`Now anyone over 24 hardly gets a look-in'

19th September 2014 at 01:00
Moocs may be all the rage but they won't fulfil the dream we were sold of adult education for all, says ex-Niace boss Alan Tuckett

Scanning the pages of journals and education websites would lead you to believe that the provision of free and cheap courses for adults of all ages has never been so abundant.

Moocs - massive open online courses - abound, whether you are a late developer or seeking to progress in your career. One such initiative is Citizen Maths, a free programme from Calderdale College in Halifax. Backed by big guns including Google and the University of London's Institute of Education, it promises to boost numeracy skills for all.

Public libraries say they are going digital, and organisations from the BBC to the National Archives offer a seemingly limitless supply of free educational material.

So why is Alan Tuckett so discontented? After all, the former chief executive of adult education body Niace and current president of the International Council for Adult Education has led the battle cry for better provision over several decades.

"I am not happy because those who really need it and cannot afford it are not getting a fair deal," he says. "A quarter of a century ago, politicians were talking about a learning entitlement for every adult over 50. Now anyone over 24 hardly gets a look-in unless they take out a loan."

It's not the financial crisis that brought this about, Tuckett insists, but an obsessively utilitarian education system, narrowly focused on skills for work, which took hold more than 10 years ago. "And yet these initiatives repeatedly fail to provide the skills - the flexible, adaptable teamwork and communication skills - employers insist on," he says.

As adult education columnist for TES, Tuckett charted the vicissitudes of adult learning for the best part of two decades. In Seriously Useless Learning, a compilation of his writings for TES and Niace, a recurring question is why adult education is pushed to the margins and why politicians have failed to fulfil the early promise of funding beyond basic school education.

Speaking now, Tuckett identifies a few very clear reasons: the failure to achieve genuinely joined-up government, the rising dominance of the Treasury over all government policy, the failure of politicians to challenge employers on how much they invest in training and the poor policy memory or understanding on the part of too many ministers and civil servants. "Too often, they simply ignore the extensive evidence of the effectiveness of `other' non-vocational adult learning," he tells me.

Tuckett also claims that "everyone wants it but no one will pay for it". To illustrate the point, he cites a Niace project in a West Country care home where they "prescribed" learning programmes instead of pills for the elderly and infirm. People were transformed. They were more active and engaged, lived longer - and overall care costs were cut in the process.

Yet such initiatives rarely last beyond a trial or pilot phase. Why? "Lifelong learning sustains the quality of life outside work. The Department for Health knows it works; the Department for Education knows it. But they say BIS [the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills] must pay. And, of course, they do not," Tuckett says.

Ups and downs

Then came the austerity cuts, which continue to curtail learning opportunities. More than 500 out of 3,100 libraries in England have been cut or closed entirely, according to public sector union Unison, predominantly in the most socio-economically deprived areas. Broadband is too expensive and out of reach for the poor whose wages continue to drop. Also, with community centres closing, Niace reports an ongoing loss of family learning opportunities, which did so much in the 2000s to slow the spiral of intergenerational disadvantage.

It is not wholly gloomy. "By 2003 we saw real achievements with expansion of investment, growth in workplace training and in institutional reform," Tuckett says. Also, Adult Learners' Week, a huge annual celebration established by Tuckett himself in 1992, has expanded not only in the UK but internationally.

When David Blunkett became education secretary in 1997, adult access increased. Then came the volte-face as a series of reports changed everything - most notably Lord Leitch's publication of 2006, in which he mapped out the path the government should follow to bring skills up to standard by 2020.

"From 2003 you can see steady withdrawal of funding from further education that was not in line with Treasury thinking," Tuckett says. "Despite the disasters of Train to Gain, where the state paid employers for basic skills training they had previously paid for themselves, the Treasury continued with these policies. We lost 1 million adult learners in two years for a gain of 89,000 on dead weight Train to Gain."

Some small steps forward were made. During his three-year tenure as skills and vocational education minister, in 2003 Ivan Lewis secured pound;300 million for adult and community learning. John Hayes, FE minister in the coalition government from 2010-12, fought hard to keep the fund and succeeded, albeit reduced to pound;210 million. But all of this was small beer.

Meanwhile, cuts in really sensitive areas continued, including the scrapping of financial support to asylum seekers and other migrants wanting to learn English as an additional language.

When motivated to learn, Tuckett argues, "people quickly see the benefits of learning for themselves, the wider community and the economy; clear evidence suggests, too, that state-funded support should be seen as an investment, not just a cost. Nor do the politicians or policymakers know what education or training will be best for any individual."

He adds: "Adult Learners' Week began at a time of struggle, when adults had to assert that they could be the best judges of what was worth studying, and that they had a right to claim modest investment from government to back them in their choices."

This is an argument that Tuckett, ever the optimist, will persist with "until the politicians study the evidence and see sense".

Ian Nash is a former assistant editor at TES. Seriously Useless Learning: the collected TES writings of Alan Tuckett, priced at pound;14.95, is available from the Niace website.


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