hoggart believes Lord Reith’s simple injunction – to inform, educate and entertain – has been too often ignored, with both Channel 4 and the BBC among the culpable. The ‘most effective public service broadcasting system to be found anywhere’ may be in terminal decline.

I met Richard Hoggart at his home in Norwich. Now in his 80s, he continues to press his often-unfashionable views, unfazed by the strength of the tide against him. Since marking the change from an urban culture ‘of the people’ towards ‘the creation of a mass culture’, in his 1957 book The Uses of Literacy, Hoggart has been critical of much in the changing cultural climate, urging the cultivation of ‘critical literacy’ as an essential tool of citizenship within commercial, democratic society. The likely cultivators – adult educators – face a ‘bigger and deeper’ task than did Hoggart and the other members of the extraordinary post-war generation of university adult educators to which he belonged, since, increasingly, he says, we do not know what we are missing, ‘what it is possible for us to have’. Yet without critical literacy, Hoggart thinks, we will prove easy prey to those, such as Rupert Murdoch, who are eager to exploit democracy’s ‘essential wide-open spaces’.

Critics of the Communications Act, which received royal assent in July, believe that the ‘public interest’ hurdle to the purchase of Channel Five – fought for in the Lords by David Puttnam – is unlikely to prove much of a deterrent either to Murdoch or to prospective buyers in the United States. Puttnam’s amendment (the so-called ‘plurality test’) means that the DTI can order Ofcom to report the implications of any purchase of Five which raises ‘a specified public interest concern in relation to plurality’. However, the main thrust of the Communications Bill and its key tenets – to drop the ban on national newspaper groups buying television stations and to permit the foreign ownership of British broadcasting franchises – remain. It is the latter prospect that most troubles Hoggart. The international purchase of elements of the system can, he believes, only add to the already well-advanced demolition of the public service tradition in British broadcasting.

‘Everyone knows that the bids would come from America or they would come from Murdoch,’ he says. ‘They know that he has probably got an eye on it. And if Murdoch or some Murdoch-supported body took over Channel Five, you would see at once that it would go dead centre for the mass market’. Prospective purchasers will be motivated, he says, not by an admiration for our broadcasting achievements, but by the money they stand to make, seeking ever-bigger audiences to attract the advertisers who fill their coffers. Such purchasers are unlikely to be put off by inhibitive legislation and Hoggart is unimpressed by those who point to much-acclaimed American programmes such as The Sopranos. Such programmes reflect only a tiny proportion of U.S. broadcasting output. ‘An early chairman of the Federal Communications Commission said that American broadcasting was one “vast wasteland”. Advertising is taking up more and more time. It is also getting to define the terms. For example, news content is now being determined more and more by what the advertisers want. They don’t say, what is the big item of the day, is it something on Biafra or our environmental record? It is what will not worry people and what will amuse them.’

Of the three ways in which we might have organised broadcasting in this country – as an arm of government, of advertisers or as a separate, independent body – we, Hoggart says, ‘chose the free way’. ‘The British opted for a system that is not government owned or controlled, that does not take advertising. And that’s where the trickiness comes into it. Who is going to pay for it and how are they going to pay for it? We introduced the licence fee, called by some MPs “a regressive poll tax”. What they mean is that it is like having to buy a dog licence when you haven’t got a dog, that it falls on everyone whether they listen or view, or don’t. The real test is whether a tax of that kind is the best way of doing what you are trying to do. The only other way people have suggested is subscription, by which you only pay for what you view or listen to. That looks attractive. It looks democratic. But it cuts off people from all sorts of information, education, entertainment, which might take them by surprise and widen their horizons. It might, in many respects, produce quite good programmes, but it won’t have that universal sweep that broadcasting, as a regressive poll tax, has.

‘I’m constantly impressed by the simplicity of the original aims of the BBC. Think about the founding verbs – the aim of broadcasting, as laid down, was to inform, educate and entertain. You don’t need to say much else. There’s no pompous language and abstract verbs in it, about what you owe to the people and all that. It just says inform, educate and entertain. You’ve covered it. The setting up of the BBC, under the royal charter, was deliberate. It was to give them more freedom. A body which has the royal charter does not have to report to parliament. Mind you, you might think that many MPs don’t know that. Oddly enough, the BBC is now, under a Labour government, being more attacked than anyone expected. But most MPs don’t understand what the record is and how dangerous it would be to tamper with it. The BBC in its first decades under Lord Reith, with all its limitations, stood for something that mattered, in society and in broadcasting. It wasn’t a creature of any government or any advertiser. By the time of the Second World War, it was giving warnings, and it was standing as a free voice. Throughout the War it was listened to clandestinely across Europe as the voice of freedom. These things didn’t happen by accident.’

Much of what the BBC has traditionally done well in programming terms, such as original drama and intelligent comedy, programmes ‘educative without being labelled education’, doesn’t fit with the grabbing of mass audiences, Hoggart says. The rot really set in during the Thatcher years. ‘One of the many things for which Mrs Thatcher will be judged someday, I expect, if only by her biographers, is her communications bill,’ he says. ‘What she did was to undermine the BBC. She opened the gates to commercial television and she ensured that they would move away from representing a great range of opinion, instead going for what would bring them the most money through adverts. Before that it was required that a range of programmes in arts and education be provided for, even if you were a commercial channel. Mrs Thatcher removed that at a blow

‘That set off the process that the BBC has been under ever since. She talked about making them free and all sorts, but that was nonsense, unless she meant it was making them free to make more money out of broadcasting, which it did. And the BBC had to challenge it, because the moment they ceased to challenge it, in that way, the organs of opinion on the side of the Tories would say what’s the good of the licence, why should we have the licence. So they had to copy it and they are doing it rather too successfully, for me. If you look at the kind of programmes which, by any intelligent count, are rubbish now, as many of them are from the BBC as are not. An organisation gets the staff it needs for the job it has in hand and the BBC has got a new job. It’s saving itself. So you get people in the BBC now who wouldn’t even know the original axiom, “inform, educate and entertain”. All they know is that they are in pop, or whatever it might be, and they are going to beat the competition. That’s what they are hired for.’

There are, however, things which the BBC could do to ‘stop the leak’, which would not involve enormous change. One would be to halt the drift towards the trivial in news broadcasting. ‘If a big national broadcasting organisation with international repute starts the news by saying footballer so-and-so has left his wife, and then says, in Yugoslavia just now 100,000 people were murdered, you wonder what has gone wrong. This is trivialising in the extreme. I think they have got to put their foot down on this. They could stop the stream of vapid situation comedies. What you need to do is get a bunch of people together, give them good conditions and say to them, don’t give twopence about the audience, what you ask is “is this funny?”. The BBC could do that tomorrow. It could gather a group of people together and say consider the medium, not the audience or the competition. You have to pull the eye away from the audience, towards the meaningfulness of the programme, especially if you’re doing comedy.’

The Pilkington report – ‘the finest statement on broadcasting we ever had’ – provided a basis for protecting public service broadcasting in a commercial context, later taken up by Channel 4. ‘If you are going to get money through advertising and not through a licence fee, then the advertisement revenue gathering function must be separated entirely from the programmes. No programmes should be affected by the fact that it might have an impact on advertising revenue. Jeremy Isaacs knew what he was after. He had a very wide range of interests and he disliked tosh.’ But, for Hoggart, Channel 4 has ‘lost its way’. ‘What they’re doing now is putting on some quite good, interesting programmes, which appeal to a minority, and then they are putting out some that should never be shown. They think that if they have got the ones that please the “high-brow” minority, then they’ve fulfilled their brief and they can then get away with whatever rubbish they like, say, Big Brother, or whatever it may be. That is an absolutely classic state of ignorance. When we are arguing about better quality TV, we’re not just saying, we want something because we are high brows. We want everyone to have good programmes. This is what Channel 4 has stepped right into. We put some things on that even Jeremy Isaacs would have approved of, but, at the same time, we’ll get the bigger audiences from trivia. That is the cardinal mistake now. And the BBC is just as bad. If you go and talk to them, they’ll say we’ve got this and this, and they have and they are all good in their way, but you’ve also got this, this and this, which are just rubbish. They won’t face that one.

What is missing, according to Hoggart, is the sort of radical thinking, about education and culture, which is no longer fashionable. ‘They are too much caught up in the world as it is. The idea of really radical reform on a cultural matter that might affect some people’s taste and make them angry is a long way away from their thinking.’ When Hoggart started out as an adult educator, with the likes of John Harrison, Edward Thompson and Raymond Williams, ‘it was about things that mattered to you as a human being, as a citizen, not as a subject, but as a citizen. That has gone very slowly, but firmly, downwards. Classes about things that matter to the citizen, politics, economics, social matters, have been marginalised for 20, 30 years. There’s more to it, of course, than this. The great thrust of our consumer society is to the total persuasion, every day, that all you need to do is buy and enjoy yourself and watch the telly. It’s an undermining of the free civic spirit. In the nineteenth century, it’s astonishing what workers’ bodies said and did. It was desperately serious. It wasn’t just that they wanted a better franchise. When Byron died, people felt bereft and I’m talking about the man in the street. It’s not just a matter of education, it’s a matter of the whole spirit of the age.

‘We believed we had a purpose and it was a social and imaginative purpose, in relation to the students and what they would get out of it. I coined a phrase which Roy Shaw [one-time WEA literature tutor and Director of the Extra-Mural Department at Keele University] liked a lot: “the point of adult education classes, the challenge, is to get across without selling out”. There was a temptation to reduce the demands of the class, whether through the choice of authors you studied, or whatever. I would persuade them to try Shakespeare and I would do King Lear. They paid real serious attention to it. The classes got slower and slower. You didn’t do Jane Austen one week and George Eliot the next. You did King Lear and it slowed up because you were going through all the marvellous implications of it.

‘That still has left a shadow, a sort of beam on us, because we were the first post-war group and we were doing something we believed in, something that was not vocational. It’s not for me to say how far that spirit is still alive. From an institutional point of view, there is more pressure to follow the vocational line. The pressures are different. They are the pressures of a commodity society, a society that has lost its purpose. Some people really do want civic society, but we are fighting against all these other voices. In a society like this, to bring people to the point of education only at which they can swallow all the guff is not education properly. We have to have critical literacy. There is a good tradition of bloody-mindedness in working class life. We have to build on it. We have got to open up the imagination and you do not do that by going for the mass market. The system of broadcasting in this country is one of the best things we have done for a long time. We should leave broadcasters free to inform, educate and entertain, neutrally, objectively. Anything that reduces that is wrong.’

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Spaces to think, question and create – we need them more than ever

We are witnessing an assault on the humanities, nationally and globally, to the extent that many academics now feel it necessary to ‘defend’ the humanities – something that would have astonished any previous generation of scholars – and to warn of a growing crisis which could threaten their very existence.

In Australia it seems likely that A$100 million funding for the humanities and the social sciences will be ‘reprioritised’ to where it is ‘really needed’, principally in medical research. The language of the debate there may be tonally different, but it plainly echoes the UK government’s emphasis on science and research and in particular on so-called STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), and its treatment of other disciplines as nice-to-have but not essential.

In the UK we have seen the beginnings of a debate about the value of the humanities, but it is, in the main, a depressingly narrow debate, focused on their contribution to employability and the economy. The culture secretary, Maria Miller, has argued – ‘claimed’ might be a better word as (as is so often the case with the austerity rhetoric of the coalition) there is no real argument, only an unsupported assertion of necessity – that ‘in an age of austerity, when times are tough and money is tight, our focus must be on culture’s economic impact.’

Of course, it is much easier to defend investment in medical research, for example, than it is to defend investment in the humanities. The benefits of medical research are clear, measurable and comparatively well-understood. The case for the humanities is more difficult to set out, particularly against the backdrop of a policy and media environment which is stubbornly resistant to abstract or difficult thought or to any opinion which overtly challenges conventional thinking. No doubt the decision of the UK government to withdraw the university teaching grant for the humanities was made, in part, because it was a cut that would be hard to argue against, given the way debate is constrained.

We need to remind ourselves that not everything that is valuable is valuable in terms that can be expressed on an abacus. Much of what is most valuable in our lives is valuable for reasons which are not particularly easy to understand, that involve reflection, thoughtful articulation and learning. But that is no reason to dismiss or overlook them.

It is not only economic considerations that guide our choices, even in times when money is tight. In fact, when times are tough it becomes even more important to look beyond the economic concerns which regulate much of our everyday behavior, to reach towards some vision of how things might be different and better. A broad, general education and an understanding of the humanities and social sciences become all the more important.

I was in Edinburgh recently to meet a group of adult education students and activists interested in broadening and deepening the debate about Scottish independence in the run-up to next year’s referendum. The debate, as reflected in the mainstream media and the rhetoric of the two campaigns, was characterised as dull, sterile and negative, with the focus on the economy and projections, often negative, about what economic life in Scotland will be like in five or 10 years time.

No-one, of course, would deny that these things are important. But, beyond the mainstream, the debate is much wider, as was reflected in the discussion the students had. This touched on questions of value and social justice, history and literature, politics and political education, but was, above all, about culture and identity. As one student, Andrew Morrison put it, ‘Economics is important, but the issue is identity’. It is questions of culture and identity that are truly enlivening the debate, and which, I suspect, will be foremost in people’s minds when they walk into the polling places.

I was reminded of this conversation when I read James Kelman’s short column on Descartes in Saturday’s Guardian. Painting with a broad brush, Kelman traced ‘almost every literary tradition’ back to Descartes’ profound philosophical scepticism and, in particular, his emphasis on ‘the primacy of the individual perception’: ‘A sceptical voice, the child questioning the adult, the artist challenging convention, the individual challenging authority; casting doubt on infallibility and the imposition of authoritarian control.’

Five centuries later, philosophical scepticism and our insistence on the primacy of individual experience remain strongly linked with our reasons for valuing the humanities. Crucially, the humanities teach us to think – for ourselves – in creative and critical ways, to argue and to respect the arguments of others, and, most of all, to question. It also helps us to develop new visions of what the future might be, to challenge conventions and to think about how things might be different.

These are critical resources, particularly in times when the outlook is bleak and people are unsure of how to move forward or to change things they see as plainly wrong. While no-one (again) would question the huge value of medical research, we, as a society, also need to be able to reflect on the legitimate limits and use of medical research, to consider the conventions and how we might change or improve them, to maximise the benefits for humanity, with in a set of agreed boundaries. The humanities help us to do this.

As Richard Taylor argued recently, we need a broad, cultural education, and not just for children and young people. Adult education for active and informed citizenship is an absolute condition of democracy. Adult education is closely linked to the democratic process. It gives people a safe, neutral space in which to gather and discuss issues of concern, to think critically about the world as received through the news media and to engage in an imaginative and open conversation about how things might be. Given the pressing challenges we face as a society – from wealth inequality to climate change to the democratic deficit – this is more necessary than ever. It is much more than a nice-to-have. We need more spaces to think and more awkward customers. Adult education produces both.

Of course, education itself is not exempt from this kind of critical questioning. The cuts to higher education funding have resulted in heightened questioning of the value of higher education, what it is for and what its wider civic and community obligations are – and I think this is welcome. For too long, parts of the academy have been far too remote from communities, from ordinary people – and have been far too happy to remain so. This has begun to change. There is no room for complacency. Academics in the humanities and social sciences must do more to demonstrate the wider value of their work – not through soundbites and with abacuses, but by slow and careful engagement with people and communities. You can’t really be told about the value of the humanities. You have to experience it.

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Why social history matters

The past, writes poet Michael Donaghy, ‘falls open anywhere’, and it’s important that, when it does, we recognise and understand it. History is important not only to our sense of who we are but also to our capacity to engage actively and intelligently as citizens in democratic society. History and political literacy are intimately linked, which is why we ought to treat sceptically any politician’s attempt to reframe the way history is taught.

The ‘great men’ model which, until relatively recently, dominated the way in which history was taught in UK schools – and which education secretary Michael Gove is, by all accounts, keen to revive – failed most of us because it did not give us an adequate understanding the forces and events that have shaped the communities in which most of us live. When I left school aged 16, I knew a lot about the Second World War, a little about the British Empire and the Industrial Revolution, and a few key dates regarding kings and queens and the battles waged on their behalf, but I knew next to nothing about the English Civil War and the extraordinary debates and ideas that ran through it, or about the impact of the Acts of Enclosure, the slave trade, the Suffragette movement or the Peasants’ Revolt. I knew still less about the events and actions, the tensions and struggles, that shaped the town I grew up in.

The fact that our perception of the past changes and is contested makes it all the more important that we are able to make informed judgments about it and defend, if only to ourselves, our own sense of who we are against those who would deny, dismiss or marginalise it. History and, in particular, social history – history that acknowledges the experiences of ‘ordinary’ people and their ways of recording and transmitting them – is a critical part of active citizenship in a democratic society. Growing up in poor or marginalised communities – communities which are, for the most part, off the radar of the mainstream media and whose stories are rarely told, and are, in some cases, in danger of being forgotten – it can be difficult to develop a sense of pride in where you come from and who you are, still less the sense of agency and possibility necessary to make the most of one’s talents and aptitudes and change things for the better.

This was brought home to me really powerfully when I visited a social history project in Edinburgh a few weeks before Christmas (I wrote about it in more depth in a previous post). The members of the Edinburgh Social History Group I spoke to all expressed dissatisfaction with the way in which they were taught history at school. Their sense of having been short-changed grew stronger the more they discovered about the ‘real’ history of their country – from the Porteous riots to Red Clydeside, the stuff that didn’t make it onto the curriculum – and the history of their own community, which, over decades, had waged a series of creative and determined campaigns for better housing and community conditions and better local services. Their response was to develop a project which would provide a lasting record of their community’s campaigning history while reinvigorating, they hoped, the spirit of community activism, particularly among young people. One of the group’s founders, Anna Hutchison, explained:

We encourage them to be proud of where they come from. It’s not all bad. It’s changing slowly. We’ve got a lot more people involved in campaigns and activism now, and that’s through local people going into their schools, into youth clubs, and telling them how it’s done.

The Workers’ Educational Association in Scotland, which supported the group’s social history project, has really grasped the nettle on this, developing a number of similar schemes giving students a chance to draw on the ‘real, lived experience’ of their communities. The flexibility in Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence means the resources produced by these projects are now finding their ways into schools, giving young people a chance to gain a real understanding of where they come from and what forces shaped the neighbourhoods in which they live. Seeing for myself how much more meaningful history taught in this way can be, and the difference it can make to people’s sense of agency, I feel uneasy when I read of plans to remove ‘social reformers’ such as Mary Seacole, Florence Nightingale, William Wilberforce and Olaudah Equiano from the national curriculum in England in favour of the likes of Oliver Cromwell, Lord Nelson and Winston Churchill. You have to wonder what sort of historical role models will be available to girls or to children from black or minority ethnic backgrounds, in particular, under this reformed curriculum – and what impact this is likely to have on social mobility.

Social history is an important component of an education capable of producing the sort of citizens who can revive and sustain our democracy. We need to be able to think critically about our traditions (I mean all our traditions) and to understand that historical interpretation is contested. History, understood in this way, can provide a good grounding in political literacy, helping us develop the skills we need to critically deliberate, and to examine and see through the simplistic rhetoric of politicians, much of which is intended to obscure and mislead (‘the mess we inherited from the last government’, to take a currently near ubiquitous phrase as an example, masks a host of ambiguities and distortions). Just as importantly, social history can give us a sense of ourselves as stakeholders in an ongoing narrative, with as much of a right to a say and as much of a chance of making a difference as anyone else. It can also remind us that other perspectives matter, help us see the world from other people’s points of view, and give us a better sense of our connections to others (all common outcomes, incidentally, of much adult education). The unpleasant and divisive language used by politicians of all parties to vilify and stigmatise the poorest (and least able to answer back) in society suggests that the development of this important imaginative capacity is urgently required.

We badly need a history fit for purpose in twenty-first century democracy, poorly served as it is (in general) both by its politicians and its mainstream media. And we need a history that is inclusive and representative; that tells the stories of all of us, not just a privileged minority; and that gives us a sense of the possibilities concealed in the official narrative of British history (history like political debate is artificially constructed and it’s useful to understand what is being excluded and why). Learning to think historically and to see ourselves as responsible, democratic citizens with a stake in society and a role to play, are crucial skills for active democracy. They are also skills that need to be cultivated across a lifetime. Political education is a lifelong necessity. Understandings change and it’s important that adults can find spaces in which to learn about, debate and, if necessary, challenge these new understandings. Projects like the North Edinburgh Social History Group show just what can be achieved and how transformative this sort of approach can be for adults and, indeed, for whole communities, providing a vital intellectual foothold in a society – a world – that is changing frighteningly fast. If we lose our sense of who we are and where we have come from, we are unlikely to have much of a sense of where we are going.

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