Where is the holistic approach to adult education and lifelong learning that research recommends?

And I’m not just talking about recent research, I’m also referring to things produced over a century ago

Because history matters. Here’s former Labour minister Arthur Greenwood a decade before he first experienced ministerial office in 1920.

Above – The Education of the Citizen, 1920 – for the Adult School Union

It’s easy to forget that Labour were the official opposition after the 1918 General Election – one which split the old Liberal Party down the middle with David Lloyd George’s Coalition Liberals winning 127 seats, thus needing the support of Andrew Bonar Law’s Conservatives to stay on as Prime Minister. What was left of the old Liberal Party under former PM Asquith collapsed to 36 MPs, while Labour rose to 57 MPs.

When I read some of the contemporary documents and publications from the time, it’s heartbreaking to see how the hopes of the progressive activists and social reformers were dashed because the political leaders against the Conservatives were unable to unite and form both a stable movement or stable governments. This would have catastrophic consequences on British foreign policy, as the Labour Speaker’s Handbook for 1923 reveals when you look at the alternatives that were on offer.

But back to Adult Education, and Arthur Greenwood’s analysis covers two parts – a review, and policy recommendations.

Greenwood nails the vision and purpose early on.

  1. “Adult education is founded on permanent needs
  2. These needs are not met by the development of the education of children and adolescents (at a time when universal secondary education was not in existence)
  3. The need for adult education arises from
    • a) the desire for knowledge and personal development
    • b) the desire to lay the foundations of more intelligent citizenship, and of a better social order
  4. There should therefore be ample opportunities in the community for adult education”

The only thing I’d add to the list in 3) is a sentence about enjoyment and leisure through the arts, sport and exercise, and social interaction with the rest of society irrespective of background.

Furthermore, 2) recognises that there will always be children whose needs will never be met and who will never meet their full potential in the schooling system as was – and something that is still true today. Hence the importance of having additional chances in life where schools and the institutions that run them failed them first time around.

Both 1) and 4) together read almost as a human right – the recognising of a need, and the recognising that society through the state should ensure that facilities for adult education are available in all communities. And not just at a basic level. But “ample opportunities”.

“How did it turn out?”

The history books can tell us that – literally.

Above – three histories that cover adult education in detail up to the end of the last millennium.

It’s worth noting that the publisher of the last book, the NIACE, was merged into the new Learning and Work Institute in 2016. One of the reasons I don’t like the new name is that it puts subconsciously the focus onto learning *for work* rather than learning for the love of it – for pleasure, for greater knowledge, to become a better person, to improve one’s health, and so on. Not everything is for work and money.

“What’s happened since then?”

In my view, Labour under Blair and Brown lost the vision that Arthur Greenwood set out for them back in 1920. I can understand their argument. I just disagree with it. What they did was to make an artificial divide between provision for basic skills and learning for work, vs leisure courses – things that were pejoratively briefed as ‘flower-arranging courses for the middle classes’ – something that the former Secretary of State for Health, and MP for Holborn & St Pancras (& thus my local MP at the time) Frank Dobson took issue with.

“Generally, part-time students at Birkbeck are not doing flower arranging. They are studying serious subjects I find it hard to believe that this is being done by good and decent people such as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills. He is my friend and he is honourable, but he is not right; he is wrong on this occasion. I cannot believe that Ministers have seriously considered the impact of this change on individual institutions.”

Frank Dobson MP, House of Commons, 08 Jan 2008

Such was the state of public services in the late 1990s that one of the key areas of domestic policy was basic skills. Remember ‘Education, Education, Education’? This was also a time of huge opportunities for learning online – something that ministers saw as being a means to make learning more accessible to people without the overheads of large school-like institutions. i.e. something that learners could learn in public libraries and community centres.

It’s worth noting that by January 2008 there were concerns about levels of Government spending as Northern Rock started imploding – they’d be nationalised by the Government the following month – on a day when I ended up filling in for a government minister who was due to give a speech about sustainable housing!

It’s worth noting that a decade later, following the Coalition’s introduction of much higher tuition fees for university, the Conservatives were forced onto the backfoot by the then Leader of the Opposition Jeremy Corbyn MP, whose manifesto commitment to abolish university tuition fees (since dropped by his successor Sir Keir Starmer) pre-empted the then Prime Minister Theresa May to commission a review on post-18 education – The Augar Review.

Adult education provision helping solve multiple policy problems

Mark Ravenhall’s blogpost on the European Commission’s Electronic Platform for Adult Learning in Europe cites two studies.

“We know from the third Global Report in Adult Learning and Education that adult learning has benefits in three overlapping areas: health, employment, and community life. Reports like Healthy, Wealthy, and Wise: the impact of adult learning across the UK (2017) have argued that interventions can have a positive impact on all three domains at the same time.”

Mark Ravenhall on Electronic Platform for Adult Learning in Europe’s blog, 16 Nov 2020

Let’s look at Healthy, Wealthy, and Wise, from October 2017.

The chapter headings from the report above are:

  • Adult learning and impact 6
  • Health: Challenges 8
  • Health: Role of Adult Learning 11
  • Work: Challenges 14
  • Work: Role of Adult Learning 16
  • Communities: Challenges 19
  • Communities: Role of Adult Learning 22
  • Implications for Policy and Practice 26

And this box from p4 makes an interesting point.

Let’s go back to what Arthur Greenwood wrote in 1920:

  1. “Adult education is founded on permanent needs
  2. These needs are not met by the development of the education of children and adolescents (at a time when universal secondary education was not in existence)
  3. The need for adult education arises from
    • a) the desire for knowledge and personal development
    • b) the desire to lay the foundations of more intelligent citizenship, and of a better social order
  4. There should therefore be ample opportunities in the community for adult education”

So despite 97 years of effort, there is still a sizeable cohort of people who are leaving school without basic literacy and numeracy skills. To what extent has the system of learning changed since then? To what extent has the built environment changed since then? What percentage of children are learning in welcoming, stimulating environments where they look forward to being in? Did ministers, policy-makers, and even architects and designers listen to the children first time around in the late 1960s, or second time around in the early 2000s?

Above – two pioneering studies

  1. The school that I’d like, by Edward Blishen
  2. The school I’d like, by Burke & Grosvenor

Over half a century has passed since the children for the first book were interviewed. Nearly a quarter of a century has passed since the children for the second book were interviewed. What’s changed?

If we want to rebuild trust in our institutions of state, investing in adult education has to be a core policy response

And that’s along side the increase in democracy education that successive ministers have been so reluctant to bring in – despite repeated pleas from generations of teenagers. What’s just as surprising is the decline in political and democracy education from the trade union movement that used to be much more prevalent in society. (How many people know about UnionLearn, and the opportunities of free training that comes with trade union membership?) It has only been in more recent times that the movement seems to have become more proactive, breaking out of its public sector strongholds as new generations of leaders have focused more on workplace issues and less on party politics.

There’s a huge opportunity for trade unions to use this moment to restore their presence in communities by investing some of their considerable financial assets into community buildings that face outwards to the public. This for me was made all the more stark with the controversial Unite Birmingham Hotel development. Compare this with Simon Knott’s photograph of the old TGWU district office on Burleigh Street in Cambridge.

Above – by Simon Knott, which he tells us was taken in 1982 during the redevelopment and construction of the first phase of The Grafton Centre in Cambridge.

What impact would it have if a few of the trade unions in and around Cambridge were able to relocate their offices to Burleigh Street and open a ground floor community centre? Note the street is one full of charity shops which brings a mix of people from many different backgrounds, along with being close to Anglia Ruskin University and Parkside Community College.

Education as a means for improving health

Professor Sir Michael Marmot was one of the speakers at Imagine2027 which I wrote about in my previous blogpost. His talk Making Health Fairer for 2027 at Anglia Ruskin University on 09 November 2017 is worth watching – I filmed it and the Q&A after it.

“Professor Marmot’s team at the Institute of Health Equity broadly suggests that our health and wellbeing is 70% driven by social determinants and only 30% by clinical factors. One of the central planks of Marmot’s thesis is the importance of empowerment for those at the bottom of the health gradient. As he writes in his bestselling book, The Health Gap, ‘education is not a bad proxy for empowerment.’

Healthy, Wealthy, and Wise, (2020) p40

The one thing my generation (1990s teenager) was never taught at school – or college or university, were things like what medications and treatments to take for various mild ailments. Furthermore, we received no education on when to call for an ambulance and when not to. And this matters given the underfunding of our health services and the pressure this is putting on our hard-working medics – as I have seen first hand during both my stays in hospital. Yet this post by Katrina Michelle Rowan highlights problems below the surface that public policy makers can easily miss.

“I have just finished my first four-week elective with the paramedics. I absolutely loved this placement, being out and about and never knowing what was coming next was something I relished. However, in four weeks I can count on one hand the number of people who genuinely needed an emergency ambulance.”

Katrina Michelle Rowan for NT, 14 Oc 2010

She describes the case of one elderly man who phoned for an ambulance because it turned out he was lonely. This was a case where her mentor said that such callouts should be charged for. Similar calls from politicians have been made with missed GP appointments.

“But if you scratch below the service, a little bit of questioning showed how the man’s wife had died two months earlier. They had been together 50 years; he was quite literally lost without her and unable to cope. Is it appropriate to charge a man who was obviously grieving and depressed?

She goes on:

“A large number of the calls I attended during my four weeks seemed to be a result of social problems rather than medical emergencies. We were called to a girl who obviously just wanted her mother to pay her some attention, we were called to a family gathering that had got out of hand and punches were being thrown.”

Which then begs the question as to how both situations got to the stage where the blue lights were being called rather than being nipped in the bud through community action? We know loneliness is a public policy issue that has much, much deeper roots than individual days of action can turn around. We also know the value of Sure Start centres – which should never have had their funding cut by central government. Why have successive Health and Treasury ministers chosen to underfund mental health care provision and training up new generations of counsellors in the community? Price of everything, value. of nothing? Given the shortage of counsellors and the high hourly rates they can command, where are the options for people to switch careers and retrain to those areas of the economy and society that we so desperately need?

“The Department for Education must instate fee grants for part-time learners from the most disadvantaged backgrounds who study courses that meet the skills needs of the nations, as well as extend the maintenance support loan to part-time distance learners.”

House of Commons Education Select Committee 18 Dec 2020

Above – not just me saying this, but the House of Commons Education Select Committee in its report on A Plan for an Adult Skills and Lifelong Learning Revolution

A community learning centre in every town, individual learning accounts and boosting part-time Higher Education and employer-led training should be at the centre of an adult education revolution to tackle social injustice and revitalise the country’s economy, the Education Committee has said.

I agree!

If we can make these community learning centres places that adults want to be, and have the variety of services that meet multiple needs – such as creches, GP surgeries, dentists, sports facilities and even large open green spaces/parks where people can go for relaxing walks, think of the positive impacts that these could have.

Furthermore, learners need not be restricted to doing a single course in a narrow field. One of the things the current political class has rightly been criticised for is a massive failure of ethics in the face of corruption allegations and the breaking down of conventions supposed to uphold the public’s trust in politics. Could a more comprehensive offer for lifelong learners from adult education providers that cover things like personal health, democracy, ethics, and citizenship, to responding to the climate emergency (including retrofitting their homes) be incorporated into mainstream courses? Could employers give their staff paid time off work for these elements to be incorporated into training courses they pay their employees to go on? Something that would be for the good of their local communities they are based in? The same applies to full time further and higher education as well. Because it looks like Oxford’s PPE course has been somewhat lacking on that front!

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:

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