'Adult education needs a revolution'

In too many towns, adult learning has no coherent curriculum and few progression routes, writes Alan Skinner

Alan Skinner

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Next year marks a century passing since David Lloyd George received the Ministry of Reconstruction’s clear statement of the value of lifelong learning to the nation.

“Adult education must not be regarded as a luxury for a few exceptional persons here and there,” it stated. “[It] is a permanent national necessity, an inseparable aspect of citizenship … therefore should be both universal and lifelong … The opportunity for adult education should be spread uniformly and systematically over the whole community.”

More than 60 years ago, the theme was revisited by then prime minister Winston Churchill, when he said: “There is, perhaps, no branch of our vast education system which should attract within its particular sphere the aid and encouragement of the state than adult education.”

And it’s 18 years since the inspirational address by Lord Blunkett, the education secretary at the time, to the former Learning and Skills Council, in which he said: “Learning has a major contribution to play in sustaining a civilised and cohesive society … encourages people to develop as active citizens and play a full part in their local community … opens up new opportunities – including the chance to explore art, music, literature … What was available only to the few can, in this new millennium, be enjoyed by the many.”

Yet Tes reported earlier this year that since 2003, the number of adults learning nationally has declined by 3 million. Additionally, the number of mature students at university has fallen by 50 per cent. Fees for post-school learning have risen alarmingly, whilst the breadth of offer has shrunk.

This has been allowed to come about because there has never been a joined-up national system for lifelong learning. Even the 1990s' Learning City movement faded out, with only one UK city, Bristol, joining Unesco’s global network in 2013.

Night school

In the 1960s, when my school teaching career started, my salary was so low I qualified for a rent rebate on my council flat in Basildon. I needed more money, so I applied at the local evening institute to teach “night classes”. I was not prepared for what I would encounter.

My first class was a revelation. The 14 students of the “English for Office Workers” class sat mostly towards the back of the room, half-hidden behind chairs still up-ended on the desks, ready for the cleaners.

Over the following 10 weeks, I got to know my students very well. I found that there were almost as many reasons for them being there as there were people in the class.

Failed by the system

Generally, they felt that they had failed in their education, or that the education system had failed them. But my overwhelming impression was that although they were there for literacy, grammar and comprehension, what was equally important was their quest for confidence and a sense of achievement.

In stark contrast, my later class, “Reading Music for Music Lovers”, recruited a very different clientele. Twelve confident, already successfully-educated people sat eagerly as near to my desk and record-player as possible. From the first class, they were articulate and very demanding.

What I learned from that early experience was that adults’ educational needs are multifarious. They had needs which, I subsequently understood, can only be met by a comprehensive curriculum designed and offered by a professionally organised lifelong education system, staffed by a balanced combination of knowledgeable enthusiasts, experts and experienced organisers of others’ learning.

The pick ’n’ mix evening-only programme, offered in the 1960s, seemed to me to fall well short of what adults, and society in general, deserved and needed.

Postcode lottery

Amazingly, in the 21st century, opportunities still depend on where you live. Substantial curricula are provided by incorporated adult colleges such as the City Lit in London or a scattering of surviving local authority adult colleges elsewhere. But many other communities have an ad-hoc, uncoordinated choice from disparate providers, such as was apparent 50 years ago. Many towns offer at best a random selection of adult learning with no coherent curriculum and few, if any, definable progression routes.

This is simply not good enough.

The time has come to ensure that throughout the country, everyone has the opportunity to fulfil their potential, whether through a specialist adult college or a strategic consortium of other educational institutions. Education should be lifelong – not on a one-strike-and-you’re-out basis.

Meaningful collaboration

This would, however, require the development of an agreed, informed approach, with open communication and meaningful collaboration. Working in silos, or worse, in competition (as the 1997 Kennedy report acknowledged) doesn’t help. A national strategy is desperately needed before "the market" causes further divisions and even more of a postcode lottery of educational opportunities for adults.

So here’s a suggested way forward:

  1. Government acknowledges that spending on lifelong learning can be viewed as an investment, not a cost.
  2. The Butler Act’s "duty" on local education authorities to “secure adequate provision for the education of adults” is defined – addressing the need for a professionally organised, coherent curriculum.
  3. LEAs are required, uniformly and systematically, to bring together all post-school providers to develop a strategic, joined-up approach.
  4. The consortia produce a collaborative prospectus of post-school opportunities enthusing, encouraging and enabling the local community to adopt a culture of continuous learning.

Whether by this government or the next, it needs doing urgently – before we enter the second century of adult learning being the poor cousin of the education system.

As the saying goes, “It’s never too late to learn” – but it may soon be too late to ensure that everybody has the opportunity.

Alan Skinner was principal of the Adult Community College, Colchester from 1983 to 2005, and is a former chairman of the Colchester Learning Shop Company. He is currently secretary of the Learning Never Stops charity

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