Education and knowledge is the path to people power, Tony Benn tells conference delegates.
Three conferences on adult education supported by FE Focus were rounded off with a morale-raising speech by Tony Benn.
While the disappearance of adult students continues to concern many working in colleges, the veteran campaigner and former Labour minister spoke up for the importance of adult education in preserving democracy and giving power to ordinary people.
He said education has always been controversial because well- educated people had always been a threat to the establishment, adding: "That's why I'm here."
The series of conferences on the past, present and future of adult education was organised by the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education.
Mr Benn, speaking in London on Thursday last week, said: "This has been a wonderful conference and the contributions have been very interesting." But he warned that the purpose of education was about more than skills. he agreed strongly with the importance of skills for work, but suggested ministers' preoccupation with vocational training at the expense of learning for personal intellectual development was based on an exaggerated assumption about the link between economic performance and the curriculum demanded by employers.
He said: "All ancient civilizations were built by completely illiterate people. Only a few people could read and write.
"Education and information have always been controversial because if you have knowledge, you are powerful. This Government wants to know everything about us but there is a 30-year rule before you can know what they are doing. They want us to know as little as possible about them.
"Education encourages people to come out 10 feet tall - and if you do that, many of these problems we talk about today can be solved."
Paul Mackney, associate director of Niace and formerly general secretary of the lecturers' union Natfhe and its successor, the University and College Union, said he remained confident that further education would have its place in the sun after a century in which schools have been the preoccupation of ministers.
"The 21st century is our century," he told delegates. "We will see the expansion of FE and HE."
But he claimed there was a contradiction in the movement towards compulsory participation for 16- to 18-year-olds at the same time as adult provision was being cut. He said: "Forcing people to learn using money taken away from those who want to learn is not good policy."
Alan Tuckett, director of Niace and an adviser to the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, said the splitting of the two education departments means FE and HE now have a higher profile, with a dedicated Cabinet minister.
Skills Secretary John Denham hinted that a new approach to adult education is likely. The Government had been right to prioritise skills, he said, but suggested that introducing adults to education through courses which are not directly connected to the vocational needs of employers would offer greater flexibility.
He added that recently announced consultation over the future of English for speakers of other languages would have social cohesion at its heart as he looks at ways of prioritising those who aim to stay long-term in the UK.
Mr Denham said some adults suffered "narrow horizons" because of their inability to master English, adding: "Many people who have been here for many years are relying on their children as translators."
On a note that will have drawn encouragement from delegates, he said: "Adult education is also about meeting the human desire for intellectual stimulation and enlightenment. We do continue to recognise the value of adult learning, which is part-time, often unstructured and not necessarily about gaining qualifications."
Leading article, page 4.