BLOG: How do we secure a vibrant adult education and lifelong learning culture?

By Professor of Education, Sir Alan Tuckett

Adult education has had a tough fifteen years.  Two million students have been lost from publicly funded further and community education, and more than half the part-time (overwhelmingly adult) students have been lost from higher education – though the University of Wolverhampton has happily bucked the trend of losing adult learners.  Meanwhile, British business, almost alone in the the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), spends less on training staff (again adults) since the 2007/8 crash.  The result, as Helena Kennedy commented back in the 1990s, is for far too many: “If at first you don’t succeed, you don’t succeed.”

Meanwhile there has never been a greater need for adults to engage with learning, as adults working lives are extended past traditional retirement age, new technologies disrupt existing jobs, and climate change, an ageing society, and a loss of community cohesion cry out for a civil society where the skills of active democracy are nourished.

A hundred years ago, as the country emerged from the First World War, facing daunting challenges to rebuild the economy, to support the major steps being taken towards universal franchise, and to consider how to rebuild a common culture, the Ministry of Reconstruction published the 1919 report, the greatest case made for the value of adult education yet made in Britain.

The Centenary Commission, used the occasion of that report’s centenary to ask what Britain needs in the 21st century to secure a vibrant adult education and lifelong learning culture.  Its report, published this week endorsed the enduring value of the 1919 vision:

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 therefore should be universal.

The Centenary Commission Report makes 18 recommendations.  First and most importantly, it argues for the development of a Government-led National Strategy for Adult Education and Lifelong Learning, engaging departments across government, but, critically, to be devolved for local decision making.  One size centrally designed policies don’t work for adults.  Second, it calls for a dedicated Government Minister, reporting annually to Parliament on progress.  The strategy needs to focus on reducing the gap between the most active and least active educationally, and to include a national participation target, reporting on overall participation, and that of the top 20% and least engaged 20%.  Britain fails millions of its people, by leaving them without the communication skills needed for modern life.  The Commission calls for a renewed adult basic skills strategy to address the issue.

This national focus is paralleled by a reassertion of the value of local decision making and in nourishing learning communities. It argues for a renewed statutory duty, backed by cash, for local authorities, who should convene local partnerships of business, universities, colleges, community education and voluntary sector providers – collaborating to meet needs and raise aspirations.

This vision of local partnership is of course exactly that fostered by the University’s initiative in bringing together stakeholders across Wolverhampton and the wider area it serves in Wolverhampton Learning City region.  It is at local level that collaborations are most effectively secured. The Learning City initiative also offers a key local vehicle for the Report’s call for mass campaigns to foster participation.

The report goes on to call on the Office for Students to require “any organisation that wishes to describe itself as a University to provide adult education and lifelong learning, of types appropriate to their role in the local community, compensating for past disadvantages, and utilising radical and engaged forms of education”. Again, this is a challenge we should be well prepared to address.

The Commission welcomes proposals for individual learning accounts, but lays more emphasis on collective accounts, to foster community innovations in learning, building on the voluntary sector’s flexibility and responsiveness in reacting to emerging needs.  Universities are charged with re-engaging with adult learning, colleges to be funded for adult education as well as 16-19, and schools too have a role to play.

The committee believes, unlike recent too many policy makers, that we need both vocational and civic and cultural education if we are to thrive at work and outside it.  Employers are called on to help create learning workplaces – through recognising and supporting workplace learning representatives; funding paid educational leave; reporting in annual reports on their investment in the best and least well paid staff, and including gig economy workers in training and development.

Taken together the Commission believes its proposals provide a basis for transforming adult learning opportunities for Britain in the 21st Century. More locally, I think it offers an agenda for supporting the economic and social regeneration of our own region.

Alan Tuckett