The relevance of Erich Fromm for online learning during a pandemic

I was struck recently by how much Erich Fromm can offer in understanding online teaching. In his To Have Or To Be? Fromm distinguishes between two …

The relevance of Erich Fromm for online learning during a pandemic

A year of blogging: the most popular posts of 2020

A new year always brings with it a spur to reflection: looking back, taking stock, and looking forward. So to start with, has this blog done what I’d hoped – and how might it do better?

My main hopes in continuing the blog have always been to share my own work, and to engage in dialogue, on topics that interest me. I was intrigued, then, to find that the two most popular posts of 2020 were something on predatory publishing that I published some years ago, and an open question about holistic evaluation that I didn’t answer.

These are interestiing themes, but my main focus is on adult learning (including its history) and social capital. As you can see, both of these topics attracted reasonable numbers of readers, as did an old post on the EU’s Erasmus scheme which found new readers this year after the UK government announced that it would no longer take part.

As a writer, I’m more than satisfied with the numbers who read these posts, and I only hope you found them useful. No one knows how many people read the average academic paper, but it’s widely believed that the numbers are very small indeed, and far smaller than those of you who check out my blog. And I get far more feedback, both through the comments section and via social media, than for any of my more academic publications.

I’m also struck by how international this readership is. The vast majority of you are based in the world’s richest countries, but quite a few of you come from middle income countries where English is a second or third language. Brazil looks particularly strong: obrigado!

In fact, thank you all for taking time out in 2020 to read this blog. I hope you continue to find it useful, and send me your feedback in the year ahead. My best wishes to you for 2021, and may it be happier, more productive, and healthier than the last twelve months.

A new way to measure graduate success

This post first appeared on ISE: Insights on the 3rd December 2020. In it Robin Mellors-Bourne and I discuss why it would be valuable to measure …

A new way to measure graduate success

Has social capital had its day?

Concepts in the social sciences go in and out of fashion even more quickly than hairstyles. My first encounter with this phenomenon was as an undergraduate, when we were told in our first year to grapple with Althusser only to hear as third years that structuralism was “old hat”. The idea of social capital, which became extremely popular around the millenium, has now been around for over 20 years. Does it still have any continuing relevance today?

I need to start by declaring an interest. I wrote quite a bit about social capital, both on my own and with my colleague Tom Schuller, and ended up publishing a short text book on the concept. It is in its third edition and has now appeared in several languages, and is unique among my publications in generating any serious income from royalties. So I am pleased to announce that the concept appears to be alive and well, if not as popular across the social sciences as it was around the year 2000.

I’m basing this judgement on some very simple metrics from Google Trends. A straightforward search of all items shows that while global use of the term peaked in March 2004 (and therefore represents Google’s index point of 100), its use hovers around one quarter of that peak right through to the present.

Next I looked at use within the USA only. The use of the term has held up rather better among Americans than in the rest of the world, with most periods showing an average use rate of just under half its peak level of February 2004. Interestingly, Americans’ interest peaked again in Aril 2020, a spike that I reckon has to be linked to academic and public debates over social capital and the pandemic.

Far from disappearing, the concept of social capital seems to be thriving. Some people – myself included – continue to found it a fruitful way of highlighting the ways in which our social connections serve as a resource in ways which then have wider implications for our communities and for the organisations to which we belong.

Bob Fryer, 1944-2020: Adult educator, scholar, advocate and baby-sitter

Bob Fryer is probably most widely known for chairing an influential advisory committee that helped shape New Labour’s policies for lifelong learning. But many people will also have encountered him as a teacher, researcher, advocate, and leader across fields such as industrial relations, employment, and social policy as well as adult learning. His influence in all these areas was far-reaching.

Bob also made an intensely practical contribution. I first met him in the mid-70s, when I was working on my PhD at Warwick University, where Bob was chair of the Faculty of Social Sciences. Our families belonged to the same baby-sitting circle in the Coventry suburb of Earlsdon, so I or my partner occasionally baby-sat his kids and he and his partner Ann baby-sat ours. I also saw him at research seminars in the Sociology Department where he was then a senior lecturer.

I left Warwick in 1978 to start teaching at a new adult college in Barnsley, so the next I heard of Bob was a phone call from him asking a few sharp questions about the college. I didn’t know that he was thinking of applying to become the college’s principal until he was short-listed. Bob led Northern College for fifteen years, at a time when financial and political pressures could easily have ended its life.

I left the college in 1985 to return to Warwick, so I didn’t see Bob’s long term impact at first hand. In the short term, he acted to strengthen the college’s somewhat under-staffed and chaotic administration, bring in Mo Mowlam as a senior administrator (though Mo could be something of an occasional presence, given her other interests); he brought in new groups of learners through his connections with trade unions; he built his own relations with the South Yorkshire councils and the miners’ union (his predecessor, Michael Barratt Brown, had his own ties with these groups, who were vital for the college’s health); he worked hard at wider political connections; he built a close working relationship with Sheffield Hallam University; and he enjoyed teaching the lively students we worked with.

It was an exciting time, and I thought long and hard before making the move to Warwick. One of the attractions of moving was the opportunity to help develop a new department – which itself had been created following a report from a Senate working group that Bob had led, and Bob was generous in advice in the next couple of years. Meanwhile, he was taking the college forward, and also starting to think through some of his ideas for rebuilding adult learning. He knew David Blunkett, who had been one of the college’s governors and as leader of Sheffield City Council was adopting the ideas of policy thinkers like Martin Yarnit, including the pioneering Take Ten scheme of paid educational leave for municipal workers.

So it was no surprise that Bob was involved in New Labour’s policy development around adult learning. Like Blunkett, he had nothing much against Blair’s embrace of education as “our best economic policy”, but what excited him – and Blunkett – was education as a crucible of active citizenship and social justice. He also brought a sardonic wit to his interventions. When some on the left disparaged his focus on getting working class peoiple into university, Bob replied that he noticed that the higher someone’s own qualifications, the more likely they were to proclaim the irrelevance of qualifications for other people.

Bob was an Oxford boy in his origins, but his family background lay in the city’s manufacturing community rather than the university, and he always seemed to treat his roots as a touchstone for his educational thinking. That thinking was probably expressed most eloquently in David Blunkett’s visionary foreword to The Learning Age, which set out the new government’s proposals for lifelong learning. I always assumed (wrongly, though that’s another story) that Bob drafted the foreword, while Blunkett then fine-tuned it.

Turning that vision into policy was another matter. On being appointed secretary of state for education, Blunkett created a number of advisory committees, one of which Bob chaired. The National Advisory Group on Lifelong Learning published its first report in 1997, and Blunkett moved rapidly to move on the main recommendations. Well, on what he saw as the main recommendations: the report devoted by far its longest chapter to recommendations, followed by a chapter on how to manage the process of change.

As a member of the Fryer committee, my impression was that the main lines of actual policy development had been thought out in the years before New Labour came to power in 1997. That wasn’t in itself a bad thing, as the earlier work strengthened Blunkett’s hand when it came to implementing the policies. I can only imagine the horror of senior civil servants – especially at the Treasury – when told to introduce Individual Learning Accounts, the Union Learning Fund, and the University for Industry.

Bob conrinued to play a central role in this period, not only chairing the committee as it produced its second report, but also accepting virtually any invitation to speak about lifelong learning. Indefatigable, he travelled these islands and beyond to generate a wider momentum behind the first report, taking several speaker engagements a week to share his vision of an active and inclusive learning culture that was supported by institutions and funding arrangements that placed learners at their centre.

Most people have long since forgotten the Fryer Committee’s second report, which appeared in 1999. Unlike the first, barely none of true second report had any impact, either on policy or on public debate over lifelong learning. Its title – Creating learning cultures: next steps in achieving the learning age – was promising, but in retrospect it lacked focus, and was missing in analytical precision. We’d learned one lesson from experience: this time we narrowed our recommendations down to eight key and twenty-three supplementary proposals. This was still far too many, of course.

More importantly, Blunkett’s focus had shifted, and he was paying far more attention to the politically-popular – and contentious – area of schools policy. Bob had also moved on, and was running New College at Southampton University, taking an able deputy with him and enjoying a secondment to the University for Industry where he worked with colleagues from the public sector union Unison on proposals for what became the National Health Service University.

Bob’s appointment as the NHSU’s first chief executive was announced in late 2001, and the University opened two years later. For whatever reason – my understanding is that senior civil servants took the first opportunity to kill off something they’d never wanted, Labour politicians were less than supportive, and the workforce formed a perception that Bob had staffed the new body with chums with no health service experience – NHSU was abruptly closed in 2005, and Bob found himself in the role of the NHS’s director for widening participation in learning. Its legacy was minimal, partly because almost all those involved directly in NHSU left the NHS fairly quickly.

Bob continued a wider contribution through other organisations and campaigns, largely in the voluntary sector. He remained a strong supporter of inclusive learning, and he was generous in supporting other woking in the area. In recent years his health deteriorated; the last time I saw him was at a seminar in 2019 to celebrate his work. He was physically frail but mentally lively, still championing the values that he had promoted an a scholar, advocate, practitioner, and activist. It visibly moved him to see so many old friends, colleagues, former students and allies turning out to share memories and expore his old preoccupations and passions.

Now he has left us. My personal memories are of a congenial companion, a generous and supportive colleague, a world-class raconteur, a hard-working colleague, a loving family man, and a committed activist who – though I think unintentionally – made me look closely at work and its transformations, and challenged some of my more orthodox thinking on class and inequalities. As a scholar he was knowledgeable and thoughtful, but for some reason everything he wrote simply got longer and longer; he seems to have needed a selfless co-author or a firm editor to help him get finished.

His most substantial contributions seem to me to have been institutional – just keeping Northern College alive would have been no mean feat, but growing it and protecting its distinctiveness was a real achievement; and political, in the work he put into the early years of New Labour’s first government not just in shaping specific policies, but also in generating support and enthusiasm for those policies. That’s a pretty good memorial, and I think he’d have been proud and happy if that was how we remember him.

The therapeutic value of labour: an official view of asylum farms in 1906

Labourers and supervisors at the Three Counties Asylum, c. 1890

In 1906, the Inspectors of Lunatics for Ireland called on the authorities to increase the number of farms attached to asylums. Their reasoning was that

Not only do large farms attached to asylums afford means of healthy labour in the open air, and an outlet for that restlessness and desire of motion so common among the insane, thus producing quietude and peace where formerly there was noise and excitement, but the interest aroused in agricultural work also brings back the wandering mind to sane views, and so helps to promote recovery.  

Moreover, large tracts of land attached to asylums enable the patients, both male and female, to take extended and varied walks, and to enjoy the open air without encroaching on the public thoroughfares – a course which often gives raise to complaints by the sane community.

(Fifty-eighth Report of the Inspectors of Lunatics (Ireland), for the year ending 31st December 1906)

By this time, farms were a common feature of asylums, as they were to other residential institutions, reflecting a widespread belief in the pedagogic and therapeutic value of outdoor manual work. For an excellent single institutional study, you can do worse than check out A Place in the Country: The Three Counties Asylum, 1869-1990. And for a wider picture of the farm colony movement and its successors, take a look at my book on British work camp systems.

Sociability and social movements: the new left’s venture into cafe culture

Advertisement in the Universities and Left Review, 5, 1958

The Partisan Cafe opened in 1958, founded by the radical historian (and my friend) Raphael Samuel with help from Stuart Hall, Ken Tynan, and others. Based in the heart of Soho, near the present-day offices of Private Eye, it rapidly became a meeting point for a range of counter-cultural groups and heterodox individuals from the novelist Doris Lessing to the film-maker Lindsay Anderson, from the folk singer Peggy Seeger to the then-blues performer Rod Stewart.

Raph had three main aims for the cafe. He wanted to create a congenial space for political, historical and cultural debate; he wanted to challenge the emerging hegemony of the modish Italian-style espresso house; and he hoped to generate a source of funding for favoured causes, especially Universities and Left Review, the magazine that he edited. The ambience seems to me with hindsight a mixture of beatnik culture (skiffle bands, beat poets) and the British New Left (talks, debates, library). The menu offered a blend of British and Irish staples and East End Jewish dishes, accompanied by a semi-humorous list of coffees.

Far from subsidising other projects, the cafe lost money and it closed in 1962, partly because – in a typically open Raph Samuel gesture – people could sit around without buying anything. Raph’s own interest in popular history to one side, it was a rather rarified and intellectual milieu. It was notably a metropolitan phenomenon, and I imagine that its ambience attracted quite a narrow socio-cultural niche, a fair number of whom went on to occupy senior positions in academic life and the arts; proletarian it certainly was not.

I think its influence and legacy lay largely in connecting together disparate elements of the post-1956 New Left, drawing in old Marxists like Eric Hobsbawm and younger unaligned thinkers such as Stuart Hall, and promoting debates and ideas about the arts (especially music and film), international and politics, and according to my friend Jean McCrindle it debated early feminism but kept up a conventional division of domestic labour.

In spite of its demise, Raph long continued to remember it fondly. I was reminded of it the other day when clearing out some old papers, among which was a copy of the Universities and Left Review with an advert for the cafe. It certainly has its place in the history of the British New Left, as well as in the origins of contemporary cultural studies. An East London Gallery showed an exhibition of photographs of the cafe a couple of years ago, curated by Mike Berlin. I see it as a flawed but nonethless inspiring exercise in creating a semi-structured space for informal learning; but it arose out of conditions that simply do not exist today.

And as a footnote, although I was far too young and provincial to even see the Partisan, I have Raph to thank for showing me how to make a decent espresso.

Gavin Williamson: Guardian letter writer. Where did it all go wrong?

My thanks to sometime beard wearer and biographer of Karl Marx Francis Wheen for dredging up a letter that Gavin Williamson wrote to the Guardian on …

Gavin Williamson: Guardian letter writer. Where did it all go wrong?

Adult learners and the exam board debacle

Update: on the 17th August, the English and Welsh education ministers joined their Scottish counterpart in reversing their commitment to an algorithm-based approach to exam results, and settling for teacher-based assessments. All three ministers have also issued apologies. For details, see:

This summer’s examination results have triggered unusual indignation and outrage across the UK. It all kicked off in Scotland, where the education minister reacted to public anger by dumping a strategy that he had originally approved. This was followed a week later by an outcry when results were announced elsewhere in the UK, but a common theme was that in each system, the preferred solutions to problems caused by the pandemic all tended to discriminate against the least privileged children.

Understandably, the media – social and ‘traditional’ – had a field day. In the middle of the row I tweeted a mildly-worded reminder that adults were affected as well as school-leavers: some second chance returners take GCSEs and/or A-levels, either to measure themselves against able youngsters, or – probably more significantly – as a way of building up a portfolio of qualifications that are widely recognised and can enable progression.

My message prompted a number of replies, and this post summarises the main points that people raised. Some people tweeted that any inherent bias in this summer’s system was likely to affect adult returners more severely than youngsters. One noted that as adults usually do a GCSE in 9 months, they had less time for full mock exams to fall back on. Another said that adult learners’ lack of previous education may have caused issue with the moderation of their grades. Finally, David Hughes commented that Ofqual’s algorithms struggle to cope with adults because of lack of comparable prior achievement data

One person pointed out that the number of adults taking schoolleaver qualifications has dropped significantly. In particular, a tiny number of adults now sit GCE A levels, with 1780 entries (not learners) for 19+ learners on 2018/19 NARTs (many of whom will be under 21), and only 340 Advanced Learning Loans approved for A Levels in 2018/19.

Once the dust settles, and the inevitable enquiries grind into action, it will be important to ensure that the disinctive needs and experiences of adult returners are not overlooked. I hope that this short summary of initial responses helps make the case for including adult learners in the conversation – and maybe in the longer run ensuring that these qualifications are made more accessible elements in our lifelong learning system.

My thanks to all those who commented. You can follow them on Twitter at:






Dracula, gender, and adult learning: Joseph O’Connor’s Shadowplay

Joseph O’Connor’s Shadowplay reimagines the relationship between Bram Stoker, Ellen Terry, and Henry Irving, set against the background of Stoker’s gothic novel Dracula. Stoker’s wife, Florence, is a somewhat absent figure; O’Connor shows her developing an increasingly independent life after her husband is appointed manager of Irving’s new theatre.

The early signs of Flo’s independence appear when she announces that she is going to the British Library to ‘polish my German’ and study the law of copyright. After that, she informs her uneasy husband, she was heading to the Mechanics’ Insitute in High Holborn,triggering the following exchange:

“What is that?”

“An organisation of working men and their families. I mean to offer a series of night lectures there shortly, essentials of reading, writing and algebra. There us a very great need among the poor”.

“You intend to give lessons, dear? To labouring men?”

“And their wives, yes”.

Later on it transpires that Florence had become a respected staff member at the institute, where she was sufficiently influential and courageous to successfully challenge male discrimination.

Whether Florence actually taught in a mechanics institute or not isn’t the point. O’Connor uses this episode both to demonstrate her intellectual independence and to underline her refusal to enter a conventional domestic role, as well as to signal an emergent feminism. He shows Florence as a modern woman with a sense of social responsibility and a mind of her own; her attraction to and involvement in adult education seerves as a symbol of and vehicle for her modernity.

That’s the novel, which I recommend. If you want to know more about the real Florence, there’s a succinct scholarly account in the Dictionary of Irish Biography. And by the time that Florence and Bram were in London, the London Mechanics’ Institute had been renamed as the Birkbeck Literary and Scientific Institution, forerunner of Birkbeck College.