“I didn’t know we had a British Institute for Adult Education!”

Image from Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

I can’t recall ever being taught about the importance of cultures, morals, and ethics from a personal perspective from GCSEs through to post-graduate education. Was this just my own personal experience or is this something that cut across my entire age cohort and is now reflective of the toxic workplace cultures and catastrophic leadership failures we see in large institutions?

With the exception of the title at the bottom-left, I went through some of the Abe-books’ second hand listings of books mainly by the old British Institute for Adult Education.

The institution has evolved into the Learning and Work Institute, which published its Adult Participation Learning Survey 2021 here. I’ve tabled a PQ for the Cambridgeshire & Peterborough Combined Authority to have a look at it and ensure the transport barrier is something raised by lifelong learning institutions, staff and learners in the current Local Transport Plan consultation.

Personality in the Making – a scheme of work from 1936

I have digitised the publication here – it’s worth browsing through.

The scheme of study reflects the tension between the waning power of institutionalised religion vs the growing power of scientific institutions and communities of scientific knowledge

Note at the same time this was only eight years after the UK gained Universal Adult Suffrage. And only 18 years after universal male suffrage had been granted by Parliament as a result of the First World War. Prior to that point, the right to vote was only granted to men at a national level depending on what property they owned or rented. Therefore there was a huge public interest in educating the population on how these political institutions functioned, how become informed about and debate political issues, and how institutions that affect politics functioned.

It would be easy to downplay the religious parts of the publication – especially for someone with my backstory and disposition. But it would also be a mistake, both in analysing this document, and pondering what a 21st Century updated version might look like.

For a start, this syllabus strikes me as one that seeks to educate people in the world both as it was – and also accounting for the rapid technological and political changes that were happening at the time. As I have discussed with people I was at school with a few years ago, I never got the sense that any of the educational establishments I was at were interested in me as a human being – or us as young people full of potential. In 1980s & 1990s Britain, a combination of austerity, centralisation, and social conservatism squeezed out any chance of that.

One of the reasons my mental health broke down at university was that sensation and discovery of not having been educated to deal with the world as I found it. Not only that, ministers brought in policies that, paradoxically educated my generation to be ignorant – for example through Section 28. In later years I learnt through local history of the youth clubs that used to exist in Cambridge in the post-war decades. I cannot recall any youth club buildings that served our generation in our part of town that were secular in nature.

“We spent ages learning [insert name of topic] at school but I’ve never needed it in adult life!”

Here’s Tom Allen.

This was school in the 1990s.

Harsh but fair?

I remember “soh-cah-toa” with trigonometry for GCSE maths. I was lucky in that I had an outstanding and passionate GCSE maths teacher (Noreen Ives), but sadly did not when I switched to Sixth Form College for A-levels. In one sense, the curriculum is an easy target. You can pick out things like ox-bow lakes. Why do we need to know about ox-bow lakes? Or the inter-war era that focused on the internal events Germany and the USSR more than it did on the UK? (Mindful that domestic politics in the UK had ***huge impacts*** on what happened in interwar Europe – not least on how general election results impacted how the UK treated the League of Nations). And why did our class of mid-1990s teenagers have to read and study Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen?

We didn’t cover anything substantial on day-to-day living, what was expected of us in society, what opportunities there were to live life to the full, and how to respond to day-to-day challenges. That’s not to say you needed a course with an exam at the end of it all for each thing. Looking back now, a quarter of a century on, I can think of a range of things that should have been covered but were not – mainly due to so few resources being available from ministers. What would have been useful?

  • Personal health and hygiene – taken outside of both the religious and academic/biological sciences context. For example what medications to take for which illnesses and symptoms.
  • Democracy and the law – rights and responsibilities. If there is one generation in modern times least equipped to stand up for democratic safeguards, it’s my one.
  • How your house works – in particular the utilities (gas, water, electric, telecoms), and spotting signs that repairs might need doing. (Instead, the class-based mindsets of middle-class Cambridge kicked in – those sorts of jobs were for ‘tradesmen’ – people like me were going to go off to university and then go and work in an office. I fell for it hook, line, and sinker).
  • Commerce, advertising, and the media – from being able to scrutinise and stop ourselves from being ripped off, to the importance of things like nutrition in food
  • Personal finance – for similar reasons above.
  • Relationships and consent – both individual and societal
  • The encouragement to try new things in the fields of art, drama, and music – rather than only providing for those who had already excelled in those fields.

There are others I could come up with – just not at 01.50am!

Making up for a broken education system

The above speaks volumes – having to have a lifelong learning system to make up for what was an under-funded education system that despite the best efforts of its pioneers (some of whom are listed in this document by the University Labour Federation in Cambridge), continued to have low ambitions for the many. This was despite a growing awareness that other countries were educating more of their children to higher levels of education both numerically and as a percentage of their population compared to the UK, even though the UK on paper wanted to maintain its great power status.

We need a radical, collective renaissance of lifelong learning if we are to face up to the multiple threats and challenges to society

I’ve not seen anywhere near the level of ambition and urgency coming from senior politicians and policy-makers (one or two excepted). The mindset of the present UK Government is incapable of responding to that challenge, stuck in a mode where inaccurate and inflammatory soundbites replace sound and considered policy-making.

It’s easy for someone like me to say adult learners should do a sort-of ‘general studies’ course alongside whatever other courses they’ve enrolled on. But with competing demands on time (employment, family, caring responsibilities) and the continued cost of living crisis, that renaissance in lifelong learning cannot happen in isolation. It has to be as part of a wider institutional, societal, and economy-wide overhaul on how we live with each other.

Food for thought?

If you are interested in the longer term future of Cambridge, and on what happens at the local democracy meetings where decisions are made, feel free to:

%d bloggers like this: