The key conclusion of the greatest ever report on the case for adult education, the work of the Ministry of Reconstruction’s Adult Education Committee (the “1919 report”), was that “adult education must not be regarded as a luxury for a few exceptional persons here and there…it is a permanent national necessity, an inseparable aspect of citizenship, and should, therefore, be both universal and lifelong”.
To mark the centenary of its publication, the Centenary Commission on Adult Education, chaired by Dame Helen Ghosh, master of Balliol College at the University of Oxford, has published its own report this week, and endorses the enduring vision of its predecessor for today’s world. In 1919 the country was facing daunting challenges to rebuild after the First World War, to support the major steps being taken towards universal franchise, and to consider how to rebuild a common culture. In 2019 we currently face accelerating inequality and demographic, industrial, technological and dramatic ecological change, and Brexit, too.
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Central to the Centenary Commission report, like its predecessor, is a conviction that adult education has a key role to play in revitalising education for citizenship, and that a learning culture is secured through formal, non-formal and informal chances to learn that are inclusive, vibrant and fun.
Adult education: the need for a national strategy
Adult education has suffered dramatic reductions over 15 years, partly because it has lacked serious policy focus, and while there has been a surge in interest this year, it has yet to be turned into opportunities for adults. As a result, the first and most critical of the commission’s 18 recommendations is that government should lead in developing a national adult education and lifelong learning strategy that secures the engagement of the whole of government and recognises the vital importance of devolving decision-making. One-size, central programmes don’t work for the variety and complexity of adults' needs, and a central part of the report’s proposals is for a revitalised role for local government, bringing together the full range of local providers and stakeholders, paralleling again a key element of the 1919 report.
At the same time, the centenary report identifies mechanisms to re-energise universities’ roles in adult education and to rebalance funding to enable colleges to meet adults’ needs. It calls for improved educational guidance, and proposes a digital platform accessible and affordable for all providers.
The national strategy should seek to secure adult education services that engage the full range of Britain’s communities, and work to reduce the inequalities in participation and achievement our current system produces. To that end, the report recommends the adoption of a national participation target, which seeks to measure and reduce the gap between the most and least educationally active. It also points to the continuing challenge facing the millions of people whose literacy, numeracy or English language skills need strengthening, and calls for a properly resourced and revitalised adult basic skills strategy.
Lifelong learning 'to satisfy unmet needs'
The commission calls for the appointment of a minister with specific responsibility for adult education and training, reporting annually to Parliament on progress. The report endorses proposals for individual learning accounts, with appropriate safeguards, but makes the case for collective accounts to be available as well for informal community-based initiatives, led by local groups, in order to foster vibrant communities, dialogue and critical citizenship. The commission agrees with the relevance today of the 1919 report’s argument that however enlightened state and municipal provision, there will always be unmet and emerging needs, and that voluntary bodies are effective at giving them voice.
In the workplace, the centenary Report calls for employers to provide paid time off work for learning; and to facilitate the presence and work of workplace vocational learning representatives. It argues that employers should be required to report annually on their spending on education and training, broken down to highlight how much goes on the best and least paid 20 per cent; and makes proposals to ensure that contracted staff and workers in the gig economy get access to learning.
Too often in recent years, policymakers in successive governments have had too narrow a focus on investment as a choice between vocational education and neglected education for citizenship and cultural fulfilment. Economic prosperity and social cohesion both benefit from sustained commitments to lifelong learning, and the commission is convinced we need both vocational and community education.
The report contains vivid examples of creative local initiatives that transform lives, and provides convincing evidence that while a national strategy provides a secure framework, it is local creativity, innovation and flair that give it real life. The report calls for an innovation fund to encourage creative experimentation, but also to provide examples for others to emulate. And publicising good practice to encourage others to take part is at the heart of the proposal for a national promotional campaign to encourage adult participation. All in all, it is an ambitious programme that, taken together, should form the basis of a permanent national system for the education of adults for this century.
Sir Alan Tuckett is vice-chair of the Centenary Commission on Adult Education and professor of education at the University of Wolverhampton
The Centenary Commission on Adult Education was chaired by Dame Helen Ghosh, master of Balliol College, Oxford, with Professors Jonathan Michie, of Kellogg College, Oxford, and John Holford, of the University of Nottingham, as joint secretaries, and Nick Mahony as researcher. Its report, "A permanent national necessity": Adult education and lifelong learning for 21st-century Britain, is available online at www.centenarycommission.org