1919 and all that

1919

This year we will mark the centenary of a milestone in the history of adult education in the UK and, indeed, internationally: the publication of the final report of the Adult Education Committee of the Ministry of Reconstruction, better known as the 1919 Report. The report represents a hugely important statement of the value of adult education and its role in creating and sustaining successful democratic societies, animated by shared civic, social and economic goals. It not only recognised the wide impact adult education can have on society, notably in responding to the massive social, economic and political challenges of the time, but also accorded government, national and local, a direct responsibility for ensuring its adequate supply. Adult education, it argued, is not a luxury – as governments subsequently have tended to see it – but is in fact indispensable to national recovery and to sustainable, effective democracy.

This farsighted and ambitious perspective emerged at a time when the country was in profound crisis and the need to learn from past mistakes was acute. Prime Minister Lloyd George’s government created the Ministry of Reconstruction in 1917, charging it with the task of overseeing the rebuilding of ‘national life on a better and more durable foundation’ once the Great War had ended. It set up numerous committees to consider different aspects of life in Britain, including labour relations, local government, housing and the role of women in society. One of these committees was on adult education. It included luminaries such as Albert Mansbridge, founder of the WEA, Basil Yeaxlee, who oversaw the YMCA’s programme of adult education during the war, and chair Arthur L. Smith, Master of Balliol College and another key figure of the British adult education movement. A young R.H. Tawney drafted much of the final report. The Committee’s remit was ‘to consider the provision for, and possibilities of, adult education (other than technical or vocational) in Great Britain’. However, in practice, it went somewhat beyond its terms of reference to consider all forms of adult education, including technical and vocational, on which it makes a number of recommendations.

The final report was presented to the Prime Minister in 1919. It emphasised the social purpose of adult education in supporting enlightened and responsible citizenship and in creating a ‘well ordered welfare state or Great Society’ organised around ‘the common good’. The main purpose of education, Arthur L. Smith noted in his covering letter to the Prime Minister, was ‘to fit a man [sic] for life’, including not only ‘personal, domestic and vocational duties’ but also ‘duties of citizenship’. The ‘goal of all education’ must therefore be citizenship, he wrote, ‘that is, the rights and duties of each individual as a member of the community; and the whole process must be the development of the individual in relation to the community’. He argued that the main political, social and economic challenges faced by the country could be tackled only with the help of a greatly expanded, publicly funded system of adult education. Not only did peace between nations rest on a ‘far more educated public’ but so too did the health of British democracy, harmonious industrial relations and the elimination of the social ‘cankers’ of drink and prostitution. The ‘necessary conclusion’, Smith wrote:

is that adult education must not be regarded as a luxury for a few exceptional persons here and there, nor as a thing which concerns only a short span of early manhood [sic], but that adult education is a permanent national necessity, an inseparable aspect of citizenship, and therefore should be both universal and lifelong … the opportunity for adult education should be spread uniformly and systematically over the whole community, as a primary obligation on that community in its own interest and as a chief part of its duty to its individual members, and that therefore every encouragement and assistance should be given to voluntary organisations, so that their work, now necessarily sporadic and disconnected, may be developed and find its proper place in the national education system.

The members of the committee had been greatly impressed with the progress made by the adult education movement in the nineteenth century and in the early part of the twentieth. The report surveyed these developments in detail – tracing the history of adult education in Britain from the early adult schools (probably the first recognisable and distinctively adult education provision in Britain) to the mechanics’ institutes, the cooperative movement, people’s colleges and university extension programmes – but placed particular stress on ‘the recent expansion of adult education … sprung spontaneously from the desire of working people for a more humane and civilized society’. This new approach, the report noted, was reflected in the support given by trade unions to Ruskin College and the foundation and expansion of the Workers’ Educational Association and other ‘collegiate institutions’ such as the Working Men’s College and Morley College in London, Swarthmore in Leeds, Fircroft residential college in Birmingham and Vaughan Memorial College in Leicester. The WEA, in particular, had ‘combined in one organisation a large number of working-class and educational bodies … to stimulate and give effective expression to the growing demand for higher education among adult men and women’.

This explosion of voluntary activity, combined with the improvement in adult teaching represented by the ‘tutorial classes’ offered by universities as part of extra-mural courses, often organized in conjunction with the WEA, had been the main inspirations for the expansion in non-vocational adult education, the report said. It put particular stress on two factors. First, it highlighted the work of voluntary bodies in demonstrating ‘the necessity for the recognition of the peculiar needs of adults and for methods of education and methods of organisation and administration appropriate to the satisfaction of these needs … Non-vocational studies have developed in recent years largely because attention has been concentrated upon the formulation of methods in harmony with adult needs’. Second, it emphasised the importance of the university tutorial class model, noting the ‘seriousness and continuity’ of the students’ commitment, their growing ability to understand and evaluate sources and direct their own learning, the high quality of their work and the tendency of the classes to challenge and overcome intolerance. ‘Dogmatism does not easily survive question, answer and argument continued at weekly intervals for several months, and students learn tolerance by being obliged to practise it,’ it said.

The report sought to build on this ‘remarkable renewal of interest in adult education’, particularly among working-class people, and the growing trend towards ‘extending and systematising’ provision. The advance of the adult education movement was, it noted, in part an ‘expression of the belief that a wider diffusion of knowledge will be a power working for the progress of society, and the ideal which it places before its students and members is less individual success of even personal culture then personal culture as a means to social improvement’. The ‘primary object’ of such education was ‘not merely to heighten the intellectual powers of individual students, but to lay the foundations of more intelligent citizenship and of a better social order’. Technical training, while ‘necessary and beneficial’, and an ‘integral part of our educational system’, was not to be thought of as ‘an alternative to non-vocational education’, thus conceived. ‘The latter is a universal need; but whether the former is necessary depends on the character of employment,’ the report argued.

The committee urged substantial development in adult education, supported by public funds. In particular, it called for an expanded role for universities in delivering adult education, especially through the establishment of extra-mural departments, more and better-paid staff, and an increased role for the WEA and other voluntary organisations. Universities, the report said, should not look only to schools for their supply of students but ‘to the world of men and women, who seek education not as a means to entering a profession, but as an aid to the development of personality and a condition of wise and public-spirited citizenship’. They should make ‘much larger financial provision’ for adult study with the support of ‘liberal assistance … from public authorities, both national and local’, and reframe their priorities to reflect the importance of adult education, including by establishing an extra-mural department for adult students in every university. The Committee viewed extra-mural departments as a crucial link between universities and the wider, non-academic world.

Local education authorities were encouraged to see non-vocational adult education as ‘an integral part of their activities’, including through organisational and financial support for university tutorial classes and the creation of ‘non-vocational institutes as evening centres for humane studies’. These centres would have a special focus on the education of young adults and operate in cooperation with voluntary agencies. Authorities were also recommended to form ‘Adult Education Joint Committees’ within their local area ‘to receive applications for the provision of adult classes’. Ultimately, though, the report argued, the volume of educational activity would be determined ‘not by the capacity of universities and education authorities to provide facilities, but by the ability of organising bodies to give shape and substance to the demand’. The agencies should be regarded as ‘an integral part of the fabric of national education, in order to give spontaneity and variety to the work and to keep organised educational facilities responsive to the ever-widening needs of the human mind and spirit’. Their work, therefore, should be ‘maintained and developed’, supported though not directed by the state (the report put great stress on ‘self-organisation’). The ‘large expansion of adult education’ would only be possible with a ‘considerable increase in financial contributions from the State’. This in turn would require a system of inspection to ensure the education was ‘serious and continuous and, because of its quality, worth supporting’.

The 1919 Report, like the 1942 Beveridge Report that founded the British welfare state from amid the ashes of the Second World War, represents an attempt to renew and repurpose society in the wake of the most appalling destruction and loss. Its particular importance lies, in the words of R.H. Tawney, in demonstrating that adult education was ‘an activity indispensable to the health of democratic societies’. The Committee saw in adult education an opportunity to foster the capacities and attributes necessary in creating a new, fairer, more democratic society (including, importantly, the knowledge and understanding required by women who, following the extension of the franchise, had new roles as citizens). It sought to capitalise on the desire it identified among working people ‘for adequate opportunities for self-expression and the cultivation of personal powers and interests’ and the deeply rooted links between adult education and ‘the social aspirations of the democratic movements of the country’. The report recognised that all men and women had the capacity to participate in a ‘humane’ liberal education and to contribute to the democratic life of the country. It also saw that different approaches to teaching and organisation were required for adults, emphasising both the realities of their lives and the breadth of their interests, along with their need for ‘the fullest self-determination’ in their learning. Its focus on the role of education in supporting participatory democracy drew on the intellectual origins of the movement and its insistence on the importance of ‘true education’ which ‘directly induces thought’ and promotes active citizenship and social understanding. This perspective shaped and influenced the practice of British adult educators for decades to come, informing their view of their work as invested with ‘social purpose’.

The report led, among other things, to the creation of an Adult Education Committee to advise the Board of Education on the development of adult education provision. The Committee argued for a stronger coordinating role for local authorities and sought to expand the range of ‘responsible bodies’ involved in adult learning, alongside universities and the WEA, through the 1924 Board of Education (Adult Education) Regulations. This was, in part, a recognition that the report’s limited focus and relative neglect of the vocational dimension of adult education (which makes it, in places, a slightly awkward, unsatisfactory read). The Committee was evidently not entirely comfortable working within the limitations of its mandate. While it appreciated that a more comprehensive approach was desirable and necessary, it is undeniable that the report perpetuated the damaging distinction between vocational training and academic study, and underscored the relatively low level of esteem accorded the former in comparison with the latter – an issue that continues to dog education policy in the UK a century later.

The British Institute of Adult Education was founded in 1921, in the wake of the report, as a ‘thinking department’ focused on research and advocacy on adult education (it became the National Institute for Adult Continuing Education in 1983; and is now the Learning and Work Institute). Its remit was in part to ‘revive interest’ in the report and its recommendations, which, it was felt, had not been sufficiently noticed by the public. However, while it put strong emphasis on the involvement of local authorities, it quickly moved away from its early focus on university extension classes to take an interest in what it termed ‘various auxiliary services’, meaning the wide array of voluntary agencies, usually with a primary purpose outside adult education, involved in creating less formal, but often more accessible, opportunities for adults to learn. Its activities included collaboration with the BBC on developing an educational use for the wireless, a commission on educational and cultural films, an inquiry into public reading habits and a national advisory committee, set up with the National Council of Social Service, to develop educational work for the unemployed.

Later, under the direction of Secretary W.E. Williams, the Institute initiated a number of cultural projects, which led to the creation of the British Film Institute and the Arts Council. During the Second World War, Williams oversaw the work of the Army Bureau of Current Affairs (ABCA), established in 1941 by the War Office to provide weekly current affairs talks and discussions, led by regimental officers and supported by the fortnightly publication of pamphlets on issues ‘of topical and universal importance’. Williams felt strongly that serving men and women should not only have access to basic information about the war, but also have the opportunity to take part in the discussions that would shape the country that emerged from the conflict. General Sir Ronald Adam, President of the British Institute of Adult Education from 1945 to 1949, told the Institute’s 1945 conference that the ABCA programme was ‘a great manifestation of democratic faith’.

While voluntary organisations kept the recommendations of the report alive, albeit according to their own changing understandings of the needs of adults, the response from successive governments was cool. As Harold Wiltshire notes in his introduction to the University of Nottingham’s 1980 reprint of the report, the years that followed its publication were marked by economic crises and cuts to education spending, which lasted from the early 1920s well into the 1930s (when local authorities were instructed to make all non-vocational adult education classes self-supporting). This helped ensure that the recommendations of the Committee were widely ignored. It was not until the 1944 Education Act that education authorities were given a responsibility to provide ‘adequate facilities’ for full-time and part-time further education ‘for persons over compulsory school age’ and ‘leisure-time occupation, in such organized cultural training and recreational activities as are suited to their requirements, for any persons over compulsory school age who are able and willing to profit by the facilities provided for that purpose’. As a result of the 1944 Act, the number of evening institutes offering courses for adults more than doubled between 1947 and 1950, from just over 5,000 to nearly 11,000, while the number of students increased from 825,000 to 1,250,000. The 1943 White Paper on Educational Reconstruction, which preceded the Act, described wartime developments in army education as a catalyst for adult education reform and stressed the need for training in democratic citizenship through adult education, effectively reviving the idea of education as a civic project.

As Wiltshire argues, the 1919 Report’s lasting influence resides less in its direct practical or political impact or application than in ‘its general and pervading influence’ in establishing adult education as a ‘distinctive domain of education’, elucidating its ethos and purposes, and highlighting its problems and possibilities. For that reason, it remains a critical text, a reference point for advocacy and a landmark statement of the value of adult education. Reading it today, however, reminds one of how our much our political aspirations and ambitions for education have shifted. As Alison Wolf wrote in 2002:

[We] have almost forgotten that education ever had any purpose other than to promote growth … To read government documents of even fifty year ago … gives one a shock. Of course, their authors recognized that education had relevance to people’s livelihoods and success, and to the nation’s prosperity. But their concern was as much, or more, with values, citizenship, the nature of a good society, the intrinsic benefits of learning.

This shift is reflected in the shocking decline in part-time and mature higher study, the closure of university adult education departments, the reduction in opportunities for adults to learn for reasons other than employment and employability, cuts to adult further education so deep they now threaten it with extinction and in the narrowing of the school curriculum. Outside education, local authority funding has been dramatically cut, on the altar of austerity, resulting, among other things, in the loss of many public libraries, highlighted in the 1919 Report as answering a vital need of adult students. When Philip Alston, the United Nation’s special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, visited the UK at the end of 2018, he noted that more than 500 children’s centres had closed between 2010 and 2018 and more than 340 libraries between 2010 and 2016, an act of social and cultural vandalism ‘of particular significance to those living in poverty who may need to access a computer or a safe community space’. There is nothing woolly about this idea. Anyone who has lived in or around poverty knows how potentially lifesaving and life-changing such spaces can be.

The infrastructure of adult education in the UK has been effectively and efficiently dismantled; all at a time when the challenges posed by changes in technology, climate, demography and politics would seem to demand much more adult education, not less. Where once the rest of the world looked to Britain for guidance and inspiration in adult education, it now regards us with ill-disguised concern and sadness. It would be charitable indeed to suggest that this destruction of this tradition and complete disregard for public value in education policy was the result of anything other than informed political choices. The centenary of the report provides a much-needed moment for introspection and reflection on what we think education is for and why we value it. It is an opportunity to put adult education, once again, in the spotlight, to recognize the importance of engaged, thoughtful and civically responsible citizenship, and to show how adult education can help us renew our democracy and become a kinder, smarter, more cohesive, open and prosperous society. Let’s raise our voices once again.

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.

A short fanfare for Adults Learning

I was saddened to hear that Adults Learning – a magazine I edited for 12 years, between 2002 and 2014, and the only UK periodical dedicated to adult education and learning in the round – is to close. Before it disappears into adult education history – unremarked alongside the loss of so much else that is valuable – I thought I would spend a little time remembering it and its place in what we still, in 2002, thought of fondly as ‘this great movement of ours’.

The British Institute of Adult Education (BIAE) was founded in 1921 as a branch of the World Association for Adult Education, an organisation set up by Albert Mansbridge, who also, of course, founded the Workers’ Educational Association (WEA). The institute’s aim, in the words of its first president, Lord Haldane, was to be ‘a centre for common thought by persons of varied experience in the adult education movement’, and both a representative body and a ‘thinking department’, focused not on teaching but on discussion and advocacy. Publication was seen an as important dimension of the work.

The institute became an autonomous organisation, independent of the World Association, in 1925. The following year it set up its own journal, the Journal of Adult Education, a twice yearly publication which became the quarterly Adult Education in 1934. The BIAE’s new Secretary William Emrys Williams (best known perhaps for his work as editor in chief at Penguin books, which included the launch of the Pelican imprint), who had edited the WEA’s The Highway since 1930 (and would continue, at times controversially, as editor until 1939), wanted to turn the institute into a more influential, dynamic voice in the debate about adult education, and to engage a wider audience in that debate.

When Williams assumed editorship of The Highway he told readers he intended to run the journal ‘in the interests of the adult education movement as a whole, and not just those of the Association’. His aim was to make the journal more democratic and participative, very much in the spirit of the WEA itself, which Williams described as ‘not just a federation of students, but a fellowship of all who believe in education and who wish to make it more and more accessible. It stands above all for the abolition of privilege and of competition in educational systems.’ He was true to his promise ‘to provoke opinion and to foster controversy’ in the pursuit of a better national education policy.

Williams’ leadership of the BIAE was energetic and creative, typified by a willingness to push back the boundaries of what was considered relevant to the movement. Up until 1934, the institute saw itself more as ‘a research laboratory’, setting up inquiries and producing a series of reports intended to support ‘the revision and development of educational policy’ (one of its reports, The Film in National Life [1932], resulted in the creation of the British Film Institute). Williams’ far-sighted innovations included the Art for the People programme, which gave working people around the country an opportunity to see important works of art (leading, eventually, to the creation of the Arts Council), and the Army Bureau of Current Affairs, which produced a series of topical short papers to stimulate discussion among troops during the Second World War. Somehow, Williams managed to sell the idea that the troops defending democracy should also be active participants in it.

Williams was very open to the possibilities of different, often new, forms of educational activity, and was concerned always to encourage ‘spectators’ to become participants – the most immediate requirement of adult education, as he saw it. Students’ voices mattered, he believed, and the need to create a better understanding between participants and providers became a theme of his early editorials in Adult Education. The publication became a vital forum for discussing the work of adult educators and adult education’s future as a movement. Williams’ first contribution to the journal – ‘The Institute: Terminus or Junction?’ – invited members to bring their understanding of ‘what is going on in adult education and what ought to be going on’ to discussions of the future of the institute. In another article – ‘The Storm Troops and the Militia’ – he launched a debate among adult educators on how best to reconcile the different needs of the ‘storm troops’ of the three-year tutorial classes with those of the ‘militia army’ of less able or less ambitious adult students. Williams saw the journal not just as a way of communicating institute business to members but as a forum for wider, democratic debate, going well beyond the day-to-day concerns of the institute and attempting to put the work of adult educators in a much broader context.

The British Institute of Adult Education merged with the National Foundation for Adult Education in 1949 to form the National Institute of Adult Education. The NIAE continued to publish Adult Education, under the shrewd leadership of Edward Hutchinson who, adapting to straitened circumstances, took to editing the journal himself (he was also finance officer, conference manager and research and development officer, among other things). Hutchinson grew the organisation into a prominent national source of information and thought about adult education, giving the journal a leading role in developing that thought and supporting others to contribute to it. The Highway had ceased publishing in 1959, leaving Adult Education as the only serious periodical publication in the field.

The journal continued to publish under Arthur Stock’s directorship, which, in 1983, saw the institute again change its name, this time to the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education (NIACE). Alan Tuckett, who took over the directorship of NIACE in 1988, was a social entrepreneur in the tradition of Williams (though, like Hutchinson, he also had a talent for encouraging others). He launched the monthly Adults Learning as a successor to the quarterly Adult Education in 1989, making what Judith Summers described as ‘a statement of intent to reach out actively to a widening constituency’. He also organised the first Adult Learners’ Week (in the teeth of a good deal of internal opposition), launching an idea now copied in countries around the world, developed NIACE’s campaigning and publications operations, and transformed NIACE’s research and policy-making capability, supported by outstanding staff such as Naomi Sargant and Alastair Thomson.

I joined NIACE as editor of Adults Learning in September 2002 having spent the previous few years teaching and researching. The panel that interviewed me included Jane Thompson, one of the best and most influential writers on adult education and a big supporter of the journal. I had worked in journalism in the past but not for the best part of a decade. I knew very little about publishing and had no experience whatsoever of magazine production. I came to it with the idea of creating something that was thoughtful and rigorous, yet accessible to the average reader, while making it look ‘as nice as we can afford to’ (to quote Williams’ reply to a critic of his editorship of The Highway). I also, like Williams, wanted to make it about ‘the interests of the adult education movement as a whole’ rather than the narrower concerns of NIACE (something, I should add, Alan Tuckett enthusiastically supported, recognising that an editorially independent journal was, in some respects, better for NIACE, as well as for the wider sector).

The people who agreed to write for me or be interviewed by me included not only some of the luminaries of the adult education world but also adult education teachers and students. All, almost without exception, were happy to contribute their work without a fee. I was lucky to be able to include the work of some outstanding writers, including regular columnists John Field and Tom Schuller, Alison Wolf, Ewart Keep, Mick Fletcher, Anna Coote, Ian Martin, Ann Walker, Mike Campbell, Mary Stuart, Stephen McNair, Frank Coffield, Jane Thompson, Ken Spours, Ann Hodgson, Lorna Unwin, Kathryn Ecclestone, Gert Biesta, Veronica McGivney, Jim Crowther, Mark Ravenhall, Alastair Thomson and, of course, Alan Tuckett. There are many more and I apologise to those I have omitted to mention. Keen to broaden the appeal of the journal and to highlight the wider relevance of adult education I also interviewed a number of people who, while outside the sector, had things to say which adult educators would find relevant, engaging or inspirational. These included Richard Hoggart, Tony Benn, Maggi Hambling, Esther Brunstein, David Puttnam and the incredible Margaret Aspinall of the Hillsborough Family Support Group (the interview that will stay with me the longest). One-off issues on special themes, such as poverty and low pay, were an attempt to do something similar. I also visited and reported on some remarkable projects, such as the North Edinburgh Social History Group, Tent City University, Lincoln’s Social Science Centre and Liverpool’s The Reader Organisation.

One small coup, in May 2010, was publishing one of the first interviews with new Prime Minister David Cameron (though it was actually written shortly before the election – we also persuaded Gordon Brown and Nick Clegg to answer the same questions). Mr Cameron’s warm words and passionately stated commitment to ‘adult learning and the way it inspires people’ are well worth revisiting in the light of the cuts which have since decimated the sector.

Funding cuts and the decline in policy interest in adult education which accompanied the growing obsession of ministers with skills and employability (narrowly conceived) made it difficult to maintain a journal that was about adult education as a whole, rather than, say, skills or training, or further education. Subscriber numbers fell and, without resources to market or source advertising, it was perhaps inevitable that the journal would close. Nevertheless, I think it did something very valuable in offering a very diverse and often disconnected readership a sense of being part of something bigger, whether that was understood to mean a movement or a sector. As John Field said to me once, it gave people a sense of the whole forest, not just the trees surrounding them. It was a place where it was all brought together: what adult education does, the difference it can make and why it matters, in all its different guises and settings. It helped people think and encouraged them to become participants in the leadership of thought in adult education. It also tried to keep alive the link with adult education’s historic roots. It is a real concern that there is now so little defence of adult education that is about anything other than skills for work. We need to do more to resist this and rediscover some of the values of our past, as well as finding find new ways to talk about them.

I fear there is no bringing back Adults Learning but I do believe there is a need for something that does what it used to, though perhaps in a new form. I’d love hear what people think about this and what their thoughts are as to what might replace Adults Learning, what the sector needs and what would be valuable as a way of developing thinking and advocacy within and about adult education. Please feel free to comment on this post. I’d love to hear what you think.

Some of the material for the article draws on Sander Meredeen’s excellent book, The Man Who Made Penguins: The Life of Sir William Emrys Williams (Darien Jones Publishing, 2007)

We need to talk: a case for political education

Two stories, both depressing, both, I fear, in their different ways indicative of the kind of society we are becoming, caught my eye today. The first was the lead story in today’s Daily Mail, a typically vicious and calculated piece of ‘journalism’ (I’ll do them the credit of not assuming it was drafted in Tory Central Office) which claimed that ‘jobless immigrants’ (yes, that lot again) would face much greater restrictions in what benefits they can claim (you can read it in full online here). The sub-heading gleefully informs readers that ‘Britain’s generous welfare system should no longer be a magnet for citizens of other EU states’, while the article is illustrated with pictures of long queues, at customs and outside a job centre, presumably all jobless migrants. The second story, altogether less sensational but sobering reading nonetheless, reported that a third of British adults feel they have ‘no-one to turn to in a crisis’, while 37 per cent thought they would suffer one within the next five years.

Both stories are striking examples of the need for and relevance of adult education to the challenges we face as a society. The Mail story is both a reflection of the poor standard of mainstream political debate in this country and an illustration of how much we need to revive political education, what we used to term ‘education for active citizenship’, both for adults and young people. There is nothing very newsworthy or interesting in the article. The problem is, first, with what it omits (any sense of the very significant benefits immigration has brought to this country) and, second, with how it is written. The tenor and placement of the article suggest that the government is introducing new legislation to combat a massive social and economic problem – that of benefit tourism. It is supported by a series of statistics showing fluctuating numbers of home and foreign workers in the UK but no attempts it made to link these to the problem of benefit tourism (the subject supposedly under discussion). The reasons for this are obvious: first, because, fairly obviously, they do not support the case for cracking down on benefit tourism; second, because, as it happens, there really is no evidence of a problem of benefit tourism in the UK at all. Unsurprisingly, the article makes no effort at all to back up the claim in the sub-heading – that Britain’s ‘generous welfare system’ makes it a ‘magnet’ for citizens from other EU states – and offers no evidence to support the proposition that UK benefits are particularly easy to access.

The number of people who come to the UK from other EU countries ‘simply because of our benefits’, to quote Iain Duncan Smith, is miniscule, as Mr Duncan Smith must, of course, realise. His own department, Work and Pensions, reported in 2011 that only 6.4 per cent of people claiming working-age benefits were non-UK nationals. Furthermore, a European Commission report from October last year, examining the effects of migration within the EU on each member state’s welfare and social security system, found no evidence that benefit-related factors were a significant motivation for EU citizens to migrate. In fact, it reported, ‘EU migrants are more likely to be in employment than nationals living in the same country’. Work and family were, overwhelmingly, the main reasons for EU citizens migrating to other member states. This is unsurprising and, in a way, I suppose, beside the point. Articles like this one do not seek to inform or advance the debate. They are intended to provoke the bitterest sort of rancor in their readers. Reports over the weekend suggest that we can expect to see similar stories in the press on a pretty much daily basis until the general election next year.

The Mail story highlights the poisonous nature of much contemporary political coverage; how it appeals to the kneejerk emotion while neatly sidestepping reason or evidence. It also shows what a fractured society we now seem to be and how keen politicians are to exploit those fractures (and how indifferent they are – or appear to be – to the very significant human cost). Much of the reaction to Channel 4’s documentary series Benefits Street shows how little it takes to move people to anger and hatred, and how viciously that can be expressed (conversely, it also shows how little it can take to humanise someone). The BBC story, which highlighted the (insufficiently reported-on) problems of loneliness and isolation in our society, also pointed to the fractured social existence many of us now lead. In very many cases, people no longer feel able to depend on their neighbours. They feel no special obligations towards them and have little sense of any dependence on them for a shared existence (real though that dependence often is, as the story suggests). It is difficult to detect in public life much of a sense that we are living a common existence, bound by shared values, inclusive of everyone in our national community.

I was thinking about this in the context of the great adult educator, R.H. Tawney. Tawney thought that education for active citizenship was essential not only in securing the effective, fluid working of democracy but also in developing a ‘cooperative life among equals who respect each other’s humanity’. His work as a tutor with the Workers’ Educational Association showed him how important adult education could be in developing fellowship and stimulating open and comradely discussion among equals. Only through discussion of this sort could we begin to reason our way to a sense of common purpose or shared values, Tawney believed. He would have bemoaned the loss of this in current political debate but I think he would also have been quick to point to the need for serious, informed conversation, the only sort that is likely to lead to any change in the way we organise society. It is the absence of any conversation of this sort from mainstream political debate that would have most exercised Tawney about the political scene today, I suspect. He would have rejected the argument from austerity, so often used to overcome any principled objection to potentially damaging social and economic legislation. As Tawney put it, ‘As long as men are men, a poor society cannot be too poor to find a right order of life, nor a rich society too rich to have to seek it.’ We badly need a conversation of this sort. But that conversation requires a much greater degree of political literacy and political engagement than we, as a society, currently possess. Given what political debate has become it is little wonder that so many people are turned off by it or are seeking alternative ways of expressing their political views. Too often, that journey ends in frustration and bitterness. There is some hope, I think, in the kinds of informal, non-mainstream educational activities that have sprung up in Scotland around this year’s independence referendum, and in other attempts to revive the connection between education and social movements. They show how adult education, and political education in particular, can act as a catalyst for new thinking and for change. Political education can be critical both in creating a more engaged, hopeful and cooperative citizenry and in promoting that sense of common purpose and fellowship Tawney thought so essential to any properly functioning democracy, and which we so plainly lack today.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reading, culture and citizenship

Peter Ackroyd’s biography of Charles Dickens quotes a description, by one of Dickens’ early biographers, of a visit to a Liverpool locksmith around the time of the publication of The Pickwick Papers: ‘I found him reading Pickwick … to an audience of twenty persons, literally, men, women and children.’ The novel had been hired by the group, whose members could not afford a shilling for the monthly number (and who were, in all likelihood, mostly illiterate), ‘for twopence a day, from the circulating library’. The story is indicative not only of the tremendously broad appeal of Dickens’ novels – and the excitement with which they were anticipated, by people of all classes and ages – but also of the role shared reading can play in stimulating enthusiasm for books, and for culture more generally, introducing the world of literature to people who might not feel comfortable with books or who might, perhaps for good reasons, think they are not for them.

It seems appropriate that this locksmith’s story should be set in Liverpool as the city is the home of Jane Davis’s Reader Organisation, which, over the past decade or so, has pioneered shared reading, facilitating reading groups in an array of settings (in Liverpool and beyond) in which people do not have ready access to literature, such as care homes, hospitals, prisons, mental health centres and hostels. ‘We teach being with books,’ was how Jane explained the work when I first interviewed her five or six years ago. The Reader Organisation was recently chosen as official partner in Liverpool Mayor Joe Anderson’s campaign to transform Liverpool into ‘the foremost reading city in the country’. The project, which follows a report from the Liverpool Education Committee on improving school attainment, will aim to encourage a love of reading for pleasure among all the city’s primary school children – a hugely important objective, as the OECD recently recognised when it concluded that reading for pleasure is even more important than social class in determining social mobility.

The locksmith’s reading circle also put me in mind of a story Richard Hoggart told about the funeral of Byron, when I interviewed him a few years ago. Working people queued for days to pay their respects and lined the streets for the funeral procession, he told me, because serious literature mattered to them, because they felt it was something that did not just belong to other people. ‘People felt bereft,’ he said. ‘And I’m talking about the man in the street’. Great literature is for everyone. There is an amazing tradition of working people engaging with books and other forms of culture, from self-help and mutual improvement groups to the Workers’ Educational Association (WEA) and the university extension movement. It was documented wonderfully well in Jonathan Rose’s book The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes, which, tellingly, has been a significant inspiration to Jane Davis. Rose’s book remains a challenge, as well as an inspiration, to all those who work in the broad tradition of adult education, in what we used to term ‘this great movement of ours’. When the WEA was formed at the start of the twentieth century, Matthew Arnold and John Ruskin headed students’ reading lists – an indication, Richard Hoggart suggests, not only of educational ambition but of the ‘spirit of the age’.

The Reader Organisation sees itself as contributing to this tradition. Jane Davis believes not only that reading matters, but that what you read matters. The reading groups do not simply encourage engagement with books but engagement with books that open up to readers, in Jane’s words, ‘a world of powerful ideas, tremendous vocabulary, social visions, ideals, personal knowledge’. Members of the groups are encouraged to discuss, to relate what they read to their own lives and experiences – no one is pressured to contribute and all contributions are treated equally. The aim is to encourage debate, not to close it down – to give people confidence with books and with ‘big learning’ and big themes. Richard Hoggart talks about ‘a good tradition of bloody-mindedness in working-class life’, and, in a way, this approach cultivates that, giving people the resources they need to take charge of their own learning, to make up their own minds, to assert their ownership. There is a parallel with the teaching of history. Where it works best it is about creating debate, contesting ‘facts’, disrupting the established narrative, finding relevance in one’s own times and experiences – as Richard J Evans argues, it is about ‘myth-busting’ rather than ‘myth-making’ (the idea of a single cogent – and, presumably, closed – narrative is not only bad, it is likely to be a huge turn-off to most students). Critically, it is also about citizenship.

The Workers’ Education Association grew up, in part, as a result of attempts to redefine citizenship in a moment in history when the franchise was being extended – the early reading lists reflect this. Matthew Arnold’s prominence on them is particularly significant. Arnold’s own attempts to find out ‘what culture really is, what good it can do, what is our own special need of it’ coincided both with a period of rapid social change and with the widening of the franchise to include more members of the middle classes. For him, culture – by which he understood ‘the best which has been thought and said’ (he had a very literary perspective on culture, and took a rather narrow view of the cultural claims of science) – represented a way of preparing people for citizenship. It was important, Arnold felt, that citizens be able to challenge received ideas, to think more and in a more organised way, to develop principles of action and to act cooperatively and collectively, putting sectional interests aside for the good of society. It was to culture that he looked for the development of these capabilities.

As in Matthew Arnold’s time, and in the early decades of the WEA’s existence, these are challenging times for democracy, and rethinking citizenship is again on the agenda. With national fates increasingly determined by forces seemingly beyond political control, democracy is under threat and extremism is on the rise (particularly in southern Europe where the seeming powerlessness of national governments is most exposed). In the UK, with referenda on both Scottish independence and EU membership in the offing, we face major choices about the future shape of our polity. Yet the quality of political debate here is shamingly poor. Despite an economic crisis unprecedented in the lifetimes of many citizens – a crisis caused by the financial sector – the focus of debate has been overwhelmingly on public-sector cuts and the benefits provided for the most vulnerable in society. At the same time, there is a political consensus among all main parties – and the mainstream media – about the amount of tax that should be raised from the very wealthy which ensures that issue is never seriously discussed. With political debate so constrained, and politicians seemingly unable to talk straightforwardly about what they believe (unsurprising, perhaps, when the repetition of a half-truth so often trumps fact and evidence, and goes largely unchallenged by the media), it is hardly startling to find that people are turned off by conventional politics – and are increasingly looking beyond the mainstream parties for change.

Some of the problems Matthew Arnold was responding to are still relevant but the sort of thinking he did about education and citizenship is no longer fashionable. Adult education with a social purpose has been in retreat for many decades, out of step, perhaps fatally, with the ‘spirit of the age’. Yet it seems to me that now, more than ever, we need education that is, in the words of Jane Davis, ‘personal, creative, demanding and filled, as literature is, with useful equipment for the inner life’. The history of this ‘great movement of ours’ tells us that education can change things, and that there is a clear link between the sort of education we offer and the sort of citizens we get. Initiatives like those pioneered by The Reader Organisation are encouraging. They show the appetite many people have for learning that is imaginative, ambitious and socially purposeful. As Arnold too understood, education is not simply about preparing people for work – it is about giving people the resources they need to realise themselves fully, as individuals and as citizens.

My recent article on the work of The Reader Organisation, published in Adults Learning, is available here

Crossing to safety

 

Frankie Quinn's picture of a peace line dividing residents from different communities in east Belfast
Frankie Quinn’s picture of a peace line dividing residents from different communities in east Belfast

When the Workers’ Educational Association Northern Ireland set up its first anti-sectarian education programme in the early 1990s the image it chose to illustrate its course materials was a photograph of one of east Belfast’s ‘peace lines’ – the walls erected to keep Protestant and Catholic communities apart.

The image (by Belfast photographer Frankie Quinn) neatly summed up what the course – called Us and Them – was all about, as well saying something about the reality of life for many in Northern Ireland, which was, in many cases, one of extreme segregation. A lot, of course, has changed since then. And a lot hasn’t.

When the course began, more than 20 years ago, ceasefire was still some years off. It is now 15 years since the Good Friday Agreement was signed, yet the peace lines remain (the number of peace lines has in fact increased since the agreement)  and the divisions they represent are, in many cases, as real as ever. And, while the dismantling of the divides is up for discussion – the shared future plans, trailed today by First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, include the dismantling of all peace walls within 10 years – many of those who live in the shadow of the walls are not ready to see them go. They wouldn’t feel safe without them. Some, indeed, as was reported this week, would like them to be even higher.

The peace lines may have become a part of Belfast’s tourism industry but they tell us as much about the present as they do about the past. The peace walls help people feel safe; apart, within their own communities, on their side of the wall. But how do you get people from different communities to begin to feel safe together? That is a question WEA NI has been grappling with for the past two decades. Its work, which is not much known outside Northern Ireland, is, nevertheless, remarkable, and has made a real contribution to the peace process. Nobody would suggest that adult education is all of the answer to this, but it has become evident over the last 20 years that it is at least part of the answer – and a pretty significant part at that.

I went to Belfast a couple of weeks ago and met the Director of WEA NI, Colin Neilands, and some of the partners the WEA works with in delivering what has become a core part of its offer: peace building. Colin was hired by the WEA in 1991 to develop and deliver its first anti-sectarian education programme. His appointment coincided both with the first influx of European money in support of peace-building work and the growing recognition by politicians that they needed to work closely with voluntary and community sector partners – many of whom, like the WEA, had earned a reputation as non-sectarian – to have any chance of creating a shared society.

The WEA NI was conscious of ‘putting its head above the parapet’ but, given its commitment to equality, democracy and community empowerment, it was obvious, Colin told me, that the organisation wouldn’t be able to hold its head up if it didn’t at least try to make a difference. From the start, the programme involved complex negotiation – about venues, tutors, times of classes, and so on – but the course content was not up for grabs, and even where the programme was, of necessity, delivered to ‘single-identity’ groups, tutors worked to ensure people were challenged by the content.

Those early classes were remarkable, for various reasons. Colin recalls one teenager, asked to find an object from home that said something about his identity, bringing into class a gun he had found in his dad’s wardrobe. But the most amazing thing was the stories people told; stories, often, that had been kept bottled up for years – incredibly moving, sometimes horrifying, stories, that, Colin says, it was a privilege to hear. There were victims, on both sides, but there were also ex-paramilitaries of both persuasions, as well as ex-army and police officers.

It took a while. The classes didn’t take off straight away; people didn’t just open up. But once they felt safe, once they knew they could speak without fear, it became clear that there was a real desire for talk, a desire to understand and, crucially, a willingness to listen. Creating a space for people to talk to each other, about things they would be reluctant to bring up outside the classroom, became the defining feature of the work, a challenge to the well-worn maxim: ‘Whatever you say, say nothing’.

Since then, the work has grown, to include courses on diversity, Irish history, conflict management, negotiation skills and ‘leadership in a shared society’ – all designed to encourage and facilitate learning and dialogue at community level. Adult education in the community is now recognised as a key dimension of Northern Ireland’s peace building and community relations infrastructure. The work, however, remains fragile, both in terms of funding and in terms of the still volatile situation in some communities. Incidents like the recent flag protests – following the decision to restrict the flying of the union flag from Belfast City Hall – can set the process of confidence building and community integration back a way, making people reluctant to leave their communities and to discuss issues to do with conflict.

At the best of times, people’s home community environments can reinforce sectarian feeling, but it becomes particularly acute in times of crisis. Progress is hard-won and difficult to sustain. Frustration is one of the hallmarks of the work. The long-awaited strategy for a shared future in Northern Ireland gives some support to community development work, stressing that the target of bringing down the peace walls by 2023 can only be accomplished with the active involvement of communities (who will be invited to agree a phased plan to remove them) and setting out plans or a ‘united youth programme’, with components in good relations, good citizenship and steps into work.

The proposals are unapologetically focused on young people. No-one would doubt that this is important but, as the community educators I met would tell you, the good they will do will be limited if there is not parallel activity aimed at parents and other adults in the communities in which these young people live. As former WEA NI tutor and community development worker Mary McCusker told me: ‘If you don’t go into the community and educate people, it’s no good for the kids when they come home … Who is the primary influence? It’s the parents. And if they are sectarian and put their views into their children, integrated education is finished. You have to change that. Whatever they do during the say, they have to live in their community, so you mustn’t ever leave the communities out.’ The challenge for the work, as ever, is to sustain it so that lasting relationships are built that are strong enough to survive and to make a long-term difference. When the all-party group meets to discuss the shared future strategy proposals in the next few weeks, education for adults should be high on the agenda.

My article on WEA NI’s peace-building programme is published in the spring 2013 issue of Adults Learning.