A slave to the cause of learning

11th March 2005 at 00:00
The proposed cuts in adult education are a litmus test of government values, Tony Benn tells Steve Hook

Tony Benn needed little convincing that he should speak at the colleges'

lobby of Parliament next week.

Of all the issues which have inspired Britain's most celebrated living political orator, the work of colleges, particularly in the field of adult education, has a special place.

Outside his Notting Hill house, he shows off a plaque to the person who has probably taught him most about the value of what is now known as lifelong learning - his late wife, Caroline, who died four years ago.

Her career in education included working as an adult education lecturer in London towards the end of her life.

The Association of Colleges' lobby, on March 16, will be in protest against cuts in adult education and calling for more resources for 16 to 19-year-olds.

Mr Benn regards further education as a litmus test of the nature of the Government - of whether it is true to the philosophy of the Labour party which he joined.

His diagnosis is not encouraging for those who prefer the old order, but he believes the AoC's bid for more resources can make a difference. His real passion is courses for older people.

The lobby will be joined by the Women's Institute, the Day Nursery Association, Help the Aged, students principals and unions, all making the case to MPs for more funding.

Barbara Gill, chair of the WI's national federation, will talk on the importance of colleges to older people's quality of life.

"At the age of 30," he said, "they should send the police round and take all your diplomas and certificates away. It should be a criminal offence to disclose your qualifications. By the time you are 30, what A-levels you did is of no relevance whatsoever.

"Adults are very committed and bring experience into class. It becomes a discussion group and everyone benefits."

He is critical of the fact that there is reduced funding for some adult education.

"I think market forces are being applied to everything and this is corrupting everything. When people got the vote they could buy what they wanted with their vote. It transferred power from the wallet to the ballot.

Now, the shift back to the market place is going on apace.

"People ask why society should pay if they don't use adult education. You don't say that about the fire brigade if you don't have a fire. Or about the police if you're not burgled.

"It is the idea that society looks after the collective interest. That is now seen as Old Labour. Education is important for the quality of life of people, not just for the economy."

He suggests elderly people without jobs are more important to society than some might assume.

"If all the pensioners died, there would be a crisis. A lot of voluntary organisations would collapse without the unpaid work older people do. I'm one of them. I'm a kind of classroom assistant to the nation."

His late wife's career brought him into contact with further education and he fondly remembers the way adult students react to the success they achieve.

"I think the mixture of old and young people is what makes it so interesting. Schools and universities are largely for the young but further education is different.

"I have seen women and men in their 50s and 60s getting their diplomas and they are so chuffed. Not just because they wanted to get on in life, that's not why they do it. But because it is an achievement in itself."

Philosophically, he suggests the state has a vested interest in separating students into those who think about the the world around them and those who concentrate on the skills they need in the labour market.

"People want to study because they want the answers to questions.

"Was it true, for instance, that the Red Army planned to invade Britain?

"Education and democracy are hated by the people at the top. If you are a slave owner you don't want educated slaves.

"The Government wants to know everything about us with ID cards, but they don't want you to know about them.

"Education is very threatening. People who ask difficult questions are a nuisance."

So, is the Government's attemptss to encourage vocational training for some school children at 14 a modern version of the 11-plus?

"Of course it is. This is a total throwback to a society that educated the rich and the rest are trained to take orders.

"I think it is very New Labour. The old Labour party was committed to comprehensive education. New Labour is a throw-back to the philosophy of the market place, which is 19th century and classified people by their alleged ability although, in reality, it seems to be by class.

"I think it is very dangerous because education is about the happiness of society, not just about getting the qualifications needed to work.

Education is about the whole of life."

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