Fund really useful learning

Keith Flett asks if the political will exists to keep updating skills throughout adulthood

I have been inspired by Peter Wilby's article "The making of the eternal adolescents' class" (TES, February 14), to some thoughts on adult education as it is now and might be under a New Labour government.

Wilby's argument is that there was a seriousness to learning before the 1960s that is gone now; that despite a massive expansion in education in the past 30 years we have done more to boost entertainment rather than learning as a result and that perhaps, pace Dearing, our resources would now be better put into lifelong education.

On the last point I tend to agree. We live in an ever more complex society where the speed of change should demand reskilling and rethinking for all at regular periods throughout adult life. Whether there is the will among politicians or employers to provide it, despite Tony Blair's passion for education, I doubt.

What I am concerned about, however, is not adult education from the top down, but the kind of informal bottom-up learning that Wilby thinks went on in the 1940s but argues does not go on now because we are too busy watching videos and playing computer games. On this I think he is wrong.

At root, since society is still unequal, still a mess and still has plenty of injustice, the demand to understand why this might be, and to think about how we could have a better society, remains. The desire to learn what might be called really useful knowledge about our society is as strong, if not stronger, than 50 years ago.

The point might be raised that while the demand is there the opportunity is not. Perhaps. It is true that the old miners' institutes have gone - and so have the miners. The Plebs League and the National Council of Labour Colleges is no more and the Workers' Educational Association - while still very much with us - has a struggle to survive these days.

Yet learning still goes on. Trade union education and training is at an all time high, both in the TUC's National Education Centre at Crouch End and in thousands of evening and part-time courses run in colleges and community centres. The more political aspects are, arguably, handled by the annual Marxism summer school in central London which attracts thousands to hear talks about every imaginable subject and then to argue about them. Elsewhere meetings and seminars on historical and political subjects are packed with people, sometimes of course professional academics, but often not, anxious to learn.

As the organiser of the socialist history seminar at the Institute of Historical Research in London, I am constantly surprised by the numbers of people who turn up not just to this seminar but to all manner of others.

So should we put resources into this kind of informal learning process? Perhaps. It might, however, be better to look at the example of Ruskin College, Oxford. It still thrives as a college for trade unionists which also encourages people to continue formal academic education once they leave. Perhaps New Labour should look at encouraging the many formal academic institutes we do have to get out into their communitites and provide facilities and opportunities for informal learning. This university extension work for the next millennium could focus on the kind of really useful knowledge about our society that is so hard to come by in formal and official learning. Information about rights and duties in society; discussion about how parliamentary and extra-parliamentary protest works; sessions on how you can become an active trade unionist or an active shareholder.

And since this is the age of Chris Woodhead and Michael Barber perhaps we should measure the success of all this on the numbers that are attracted.

In my experience it is likely to be more than they or anyone ever expected.

Keith Flett is the convener of the London Socialist Historians Group

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