Brighton’s Friends Centre, one of a tiny number of independent adult education centres left in Britain, has today closed its doors and handed the keys to administrators. Last-minute negotiations for Brighton Council to take it over bumped up against the unwillingness of the centre’s landlords to transfer its lease to the council.
Covid-19 hit what was left of its diminished reserves, and the trustees decided it was no longer a going concern. But be in no doubt: the Friends Centre is a victim of a decade of cuts to adult opportunity, and is lost at a time when more than ever we need places to meet and actively rebuild our communities together.
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Not a local issue
This might look like a local issue, but it is illustrative of the damage done by narrow, utilitarian and philistine government funding policies that have seen more than 4 million adult learners lost since 2003, with cuts accelerating through these past 10 years. Adult education centres, committed to literacy, numeracy, learning for active citizenship, social solidarity and a second chance at education for people failed by the system have a vital place in securing a post-Covid society.
But they are not alone in experiencing the consequences of blinkered policy. In 2006, the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education, NIACE, published an independent inquiry on lifelong learning in colleges. Its title, Eight in Ten reflected the proportion of FE college students who were adults. Today, only a fraction as many remain. University extra-mural departments for adult learners now are all but a thing of the past. Libraries close. Museums have shorter opening hours. Public spaces for communities to meet together, for people from different backgrounds to meet and share enthusiasms, to make art and music, to understand and help shape the future fabric of our society diminish.
Step by step we lose the places for us to create a world worth living in.
The Friends Centre has had a rich history. It was created in 1945 in the same month as the United Nations, and with the same utopian aspiration to make a world better to live in, nurtured by the Quakers, and jointly run by its students. Its initial purpose was:
"To meet the need for fellowship, the need to share religious experience, to meet the hunger for knowledge, to encourage the vision of peace and international understanding, to arouse interest and action in social and civic affairs and to provide a means of developing creative ability."
Among its early tutors was Raymond Williams, who wrote key founding documents of cultural studies, (Culture and Society and The Long Revolution) while teaching there. At the turn of the 1970s, the centre engaged enthusiastically with the rise of second-wave feminism, hosting annual national women’s studies conferences with the Workers’ Educational Association. Again in the 70s, the Friends Centre was a key site in the birth of national adult literacy campaigns. It published student voices, created progression routes for new readers, introduced ESOL work, and saw its adult literacy resources feted as national best practice. Its students brought in 7,000 books over one weekend to create a library of enthusiasms – only books you enjoyed and wanted others to read. It welcomed Yevtushenko, Ivan Illich and Allen Ginsberg to speak.
It hosted campaigns against homelessness, and in favour of restoring Brighton's West Pier. It was inclusive and diverse. When faced with a funding crisis in 1981, it organised a non-stop week-long day-and-night teach in that hit the national media – and saw the cuts reversed. Since then, in a thousand ways, it has supported people in Brighton in using learning opportunities as a route to dignity, employment, and self-fulfilment. Its loss is one more badge of dishonour for the government.
If we are ever to learn our way out of our current crises, places such as the Friends Centre will surely have to be reinvented. In this, there are inspiring examples of participant resistance – of a refusal to be closed down. Following the end of local authority funding Colchester Adult Education Centre was reinvented by students and tutors working collaboratively. When the University of Leicester closed its 150-year-old Vaughan College centre, local teachers, students and community supporters created a successor body from its ashes. The Co-operative University brings together a range of such initiatives. Going back a little, Castleford Women’s Centre and Pecket Well College, both organisations formed and run by their users, and then supported by public bodies, remind us that when they take away your money, they should not take away your soul. We have the freedom – like the Latin American popular education movements – to recreate learning from below.
One hundred years ago, the 1919 Report of the Ministry of Reconstruction argued that no matter how enlightened national or local government are, there are always unmet needs outside of current priorities, and that voluntary bodies have a fundamental role in identifying and meeting those needs. That task will, in Brighton at least, be harder today. Until policies are rebalanced, and we recover a sense of the value of adult education for fellowship, solidarity and social cohesion – as well as formal learning and training – we must expect more such losses. So, the tasks are: to reimagine and reinvent on the one hand, and on the other, to seek urgent change in public policy and funding for the education of adults – life-wide as well as life-long.
Sir Alan Tuckett is professor of education at the University of Wolverhampton. He led the Friends Centre from 1973 to 1981 and was its president from 2016 to 1920