Not levelling up: Britain’s failure to be progressive

This month, the UK’s Social Mobility Commission published the latest in a series of reports highlighting Britain’s failure to reduce inequality or advance social mobility. It found that 600,000 more children are now living in relative poverty than in 2012 and projected that this would increase further due to benefit changes and coronavirus. In schools, less than a quarter of disadvantaged students get a good pass in English and maths, the commission’s report noted, compared with around 50 per cent of all other pupils, while half of all adults from the poorest backgrounds receive no training at all after leaving school. It also reported that life expectancy is falling for women in the most deprived areas, with health inequalities linked to socio-economic background further exposed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Not only have successive governments failed to make progress in these areas, things have been getting worse, and, unless we do something radically different in our politics, they will get worse still, with those at the bottom paying the highest price. This is a frightening prospect – just over a year ago, the UN’s special rapporteur on poverty, Philip Alston, found the government to be in breach of its human rights obligations concerning poverty, predicting that 40 per cent of British children would be in poverty by 2021.

It has become a tradition for incoming Tory Prime Ministers to affect a passionate interest in these issues. After earnestly praising her predecessor’s record on social justice (Cameron, the architect of austerity, recast as a champion of the disadvantaged!), Theresa May used her first speech as Prime Minister to promise to prioritise ‘not the mighty nor the wealthy nor the privileged’ but working-class people who are ‘just managing’ but want to ‘get on in life’, correcting in the process the ‘burning injustices’ of educational disadvantage, economic exclusion and systemic racism. Similarly, current PM Boris Johnson undertook to ‘change the country for the better’ by delivering Brexit [sic], renewing ‘the ties that bind us together’ as a nation and ‘closing the opportunity gap’ by ‘levelling up’ in education, wages, housing and so on. It remains to be seen whether ‘levelling up’ will be more than the latest in the long line of glib, vacuous slogans (‘Take back control’, ‘Get Brexit done’, etc., etc.) on which Johnson has based his political career. Past experience (not to mention Johnson’s well-documented disdain for working people) encourages us to doubt it.

Such statements can (perhaps rather generously) be read as a serious attempt to reinvigorate working-class Toryism (the respectable face of the brand), with its traditional emphasis on hard work, self-reliance and a strong sense of national identity. But it also represents a party political power grab, exploiting the confused and febrile nature of our current political climate, and the Labour party’s failure to take seriously or attempt to understand the concerns of many traditional voters, to convince those who have fared worst under the Tories that in fact the party is on their side. Of course, if such rhetoric were to become a reality it would come as a surprise to the people who fund the Conservative Party, drawn, as they are, from among the ‘mighty’, ‘wealthy’ and ‘privileged’ (we should probably add ‘Russian’ to this list), but, of course, it is not aimed at them and they know better than to take it literally. While the message may sound progressive, the intention is not. Closing the education gap has tended to mean more selection and increased scrutiny (of state schools) and more centralised policy tinkering, while promises to reinvigorate neglected regions often generate grand announcements which deliver little and commitments to devolve power which come heavily qualified and are often little more than national-level blame shifting (austerity has resulted, among other things, in the hollowing out and enfeeblement of local government) or a means of sticking it to the ‘metropolitan elite’.

The failure of government to deliver on these promises is not the story of well-intentioned political will encountering intractable forces it cannot shift, despite the best efforts of our leaders. It is the well-understood, and entirely predictable, outcome of Conservative thinking and the institutions and interests the party represents and protects. Chief among these is the remarkable domination of elite professions and positions of influence, not to mention elite universities, by the 7 per cent of the British population who attend private schools. This isn’t evidence of the genetic superiority of ‘ancient families’, as some of those within and close to the current government appear, genuinely, to believe, but rather the result of social engineering intended to ensure that privilege is passed on from generation to generation. These institutions, which continue to receive public subsidy despite actively working against the life chances of the vast majority of people who live in the UK, perpetuate historic disadvantage and reinforce the social snobbery and segregation that squeeze opportunity for all but the best-off and make British society so miserably class-bound, so grubbily deferential and disunited.

One of the things that most struck me when I moved to Germany three years ago was the social mix of pupils and their parents in the German grundschule (primary school) my son attended. There is no social segregation because privilege has not been institutionalised within the system. Private schools play a marginal role in the German education system, and there is an expectation that the state will provide an excellent standard of education for every child and in every school. Things were quite different at my son’s old primary school, in a relatively prosperous suburb of Liverpool. Not only was there social segregation by property – the better-off neighbourhoods also had the best schools and there was competition among parents to buy into those areas so as to access those schools (and avoid the bad ones) – but almost all the parents at our school were from non-professional, mostly blue-collar backgrounds. Professional people sent their kids to one or other of the numerous private, fee-paying schools in the area, and there was wide appreciation of the fact that these establishments were much better resourced and much better at educating and represented the best way of giving your children a leg-up in life. If you could afford it, in other words, this is what you did. It is astonishing how normal this chronic systemic unfairness is in British life. It is hardly challenged.

While schools in the state sector in England are subject to rigorous, high-stakes inspection and near continual central political reform, usually aimed at increasing selection and providing greater ‘choice’ for parents (though I am yet to meet a parent for whom this is a priority), private schools are free to game the system in favour of their students. For example, Sevenoaks school, which charges more than £38,000 a year for boarding pupils, has a policy of exaggerating exam grade predictions for its lowest-performing students ‘to facilitate application to a more selective university’. While it is rare for a private school to put this policy in writing, as Sevenoaks did, it is, I suspect, a strategy that is widely, though perhaps less formally, deployed. Private school pupils also gain advantage from the support of well-educated parents who understand how the system works and how to game it. Unsurprisingly, once they are at university, students from state schools outperform privately education students admitted with the same A-level grades. Kids from wealthier backgrounds also benefit from the support of private tutors and the confidence that comes from attending an elite institution. With the odds so firmly stacked against kids from poor and working-class backgrounds, it is little wonder social mobility has stalled and, indeed, gone backwards, and that so many communities feel – and indeed are – ‘left behind’. Despite these very real and obvious inequities, and the anti-democratic networks of nepotism and low-level corruption they foster, the impact of private schools is not even up for meaningful policy discussion in the UK, I guess unsurprisingly given the hold their alumni they have on politics and media in the country.

Educational disadvantage for less-privileged students is further compounded in post-compulsory education. While private school pupils swell the ranks of elite universities to a disproportionate degree, state school pupils are more likely to apply to less prestigious institutions, where their degrees are likely to have a stronger vocational dimension. Further education too has seen a steady narrowing of its curriculum to focus on workplace and employability skills, while taking a huge funding hit since 2010. Adult education, the route through which working people can gain a second chance and access higher learning, has also faced devastating cuts since 2010. According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, funding for adult education in FE in England was cut by 45 per cent between 2009/10 and 2017/18. At the same time, local authority adult education provision, which targets in particular the most disadvantaged and hardest-to-reach adults, has also faced swingeing cuts. The Local Government Association (LGA) estimates that the government would need at least to double the adult education budget (from £1.5 billion to £3 billion) to reverse the overall 3.8 million drop in learner numbers since 2010. The number of adults in higher education in England has also been in freefall under the Conservatives. The total number of mature undergraduate entrants fell from more than 400,000 in 2010/11 to fewer than 240,000 in 2017/18 – a drop of 40 per cent. Part-time student numbers have collapsed too, with the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) reporting a 61 per cent drop since 2010, most of these being mature students aged 21 or above. HEPI estimates that the loss in part-time numbers equates to 17 per cent fewer students from disadvantaged backgrounds accessing higher education in England.

Government plans to invest in school rebuilding and FE estate upgrades in England are welcome, of course, as is the relative funding stability of the past few years, but they come nowhere near repairing the damage done or the disadvantage deepened by cuts to schools and colleges since 2010. Still less do they address the systemic causes of disadvantage. The dismantling of adult education, besides being an appalling act of cultural vandalism, matters also because it closes off the main channel through which adults have traditionally been able to improve their lives and engage more fully in civic and social life. For adults who are not wealthy, the educational story of the past decade has been of one door shutting after another and a continual stifling of opportunity. Wherever you learn, whether at school in college, at university or in the community, there has been a steady narrowing of curricula choice and variety, with the arts and humanities under repeated attack and provision increasingly focused on work and employability and producing young people who are ‘job ready’ (as opposed to life or even work ready). It is clear from the direction of policy that while working people can expect an education that will prepare them for a job and, if they are very lucky, a life of work, the kind of liberal education that prepares people to live a full life illuminated by an appreciation of culture, political and civic engagement, and the capacity to think and argue critically and communicate ideas effectively, is to be more or less the exclusive preserve of the better-off and privileged.

I feel that we give our leaders too much credit by taking their commitments at face value. The COVID-19 crisis has shone a light on the appalling unfairness of some little-challenged aspects of national life, including the vast privileges bestowed by a private education and the dreadful poverty of opportunity they impose on the rest of us. It is right, of course, to applaud any intervention which will benefit learners and help make the country more equal, but too often in applauding the good intentions of policy we forget to hold government to account for the regressive thinking and systemic disadvantage that holds people and communities back and excludes them from opportunity. We can go back to the way things were, of course, and many would welcome it. But we have, in the midst of the current crisis, an opportunity to do things differently, to consider whether we want a system that self-consciously perpetuates social injustice and inequality, or think instead about abolishing private school education and rebalancing education spending more fairly, to the benefit both of disadvantaged children and young people, and adults, whose opportunities to access learning have been the most badly affected by the austerity politics of the past decade. Everyone deserves a decent education. We are not economic units; we are people with rich capabilities and capacities that should not be casually squandered. If we want a society that is both fair and prosperous, in which everyone is able to foster and exploit their talents to the full, we will dismantle the machinery of privilege and reassert the values of equity and equality of opportunity in and across our education system.

The ‘left behind’ need hope not hollow words

Yesterday, on Easter Sunday, UK Prime Minster Theresa May gave her Easter message, describing the inspiration she took from her faith and the praising ‘the triumph of the human spirit’ in overcoming serious adversity such as that presented by the Grenfell Tower fire. The short address was replayed throughout the day by the BBC with a soft-spoken reverence usually reserved for occasions of state, juxtaposed with in-depth coverage of the Sunday Times fishing trip to identify supporters of Opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn who have made anti-Semitic comments online.

Mrs May’s message ticked many of the usual boxes. Acknowledgement of the country’s ‘dark moments’? Check. Praise for the emergency services? Check. Admiration for ordinary people working to make their communities better? Check. But for those working at the front line of our emergency services, struggling to meet increased demands with reduced funding, or those working hard in their communities to ameliorate the harm done by years of political neglect and austerity, I suspect these sentiments will have provoked derisive laughter rather than delight at having their work recognised. The association of these sentiments with a belief system founded by a man who dedicated his short life to helping the poor and vulnerable and to encouraging the rich to do the same was just another pointed irony in an Easter message that was as hollow as an Easter egg.

The mismatch between the Prime Minister’s supposed core beliefs and the policies of the governments in which she has been a senior figure was thrown into still sharper relief today. A report from school leaders painted a shocking picture of destitute school children in poor parts of England and Wales and ‘filling their pockets’ with food from the school canteen. Headteachers told how they were having to provide basic services such as washing school uniforms and paying for budget advice for parents to fill the gaps left by budget cuts to councils and social services. They also described how they had provided sanitary products for pupils and bought them coats and shoes in winter.

At the same time, a new survey from the Child Poverty Action Group and the National Education Union found that, of 900 teachers, 60 per cent said that child poverty in their schools had worsened since 2015, with one in three saying it had got significantly worse. All this at a moment when school costs are increasing and the government has reduced school funding in real terms.

Theresa May’s launched her premiership in 2016 by pledging to help the ‘left behind’ and ‘just managing’ and build a fairer Britain. A little over a year in, the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission resigned en masse in protest at her government’s failure to address Britain’s ‘burning injustices’. May’s failure to appoint a replacement has, reportedly, had little to do with the availability of appropriate candidates and everything to do with an inability to find anyone who would consent to do the job while refraining from criticism of the government’s policies.

This is not particularly surprising. May’s flagship policy for improving the life chances of the poor was to increase selection in schools through the introduction of more grammar schools. Few, other than a handful of Tory ideologues, were convinced by this intervention, perhaps because of the complete lack of supporting evidence for it. The evidential gap was further highlighted last month through research by Stephen Gorard and Nadia Siddiqui which showed that grammar schools worsen social stratification but do not increase pupil achievement. Dividing pupils into the most able and the rest from an early age, the researchers concluded, ‘does not appear to lead to better results for either group, even for the most disadvantaged. This means that the kind of social segregation experienced by children and young people in selective areas of the United Kingdom, and in selective schools and countries around the world, is for no clear gain … the findings mean that grammar schools endanger social cohesion for no clear improvement in overall results. The policy is a bad one and, far from increasing selection, the evidence-informed way forwards would be to phase out the current 163 grammar schools in England.’

Given the weight of evidence against it, any further expansion of selection in education, as envisaged by current education secretary Damian Hinds, could only be explained by ideological motives or by a desire to further reduce social mobility and increase segregation. Any government serious about addressing inequality and social mobility would look closely at how to reduce the stratification in the education system, from private schools to our increasingly two-tier higher education system. Around the world, successful economies are opening up their education systems and creating opportunities that are genuinely lifelong and lifewide. Britain, meanwhile, appears in thrall to a vision of selection grounded in class and social snobbery. The weight of our illusions keeps us from rising higher.

The low priority successive governments have attached to social mobility is reflected in the comparative neglect of further education, where state investment is likely to have the most social impact. The low status of the sector is evident from the number of ministers and secretaries of state who have been responsible for it over the years, and the really remarkable policy churn FE has been subject to over several decades. No service could reach its full potential under conditions of near-constant reform and ever shifting expectations and priorities. There is also a major funding gap between FE and HE which will need to be closed by some means if the UK is to deliver the higher-level technical skills it will require to compete on equal terms with comparable countries.

Justine Greening, the only recent education secretary who has taken social mobility seriously, was sacked shortly after producing her ‘plan for improving social mobility through education’. Her ambition was admirable though the proposals themselves, while positive, were not nearly radical enough to ‘transform equality of opportunity in this country’. The problem needs to be approached in a more comprehensive and joined-up way, with the place of further education considered in the context of the wider education system and significant resource put into spreading opportunity more evenly and creating routes for people at every stage of life. Ms Greening’s ‘social mobility pledge’, intended to encourage employers to engage more with schools and colleges, is a good idea, but it needs to be part of a much wider, longer-term strategy that is not afraid to challenge the sacred cows of selection, the private school system, A-levels and mass higher education.

Education is not a silver bullet when it comes to social mobility and inequality. Real change would require strong political will in every department of government. To be lasting and fundamental it would also need public support which, I fear, will require a shift in our political scene as yet undreamt of. But, for all that, it is not a bad place to start. If we can challenge the perpetuation of inequality of opportunity in education we can certainly change it elsewhere. For that, though, we will need real leadership and commitment at the top of government, and a genuine willingness to challenge beliefs and cultural norms that hold working people back and allow the privileged to horde opportunity for themselves and their children. That would be an Easter message worth sharing.

Social mobility: A puzzle the government has no desire to solve

For those who believe the UK government cares about addressing inequality or promoting social mobility these must have been a disappointing past few days.

Justine Greening resigned as education secretary in the midst of a botched cabinet reshuffle, only a few weeks after launching a ‘plan for improving social mobility through education’. Explaining her decision to turn down a lesser role and leave the government, she tweeted, ‘Social mobility matters to me and our country more than my ministerial career. I’ll continue to do everything I can to create a country that has equality of opportunity for young people’. It is a depressing footnote to the story of the Conservatives’ dreadful and ongoing mismanagement of the education sector that Ms Greening felt this was something she was better placed to do outside government.

A new education secretary, Damian Hinds, was appointed, a politician whose chairmanship of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Social Mobility appears to have done little to blunt his enthusiasm for selective schools. Mr Hinds’ appointment is widely seen as an attempt to get the Prime Minister’s plans for the education sector – derailed by her colossal misjudgment in calling a snap election – back on track. Notably, Mr Hinds shares Mrs May’s enthusiasm for grammar schools, frequently styled by Mrs May as an engine of social mobility when, of course, they are nothing of the sort.

One of Ms Greening’s most endearing qualities as education secretary was her lack of enthusiasm for this strand of Tory thinking. She has also resisted the dismal spread of free and faith schools. Her scepticism is well founded. A 2016 report on grammar schools and social mobility by the Education Policy Institute found that the gap between children on free school meals attaining five A*–C GCSEs, including English and Math) and all other children is wider in selective areas than in non-selective areas – at around 34.1 per cent compared with 27.8 per cent. The report also found that high-attaining pupils perform just as well in high-quality non-selective schools as in selective schools. And while faith schools can boast greater exam success, this is largely down to social selection.

But, of course, the Prime Minister knows all of this, as I am sure does Mr Hinds, who has called for an ‘elite’ grammar school in every major conurbation and has advocated the expansion of faith schools. Despite this, they seem set to continue defending ideologically driven interventions, which do nothing for the life chances of the poorest children and help ensure privilege is passed on from generation to generation, as levers to address the very social problems they help cause. Evidently, this is not what Ms Greening had in mind when she wrote of ‘putting social mobility at the heart of education policy’. And that helps explain why Ms Greening had to go. Her genuine commitment to social mobility posed a threat to Mrs May’s own regressive, dangerous and evidence-free plans for education.

The challenge of social mobility, of course, is huge, as Ms Greening admits in the foreword to her plan. The Social Mobility Commission’s last state-of-the-nation report noted ‘a stark social mobility lottery in Britain today’, arguing that the country seemed ‘to be in the grip of a self-reinforcing spiral of ever-growing division’. A week later, of course, the Commission resigned en masse over the Prime Minister’s failure to make progress towards a ‘fairer Britain’. This should have been a very public disaster for the government, particularly as it has repeatedly pledged to make Britain fairer and ensure no-one is ‘left behind’. But, in the context of a still supportive, Brexit-hungry media and in the absence of well-organised, effective opposition, the government has continued to function in an almost frictionless way, despite lurching from crisis to crisis, propelled by its own internal dysfunction.

Against this backdrop, Ms Greening’s plan was an opportunity for the government to seize the social mobility agenda and demonstrate its commitment to it. And while the plan does not live up to its promise to provide ‘a framework for action that can empower everyone – whether educators, government, business or civil society – to help transform equality of opportunity in this country’, it nevertheless offers welcome recognition of the need for a radical shift and for greater policy coherence in our approach, and of the ‘vital role’ of education in delivering meaningful change. But instead of backing the plan, and placing social mobility at the heart of education policy, there is every indication that the government will return to the ancien régime of free and faith schools and selection, which benefit the already advantaged at the expense of the rest, while pursuing its ongoing programme of cuts to state-maintained schools and FE colleges, which have resulted in plummeting learner numbers and a crisis in teacher recruitment.

While the ambitions of the plan are radical – there really is no ambition in politics greater, or more important, than to ensure that where a person starts in life does not determine where they end up – the recommendations are not. There are some good ideas and welcome recognition of the potential contribution of technical and further education to improving social mobility (though it neglects adult education), but the scope of the plan is too narrow and, of course, there is no new money to deliver on its ambitions to ‘reverse these negative spirals and generate a virtuous cycle to unlock talent and fulfil potential’.

One point on which Mr Hinds and Ms Greening agree is that social mobility interventions should focus on early years. This is essential, of course, but it cannot be the whole story. We need a much more joined-up and comprehensive plan to begin to address these issues, and we need to realise that education can only do so much and that widening inequality makes social mobility much more difficult to achieve. The gap between the rungs on the ladder make failure to difficult to countenance and gaming of the system far too tempting.

That said, while education cannot address all of these entrenched issues, it still has a big role to play but we need to be much bolder in thinking across the education system. We need to boost early-years provision, but we also need to ensure parents have the skills and capacities to support their children’s development, and that means investing in adult education and the millions of adults who left school without decent basic skills. We need strong, diverse higher education sector, with fair access, diverse providers and flourishing part-time provision, but we also need to reshape the system so that the range of routes to a good career and decent life are as diverse as people’s aspirations, and that means improving technical and vocational routes and taking some of our eggs out of the academic basket. It also means focusing not just on the talented few but on how to create a system that offers opportunity for all, a system that is properly fair and comprehensive.

To do that, we need to think about the education system in the round and not in silos and ensure that opportunity is evenly spread and is open to all, ensuring place and community are at the heart of the education agenda. No community should be considered ‘left behind’ when it comes to education. As Ms Greening’s plan urges, effort and resource should be directed ‘towards the places and people where it is most needed to unlock talent and fulfil potential’. And we need to recognise that a culture of constant reform, cost-cutting, poor pay and escalating workload, as we have seen for many years now in the further education sector, is not conducive to improving educational performance. None of this is possible without a flourishing, well-funded further education sector. Nor will it be possible while educators are underpaid, overworked and overburdened with the demands of accountability.

What, perhaps, we need most of all is to talk, really talk. Never has British politics been more in need of dialogue. Labour has some good ideas on education but it needs to convince voters and that means talking to people who do not agree with them. Stable government is only possible through the effort to find common ground with our opponents. It is also through dialogue that we can begin to change mind-sets, overcome echo-chamber politics and dispel some of the myths of the instinctive, kneejerk populism of the right. A big problem, from national to neighbourhood level, is the loss of public spaces where we can meet and reduce the gap between us. Flinging brickbats from behind the barricades just widens that gap. Until we begin to close it, find our common ground and develop inclusive, evidence-based policies that command wide support, we will a struggle to find stable solutions to the problems that haunt us.


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.

GCSEs, class and inequality

I’m always struck at this time of year by the huge amount of pressure we place so early on the shoulders of young people. That pressure is evident in the relief of the students (and their parents) who gain the GCSE results they are hoping for, and in the despondency of those who don’t.

As someone who left school at 16 with no qualifications I always feel a desire to reassure people that, just as doing well in your GCSEs is not a definitive measure of your worth, not getting good GCSEs is not the end of the world either. There are plenty of opportunities down the line, plenty of ways of making good and doing something useful in your life. There are as many ways to become a success as there are people to become successful.

This was true in the 1980s when I left school. I was able to take GCSEs and A-levels at my local college, get onto a ‘pre-entry’ journalism course and start out as a reporter at a good regional paper at 19. A few years later I left my job to take a degree as a mature student, funded by my local education authority (seeing all of this in black and white I’m surprised at just how definitively the language dates me).

Many of these opportunities are still there, though the costs, of course, are much higher – eye-wateringly so in the case of higher education. Yet, as the latest UCAS figures show, this is not necessary deterring people, even people from the least advantaged backgrounds, from accessing higher education. And, while part-time numbers show no sign of returning to previous levels (and this remains extremely bad news for us as a society, a democracy and an economy – as well as for the diverse sort of higher education system the government says it wants to see), full-time mature student numbers appear to be picking up.

This is welcome news for the government, which will see the latest figures as a vindication of its reforms, and, in particular, of the underlying fairness of the fees and loans system it has introduced. Evidently, the generous loan terms the government was able to offer have been a factor in maintaining student enrolment numbers, but there is another more important reason, I think – the same reason that 16 years olds approach GCSE results day with so much apprehension: the costs of failure in our society can be huge and are much, much harder to reverse than they were, for example, in the eighties when it was still possible to enter a profession like journalism without a degree or even a decent set of A-levels.

This is why discussions of social mobility often founder – they do not first address the underlying problem of social inequality. Social mobility, of course, cuts both ways. You can go down the escalator as well as up. One of the main reasons middle-class parents have become so adept at hoarding opportunity – and excluding others from it – is that the gap between those who do succeed, gaining a degree from a good university and accessing the professions, and those who don’t and find themselves grinding out an existence close to the poverty line, has become so great that the consequences of failure are too enormous to contemplate. And every parent wants the best for their kids. It’s a fight, and pretty bloody one, almost from the off.

Of course, in Britain (or do I mean England?), we love putting someone in their place. Weighing someone up, by the way they speak, the way they dress, whether or not they went to university, or, if they did, which university they went to, is close to a national sport. Selection, at 16 or 18, plays nicely to something fundamental about our national psyche: vocational or academic, Russell Group or red brick, pre-1992 or post-1992, Oxbridge or any of the others – it’s even played out among the upper echelons, in the refined thuggery of the Bullingdon Club and its ilk.

It’s obvious too that the ways in which we select, though in some respects plainly unfair, are just as plainly doing a good job, from the point of view of preserving advantage and ensuring the distribution of opportunity remains unequal. For that reason they are incredibly hard to change (imagine what the Daily Mail would say!) – just as our absurd system of taxpayer-supported public schools is considered politically unassailable, though it is at the heart of much that is unfair and divisive in our society.

The same kind of snobbery runs through the educational offer you can expect to find at the kind of institution or course to which you are selected. The kind of rounded, liberal education capable of producing George Davie’s ‘democratic intellect’ is increasingly the province of the privileged few, for whom history, culture, politics and the arts are considered a part of day-to-day life, essential preparation for a fulfilling existence. For everyone else, preparation for employment is all that is needed (though it’s becoming clear that simply preparing someone for work is no adequate preparation for work).

The result of all of this is more entrenched social inequality and a working class which struggles to assert its political voice or which, in many cases, has given up on politics altogether. This will no doubt be celebrated by some – one dimension of the triumph of Thatcherism over organized labour – but it is disastrous for democracy and for our society as a whole. The voiceless working class bears the brunt of austerity politics while great institutions like the NHS are gradually picked apart for profit without democratic mandate. The vast amount of talent and enterprise that is permitted to go to waste is horrible to think about. The narrowing of opportunity for adults to study what they want, for reasons other than employability, is a serious indictment of our civilization.

Sixteen is depressingly early to write someone off, yet, all too often, this is the routine outcome of a combination of selection and few second chances. There is a human cost to all of this. Huge social inequality is not just damaging to economic growth it makes people at the bottom feel worthless, that they are less than human. It also cultivates a sort of indifference, bordering on contempt, among those at the top for those ‘below’ them. Crucially, I think, it prevents people from recognizing their commonality, and their common needs – those things in virtue of which we really are all ‘in this together’. Narrowing educational opportunities – particularly the kind of liberal adult education opportunities that inspired the likes of the Pitmen painters and have now all but disappeared – makes it that much harder for people to see further or to find ways to effect social and political change. It is difficult to see where the kind of fundamental change we need will come from. But it is just as difficult to imagine how we can continue as we are. Perhaps a place to start is with the recognition that people not only need resources and opportunities to move up the social ladder but also that these resources and opportunities must be available throughout life – rather than for a fleeting moment on which all of one’s future life chances appear to hang.

1963 and all that: What Robbins thought about mature students

When Lionel Robbins published the report of his committee on higher education in the United Kingdom in October 1963, higher education in the UK was an elite system, run by and for a small proportion (less than five per cent, predominantly male) of the population, many of whom were fiercely resistant to the thought that expansion might be either feasible or desirable, for reasons which appear now to amount to little more than a combination of class spite, snobbery and chauvinism.

While that was already beginning to change, thanks to a range of social and economic pressures that were slowly teasing open the doors of the academy (there were 31 universities at time of publication, including seven which had been founded within the previous five years), the Robbins report provided a compelling rationale for the rapid expansion of the system, arguing that higher education courses ‘should be available to all who are qualified by ability and attainment to pursue them and who wish to do so’ (the ‘Robbins principle’). Its main recommendations, including the proposal that ‘colleges of advanced technology’ be awarded university status, were accepted by the Conservative government of the day within 24 hours of publication and the further expansion of the university system began almost immediately.

As Lord Moser, one of the few surviving members of Lord Robbins’ team, recalls, the report ‘changed the whole tone of public discussion on higher education’. Critically, it demolished the contention that there was a strictly limited ‘pool of ability’ at the level of higher study, arguing instead that there was a large pool of untapped talent which the country could not afford to ignore. Robbins recognised that this was an economic issue, of course, but his view of the purposes and potential benefits of higher education was much broader than that. He set out four objectives for a ‘properly balanced system’: ‘instruction in skills’; the promotion of ‘the general powers of the mind’ so as to produce ‘not mere specialists but rather cultivated men and women’; to maintain research in balance with teaching so that teaching is not separate from ‘the search for truth’; and to transmit ‘a common culture and common standards of citizenship’. The return on education, he argued, was ‘not something that can be estimated completely in terms of the return to individuals and of differential earnings’. Higher education was an important public good which should be supported largely through the public purse.

Robbins also recognised the importance of ‘second chance’ education and saw that the prevailing model of full-time residential education would not suit everyone. He urged that greater provision be made for mature students, recommending the ‘rapid development’ of courses for adults, and encouraging universities to admit ‘non-standard’ students. Higher education, the report said, ‘is not a once-for-all process. As the pace of discovery quickens it will become increasingly important for practitioners in many fields to take courses at intervals to bring them up to date … there are far too few students taking refresher courses and courses of further training’. It was particularly important, it continued, that such courses were made available for women returning to work after raising children and that these women were financially supported in their studies. He appreciated that full-time study would not necessarily be the right mode for delivery for this group.

The report also gave recognition to the important role of liberal adult education in giving students without advanced qualifications an opportunity to engage in higher study. It called for the further development of full-time courses for adults in residential colleges, such as Coleg Harlech and Ruskin College, and recommended that ‘consideration should be given to assisting them in the immediate future by capital grants and also by enabling suitable entrants to obtain adequate financial support for their studies’. Highlighting the activities of extra-mural departments, the Workers’ Educational Association and local authorities in providing adult education, the report noted that demand existed ‘on a large scale’ and that there was ‘clearly much scope for further development, in conjunction with the television services, for example, and other new media of communication. We hope that the universities and their partners will cooperate in this task. If this country is to maintain its proud record [in contributing to ‘the general education of the community’], further support for this kind of study will be needed in the future’.

Robbins didn’t see mature study merely as a nice-to-have but, rather, as an essential part of a university system within which everyone with the ability to study has the opportunity to do so. It is also clear that Robbins is not arguing for new types of institution to cater for these ‘non-standard’ students. The needs of the future, the report says, ‘should be met by developing present types of institution’ in such a way that ‘irrational distinctions’ and ‘rigid barriers between institutions’ are not perpetuated. While ‘it is inevitable that some institutions will be more eminent than others’, it says, ‘[t]here should be no freezing of institutions into established hierarchies; on the contrary there should be recognition and encouragement of excellence wherever it exists and wherever it appears’. Robbins’ vision allows for difference in function, where difference rests on ‘excellence in the discharge of functions’, but not for rigid differences in status. Equally, he did not look to different kinds of institution to cater for different kinds of student but, rather, expected that, as the system expanded, mature and other ‘non-standard’ students would become part of the institutional life of every university.

So, what has been the long-term impact of the Robbins report on widening participation, particularly for mature students? The Robbins principle that higher education should be available to all who are qualified and wish to study has underpinned developments in widening participation and lifelong learning, including the expansion of higher education opportunities to students who do not fit the traditional profile of 18 or 19 year old school leavers. There has been a huge expansion in total student numbers. There are now around 2.5 million students in the UK compared to a quarter of a million when Robbins published his report. By 2009 mature students (those aged 21 or over) represented almost a third of the first-year undergraduate population. At the same time there was a comparable growth in the numbers of part-time students, the vast majority of whom are classed as mature. Robbins was a catalyst for much of this change.

Yet, in some respects, I suspect the nature of the change would have disappointed Robbins and his committee. Although most institutions now welcome mature and part-time students it is clear that they are more welcome in some than in others. Much of the growth in numbers has been thanks to ‘new’ universities, including the former polytechnics whose foundation, in the mid-sixties, introduced into the system the sort of binary division Robbins argued against. The division survived the merging of polytechnics into the university sector in 1992 (we now have ‘pre-’ and ‘post-92’ institutions). Although these institutions have done much of the heavy lifting in terms of widening participation and opening up opportunities, for mature and part-time students in particular, there remains, in the eyes of the media, at least, and perhaps the public too, an impression that these institutions offer second-class higher education. At the same time, the innovation shown in these institutions has obscured the fact that many ‘elite’ institutions have remained stubbornly resistant to change, with a corresponding failure to widen participation to the extent of newer institutions, in which mature students (and other under-represented groups) have remained concentrated. For many of these older institutions more has not necessarily meant different, and they remain more or less rooted in the notion of universities as residential finishing schools for already privileged youngsters.

After 50 years, Robbins’ vision remains compelling. Universities minister David Willetts has made much of the continuity between the Robbins report and his own government’s vision for higher education. Certainly, the loans system devised and introduced by the coalition makes serious efforts to ensure that higher education remains accessible to all who have the talent, irrespective of ability to pay, despite the huge escalation in fees. The extension of loans to part-time students for the first time would also have pleased Robbins, particularly given his concern about women’s access to higher education. However, while there is some continuity, there are also large differences, which are more fundamental. Critically, Robbins thought very differently about the purposes and benefits of higher education. The coalition view of the benefits of university has narrowed beyond recognition to a truly grim utilitarian calculation based on individual earnings. Robbins, on the other hand, takes a much broader view, acknowledging the role of universities in creating rounded, cultivated individuals capable of promoting ‘common standards of citizenship’.

Mr Willetts notes that the Robbins committee considered the introduction of loans and that, in later life, Robbins came to regret the decision not to do so. This suggests common ground but, again, the differences are profound, and instructive. While the committee considered loans it also raised concerns that fear of debt would be a significant disincentive to students from non-traditional groups. And while Robbins may have come to think differently about loans in some respects, it is clear that he was never entertaining the possibility of loans to cover the full cost of a degree. This is because Robbins explicitly rejects the idea that the benefits of education ‘can be estimated completely in terms of the return to individuals and of differential earnings’. The wider benefits to society are of much greater importance; a recognition that underpins Robbins’ notion of higher education as an important public good, deserving of public support. He saw that the whole of society benefits from an educated citizenry capable not only of contributing to the economy but of playing a full part in civic life. It was likely that the ‘social advantages’ of investing in education greatly out-weighed the commercial ones, he argued.

A difference in approach is reflected also in the dramatic decline in part-time and mature student numbers – something which would have greatly dismayed Robbins who was acutely aware of the importance of this sort of provision both to the economy and to efforts to widen participation (particularly to women seeking to return to education after having children). Full-time mature student applications have fallen by more than 18,000 (a 14 per cent decline) since the trebling of tuition fees and the introduction of the new loans system. At the same time, part-time student numbers have collapsed, by 40 per cent, according to HEFCE figures. These shocking numbers would, I think, have appalled Robbins, but they may not have surprised him. In the section of his report on adult education, he highlights the need for ‘adequate financial support’ for mature students. Later, in considering the possible impact of a system of loans, he recognises that fear of debt can produce ‘undesirable disincentive effects’. He also observes that any drop in recruitment to higher education by those with the talent for it (but not the resources to fund it) is not only a private loss to the individual but a ‘social loss’.

It is clear, though we seem curiously reluctant to say so, that higher fees are having a significant negative impact on the recruitment of mature students, particularly those who would prefer to study part-time. There is a strong case, I think, bearing in mind the important public and economic good part-time study represents, for government to provide some sort of subsidy to enable institutions to lower costs for part-time courses, which are typically more expensive and time-consuming to run. Getting rid of the ‘ELQ rule’, which denies access to loans to students studying for a second degree (and played a big part in decimating university lifelong learning under the last government), would also be a positive move, opening up more opportunities to the kinds of adult student Robbins was particularly concerned about and lending meaningful support to his conviction that education is not a ‘once-for-all process’. Despite government efforts to ameliorate some of these problems (such as the very welcome partial relaxation of the ELQ rule), the continuing decline in mature and part-time student numbers is extremely bad news for social mobility and there remains a serious risk that the loans system will ultimately result in a two-tier system, with less-advantaged ‘non-standard’ students obliged to opt for the low-cost, ‘second-class’ model, while the elite institutions remain the preserve of the already privileged. This, I imagine, would be just about the last thing Robbins would have wanted.

HE and social mobility: the problem of mature and part-time students

Alan Milburn’s justified criticism of the government’s decision to cut the Education Maintenance Allowance – a ‘very bad mistake’, he argues – may have grabbed the headlines, but there is much else that is good and useful in his thoughtful, intelligent report on the role of higher education in advancing social mobility.

Particularly welcome is the recognition that higher education is an important public and social good – as well as an economic one. As the NIACE-sponsored Inquiry into the Future for Lifelong Learning noted, ‘universities contribute across the full range of desirable forms of capital – human, social, identity, creative and mental’. Higher education is as much about cultural enrichment as it is about skills. It is about helping people grow intellectually and achieve fulfilment as much as it is about equipping them for work. And while nobody would deny that it makes a critical contribution to the economic success of the country, to create a system that, in Lord Dearing’s words, can ‘inspire and enable’ individuals from every background to ‘develop their capabilities to the highest potential levels throughout life’, a wider vision is necessary, and Milburn’s acknowledgement of the diverse purposes of higher education is important.

Engaging adults in higher education, and opening up more opportunities for them to study part-time, in ways that fit around their work and family circumstances, is important in achieving both economic growth and greater social mobility. For that reason, it is good to see the consideration given to mature and part-time students in the report, and the concerns Milburn raises about the substantial fall in applications from mature students and the steep drop in part-time numbers expected in admissions for this year. He is also right to highlight the failure of the government to adequately communicate the new fees regime, particularly to part-timers and mature students, whom it appears to have deterred. As he notes:

While there has been considerable effort to target potential applicants from schools and colleges that go through the UCAS system, others, including mature students and part-time students, have been left out. Evidence from outreach teams suggests that part-time students are confused by, or simply unaware of, the loan support that is now available to them. Applications from this group have significantly dropped across the sector at universities which specialise in part-time students, and there is a risk that what should be a good news story regarding the extension of loans to part-time students will turn into a bad news story, as people are put off applying through a lack of effective information.

The report calls for the government to broaden its communications effort ‘to include applicants who are not coming straight from school’ and to develop ‘a new strategy for encouraging non-traditional students – especially mature and part-time students – into higher education’. It is to be hoped that ministers act on this suggestion and think seriously about how to improve their messaging to these groups.

Milburn argues, rightly in my view, that some of the government’s key policy interventions in higher education are likely to have unintended negative consequences for social mobility, in particular the so-called ‘core and margin’ mechanism, which allows ‘unconstrained recruitment of high achieving students (AAB+) and creates a ‘flexible margin’ of 20,000 places available to universities charging £7,500 or less in tuition fees. There is a danger that these reforms could further polarise the HE system, with elite institutions competing for high-achieving students and other, middle-ranking, institutions forced to cut costs (and, in some cases, inevitably, standards) in order to compete for the flexible margin of places. In particular, the unconstrained recruitment of AAB+ students will make it more difficult for mature students who have come to higher education by a non-traditional route to gain a place at highly selective institutions. Milburn says:

Such polarisation would be deeply damaging and could have undesirable consequences for social mobility if able candidates from lower socio-economic backgrounds felt constrained to choose lower-cost provision. Indeed, it could create a vicious cycle in which those universities which charge less will have less scope to invest in facilities and to enhance the student experience, with the result that they may find it increasingly difficult to attract high-achieving students or those from wealthier backgrounds, regardless of the quality of teaching on offer.

Milburn’s calls for the sector to make the use of contextual data ‘as universal as possible in admissions processes’, and to standardise it, are also welcome. Many universities already make use of contextual information, for example, family income and the type of school attended by applicants, in admissions, but it should be used more widely. It is of particular importance to ‘second chance’ adult students who are less likely to have conventional qualifications. I support Milburn’s rejection of the distinction between ‘equity and excellence’ and support his argument that ‘over-reliance on A-level results engineers a distorted intake to universities, and fails to meet the criteria of excellence’. There is evidence that students who attended state schools perform better in finals compared to privately-educated pupils with the same A-level scores. It is clear that, in many cases, university admissions systems do favour students from private schools.

There are many other positives in Milburn’s report. There are sensible proposals for shifting resources away from bursaries and fee waivers towards outreach and support for students while studying, and for more and better evidence as to what approaches to outreach work best. And it is good to see recognition in the report of the important role played by HE in further education colleges in enhancing the diversity of the higher education sector, and of the need to increase the proportion of apprentices entering higher education. Milburn’s calls for greater long-term investment in education, with more public and private investment in higher education, and for an expansion in student numbers to allow more part-timers and mature students into the system, also deserve support.

Milburn is also right to say that the abolition of the Education Maintenance Allowance and its replacement with a new system of discretionary support (‘inadequate,’ Milburn says) was a serious mistake, though there are concerns, voiced by new universities group Million+, that making universities responsible for providing financial incentives for pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds could create a ‘postcode lottery’ that might lead to the exclusion of many students. Universities will be reluctant to fill the funding gap left by the withdrawal of the EMA and more thought needs to be given as to how an adequate alternative to the scheme can be funded.

In some respects, Milburn’s proposals are too narrow. While he does well to highlight significant concerns about mature and part-time student applications, much of his report is overly focused on younger, full-time students, and there is not enough on how to encourage participation among adults who are not currently learning in institutional settings. Milburn’s proposals for incentivising young people to stay on and succeed at school will do nothing to help mature students and there is little here to address specific support and retention issues facing older and part-time students. More attention too might have been given to the role of families in supporting young people into higher education, and the critical part family learning can play in transforming attitudes and aspiration. There are dangers in the report too, not least that the collective use of ‘statistical targets’ could seriously limit institutions’ capacity to respond flexibly to local circumstance and their own distinct challenges on admissions.

Participation in higher education remains painfully unequal, with the most advantaged 20 per cent of young people seven times more likely to attend the most selective universities that the 40 per cent most disadvantaged. Milburn is right that universities, and in particular highly selective universities, need to do more to help raise aspiration and attainment and to identify excellence wherever it is to be found. He is also right to dismiss objections that the focus ought to be solely on schools and that a university place should be determined solely by attainment at A-level. Every university should seek to do more to widen participation and make access fairer, and the government should work to ensure a policy framework that makes this easier rather than harder. It is to be hoped that Alan Milburn’s report will reopen debate about the future and purpose of higher education and, critically, get us all thinking hard about what to do about the troubling decline in mature and part-time student admissions.

‘Knowledge is power’: adult education and community development

At the start of the summer I visited a project in Ely, one of the poorest districts in Cardiff and, indeed, in the whole of the UK – an area with a population of 30,000 people but not a single bank. The project was inspirational for me, demonstrating the remarkable resilience and creativity of people faced with odds which, in our unequal and socially immobile society, could understandably be viewed as insurmountable. It also, I felt, offered a powerful illustration of the capacity of adult education to reinvigorate lives and communities – giving people the confidence and know-how to act on their sense of civic duty – and of the difference adult education can make to a range of critical policy agendas, from employability to neighbourhood renewal.

I write in more detail about the project here. Briefly, a group of mums from Ely’s most disadvantaged neighbourhood – an area still scarred by the rioting and petrol bombing of the early 1990s – came together in 2006 to learn IT skills to better support their children through school. They used their IT skills to self-publish their own local newsletter, the Grand Avenue Times, from which the group took its name. More women joined as a result, and, with the support of the local authority adult learning service and a range of other partners, including the Open University and the Workers’ Educational Association, the group put on more courses, using disused rooms at their local school – rooms they renovated using some of the practical and craft skills they had learned.

Some of the women took peer education classes to pass on their new skills to other women, while others became advocates for their community. Members of the group found work as a result of their involvement, others started volunteering, but all of them reported an increased sense of confidence and self-belief, frequently manifested in a desire to make their communities better places in which to live. ‘Knowledge is power’ became the group’s self-consciously assertive slogan. All of the women had a story to tell about how they had reached this point in their lives. One had learned to read and write through her involvement with the group; another overcame depression and weaned herself of anti-depressant drugs. All found learning stimulating and transformational. Yet few, if any, would have had the confidence to take a further education course in a more formal setting.

What does the experience of this group and its members – an experience echoed in the work of community-based education projects across the country – tell us about the role adult education, and community adult education, in particular, can play in responding to the challenges faced by communities like Ely. I think it’s possible to pick out three overarching themes, familiar to community adult educators wherever they work, which position adult educators at the heart of the civic renewal agenda: engagement; developing community capacity and self-reliance; and taking learning outside the classroom.

The Grand Avenue Times (GAT) group had particular success in engaging in learning individuals furthest away from formal education; those often termed ‘hard to reach’. The key to this success was that the project was firmly planted in the immediate environment. It started where people were in their lives, in terms both of location and outlook. It began with things that concerned them, that mattered to them (and what matters more to parents than their children’s futures?). The local authority supported the group, but it came to its meetings with a listening brief, careful always to ask what learning would benefit them before working with partner providers and funders to deliver the courses. It demonstrated that course topic needn’t be a barrier to adult education with a genuine social purpose. The important thing was to begin with what engages and interests people. GAT started with a conversation in a playground about how the mums could better support their children’s learning. Blackburn with Darwen Council’s much-lauded success in engaging Asian men in learning began by getting someone to spend time in a local mosque simply listening to people talk about the learning they were interested in doing. In this case, a swimming class was the hook from which a wide-ranging programme of opportunities developed.

Cardiff’s adult learning service ensured that listening was not a one-off exercise but formed part of an ongoing process, developing genuinely self-directed learning intended to build community capacity and eventual self-reliance. Students were encouraged to think about new courses – new skills they wanted to develop – and what would be good for them as a group to learn. Working as a group proved to be an effective way of building confidence, developing cooperative behaviour and boosting learners’ sense of agency and negotiation skills, while gradually building networks of peer support. The aim from the start was that the group should be self-sustaining, a permanent network within the Ely community, giving local people real voice, real agency, and helping bring about change at grassroots level. Along the way, the group developed its own social enterprise, selling some of the craft work they made on their courses, and undertook a range of initiatives to support and champion local causes. The women took stronger roles in their own families, some reporting that they were now more active participants in their children’s educations. The network of support that developed extended beyond the classroom, with members of the group helping one another through personal difficulties. Often, the women were called upon to act as advocates for other parents in the community.

From the start, as soon as the GAT women were given an opportunity to reflect on what they would like to learn, they made their learning community-focused. They wanted to take their learning out of the classroom and into the community. The desire to use what they were learning to effect change in their community intensified as the group developed, to the point where some of the women trained to be community advocates to take their model of learning into the wider community. Successful learners are an incredibly useful resource, not least because they are very often keen to give something back to their communities, frequently by sharing their experiences and acting as champions for learning. As such, they can be a critical first point of contact for other learners. Often, in deprived areas such as Ely, there is insularity, and resistance to guidance from strangers, however well-intentioned – yet, if it is someone ‘from the street’, people are more likely to listen, to appreciate the difference learning has made to someone else’s life, and to become engaged themselves. The willingness of people in the community to approach GAT members suggests a real though rarely articulated desire for learning and connection.

Satisfying the thirst people in these communities feel for solidarity and connection won’t come from top-down politics – it will only come from the bottom up, and education is crucial in this process. This is increasingly recognised by movements for social change. There has been an explosion of interest in self-directed learning and in the linkage between education and social change. Occupy London’s Tent City University is a great example of a spontaneous educational intervention seen by its organisers as a necessary adjunct to social progress. Elsewhere, the free university movement is looking to revive the extra-mural tradition for a new age. Adult educators need to be at the heart of these developments, keeping social purpose at the core of their approach but also ensuring that the learning on offer is relevant to the lives and concerns of the students, acting as mentor and catalyst for this sort of flourishing of self-organised learning.

This is not to say that adult education alone can tackle the problems facing our most disadvantaged and marginalised communities. The issues they face are far too complex for that. But it does have a clear and critical role to play, in partnership with a range of other agencies, including schools, voluntary and community sector organisations, local authorities, health and social care professionals, youth workers, the careers service and other education providers. As the GAT group demonstrates, this role is far from negligible. Adult learning is often the critical intervention in an individual’s life journey. Stories such as this one demonstrate that people are capable of change, that learning is infectious, and that, given the opportunity, learners will work to make their communities better places in which to live. They show that adult education should feature prominently in any genuinely joined-up thinking about social inclusion and community development.