Tag Archives: further education

Towards a national strategy for lifelong learning

The Chancellor will shortly announce the details of his autumn budget. As usual, education advocacy groups will be watching closely to see if their part of the sector gets favourable mention.

Often, in education at least, good news in one part of the system is bought at the expense of another, less fortunate, part – usually FE or adult education. It’s a depressing indicator of the lack of coherence and system-wide thinking that has blighted education policy-making in England for years.

If I have one wish for this year’s budget it is that Mr Hammond will give us some indication that the government will move beyond this robbing-Peter-to-pay-Paul approach and demonstrate some understanding that the overall coherence and consistent, fair funding of the UK education system matter.

The budget will be viewed, quite rightly, as an opportunity for the government to consider realistically the challenges and opportunities Brexit presents and to set out, in broad brush strokes at least, how the it proposes to respond. The nature of these challenges and opportunities is such that the government really has no option but to put education at the heart of its plans for the future – that is if it is serious about making a success of Brexit for everyone and not just the folks at the top.

The problem for the Chancellor is that for some time now successive governments have been heading in the wrong direction, underfunding the education system as a whole, while slashing funding for less-protected areas to prevent schools and universities feeling the pinch too much. The result has been a system that is incoherent, unfair and increasingly underfunded.

Only the steady flow of imported talent from outside the UK, mostly from the EU, has kept our vital services supplied with the high-level skills they require to run effectively. Until the Brexit vote, I think people were generally fairly happy to let this state of affairs continue, quietly brushing under the carpet our Premier League style poaching of talent cultivated at great expense elsewhere. But, really, it’s not ok. If we had asked tougher questions earlier, perhaps we wouldn’t be in the mess we are in now.

No part of the sector has suffered more from the underfunding of education in the UK than further education, and no part of society has been more neglected by our education system than adult learners.

For years, further education has been kicked from pillar to post by politicians keen to make their mark but with, by and large, little grasp of how the system works or what is at stake for the learners who populate it. On the rare occasion that a minister or secretary of state who cares about and understands the sector is appointed, their best efforts serve only to steady the ship, not change its course, before the next tsunami of myopic and narrowly conceived reform hits, usually driven by a determination to reduce costs or introduce competition into the sector.

It would be hard to find anyone in or around the sector who thinks the government has got it broadly right when it comes to further education, but we carry on as though, with only a few adjustments, it could all be ok. The looming spectre of Brexit means we can no longer afford to do this. Frankly, we never could. The cost of our failure to invest properly in the talents of our homegrown population can be seen everywhere, in the blighted hopes and aspirations of the young people and adults who leave compulsory education labelled as failures by a system that selects on the basis of wealth not talent.

Nowhere is the government’s failure to invest adequately more evident than in adult education. The latest government data show steep declines in the numbers of adults learning basic skills (six per cent in 2016-17 alone) and in the numbers participating in community learning, a critical means of engaging reluctant learners and empowering individuals and communities who have been left behind. It is often left to the providers of community learning to step in and pick up the pieces for those who leave the school system utterly alienated from education. For adults afraid of entering a classroom, whose educational experience has taught them to value themselves less not more, such providers offer critical, safe entry points, often leading to work or into further learning. This means that cuts in this type of provision are likely to have direct consequences for participation in other types of learning, as well as in the economy.

With an ageing population that scores low in international literacy and numeracy league tables, a long history of poor productivity hinging very largely on our tendency to neglect the educational needs of the majority of our people, and an overreliance on imported workers at both ends of the skills chain, recent cuts to adult and further education funding are, to put it mildly, counter intuitive.

These cuts have been both savage and unnecessary. In one year alone the adult education budget was cut by a quarter – and that on top of deep cuts inflicted in the preceding years. At the same time, part-time higher study has collapsed utterly, squeezing adults out of HE at a moment in history when the need for adults to reskill and move careers has never been more acute. As the OU’s Peter Horrocks pointed out last week, there has been a 56 per cent drop since tuition fees were trebled.

University lifelong learning, for so long a driver of progressive change in the system, has also been considered a price worth paying for a system which pulls off the neat trick of being both costlier to the tax payer and dizzyingly expensive for students with spiralling debts. In terms of costs to students, the English education system is now pretty much an outlier. And our eye-wateringly expensive system increasingly offers two kinds of education: a traditional liberal arts education for the mostly already privileged student at elite institutions; a vocationally flavoured higher education experience for the rest. In England, what you get for your tuition fees is determined not so much by what you pay as by what you can afford.

While increased investment is urgently needed across the board, it is important too that money is spent intelligently and coherently. This means ensuring that the expansion in apprenticeships is complemented by training which ensures people are ready to take on an apprenticeship as well as well-funded careers advice. It means acknowledging that family and community learning make a crucial contribution to getting adults furthest from education engaged in learning once again, and funding it accordingly. It means making sure ESOL provision is adequately funded so it can make a full contribution to the creation of flourishing, cohesive communities. And it means recognising that the benefits of education are not purely economic and represent a substantial public good that we should all be prepared to invest in. Employers too.

The failure of successive governments to see that the value of education cannot be measured purely in pounds and pence has significantly impoverished our education offer, in schools, in the community, in colleges and training providers, and in the university sector.

In light of these challenges we need nothing less than a national strategy for lifelong learning, with adult education at its heart. We need a strategy that joins up all the different interrelated strands and demonstrates active understanding of how they relate to and complement each other. Labour’s plan for a National Education Service, with its intellectual roots in David Blunkett’s much-admired Learning Age Green Paper (from which this blog takes its name), is a step in the right direction. It’s promise of greater coherence, fairer funding and wider access, and its recognition of the public good of education, represent at the very least something concrete to build on and improve. Above all, it offers the kind of definitive shift in the narrative we need. If the government is serious about making a success of post-Brexit Britain, it must act, decisively and comprehensively, to reverse years of underinvestment and reinvigorate our over-stretched, incoherent and underfunded education system, starting where the cuts have done the most damage: adult education.

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Disadvantage, inequality and social mobility: It’s not just about schools

‘Our society is stuck in a rut on social mobility,’ writes Institute of Education Director Becky Francis in a blog post published this week. Despite the efforts of successive governments, she writes, ‘the gap between young people from disadvantaged backgrounds and their peers … in education, income, housing, health … continues to yawn’.

Professor Francis cites a wealth of recent evidence to prove her point, including a report from the Education Policy Institute which shows that the most disadvantaged pupils in England are on average more than two full years of learning behind their better-off counterparts by the time they leave secondary school; and statistics from the Department for Education which indicate no improvement in the gap in university entry between those who received free school meals and those who did not in the seven years between 2008-09 and 2014-15. An estimated 24 per cent of pupils who were in receipt of free school meals at 15 had entered higher education by age 19 by 2015-15, compared to 41 per cent of the rest.

This makes for depressing reading, but it is not particularly surprising. While social mobility has been near the top of the political agenda in the UK for some time, efforts to tackle it have been half-hearted, at best, often loading pressure on the education system to turn around problems which are much wider and much more fundamental. This isn’t to say that the problems are insoluble or difficult to comprehend – just that solving them will take a much bigger effort and a much profounder change to the organization of our society than politicians like to pretend. In many cases, I am sorry to say, politicians have offered ‘solutions’, talked about ‘magic bullets’, in the full knowledge that they are nothing the sort. In fact, as they probably well know, the assumptions they accept about the limits of what it is possible to do make meaningful change to social mobility at best highly unlikely, at worst quite impossible. Despite years of overheated rhetoric, rather than narrowing, disparities in income, education and health look set to rise as we enter a further period of needless and self-inflicted austerity.

Professor Francis makes an eloquent case that, from a schools perspective, the key policy change should be ‘to find ways to support and incentivise the quality of teaching in socially disadvantaged neighbourhoods’. This is important. I have direct experience of the difference a really talented, committed teacher can make to students’ lives and aspirations, albeit in a further education context, and I have seen the difference poor teachers can make, from school to higher education. It is clear that successfully incentivizing the best teachers to work in the most deprived schools, by whatever means, will make an important difference to outcomes. And it is evident, as Professor Francis also argues, that early-years interventions are often the most effective and best sustained.

But it is clear too that these, as isolated interventions, will have limited impact. Making a deep and lasting impact requires that we turn around the social and political trends that arrest and make more difficult social progress of this sort. The most obvious of these is the entrenched inequality that has come to characterise our society in past decades. There is a clear correlation between inequality and social mobility: the more unequal a society is the less socially mobile it is. And the UK is among the most unequal societies in the industrialised world. Part of the problem is that the rungs of the ladder have become too distant from one another and the cost of failing and falling down a rung becomes greater and greater. This partly explains why education has become such a high-pressure, high-stakes game, one which middle-class families have become adept at playing, further squeezing the life chances of the children of the less well off. It also helps explain why working-class students are happy to take on heavy debts to access higher education: in the high-stakes, anxiety-ridden education system we have created, the enormous costs of failing make the payment of exorbitant fees – the highest anywhere in the world – appear reasonable. The combination of such profound inequality with a gameable system and the pervasive myth of meritocracy – cultivated by politicians including Prime Minister Theresa May – is incredibly toxic.

Its impact can be readily recognised in the failure of elite universities to widen access to their institutions. A report from the Reform think tank, published this week, showed that England’s leading universities had made ‘incredibly slow’ progress in widening access to students from disadvantaged backgrounds, despite spending hundreds of millions of pounds on interventions which, I suspect, have ,in some cases, had more to do with satisfying the Office for Fair Access than making a genuine difference to their student profile. While, overall, English universities have increased access for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, the progress, predictably enough, has been skewed towards ‘lower- and middle-tier universities’, while the elite institutions live down to their reputation (hugely alienating from the perspective of prospective working-class students) as finishing schools for the already-privileged. The most dramatic gap obtains between private school students and those from state schools. In 2014-15, 65 per cent of independent school students entered a highly selective HEI by age 19, compared to 23 per cent of state school students, a gap of 42 percentage points (the gap was 39 percentage points in 2008-09). The tremendous loss of talent this represents is evidently thought a price worth paying for preserving the privileges of the fortunate few.

The fees regime, introduced by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition in 2010, frequently vaunted as being an agent of fairer access (a myth that can only be maintained by ignoring huge swathes of evidence in favour of the bits you like), has, in fact, been a pretty much unmitigated and indefensible disaster in terms of widening access, not only creating what is effectively a two-tier university system but resulting in a 56 per cent collapse in part-time (mostly mature) student numbers and obliging the Open University, once a genuine agent of progressive social change, to massively inflate its fees, shutting yet further doors in the faces of working-class students. Its overall impact has been to make higher education more expensive for poorer students than for their richer counterparts while making the prospects of an ‘elite’ higher education seem yet more remote for working-class students who, despite the resistance of these institutions to admitting them, generally outperform more privileged counterparts with comparable grades.

It isn’t just mature and part-time higher study that has fallen into steep decline since 2010. Successive governments have made swingeing cuts to further education, and to adult skills, in particular, leading some experts to predict the imminent death of publicly funding adult FE. Only the activism of unions and representative groups, alongside the belated recognition that maybe training our homegrown talent wouldn’t be a bad idea in a post-Brexit, post-free movement Britain, have prevented adult education in FE from disappearing altogether. At the same time, as John Holford noted in a recent article, the narrowing of further education’s mission to a Gradgrind-like economic utilitarianism has made it increasingly difficult for colleges to fulfil their wider remit in their communities. The message to working-class students and prospective students from working-class backgrounds, wherever they study, could not be clearer: stick to what you know and keep your aspirations low. Aspire to a job and leave the joys of a broader, liberal education to those who can afford it. Hardly the stuff of an aspirational, learning society.

This constriction in opportunities for young people and adults has a major impact on the aspirations and achievements of children. As I have argued before, the role of the family is absolutely critical in breaking the intergenerational cycle of poverty. Family learning has a frequently neglected but hugely important role to play in motivating children and adults to learn, creating learning environments within the home and setting an example that can prove infectious. The restoration of funding for adult education should be part of a wider national effort to promote social mobility and combat inequality. This should also include a general increase in levels of investment in education, including in early years and high-level vocational and technical education (which has never been accorded due respect by UK policy-makers), bringing the UK to the level of comparable nations such as France and Germany, and the scrapping of the costly and dysfunctional fees system in higher education. Crucially, theses interventions should be part of a wider national conversation about how we reduce inequality, improve productivity and boost wages while redistributing wealth more fairly. We also need honest politicians who tell us the truth about the challenges we face and don’t spin us yarns about meritocracy and how education alone can overturn entrenched inequality. I don’t think any of this is rocket science. It just suits some of those who like things the way they are to pretend that it is.

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Education in an age of anxiety

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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The rain falls hard on a humdrum town

Thirty years ago I left school aged 16, thoroughly alienated and without a qualification to my name. I don’t think I was a bad student but school didn’t really suit me. Somehow, I never found out what it was I was great at or liked doing. The teachers weren’t particularly good and could be brutal. I recall my PE teacher, Mr Perkins, finding me alone in a corridor of the sports hall, picking me up by my neck and flinging me hard against a wall (I don’t recall why). Not that the school was entirely to blame. I could be disruptive and difficult, particularly when I couldn’t see the value of what I was doing. The continuous ego-bashing bullying I experienced throughout the last two years of compulsory education didn’t help much either. The thought of going into school made me physically sick. I stopped going out after school and after a while I stopped going into school altogether. If my parents were at work I would stay at home. If they were at home I would roam around the park adjacent to the school. I couldn’t face my final exams either, though I told my parents I’d sat them, delaying the inevitable fallout by a few weeks. By the time school finished, formally that is (it had finished for me some time before), I was scared, friendless and utterly lost. After a dismal summer spent dreading the day the exam results came out, I began signing on.

This wasn’t anything unusual at the time. I grew up in a mining town in a period when the industry was being systematically dismantled by the government and most of our fathers were unemployed. After a while, I was told to attend an interview, for a job with British Gas, I think. When I didn’t turn up (my busy schedule of not looking for work, listening to The Smiths and writing terrible poetry didn’t allow it), I was summoned to a meeting where I was told that my unemployment benefit would be stopped if I didn’t go on a Youth Training Scheme at a local glassmaking firm. A year of making tea and running errands ensued (with a bit of mild sexual harassment thrown in). The poetry got a bit better, I read most of the books in Penguin’s Modern Classics series and I started to think about further education and, maybe, doing journalism for a living.

I enrolled at the local technical college, taking the A-levels and GCSEs I needed to get onto an NCTJ ‘pre-entry’ journalism course. It was at the college that I encountered great teaching for the first time, and a brilliant English teacher who made me see myself in a new light. She was smart, funny, interesting and different. She dressed differently and she spoke differently, all of which was pretty inspiring to a lad who was desperate to find a way to be different. Most of all, she was interested and encouraging, quick to see the value in the work her students did and to support them in doing what they did well, better. And she made it plain that we were her equals, jointly negotiating the terms of our learning. That was such an importance difference for me.

This was a time when it was still possible for a working-class kid to get a foothold in a profession like journalism without contacts, parents with cash to splurge on an internship or even a university degree. I had no idea, though, that I was part of one of the last waves of working-class, non-university educated entrants to the industry. The lecturers who interviewed me for a place on my chosen course, at Preston Polytechnic, were both sharp-witted, working-class newspapermen who had got into journalism through local papers and gone on to work for the nationals with some distinction. This was still a well-worn and very common path in the eighties and it wasn’t unusual for people like Harold Evans (who edited the Sunday Times up until 1981) to have emerged in the industry from working-class backgrounds, progressing through regional newspapers, to edit national newspapers, often very brilliantly (as in Evans’s case). And the newspaper industry was all the better for it, reflecting society and its concerns much more roundly than does the present cohort of senior journalists and commentators, most of whom share very similar backgrounds (many also being friends and university contemporaries of the politicians they are charged with holding to account). My course was full of working-class teenagers, school leavers, with a few older adults who were looking to retrain. Within a year, pretty much all of us were employed in regional papers around the country, learning on the job, which is where most journalistic educations really begin. I served my ‘apprenticeship’, gaining an incredibly wide array of really useful skills, including important ‘soft skills’ such as tenacity, the ability to listen and a respect for deadlines – which have been incredibly useful to me since, both academically and professionally – as well as the knowledge, technical skills and general storytelling know-how necessary to become a senior journalist. I was lucky enough to have a few hugely enjoyable years as part of a terrific team of reporters and editors at the Shropshire Star, most, if not all, of them with social backgrounds similar to mine.

Since then, however, journalism has, increasingly, become a profession for middle-class university graduates. Alan Milburn, in his 2009 report, Unleashing Aspiration, described it as ‘one of the most exclusive middle-class professions of the 21st century’ – quite an astonishing shift in such a relatively short period of time. This trend was confirmed in this week’s Sutton Trust report, which found that more than half (51 per cent) of leading print journalists attended fee-paying schools, while 54 per cent attended either Oxford or Cambridge. The private school sector, it is worth remembering, educates just seven per cent of the total population, and Oxbridge less than one per cent. I fear that many working-class children would now think of a career in journalism as something beyond them, socially and economically. And I suspect that, given the longstanding recruitment profile of both the BBC and the Guardian, senior positions in both of which are dominated by the privately educated, many working-class journalists would now not even consider applying for posts with either of these supposed bastions of liberal, democratic values.

I sometimes wonder if I would have made it into the profession at all if I were starting from the same place today. I think it’s pretty unlikely. It might have been conceivable, in the eighties, that I would find a way to university (as I eventually did) and onto a graduate journalism course. Higher education was free at the time, and that was a crucial factor in my decision to give up work to take a first degree. But I think it pretty unlikely, given where I started from and what my expectations were (i.e. not high), that I would have been prepared to take out a loan for my studies, and incur huge debts that would take years and years to pay off. People from working-class backgrounds, with no safety net to fall back on, tend to find it difficult to see the spectre of mounting debt as an investment in their future. Nor, fairly obviously, would I have been in a position to work for free for a period to get a foot on the ladder, as so many new entrants from wealthier backgrounds do; and certainly not in a city as expensive to live in as London.

Does this matter? I think it does. First, it matters because it diminishes journalism and undermines democracy and the civic life of the country. An industry in which high-level new entrants have usually graduated from an elite university, know someone or have parents who know someone, or be wealthy enough to work unpaid for a time, is clearly not going to be very reflective of the concerns of the general population. And, indeed, it is not. What you might expect to result is precisely what we have ended up with: an out-of-touch commentariat of senior journalists who largely share the backgrounds and core beliefs of the political elite and are deeply hostile to or pointedly amused by anyone who doesn’t. Little wonder so many ‘ordinary’ people feel under-represented by the media, angry that their views and the views of those they voted for are routinely derided, under-reported or ignored altogether. But, of course, if you never meet any ‘ordinary’ people, you wouldn’t know that, would you? If your children go to different schools than theirs, you’re probably not going to feel as outraged as I do when I see how the state school testing regime distorts children’s education and alienates young people. If you’ve never been inside an FE college and don’t know anyone who did, you’re probably not going to be overly exercised when government policy pushes the sector to the brink of extinction and all but destroys what must surely be a key part of the mission of any institution offering further education: lifelong learning.

It matters also because it reflects the more general attenuation in opportunity for people from working-class backgrounds, captured, again, very starkly, in the Sutton Trust’s report. It found that the UK’s top professions remain disproportionately populated by alumni of private schools and Oxbridge. In medicine, for example, nearly two-thirds (61 per cent) of senior doctors were educated at independent schools, while 40 per cent were educated at Oxbridge. Only 16 per cent attended comprehensive schools. In politics, nearly a third (32 per cent) of MPs were privately education while over a quarter (26 per cent) went to Oxbridge. Almost half (47 per cent) of the current cabinet attended Oxbridge. In law, 74 per cent of the top judiciary were privately educated and the same proportion attended Oxbridge. And in the senior civil service, almost half (48 per cent) attended independent schools and more than half (51 per cent) Oxbridge. The same trend is also increasingly evident in sport, entertainment and the arts, where it is difficult these days to swing a Bafta without striking an old Etonian. It is hardly surprising that applications to private school remain high big despite increases in fees, when the simple fact of which school your children attend can make such a huge, life-defining difference to their future prospects.

Despite decades of ministerial hot air about improving social mobility, rungs in the social ladder are being hacked away with increasing frenzy, not least by the present government, which appears set on consigning many of this country’s greatest social achievements to history. The education system, which ought to be at the vanguard of challenging unearned privilege and increasing social mobility is, in fact, reproducing privilege and reinforcing social inequality. As Danny Dorling put it in a recent article, education in England ‘is expanding into new extremes of elitism’. Its covert message, ‘that a small elite, made up of superior individuals, should lead us’, gains greater popular assent the more inevitable and immutable privilege appears to be (as does the belief that those at the bottom are there by dint of their own failings). We end up with a self-reproducing ‘meritocracy’, with privilege passed on from generation to generation, all by awfully nice people who are just doing what anyone would do in their position to secure the best for their children. I don’t blame them. The extent of inequality in this country means the stakes are incredibly high, too high to be healthy. But we need, and deserve, an education system which challenges rather than facilitates this. Our schools continue to fail the poorest children while subjecting them and the schools in which they learn to an extraordinary regime of continuous testing, fake ‘rigour’ and accountability, all of which is extremely harmful to our kids, our teachers and our communities. State-maintained schools are subject to constant reform, with policy – criminally, in my view – written to secure headlines rather than to serve our children. It is here we see, more clearly than anywhere else, the truth of Dorling’s charge that the people running state education think of it as ‘education for other people’s children’. The same is true of further education, so often treated with contempt and ignorance by ministers, despite the hugely important role FE colleges have played in our communities for decades. At the same time, in higher education, government policy has engineered a two-tier system, with elite universities, which remain dominated by the privately educated, offering the kind of rounded liberal education wealthy parents expect for their kids, and the others offering, increasingly, vocational education of one sort or another, to meet the more rudimentary needs of the rest. The ‘complex and intimidating’ Oxbridge admissions system seems almost designed to deter working-class applicants. Education for them, training for us. Calcifying patterns of privilege are not the sign of a healthy society. They are like those spots you see on the leaves of dying trees. They are the warning signs that something is not right, something rotten that, left untreated, will bring down the whole tree.

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Learning to live together: Adult education and society

My mum organises a group for local artists in her village. It’s a friendly, well-established and tightly knit group, mostly made up of older people in their sixties and seventies. Members meet weekly and pay a small contribution to cover the costs of room rental and the life model’s fees, but expenses are kept low so that even those on the most modest incomes can afford to attend. It’s a brilliant example of the sort of vibrant self-organised informal learning that John Denham envisaged when he was Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, and that David Cameron spoke of with notable warmth shortly before assuming office.

Over the past few months, however, my mum’s group has been obliged to change location repeatedly, as a succession of community venues have closed down. The Conservative club where they met for many years has been sold to pub chain Wetherspoons. The British Legion club they moved to next was, within a few months, pulled down to build a large private house. For a while they met in a room above a pub, before incurring the wrath of a prudish and ill-tempered landlord who threw them out without notice. They are currently meeting in a portacabin in a train station car park; the only affordable venue they have been able to find.

It’s a story that will, I suspect, be familiar to informal learners around the country, as important community resources, such as public libraries, adult education centres and voluntary sector providers close down, squeezed out by the ongoing withdrawal of local government funding. Safe, affordable (public and private) spaces in which people can come together, to learn or share an interest, or just to get out of the house – where, in short, they can be more than just individuals – are in increasingly short supply. The disappearance of the ring-fenced community learning budget – so passionately defended for so many years but now quietly subsumed within a larger adult education budget – is likely to mean a further squeeze on less formal kinds of provision. This is a largely unnoticed but extremely costly loss. These critical resources, while scarcely visible to some (for the most part, we pass them by without noticing they are there or having the vaguest idea what goes on inside), are, nevertheless, of life-saving and life-changing importance to others. The government, in shrugging off yet another ‘unintended consequence’ of its programme of public sector cuts, looks likely to bequeath to coming generations a legacy far more poisonous than the fondly invoked ‘mess’ it says it ‘inherited’. It will leave behind a severely diminished and dysfunctional civil society.

At the same time, more formal opportunities for adults to come together and learn have been disappearing at an unprecedented rate, to the point of near extinction. More than two million adult learning places in further education have disappeared since 2003; 1.3 million of them since 2010, according to Skills Funding Agency figures. This year alone, the adult skills budget has been cut by 28 per cent (in this context, the chancellor’s announcement of cash-terms protection for non-apprenticeship adult skills funding looks like a bit of a fig leaf). Part-time mature student numbers in higher education have fallen by more than 40 per cent since loans were introduced for part-time students and fees escalated, while the Open University has seen student numbers drop by 30 per cent. In an ageing society, where people are living and working longer, where changing technology demands more and more of us as learners, where people’s separateness and isolation threatens the cohesion of communities, it is surely not unreasonable to expect government to do more – something – to arrest this decline. Yet, as the recent higher education Green Paper demonstrated, ministers remain fixated on the idea of initial – rather than lifelong – education and particularly the gilded path through A-levels to university. Part-time higher education, so plainly in need of intervention, was scarcely mentioned. The attitude of ministers to further education has also been disgracefully complacent. The Public Accounts Committee chair Meg Hillier noted today that the government has been ‘desperately slow off the mark’ in responding the ‘looming crisis’ in FE and urged it to ‘act now to ensure FE is put on a stable financial footing’.

Britain has a proud tradition of second-chance learning, community self-help, workers’ education and university lifelong learning (though the latter was decimated by Labour’s daft ELQ rule, which withdrew funding for students studying at a level equivalent to or below their highest existing qualification). Most UK governments, for most of the twentieth century, broadly supported and recognised the value of adult education, though with varying degrees of enthusiasm and understanding. The growing focus on courses with a direct pay-off in terms of employment or employability from the early years of this century saw a sharp narrowing of opportunity, both in terms of learner numbers and the richness of the adult education offer. We have now reached a point where publicly supported adult education could soon be a thing of the past, at a time when, you might think, it is more necessary, relevant and important than ever, given the social and economic challenges we face. Its decline has coincided with an explosion of interest in MOOCs, yet this development, while holding out many exciting possibilities, should not be thought of as a replacement for face-to-face or group-based learning. In an ideal world, it should complement it. Place matters to learning, and so does community.

I was struck by how impoverished the language we use to talk about adult education in the UK has become when I read the European Association for the Education of Adults’ Manifesto for Adult Learning in the 21st Century. Adult education, it says, can change lives and transform society, making a significant contribution to a range of important policy agendas, including the promotion of active citizenship, the development of key life skills crucial to mental health and wellbeing, and the creation of a more socially cohesive, fairer and more equal society capable of dealing with demographic change and migration. It also notes the role adult education has to play in delivering economic growth, employment and innovation, and in promoting environmental sustainability. The breadth of ambition reflected in these aims echoes Jacques Delors’ ‘four pillars of lifelong learning’: ‘learning to know’, ‘learning to do’, ‘learning to be’ and ‘learning to live together’. As Alan Tuckett suggested in his recent inaugural lecture as Professor of Education at the University of Wolverhampton, we are guilty of stressing the first two of these pillars – which concern the development of knowledge and skills – to the almost complete exclusion of the last two, learning for personal development, which is now largely the preserve of the better off, and learning for social cohesion and active democratic participation, which is now almost completely neglected in policy and funding terms. It is through these latter kinds of learning that we become more civil and decent, healthier and happier, and develop the attitudes and values that support the growth of a more democratic, socially cohesive society. Adult education should be seen not just as a means of producing a job-ready, compliant workforce, but as a crucial policy tool in promoting democracy and social inclusion.

It is critical, of course, that people have a good initial education and develop skills that enable them to make a living and contribute to the economy. But we also need education that is both genuinely lifelong and supportive of people’s desire to lead fulfilling lives as part of strong, thriving communities. This has long been part of the adult education tradition in the UK. One of the strongest of the movement’s threads has been that of its social relevance, the idea that adult education can make society fairer and more equal, cohesive and democratic. In pursuit of that aim, adult educators have created spaces for people to come together not only to make sense of their own lives and problems but also society’s; spaces in which people can engage in democracy, politics and citizenship in a way that is surely more meaningful than the prevailing model in which people attempt to direct their concerns to distant politicians who largely ignore them and, for the most part, don’t understand them. As Hannah Arendt argued, education is the point at which ‘we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it’. The safe space it provides to question and dissent, to challenge and, just as importantly, be challenged, is absolutely critical, both to democracy and to community, which is why such spaces should be open, to everyone, whatever their age or stage of education. The more isolated we become, the more fissures and fault lines arise in society, the more challenged we are to change and do things differently, the more important, I think, such spaces become. As generations of educators have realised, change is only possible if people are engaged, informed, cooperative and willing and able to contribute, when they have, in Arendt’s terms, ‘assumed responsibility’.

No-one, of course, expects government to pay for everybody’s post-compulsory education, at every level; the creation of a lifelong learning society has to be a cooperative endeavour in which everyone is involved and contributes fairly. But it is clear that we need more from government, including recognition of the wider value of adult education, a strategy for its long-term survival and a more generous basic settlement to help secure the future of both formal and informal types of adult learning, for everyone, and not just those who can afford the fees. A joined-up national policy for adult education, drawing on the wide body of existing research into its multi-layered and far-reaching benefits and acknowledging the importance of place, community and informality in learning, would be a useful start. That research demonstrates, among other things, that our politicians’ ambitions for education are just not bold enough, and that their thinking is simply not brave or coherent enough; not if we are to address the very real challenges we are faced with.

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Taking a line for a walk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Education in the age of austerity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Who will stand up for adult education?

The Skills Funding Agency announced this week that public funding is to be withdrawn from a further 1,600 adult qualifications for which, they say, there is little or no demand. Two thirds of publicly funded qualifications (6,900 in total) have been removed from government funding since 2013. Skills minister Nick Boles welcomed the move, saying the qualifications were ‘cluttering up the system’.

On the face of it, this looks like a smart move. Employers want a qualifications system that is streamlined and easy to comprehend. And students want to know that the qualifications they are seeking are worthwhile and, if the purpose of study is vocational (and the expectation is that it will be), valued by employers. But even if we accept that qualifications that support progression to and in employment are what we should be focusing on, it’s not clear that student take-up is, in itself, a reliable indicator of what is valuable or worth funding – or, indeed, of what local businesses need if they are to prosper.

In fact, the qualifications from which funding is to be withdrawn include a larger number in sectors important to the economy, such as engineering, manufacturing, ICT, and building and construction, and where there are growing skills shortages, particularly in higher-level technical jobs. Nor is it particularly useful to directly equate student take-up with student demand or interest. Prohibitive fees and an unwillingness to take on large amounts of debt are other factors which should be part of a much more nuanced, intelligently thought-out approach to streamlining qualifications.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, the ongoing cull of qualifications is indicative of a really remarkable narrowing of the educational offer to adults – one which began in earnest under the previous government as it became increasingly fixated on a funding model based on boosting employability and vocational skills. It’s not that employment and vocational training aren’t important – obviously they are – it’s just that they aren’t everything. Among the qualifications considered of no or low value will be many that adults have found hugely valuable, in giving them a foothold in learning again, building their confidence, broadening their horizons or simply offering them a second chance. Education isn’t only about getting people into work or on at work. It’s also about confidence and aspiration, family and community, citizenship and social cohesion. It makes people better citizens, better parents. It can make them more flexible, more resilient, more rounded and civilised, helping them become better people as well as better employees. The wider public value of adult education is far too infrequently asserted.

As Helena Kennedy wrote in her 1997 policy paper Learning Works, while ‘prosperity depends upon there being a vibrant economy … an economy which regards its own success as the highest good is a dangerous one’. There are other claims upon public support for education, Kennedy went on, namely justice and equity. Ignoring those claims is likely to be disastrous for us as a society, as a democracy and, ultimately, as an economy. This seems to me common sense. Yet parts of Kennedy’s paper – those in which she asserts the wider value of adult and further education – now read like something from another era. Part of the problem with adopting the circumscribed language and outlook of funders and policy makers is that it becomes more and more difficult to assert the value of those things that lie outside it. The less we talk about them the less relevant they seem until those things become almost unsayable (at least without inviting ridicule or marginalizing oneself – either as too wishy-washy or too radical). You either talk within the circumscribed limits or you talk to yourself. And the harder it becomes to talk about what we value, the harder it is to defend it against cuts. Increasingly, I find myself asking, who will stand up for adult education?

Under the coalition, we have seen the realm of publicly funded adult education continue to shrink. Indeed, the pace has quickened under the all-consuming (and all-justifying) blanket of austerity politics. UCAS’s latest figures on full-time applications to higher education show that while applications from younger students continue to hold up, applications from those over the age of 25 continues to decline – this on top of an 18 per cent decline between 2010 and 2013. And while applications from young people from disadvantaged backgrounds are up, people from advantaged backgrounds are still more than twice as likely to apply to university as their less-advantaged counterparts – even more so in the case of the most selective universities.

The numbers are even worse for part-time students, the vast majority of whom are older students (with a large proportion from disadvantaged backgrounds). Over the past four years, part-time student numbers in the UK have fallen by more than a third – with the figure even higher for part-time students aged above 25. In England, according to HEFCE, part-time undergraduate student numbers fell by 46 per cent between 2010–11 and 2013–14. The reasons for the decline are complex, but include Labour’s introduction of the ELQ rule – which denied funding to students studying at a level lower or equivalent to a level at which they were already qualified – the increase in part-time fees and the introduction of loans for part-timers (unsurprisingly adults with a range of other financial commitments have not been keen to take them up and incur more debt in their 30s, 40s or 50s), and a growing reluctance among employers to support employees to study part-time alongside their work. Despite protestations to the contrary, it is increasingly obvious that the government considers the damage caused to part-time HE a price worth paying (as long as applications from younger students holds up).

Adult education in FE is also under huge pressure. The government’s February 2014 skills funding statement included a 19 per cent cut to the adult skills budget by 2015–16, meaning an overall fall in adult skills funding from £2.8 million in 2010–2011 to £2 billion in 2015–16. Unsurprisingly, the cuts have resulted in an 11 per cent overall drop in adult participation in state funded learning between 2012–13 and 2013–14, with the numbers even worse for older adults –27 per cent fewer adults aged 25 and over in Level 3 provision and 34.2 per cent fewer in Level 4. At the same time, the Department for Education has reduced spending on 16 to 18 year olds from £7.7 billion in 2009–10 to £7 billion in 2013–14, with a swingeing 17.5 per cent cut to the funding rate for 18 years olds from last September, placing still more pressure on college principals. And while funding for 16–18 year olds is expected to be stable in 2015, further substantial cuts are expected in adult skills.

All of this has coincided with a substantial reduction in the public library service, making it even more difficult for adults to learn in their own time, on their own terms. Some 324 libraries have closed, with many more under threat, as a result of a 40 per cent cut in local government funding since 2010.

Even on the government’s own narrow terms this is self-defeating. In an ageing society in which social mobility has stalled – seemingly irreversibly – and compulsory education is so unhelpful to so many (the educational achievement gap between rich and poor at GCSE is widening), we simply cannot afford to put adults off returning to education. We cannot afford to be a society in which second chances are out of reach to so many people. It’s bad enough that our education system seems designed to write people off at as early a stage as possible, and to qualify the success of almost all but a small, mostly already privileged, minority. But to close down so much opportunity later in life makes no sense, not if we are serious about moving towards becoming a high-skill, high-productivity economy. If the system we have cannot offer good, affordable and varied opportunities for people to learn as adults, wherever they live and whatever their social background, then the system simply isn’t working.

Helena Kennedy wrote that education ‘has always been a source of social vitality and the more people we can include in the community of learning, the greater the benefits to us all’. It ‘strengthens the ties which bind people, takes the fear out of difference and encourages tolerance. It helps people to see what makes the world tick and the ways in which they, individually and together, can make a difference. It is the likeliest means of creating a modern, well-skilled workforce, reducing levels of crime, and creating participating citizens’. Wonderful words – as true now as they were in 1997. We haven’t changed and the social and economic needs Kennedy talks about are, if anything, more acute. Education has to offer more than a rounded liberal education for the few and patchy vocational training for the rest – or at least those that can afford it. As Kennedy argued, we can no longer afford to weight education spending on the already privileged in the expectation that this will produce ‘an excellence which permeates the system’. The trickle-down theory of economics doesn’t work – nor does the trickle-down theory of education. Apart from anything else, it is incredibly damaging to social cohesion or any sense that we are ‘in this together’. I’m sure nobody working at the Treasury would think mere training good enough for their children. Well, it isn’t good enough for other people’s children either.

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