Profile - 'You can win debates at the heart of the machine'

19th November 2010 at 00:00
From Sixties-style teach-ins to meetings with Yasser Arafat, the career of outgoing Niace chief executive Alan Tuckett has had its fair share of radical moments

With 23 years as director and then chief executive of Niace, the national charity that campaigns for adult education, it is tempting to see Alan Tuckett, who has announced his retirement next year, as part of the educational establishment. He characterises his organisation, which receives a Government grant, as a "critical friend" to ministers and civil servants.

But if Mr Tuckett is part of the establishment, it is only a sign of how far adult learning itself has become accepted as an fixture of the education system. His career began far from the corridors of power, in a fortuitous meeting of Sixties-inspired radical protest and Radio 4's Today programme.

Mr Tuckett, who is now 63, began teaching adults in Brighton in the mid- 1970s, where, as would happen so often in future years, he found himself having to defend the spending of public money on lifelong learning.

"The leader of the council said he didn't want to have to pay for tap dancing on the rates. So he was going to wipe the budget out," he says.

"I organised an all-day and all-night teach-in for a week - I'm a child of the Sixties, remembering the sit-ins and the cultural impact of them. People could pay anything they wanted to come to classes and get lots of really wonderful one-off talks by people.

"And, of course, not much happens in the middle of the night, so the Today programme came two or three times. By the end of the week, he (the council leader) was saying he had been badly advised and changed the policy."

It set a pattern of making the case for adult education that Mr Tuckett says has lasted throughout his career. Indeed, he recalls explaining the purpose of Niace to Princess Anne, then patron of the Basic Skills Agency, which merged with the adult education body three years ago.

"I was telling her how old Niace is - how it was created in 1921 and gave birth to the Arts Council, the British Film Institute and the Army Bureau of Current Affairs, (which influenced the) start of the welfare state, which is a really rich history," he says.

"She said, `So, you're 85-years-old and you're making the case for lifelong learning: you're not doing very well, are you?' I think it's a case you have to continually make; it's never going to be over.

"Adult learning isn't one of the grand narratives of education. Everyone knows secondary schools matter, primary schools matter, universities matter, but you need to have read your way into the job to get the point of why adult learning has its place."

At the age of 32, Mr Tuckett became one of FE's youngest principals, running an adult education institute in Clapham and Battersea, south London, now divided between Lambeth College and South Thames College. The institute was part of what would eventually become Ken Livingstone's Inner London Education Authority, so there was, of course, plenty of room for radicals. It was here that the events were set in motion that led to Mr Tuckett's encounters with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

Mr Tuckett was president of an international league for social commitment in adult education, which operated on a less-than-shoestring budget and had contacts with Palestinian teachers.

Having helped to start Britain's adult literacy campaign through his efforts in Brighton, he was by then an acknowledged expert and was asked to act as a consultant to Palestine. (He adds that becoming recognised as a so-called "expert" - "We had been doing it about 10 minutes" - left him with a suspicion of the notion of experts.)

"I went to offer advice about how you rebuild an adult education service," he says. "It mainly involved sitting in an outer office late at night, waiting and waiting with a Kalashnikov up your nostrils, heavily armed chaps around, waiting to go in."

It led to a couple of meetings between the man who led the Palestine Liberation Organisation for 40 years and the one who would lead the charge for adult education in the UK for 23.

"He was a very imposing person, someone you really knew was used to power and authority," Mr Tuckett says.

"He was very proud of the number of PhDs that the Palestinian people had, given the absence of access to political power. He could see that education was a significant part of nation-building."

Back in London, adults were enjoying something of a golden age for lifelong learning, with high participation driven by pensioners taking advantage of a vast range of courses costing just a pound. In Mr Tuckett's view, they came for the warmth but they stayed for the learning.

He says: "How easy it is to forget. It felt normal - what you would expect in a civilised society in a modern city. Because we closed it down, we kind of forgot it was a possibility: the range of the curriculum offer.

"You have still got City Lit and Morley College and so on - glorious institutions, but they were set in a sea of locally delivered, very widespread provision."

With that dismantled, a reconstruction of adult education followed in the early years of the last Labour government under then education secretary David Blunkett, before another swerve towards economically driven skills. Mr Tuckett says he has grown used to boom and bust in lifelong learning.

"There is a sense of wave theory to all of it: sometimes you feel as if you have been marched up to the top of the hill and then marched down again," he says. Good intentions vie with "utilitarian panic", and external factors can change the tide.

He theorises that adult education beyond the "Gradgrind narrowness" was a casualty of the Iraq War; the mounting cost of military action made the Treasury put pressure on departments to justify their spending, prompting a swing back to qualifications that had an obvious economic contribution.

For Alan Johnson, education and skills secretary between 2006-07, this took the form of "plumbing versus pilates", the latter being painted as the worst kind of middle-class frivolity. But Mr Tuckett likes to puncture the distinction with a story borrowed from Tom Wilson of Unionlearn - the TUC's learning and skills organisation - who asked his plumber why so few of them took on apprentices.

The plumber said that when they were qualified they became competition, except for the older plumbers who liked to have someone to crawl under the sinks for them. But the plumber said: "I don't need one, because I do pilates classes."

"I thought it was a lovely illustration of how you can't tell the purpose for the student by the title of the course," Mr Tuckett says.

He paints Niace as a rather sleepy organisation at his arrival. "When I went there, they had written one letter about the 1988 education reform act," he says. But ministers soon found out it had changed when they tried and failed to cut adult education funding in 1992. A campaign with the fearsome ally of the Women's Institute forced a reversal by then education minister Tim Eggar.

"I met him and he obviously didn't like the cut of my jib. Afterwards - it apparently took him a bit of a while to calm down - he's reported as saying to his civil servant, `I don't think I object to what that man is doing, but why should I pay for it?'," says Mr Tuckett, referring to Niace's Government grant.

"The civil servant said, `Well, minister, you could take the Lyndon Johnson principle about tents into account." The former US president was known for preferring people to be "inside, pissing out", rather than the converse.

Mr Tuckett describes the job, with its alternating victories and defeats, as "just seamless joy and misery". But he points to David Blunkett's introduction to the "Learning Age" ("We value learning for its own sake and are encouraging adults to enter and re-enter learning at every point of their lives as parents, at work and as citizens") and current FE and skills minister John Hayes' outspoken defence of adult learning as high points in his career. "They are encouraging that you can win debates at the heart of the machine," he says.

Despite the changing tides of policy, Mr Tuckett says he believes a cultural change in favour of lifelong learning has occurred. For the first time this year, Niace's annual participation survey showed a rise even for unskilled workers - an effect which had trickled down after starting among managerial classes decades ago. He thinks the big challenge now is to persuade industry to invest in learning.

"I have had 24 lead civil servants, 22 ministers in this time. There is not a huge amount of policy memory, so you can't be wildly confident that we won't have to fight the battles all over again," he says.

He is planning a future of "practicing what I preach" with a mixture of learning and teaching at the institutions where he holds visiting professorships.

"I'm not going to do basket-weaving though," he says. He shrugs off the suggestion that it will be a tough act to follow for his successor.

"I don't think I'm like Alex Ferguson; it's more like Methuselah, the oldest person in the bible, who lived to be about 906," he says. "There is nothing worse than people who get in the way."

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