1919 and all that


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.

Why adult education is worth saving

Learning isn’t just about consuming chunks of knowledge in order to be able to do a job. It’s about broadening the mind, giving people self-belief, strengthening the bonds of community … Adult learning has a really important role to play in encouraging active citizenship … Going along to college means meeting people, discussing what’s going on in the world, boosting your belief in what you can do. It’s that self-belief that leads people to get involved in their communities and become more active citizens. Given that my vision for this country is for all of us to get involved and play our part in national renewal, I believe adult learning and the way it inspires people is crucially important.

David Cameron, Adults Learning, May 2010

The government’s 2015 comprehensive spending review looms large, with yet more large-scale reductions expected to the budget of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, the policy lead for adult education. Another round of cuts – perhaps, this time, mortal ones – are predicted for adult further education, while the safeguarded adult and community learning budget, which has been ‘maintained’ at £210 million for the past decade, is under renewed scrutiny. The sharks of austerity are circling.

That this small but, nevertheless, critical budget line has been retained at all is a minor miracle. Successive ministers have appeared to take great pleasure in deriding this sort of learning, dismissing it, variously, as ‘holiday Spanish’ (John Denham), ‘Pilates … and over-subsidised flower arranging’ (Alan Johnson) and ‘Australian cake decoration’ (Phil Hope). Yet it continues to signify the government’s recognition that there is value in learning that does not necessarily lead directly to qualifications or vocational skills. Its survival owes much to the quiet, persistent advocacy of organisations such as NIACE, the Workers’ Educational Association and Holex, and the passionate support of John Hayes, who was coalition skills minister during the 2010 comprehensive spending review. Hayes and his secretary of state, Vince Cable, to their great credit, saw the value of adult education and of further education more widely, and held firm in the face of Treasury scepticism and the ill-judged advice of their civil servants.

Sadly, such ministerial support is now in short supply. Adult and further education have few obvious friends in government. Even with the support of Hayes and Cable, the budget for adult and community learning has stagnated, while the proportion of resources spent on adult education has shrunk (the eye-catching 24 per cent cut to the adult skills budget for 2015/16 followed other substantial funding cuts to adult FE). This is partly, I think, because adult and further education is poorly understood by ministers who, in most cases, have no experience of it and (with the above honourable exceptions) little sense of its value, and partly because, with no powerful public or political lobby to back it, it is reckoned a low-risk target for cuts. What Alan Tuckett, writing in Adults Learning in 2005, described as a ‘rich mix of worthwhile learning that sits outside the narrowness of the national qualifications framework’ is now very much less rich thanks to more than a decade of cuts, under Labour, the coalition and the Tories, and the now entrenched view among ministers that education (with the exception of some higher education) is fundamentally about developing skills for the workforce.

While ministers, and even Prime Minister David Cameron, have paid lip service to the wider value of adult and community learning and ‘other’ further education, this narrowly economic view of the purposes of education has, in reality, carried all before it. Post-compulsory education, with the exception of universities, is now organised around the principle set out in Sir Andrew Foster’s 2005 review of further education, that the mission of a further education college is ‘to improve employability and skills in its local area, contributing to economic growth and social inclusion’. Social objectives are acknowledged but they are to be met by the same means through which economic growth is to be achieved: by helping people ‘gain the skills and qualification for employability’. However cleverly this shift in emphasis is spun, the outcome is the same: the destruction of great swathes of provision with huge social value but no direct pay-off in terms of employability and vocational skills.

The stagnation of the adult and community learning budget and the dramatic reductions in adult further education are symptomatic of the view that only education and training which deliver skills directly related to employability are worth funding. Even on its own terms, this narrow view does not bear up to scrutiny. With an ageing population and a third of the British workforce projected to be over 50 by 2020, it is obvious that the economy needs both older workers to retrain and reskill and disengaged adults (young and older) who were failed by the education system first time around to return to education and training. This won’t be achieved simply by offering courses which deliver vocational skills. Adults the furthest distance from the labour market often need multiple points of entry in settings in which they feel safe and which offer something different to their experience of schooling. As David Cameron argued in 2010, they often need to build confidence and self-belief, something that can take numerous tries, in settings some distance from the workplace or the conventional classroom.

By investing in people’s education at this stage we contribute to their employability by making them more confident, reasonable, cooperative and resilient, so supporting economic growth and productivity. Just as important though are the numerous social outcomes. There is a strong body of research attesting to the benefits of adult learning in terms of mental and physical health and wellbeing, civic and community engagement, crime reduction and family life (including the educational attainment of children). Even accepting the government’s overarching emphasis on productivity (as Tawney argued, ‘a confusion of means with ends’), it is obvious that cutting provision with these outcomes is going to prove counter-productive. If the government is serious about improving UK productivity it needs to combine a focus on vocational skills with investment in more basic, community-level education, as well as in a broader post-16 curriculum offer capable of delivering the more general sort of education taken for granted by, for example, apprentices in Germany, where productivity – in my view, not unrelatedly – is much higher.

There are other troubling signs too. UK employers continue to lag behind their international competitors in terms of investment in training while fee increases and the limited availability of loans have led to a dramatic reduction in part-time student numbers. Given that part-time students are typically older adults combining work and family life with study in order to up-skill or change career, this is plainly a pretty dreadful outcome when it comes to improving productivity. It also runs contrary to what David Cameron argued for in the 2010 interview quoted above, a university system that recognises ‘that people’s lives are messy and varied’ and that ‘[m]any don’t fit neatly into the shape of traditional university or college education’. At the same time, many further education colleges, which traditionally have offered adults a local, affordable chance to change direction, think again or simply get on, are likely to face closure or merger, as a result of the government’s local area reviews. This is certain to mean a further narrowing of opportunities for adults to learn. With its focus on young, full-time residential HE study and its obsession with apprenticeships (the answer to some of life’s questions but surely not all of them), the government is squeezing out other kinds of provision and modes of delivery which are not only important in their own right but critical to the fair and successful functioning of our education system, and, therefore, the economy, as a whole. There is little evidence to suggest that ministers recognise that education is a system and that changes in one part of the system affect the successful operation of others, as well as of the system itself.

Adult education has always been about the economy. But it has also always been about other things too, as David Blunkett acknowledged in his 1998 green paper, The Learning Age (from which this site takes its name). Blunkett wrote of learning:

It helps make ours a civilised society, develops the spiritual side of our lives and promotes active citizenship. Learning enables people to play a full part in their community. It strengthens the family, the neighbourhood and consequently the nation. It helps us fulfil our potential and opens doors to a love of music, art and literature. That is why we value learning for its own sake as well as for the equality of opportunity it brings.

By limiting the availability of this sort of broader, liberal education to elite universities and the sons and daughters of privilege, the government is sending a clear message to those who were not fortunate enough to follow the gilded path from school, through A-levels into higher education: music, art, literature etc are for other people – stick with what you know. By cutting the adult and community learning budget, it would be sending an equally clear and uncompromising message to those with the greatest distance to travel to formal education and a job: you’re on your own – if you want a better life, don’t expect any help from us. This, to me, goes against what every civilised society should aspire to: a decent education and opportunities to succeed whoever you are, wherever you are from and whoever your parents happen to be. That must mean not just first chances, but second, third and fourth chances for everyone, at every stage of their lives and careers. In terms of economic competitiveness and productivity, social cohesion, and the development of a healthy, resilient, creative and engaged population, I can’t think of a better, more cost-effective or sensible investment.

The Workers’ Educational Association has launched a petition to stop further cuts to adult education. Please consider signing it.

To learn more about the campaign to save adult education go to: http://fefunding.org.uk/.

‘Politics is what makes us – it’s part of what we are’

As First Minister Alex Salmond launches Scotland’s Future, the Scottish Government’s white paper on an independent Scotland, I thought it timely to republish this article, written for the autumn 2013 issue of Adults Learning, which examines what adult educators in Scotland are doing to create new, more creative and construtive spaces for learning and debate in the run-up to next year’s referendum. Interestingly, for the students I interviewed, the central issue was not economics – which has been the overwhelming focus of the media’s coverage – but identity

Campaigning ahead of next year’s referendum on Scottish independence has, for many, generated more heat than light. Sensing a need for safe, impartial spaces for reflection and debate on the issues driving the campaigns, adult educators in Scotland have been creating a range of opportunities for people on all sides of the argument to come together and discuss the future of their country

‘It’s the biggest decision the Scottish people will have to take politically, maybe ever,’ says Andrew Morrison of next year’s referendum on Scottish independence. ‘There’s still 12 months to go, but I think this is the time to inform ourselves.’ Andrew is one of two groups of adult students who have taken part in Talk Scotland, a course run by the Workers’ Educational Association (WEA) in Edinburgh which seeks both to inform learners about the choice they face and to give them an opportunity – and a space – to think about the kind of Scotland they would like to see. Such spaces are in short supply, with often negative and divisive campaigning belying just how much people care about the issue and just how much depth and variety of opinion actually exists. ‘A lot of the campaigning – especially what is coming out of Westminster – is extremely negative and pretty ill-informed,’ says Sarah Kilbey, another Talk Scotland student. ‘People need to be encouraged to know, to think and to find out more. I was looking for something to help me get more informed and to look at the bigger questions. The course really made me think. It’s about putting things into a wider context and encouraging people to think out for themselves what the really important issues are.’

Sarah’s description will resonate with the many adult educators who see their work as part of a tradition which contributes to wider democracy by enabling people to think, talk and engage politically, and, by doing so, to create a more open, imaginative and inclusive debate about the kind of society they want to live in. ‘I hoped people would be helped to come to some sort of vision of what they wanted for Scotland,’ says Talk Scotland tutor Colin Campbell. ‘That, for me, was the main purpose of the course. There is a real lack of space for people to come together and discuss this kind of thing – sometimes it’s thought that discussing politics is bad. But it is so important that there is a space where people can listen to each other, hear other opinions and do that respectfully. That’s of vital importance to democracy, that experience of coming together and articulating political ideas.’ For Elizabeth Bryan, WEA Area Tutor Organiser for Edinburgh and the Lothians, such activities go to the heart of what the WEA and adult education is about. ‘We have always run political activities,’ she says. ‘It’s been part of our social purpose from the very beginning. And there’s a real interest and need amongst our membership who want to look beyond the publicity and debate between the Yes Scotland and Better Together campaigns. People are looking to learn much more and to consider the issues and the implications, to try to understand it better in order to make a decision. There has been a bit of nervousness around about teaching political studies at a very political time in Scotland, but what else should we be doing in adult education? That’s our role.’

While many have expressed dissatisfaction with the quality of discussion generated by the official campaigns, beyond the purview of mainstream politics there has been a genuine flowering of intelligent, creative activity and debate, with adult education at its heart. Talk Scotland is just one of a range of adult education activities underway in Scotland, from Scottish history projects to public lectures, but it has become an umbrella theme for a wide-ranging programme of adult education classes, workshops, projects and public events, run by a number of providers in Edinburgh. The first Talk Scotland course was piloted over eight weeks from January to March this year (a second course followed after Easter and a third starts this autumn). It gave students the chance to learn about how devolution and the Scottish Parliament works (it included a visit to the Parliament), to explore the main policy areas for which the Parliament is responsible, and to examine Scottish political history, using primary source material such as the National Library of Scotland’s political collections. The latter stages of the course focused on the kind of future students wanted for Scotland, and what would help achieve that – for example, a stronger union, further devolution or independence. The aim, says Elizabeth, was both to make students more aware and better informed about the Scottish political system and its history, and to ‘provide a place and a space for people to investigate and think and study politics, and Scottish politics in particular’.

There is a feeling among the students that Scottish history, and Scottish political history, in particular, has not been well-served by the Scottish education system, at least until the very recent past (the Scottish Government has sought to address this by ensuring Scottish literature is taught in Scottish schools and by giving history teachers greater freedom over what they teach). All too often, it has been left to adult education to teach students in Scotland about their own history and culture. Christian McWilliam, one of the first intake of Talk Scotland students, recalls that it was only through the WEA that she was able to study and discuss Scottish literature – ‘a chance I never had at school’. ‘The education system has taken our national identity from us,’ she says. Unsurprisingly, discussion ranges well beyond conventional party or campaign politics, taking in questions of value and community, justice and equality – but culture and identity (and the relationship between the two) are to the fore. ‘The argument is always geared to us not knowing where Scotland will be economically in 10 or 15 years,’ says Andrew. ‘But no-one knows what the UK economy is going to do in 10 years time. But that’s not the main issue. The issue is identity, it’s not economics. Economics is important, but the issue is identity.’

Fellow-student Steven Horton also sees identity as a critical issue, though from a different perspective. ‘I grew up in the English education system,’ he says. ‘We were taught that people who are English are English and people who are Scottish are British. So all the pioneering work any Scottish person has done is British. There is no separate Scottish history or identity that I was aware of as a child … I had to travel the world in order to meet Scottish people who taught me anything about Scotland as it is from their perspective.’

The course has brought together students of different political outlooks. Tony Galloway, who is a Conservative councillor and a member of the Better Together campaign, joined, in part, out of a curiosity as to why anti-Tory sentiment was so strong in parts of Scotland. But, within the group, political affiliation did not matter. ‘In our group it was obvious there were different opinions but we didn’t declare our positions,’ Andrew explains. ‘We managed to have the debate without saying I’m on this side or you’re on this side because it was to do with ideas rather than sides.’ Christian identifies a problem with conventional politics, and mainstream political culture in Scotland, which involves all the main parties: politicians no longer seem capable of expressing an opinion beyond the official line of their party. ‘The problem today is that no individual politician thinks for themselves,’ she says, giving as an example the poll tax, which was introduced in Scotland by Margaret Thatcher’s government ahead of the rest of the UK and which proved hugely unpopular. ‘That was the problem the Tories had. If any Tory in Scotland at the time of [the introduction of] the poll tax had thought to themselves, “What on earth are we doing here?” it might have been different. But I think the Tories lost their soul.’

Like a number of students, Christian sees democracy in Scotland as in need of renewal. ‘Bringing lots of different people together in one place used to happen all the time,’ she says. ‘When I was a child people coming together in a big hall to discuss politics was common. It was a great way to gather different opinions and to bring people together – from the richest farmer to the poorest farm servant – which is what we need now … We have to listen to all opinions. We have to take opinions from everywhere or we can’t make our own minds up. So many people don’t believe that politics affects their lives. People don’t think politics affects them and that’s why they are so disenchanted with everything. But politics is what makes us. It’s part of what we are.’ Encouragingly, the students have continued the debate outside of the classroom, with some setting up an informal group which meets every few months to talk politics. That sort of informal, discursive learning is integral to what the WEA is all about, says student Marion Dillon.

The Edinburgh Active Citizenship Group, which draws its core members from Edinburgh City Council, the Workers’ Educational Association and the University of Edinburgh, also offers an important, though more formal, space in which people can come together to discuss politics. Nancy Somerville, who works in Edinburgh City Council’s Community Learning and Development team and is a member of the group, recalls how it came to be set up, as a response to the resurgence of interest in democratic politics that followed devolution and the setting up of the Scottish Parliament. ‘There were lots of projects and courses happening in the city that were to do with democracy,’ she explains. ‘A community worker at Leith Academy thought it would be a good idea to get everyone together to share knowledge and experience, and our group came out of that gathering. We had the idea that our role could be to put on public seminars under the broad theme of active citizenship.’ The seminars, which focused initially on the workings of devolution and the new Parliament, had two main aims. ‘One was to give the public an opportunity to talk about current issues in a non-party political setting, and bring in experts to give their views,’ Nancy says. ‘The second aim was for the events to be participatory, so that some of the time would be taken up with the people who had gone to the event discussing what they had heard or questioning the speakers and putting forward their views and ideas as well. And that’s carried out right through really – finding topical issues and then making the seminars participatory.’

Since then, the group has put on seminars on a wide range of issues of topical concern in Scotland, from peak oil to prostitution, often attracting in excess of 100 people. The group has also put on hustings in the run-up to elections. The idea, says group member David Maguire, Principal Officer for Engagement and Involvement, Children and Families, at the City Council, is to focus on issues that aren’t being discussed in the mainstream. ‘We try to make sure those perspectives are to the fore. And it’s all done in a way that is challenging and doesn’t simply replicate dominant narratives or dominant views of the world.’ The group hosts two or three events each year, all following broadly the same format. ‘We always start with a welcome about the group, then an introduction to the specific session,’ says David. ‘We then have an input from a leading expert, commentator or analyst, or an elected member. There are always key questions the speaker is addressing. After they’ve spoken we break into groups so members of the group can debate the issues raised. That goes on for half an hour, though we try to make it longer. We then have feedback, which is done in an interactive way, bringing in the speakers but also other people from across the room. It ends with a thorough discussion of those issues. 

‘When it works well it is very engaging. There is a real vibrancy to the events. They’re fun as well as challenging. We always try to make sure one of the questions asks “What is to be done?” We don’t want it simply to be a talking shop. We don’t see our role as taking action – it is to make this kind of discussion happen. But that can be seen as quite a complacent perspective. So we try to incorporate that as much as possible. We don’t want people to go away thinking the world is a terrible place and the forces of reaction are ranged against them. We want to always have a sense of what can we do about it, as individuals, at a community level or at a city level.’ ‘We always have information sheets about the topic and organisations people can contact, websites to get help or groups they can join,’ Nancy adds. ‘We never want them to leave thinking, “Where do we go from here?”’.

Their latest seminar – the first of a series under the banner ‘The Big Vote’ – returns to the kind of major constitutional issues considered in the early meetings. The guest speaker was author James Robertson, who spoke on ‘What kind of Scotland do we want? And what is the best constitutional route to it?’, and the issues addressed included what we vote for, what we vote against and what kind of debate we want. Discussion covered the economic grounds for independence, Scotland’s history, both as an independent power and as part of the union, the need for impartial, trustworthy information and the centrality of culture and identity to the debate. Another seminar is planned this autumn examining the difference a yes or no vote could make, and considering whether or not Scotland requires a new kind of politics. ‘That’s the role of social purpose adult education, that broad role of adult education within civil society, playing a critical, questioning role of authorities and of experts and of power,’ says David. ‘There was a feeling that this was a real opportunity to reconnect with that. And that is a strong current in what we do.’

One of the themes of the Big Vote seminar was the feeling that the mainstream debate was poor and that impartial information was hard to come by. ‘People are struggling to get what they feel is balanced information, because of the way it is presented in the media,’ says Liz Highet, Senior Community Learning and Development Worker at Edinburgh City Council. ‘A lot of people are looking for it because they want to make up their own minds but they want something to base it on and they don’t know where they can get that from. One of the things that appeals to people [about the seminars] is having a politicianless debate – to have the opportunity to explore ideas and not have to go down one side or another, to listen and talk and share and weigh things up.’ Nancy agrees. ‘There’s quite a bit in the mainstream media that seems a bit sterile – independence will be a utopia or a disaster. But in fact there is a lot going on, on the ground and in other types of media. There’s a bit more mature debate, rather than scare stories or fluffy clouds and puppies.’ ‘People are looking beyond the mainstream for a more creative space for debate,’ adds David.

The group is run entirely on good will. There is no budget for the work, with seminars held in the City Chambers – ‘a building that belongs to the people’. The council staff who do much of the organising do it in the margins of their other work, out of a commitment to its value. ‘We all do this as part of our jobs but it’s no one’s sole job,’ says Nancy. ‘We’re all trying to fit it in somewhere, as a voluntary thing, really. Nobody is forced to be part of the group. Those of us involved are all keen to do the work and interested in it.’ With social purpose adult education in retreat in most places, the hard work and commitment of educators is critical in keeping this creative space alive. ‘In Edinburgh, and in the WEA, we have been able to keep that space,’ says Elizabeth. ‘But you have to make it. We still have a strong liberal programme here, but the referendum had given a focus for our activities. The Edinburgh Active Citizenship Group and the libraries are very good at offering public events and seminars. But certainly funding this work is challenging, and you often need to screw it into other funded projects. It’s difficult but we are working hard to maintain it.’ Nancy is in no doubt about the value of the work. ‘No matter what happens it is a really exciting time but if you look at the mainstream media it’s like the opposite. It is an opportunity to debate the big issues – What sort of Scotland do we want? What’s the best way to get it? It’s important that we give people the space to honestly debate these things, to raise questions and to get answers, outwith party politics’.

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.