Can we rebuild the Plebs League tradition?

There’s been a lot of discussion about the Plebs League, a socialist adult education movement formed in 1908 by dissident students at Ruskin College. It’s not surprising that we’re all taking an interest in the word ‘pleb’, as used – or not – by a disgruntled government minister. Then the Guardian picked up on a suggestion by the shadow Welsh Secretary that we consider reviving the Plebs League. And now I receive an email inviting me to a conference on rebuilding the Plebs League tradition in a new century.

Is it possible to repeat the success of Noah Ablett, George Hodgkinson and Arthur Cook in developing a living programme of what they called ‘independent working class education’? Capitalism isn’t looking too clever right now, and there’s certainly a renewed interest in Marxist ideas out there, with new editions of the Communist Manifesto and Capital proudly on display in the high street.

And the conference, organised by a group calling itself Independent Working Class Education, looks interesting. As well as discussions of contemporary union based learning, there are also presentations on radical approaches to family history and self-education in pre-1914 socialist groups, as well as a debate about building popular universities. But how realistic are the prospects of a Plebs League for the iPhone generation?

The portents are not all grim. The original Plebs set out to promote an education in revolutionary socialism, drawing on Marxist theoretical principles, informed by experience in trade unionism, and aiming to build a revolutionary movement based in the unions. And we could argue reasonably that organised labour in general, and the trade unions in particular, are in far better shape than they were in 1908. But is this a basis for a continuing, organised movement for independent working class education?

The main obstacles are pretty obvious. While the unions are larger and stronger than in 1908 in some respects, the meaning of membership has changed dramatically since the 1970s. Branch meetings are rarely ‘spaces for learning’; they are either sparsely attended or more often have disappeared altogether. Members pay their subscriptions by credit card or standing order, rather than in person to their shop steward. The revival of union learning is a real credit to those involved (including the much-maligned New Labour government), but it isn’t often concerned with building a new social order.

And this reflects much wider trends in popular culture, which has shifted dramatically from the world of chapel, co-operative, working men’s club and trade union that working people built as shelters from the worst ravages of unregulated capitalism. I see these shifts as irreversible, at least in our life time. And none of the newer social movements has yet emerged with the strength and sustainability to carry a similarly convincing narrative of independent radical education. Nor at present is there a group of intellectuals who believe that a new and desirable social order can be built through organised labour or any other social movement.

So I reckon the prospects are poor. And I would also remind you of the fate of the original Plebs League. It openly denounced other adult education movements, such as the Workers Educational Association, as class collaborators. It despised universities and academics as bourgeois lackeys (worth remembering given that my invitation to attend this conference came from a fellow professor). And the labour college movement that they inspired and often worked in was brought to its knees, not by the malign forces of capitalism and the state, but by the corruption of its leading officials, who embezzled its funds.  So we shouldn’t idealise the Plebs, but rather see them as sometimes admirable, sometimes foolish, and sometimes plain wrong.

But the ideal of a new movement for radical adult learning retains its appeal. There is plenty to organise against, and plenty to hope for. We’re unlikely to find a comforting and inspirational unifying narrative of the kind that drove Noah Ablett and his comrades in the early twentieth century. Rather, we need to build our own narratives and interweave different radical movements that demand new and possibly tricky forms of knowledge and capability, and therefore new forms of learning.  And given the political climate, there is something appealingly cheeky about calling it after the Plebs!

For details of the conference on 24 November see:

The attack on adult learners: further evidence

My last two blogs presented evidence, taken from the National Adult Learning Survey, that adult learning in England is in trouble. NALS sampled participation in 2010, so conceivably the findings are out of date. However, the Skills Funding Agency’s latest figures suggest that the collapse continues.

SFA’s headline figure is that the total number of adult learners in government-funded further education fell by 10.7% in 2010/11. So for every ten learners in the previous year, one had vanished by 2010/11. Provisional data for 2011/12 suggest that participation may still be falling, but we have to wait until January to see whether this is the case.

Government has made courses leading to qualifications its priority for some years now. Given what we know from NALS, though, it is impossible to be surprised to learn that the number of people achieving a qualification fell even faster than the total number of learners, by 11.8%.

In another priority area, family literacy and numeracy, participation fell by 8.1%; it also fell, by 2%, in wider forms of family learning. This is damaging not only to the participants and their communities, but also affects the life chances of their children.

The SFA figures do contain some good news. The number of apprenticeships continues to rise, with above-average growth among adult trainees, and particularly sharp increases in the number of over-25s starting an apprenticeship. But most people will know that there have been questions over the quality of many apprenticeship schemes, with some evidence that employers are simply using the system to subsidise the employment of new staff or the upskilling of existing staff.

And there was mixed news in what used to be known as adult basic education. While the number of new Skills for Life learners rose by 5.8%, the number who achieved a qualification fell, by 3.1%.

If I were one of the many press officers in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, I would probably encourage Vince Cable to point to improving success rates. But if you reduce the total number of learners, by deterring the most disadvantaged and least highly motivated, then of course your success rates will rise.

And if I were one of the many press officers in the Scottish Government, I would encourage Mike Russell to note that these figures don’t cover adult learning in Scotland. But the Scottish Government did not support NALS in 2010, and doesn’t conduct its own research, so we have very little idea of what is happening to adult learners in Scotland. You might almost think the Government prefers to keep it that way.

More on NALS 2010 – firing a shotgun at both feet?

My previous blog looked at the huge decline in participation in adult learning recorded by the National Adult Learning Survey. My quick analysis showed that while overall participation fell by 11% from the level of 80% recorded in 2005, it had fallen faster and further for some groups than others. Essentially, I showed that policy makers had decided to penalise older learners and the least educated, and had also undermined the role of adult learning in promoting social mobility. 

This blog turns to the ways in which different types of learning have been eroded by recent government policies. After the Leitch Review of skills, the Labour Government in 2007 decided to concentrate public funding on vocational skills and on courses leading to a Level 2 qualification. This policy has been continued by the Coalition and has also been adopted by the Nationalist Government in Scotland. 

NALS shows that in practice, this narrow policy goal has failed. Since 2005, participation in courses leading to qualifications has fallen by 7%, and participation in skills-related courses has fallen by 6%. The number learning for professional development has fallen by 10%. They couldn’t even get this right – by attacking the lifelong learning system, in effect, successive governments have managed to erode the vocational training that they claimed to be endorsing and prioritising. 

Future intentions have also been damaged. The proportion who say they are not likely to take future job-related learning has increased by 9% since 2005, while the proportion who are ‘very likely’ to do so fell by 14%. 

Unsurprisingly, cost emerges as a major issue. While the two surveys are not directly comparable, the price paid by most learners in 2010 was considerably higher than in 2005, and the proportion of people who identified price as an obstacle was also much larger. Again, this reflects Labour policies, including the abolition (in England) of Individual Learning Accounts and the attack on those adult and further education courses that did not meet Ministers’ policy priorities. 

Finally, it is interesting to compare the NALS results with Geoff Mason’s study of the Labour Force Survey. Mason reported a growth in participation between 1999 and 2002, followed by a decline from 2003 to 2009; this included a decline in vocational training over the same period. While this is broadly consistent with NALS, Mason’s more detailed analysis was not so easily squared with NALS. In particular, he found that older workers’ participation (50-59) stayed constant, nor did he find above-average falls for the least well qualified. 

These surveys are conducted in different ways, so it is not surprising that they produce different results. It would be good to see an independent researcher taking a closer look at the NALS dataset, to ask a more – and more detailed – questions about the trends between 2005 and 2010. At present, though, it looks to me like a clear story of policy failure.

The NALS report is at:

Geoff Mason’s study is at:

Few winners, plenty of losers: policy failure in lifelong learning

The Government has finally published the results of its 2010 National Adult Learning Survey. Why it was not published last year is itself a story, but the more important issue is that the survey shows a huge decline in participation in adult learning. The headline is that overall participation fell by 11% from the level of 80% recorded in 2005. Non-formal learning, or courses not leading to a qualification, saw a collapse of 17%; and informal (self-directed) learning saw a drop of 13%. 

As ever, deep inequalities lurk behind the headlines. The age gradient has risen, with much sharper declines in participation among older adults. The gap between 20-29 year-olds and people in their sixties has risen, as has the gap between the 20-29-year-olds and people aged over 70. In a system which was already geared towards youth, older adults have been further marginalised.

The education gradient has also become steeper. Participation fell by 7% among people with higher education qualifications; it fell by 11% among those with Level 2 qualifications, by 14% among those with Level 1 qualifications, and a whoppping 19% by those with no qualifications. This is quite remarkable, given that after the Leitch Review of 2006, Government policy under Labour and the Coalition was allegedly geared towards getting the least qualified to improve their skills and qualifications.

The social mobility gradient has become sharper as well. The drop in participation was 7% among those with at least one parent holding a university degree, and 12% for people whose parents had left education by the age of 16. Taken together with current changes in the taxation and benefits systems, this contradicts the claim that social mobility can be – as deputy prime minister Nick Clegg put it in 2011 – the Coalition’s ‘over-riding social policy objective’.

How can we explain this collapse in lifelong learning? The report suggests that the 2005 figures were inflated by a temporary surge in introductory computer training; this is possible but unlikely, as the result of introductory computer training is generally an increased need for less basic training. The report also claims that ‘employers are training fewer employees’ because of the recession. This sounds plausible until you realise that there is absolutely no evidence for this claim. On the contrary – Alan Felstead and Francis Green have shown that training activity has continued much as usual.

Finally, the report briefly alludes to policy changes, which brought about a critical breakdown in public sector provision. Essentially, Government decided to discourage short courses and courses not leading to qualifications, and prioritise courses leading to Level 2 qualifications. These are the results of policies adopted in 2007, on Labour’s watch (hang your heads in shame, John Denham and Bill Rammell). The Coalition has continued them in England, and now the SNP is taking Scotland down the same path.

The consequences do not need labouring. First, we are heading straight for greater educational and social inequality; second, social mobility will decline as a direct result; and third, any claims about ‘active aging’ must be measured against the negative effects of reduced opportunities for third age learning.

The NALS report is at:

Felstead and his colleagues’ reports on training in the recession are at:

The importance of honest skills: Russian education

Visiting Moscow, I was interested and surprised to see some local journalists describing British schools as a positive benchmark. When it comes to the use of new technologies for teaching, apparently we have one of the world’s more advanced systems. One report, for example, noted that while fewer than 17% of Russian classrooms were equipped with interactive whiteboards, 75% had this particular bit of kit in Britain.

This was refreshing for me, coming from an island where moaning about ourselves could well become the next Olympic sport. Of course, what matters is not whether the technology is in place, but also how we use it. But my interest was sparked off in quite another direction, which is the economic pathway being followed by Russian capitalism. While most countries are looking to education and research as central to economic innovation and sustainability, Russia appears to be relying on a combination of access to natural resources and hospitable regulatory frameworks for trade.

By all the conventional indicators, this approach is proving remarkably successful. The IMF calculates that output per head – once at laughably low levels compared with Western Europe – has already overtaken Portugal, and will shortly overtake Spain. Public debt is low. The public signs of affluence and growth are all too visible – if anything, the Moscow city-region may well be over-heating, with workers increasingly unable to live within commuting distance of their jobs.

What is less clear is whether this pattern of high growth is sustainable. Very visibly, it is leaving a lot of people behind. The elderly, and pensioners in particular, are largely excluded from the new wealth. Furthermore, the growth is largely a product of high energy prices. Once oil and gas production start to decline, this factor will perforce become less important.

Third, government and business transactions often proceed through networks of corruption. Even a casual visitor can spot the exchanges of bribes that are needed for people to bend the rules and make things happen. When it comes to international business transactions, though, corruption is a problem. I am not so naive as to suppose that western bankers and manufacturers will not offer a ‘bung’ – it is more that a culture of corruption introduces new levels of uncertainty and risk, and undermines long term confidence and trust.

And impressive Russian growth has not yet been accompanied by increased investment in education and skills, or in research, at the levels achieved in recent years by other fast-growing economies like China.  Just 3.8% of GDP is allocated to education, compared with 5.3% in the UK and over 8% in Malaysia and Denmark.

Things are not too bad in the sprawling higher education sector. Teaching standards enjoy a relatively high reputation, and Russia joined the Bologna process in 2003. It has amended its degree structures in line with the bachelors/masters system common across the whole of Europe. Nevertheless, even though public funding has risen, it has done so from a low base and under-funding is causing problems.

Some of the best Russian scholars now work in western universities, while the remaining academics are often isolated from the rest of the world. The country’s universities come nowhere in the international league tables. The system has expanded partly by creating new institutions, often privately funded, and this is raising questions about quality and effectiveness. And of course, Russian graduates enter a labour market where key decisions can be made on the basis of connections and corruption, not ability, conditions that hardly favour meritocracy.

So far as lifelong learning is concerned, Russia has a fragmented scatter of institutions, many of them left over from – and more or less damaged by – the past. Understandably, it is mainly oriented towards vocational adult education, with a smaller provision of more general types of education. Russia faces a general process of social aging, but is currently tackling skills shortages by attracting young immigrant workers, mostly from the former member states of the USSR.

So if education generally is neglected, adult education is in a dire position. A recent report from the European Association for Adult Education describes the state-directed institutes for vocational adult education as ‘conservative’ and highly institutional. And while there are organisations who campaign for a more civic and socially purposeful approach to lifelong learning, their influence is limited. They could probably benefit from our support.

EAEA’s report on Russian adult education is available at:

Tom Lovett, 1936-2012

I’ve been thinking recently about community and learning in hard times. These reflections are partly triggered by the way in which many organisations are now talking about ‘community engagement’ in their core mission. But they are also prompted by the death in May of Tom Lovett, one of those inspirational figures whose ideas and interests spanned adult learning, community development and radical thinking more generally. And Tom was not a mere writer; he also created things, including a whole bundle of courses and events around community learning and development, and of course the Ulster People’s College, of which he was a founder and director.

And Tom’s death was also a personal loss. I met and liked him while I was still working at Northern College in Barnsley; then I worked alongside him for four years at the University of Ulster, where he held a chair in adult education. But he had influenced me much earlier.

Adult Education, Community Development and the Working Class was the first book I had ever read about adult learning that made any impression. Before that I had read two other books in our field, both of which I found insufferably self-satisfied and smug. And I discovered that many senior adult educators couldn’t understand why I thought a book about their profession actually mattered – they worked in the field, but they saw all the interesting debates as happening elsewhere, in economics or history or cultural studies.

Published in 1975, Tom’s first book was a seminal work which combined reflection on earlier traditions of radical adult education with an attempt to theorise a progressive practice for today. He wrote not only about Paulo Freire but also about Moses Coady and the Antigonish movement in Canada, Myles Horton and the Highlander Folk School (now Highlander Research and Education Center) in Tennessee. For people like me, this was an extraordinary moment of illumination, lighting up the invisible ties between my everyday teaching and the wider world of civil rights, community organising, and radical social change. Tom published several other books, and continued to write until ill health made it impossible. Much to my joy, he asked me to contribute a chapter to a collection inspired by R H Tawney’s dictum that all successful adult education movements are also social movements.

As well as writing, Tom also taught and worked in the field. He was involved in the Home Office-funded Community Development Project in Liverpool in the early 1970s, and much of his early writing was influenced by the healthy debate among the CDPs over their role and purpose. He then moved to the University of Ulster, first in Derry and than at Jordanstown, where he developed a number of programmes in community development and community relations that brought together working class men and women from across Northern Ireland’s different communities.

Firmly on the political Left, and deeply marked by his Belfast upbringing, Tom developed an argument for adult learning as a core element in community development; he also urged practitioners to become involved in community action, particularly where it involved action by local people themselves, acting to advance their own interests. After retiring he continued his involvement in community development in North Belfast.

I learned a great deal from Tom, and admired him personally. Apart from anything else, he came into adult education the hard way. He grew up in the Ardoyne area of Belfast, then trained as an aircraft fitter at Shorts, then worked on the buses. His formal experience of education came through the Workers’ Educational Association, followed in 1962 by a year at Ruskin College and then an Oxford degree. He faced considerable hostility during the Troubles, with neither side able (or willing) to accept that he respected and trusted people with very different views from theirs. Most of us come from comparatively cosy backgrounds; Tom came through the flames.

So my first reflection is that these are indeed hard times, but we’ve been through worse. Second, there is a large and open agenda for adult learning linked to community development and community action. Third, what we mean and understand by community development and action have changed over the last two decades, and we need to adjust and adapt adult learning accordingly. Fourth, we need to think about digital technologies in this context, not only as tools for learning but as tools for new types of community and civic action. And fifth, I now find it very difficult to imagine a bright working class lad getting himself into university at the age of 26 and subsequently becoming a professor, but I hope I am wrong.

Short cycle higher education – cut price option?

Scotland’s higher education system is well known for its breadth and quality. But its most distinctive feature is barely known outside the UK, and this is the number of students who enrol on short cycle qualifications in non-university institutions.

Around one-third of full-time students at undergraduate level in Scotland enrol on a Higher National Certificate or Higher National Diploma at a college. The proportion is even higher among part-time students, a majority of whom take a Higher National at a college. This is much higher than in most other OECD countries, even those – like England – where government has actively encouraged short cycle degrees.

Under the Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework, an HNC is deemed the equivalent of a first year degree course, while an HND equals the first two years of a degree. In Scotland, where most school-leavers enter higher education at 17, most bachelors’ degrees last four years. And many students do in fact ‘cash in’ their HNCs and HNDs, and enter university to complete a bachelors’ degree.

In general terms, it looks as though this distinctive feature of Scottish higher education is a success. Jim Gallacher’s research has shown that short cycle HNCs and HNDs are attractive to non-traditional students, while the part-time routes provide a progression route for lifelong learners. Anne Gasteen and John Houston have shown that people with an HNC or HND earn higher salaries than those with lower qualifications. So these qualifications are valued by employers as well as their holders.

However, while the same body – the Scottish Funding Council – deals with both colleges and universities, it treats them differently. At present, according to the Herald, SFC pays colleges £1285 a year for students on HE courses, compared to £1820 for a university student.

Can this discrepancy be justified? Some members of the Scottish Parliament clearly think not. At a recent meeting of the Education and Culture Committee, MSPs pressed some of the expert witnesses, including Jim Gallacher, for their views on the funding discrepancy. I suspect that some of these MSPs will now pursue the issue with more vigour in the future.

It’s easy to imagine how the universities might try to argue their case. One line of argument, for example, would be to claim that their costs are higher because the quality of teaching is higher. They could underpin this claim by noting that university lecturers come into the classroom fresh from their cutting edge research, and are often qualified to doctoral level in their discipline.

There are two main problems with this argument. First, there isn’t much evidence to support the view that university teaching really is of better quality, or even that it is much influenced by leading edge research. Worse, the sector’s leaders have shown remarkably little interest in investigating the relationships between research and teaching. On the other hand, journalists are showing an increasing interest in rumours of university lecturers who avoid students in order to concentrate on research.

The second problem is that if the quality is different, then surely the two types of higher education should be differently rated in the SCQF? But opening up that question would quickly undermine the silent and largely tacit consensus on which the whole SCQF is based.

Another possible response is that the Herald is not comparing like with like. The average cost of a university undergraduate is much higher than a college diplomate because they are taking different subjects: an HNC in early childhood is cheaper to teach than a bachelor’s course in building design or nuclear physics. But this only works for obvious mismatches; what is less clear is why it costs so much more to teach first year accountancy or marketing in a university than in a college.

This is likely to be fiercely contested. There is no obvious economic or social policy justification for reducing college teaching budgets (by 16%) while keeping university teaching budgets at their present level.  Of course, universities tend to get a better press than colleges, and are far better at lobbying; they are probably also more popular among the electorate. And the Scottish Government clearly believes it has a winning policy on tuition fees.

So Scotland’s colleges may well lose this battle. Of course, if the universities want to come out of the debate with any dignity, and not just a result, they would be wise to think hard about the evidence needed to buttress their case. Meanwhile, policy makers elsewhere will have cause to reflect on the challenges they face if they are to grow the share of short cycle higher education in their own system.