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Why society needs awkward citizens

There was a passage in Gordon Brown's eulogy at Robin Cook's funeral where the Chancellor remembered the support offered him by Cook, then an experienced tutor-organiser in the Workers' Educational Association, when Brown's WEA class had attracted just one person to the first meeting.

Malcolm Wicks, too, was fond of remembering the disappointment when no one arrived for his first class in north Yorkshire, until, a quarter of an hour after the advertised start time, the branch secretary came in. As he took off his bicycle clips he said, apparently, "I never thought sociology would take in Thirsk."

In my own experience, when I offered a class with few takers. I was reminded of the old children's nursery rhyme: "Miss Smarty had a party. No one came. Her brother had another, just the same." It was frustrating, and hard to avoid feeling that the fault was my own in failing to connect with the zeitgeist. The disappointment experienced by tutors who spend hours preparing for a class that does not run is real, and the casual employment of most tutors means it is a disappointment reinforced too often by loss of earnings.

However, what is interesting here is not that some classes fail to recruit enough participants to be viable. It is, rather, that, like Neil Kinnock or Rhodes Boyson before them, major politicians recognised early on that a democracy is enriched by people working together to understand the forces shaping our future, and that learning and reflection are key dimensions in the political process.

The party conference season offered a reminder of the size of the challenges we face - to secure a sustainable future; to address the challenges arising from changing global economic conditions; and to find ways of living together in increasingly diverse communities. These issues have implications for what we do in our family and neighbourhood life, in the ways we organise our communities, and for national and international policy. Yet, as John Field notes in his excellent study Social Capital and Lifelong Learning, activists in the environmental movement, or in the campaign to "Make Poverty History", learn as they go.

While the tutorial group and the study circle played important roles in the women's movement and in the earlier rise of trade unionism, they are little in evidence with the newer social movements. Rather like people at work, many activists now prefer to learn on the job. I do not think, though, that this absolves adult educators from an engagement with political education.

It may be that participation in social movements works for those who have already decided what they think. But what of the bulk of the population? What opportunities now exist to find out what you think, through dialogue with others? There are, of course, areas where such discourse is flourishing. The resilience of the residential colleges, the energies of voluntary sector organisations and the welcome resurgence of confidence shown by the WEA, are all testament to the continuing need for public education. Broadcasters, too, play an important role in securing an informed debate - but hardly one where dialogue with learners is developed.

I was heartened by the announcement of the Edinburgh conference, "Dissenting Adults: Learning for Awkward Citizens", which takes place on 26 November at Moray House.

Overall, though, there can be no doubt that opportunities to foster active, critical citizenship have a declining place in lifelong learning policies.

Yet we need awkward citizens every bit as much as we need a skilled workforce to test existing policies and come up with better ways of doing things. This is not a task to be delegated to think tanks. And all the blame for the marginalisation of such work cannot sit with government or its funding agencies. Some must lie with local providers, who move at the speed of light to adapt to changing priorities.

Nowhere is this clearer than in the spectacular decline over the past couple of years in the volume of "other" further education offered in colleges. Of course, public money needs to be focused in the main on priority programmes. But where are all the learners displaced by the rush to certification to get the chance to learn? Where, too, will tomorrow's Gordon Brown or Robin Cook look to support the creation of an enlightened democracy? Education for citizenship - awkward citizenship - is every bit as important for adults, as for children, and we need urgently to rethink how best we support it.

Alan Tuckett is director of the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education

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