Green Party policy for lifelong learning

Several people recently took part in a Twitter exchange about the policies of the main parties towards adult learning. I expressed the view that all the main parties – including Labour and the Scottish Nationalists – of cutting public favoured reduced spending on what was already a very small field. Effectively, their policy means privatised provision for those who can afford it, and minimal public provision geared to narrowly instrumental policy aims for the most stigmatised.

Natalie Bennett

Natalie Bennett

The only party to take part in the discussion was Natalie Bennett, leader of the Green Party, who sent me a link to the relevant section of their education policy statement. No-one expects the Greens to form the next UK Government, but they are polling well enough at the moment to suggest that they might be able to influence a minority Labour Government if that is what we get. So here is what they have to say about adult learning:

ED260 As stated in the Introduction the Green Party believes that life-long learning will help to create a healthy society.

ED261 As adult education is constantly evolving it demands a flexible approach to new courses whilst ensuring core aspects of education are preserved even where enrolment is low.


ED262 There should be funded opportunities to study at any level at any stage of life. This is essential for the 21st century; it may be done increasingly on-line, but with local centres for study support groups and face-to-face meetings with tutors.

ED263 To promote accessibility it will be provided in town centres rather than in out of town universities where possible.

ED264 There will be a minimum requirement to provide free education for adults to learn essential literacy, numeracy and life skills including Parenting programmes, and to acquire skills and qualifications which will help them directly gain employment. This will include provision for distance and e-learning, following models such as that of the Open University.

ED265 Adult education should embrace and encourage learning for learning’s sake and as such funding for additional courses will be decided at a local level, without it having to be target-driven and focused only on qualifications.

Like a lot of Green Party policies, there are gaps and loose ends. Funding is one, but so is responsibility for aligning supply and demand. For example, how does this relate to the Party’s policies on decentralisation – and how far will local government have any part in local delivery? Nevertheless, it is welcome that one of our smaller but still serious parties is developing clear policies that do not rely primarily on the free market, with all the inequalities and inefficiencies that untrammeled markets involve.

Note: I am a member of the Green Party

RH Tawney and the intellectual development of the Labour Party – book review

Working Class Movement Library

A new biography of R. H. Tawney (The Life of R. H. Tawney: Socialism and History by Lawrence Goldman) might not appear to be either topical or of any major significance. He is perhaps dimly remembered as a figure on the Right of the Labour Party and as an intellectual who wrote works only relevant in the context of their times. His name also emerged when the short-lived Social Democratic Party tried to name their ‘think tank’ the Tawney Society in 1982.

Media of The Life of R. H. Tawney

However, Tawney cannot be sidelined quite as easily as he exerted an important influence upon the development of the Labour Party and had an impressive hinterland, the degree of which is explored in this biography. It is necessary also to challenge the perception of Tawney as a figure of the Right by noting that he remained in favour of both nationalisation and the retention of Clause…

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Keeping it in the family: how parents’ education shapes their children’s schooling

dingSome time ago I bookmarked a paper by Ruichang Ding, a researcher from Beijing Normal University. Applying advanced statistical methods to data from the OECD’s survey of adult skills, Ding tried to find out how far people’s success in education reflected the attainment levels of their parents.

Before summarising Ding’s findings, I want to make a point about method. In order to measure educational level, Ding had to resort to formal qualifications; while we have additional data for those who took part in the survey, there is no alternative when it comes to the parents. And while qualifications systems vary widely, the OECD surveyed adults aged 16-65 in 24 countries. In order to compare the results across countries, then, we have to use a standardised way of comparing qualifications, and Ding – reasonably enough – adopted the OECD’s own standard classification.

All that said, Ding’s findings are easy to summarise. First, as expected, he found that in all countries, today’s adults have better average qualifications than their parents. However, this gap varies considerably between different countries: the educational gap between generations is very low in Sweden and Finland, and very high in Spain and the Czech Republic, with England/Northern Ireland (Wales and Scotland chose not to join the survey) coming in above the average.

Second, he shows that in each case, the parents’ qualification levels are on average closely related to those of today’s adults. Once more, though, there are differences between nations. The relationship is closest in Slovakia and the USA, and weakest in Finland; the UK is among a group of countries (Ireland, France, Italy, Poland) that are clustered above average. Ding concludes from this that ‘intergenerational educational mobility in Finland would be relatively larger’, and correspondingly that it is rather low in the USA.

Third, and from my standpoint most interestingly, income inequality seems to be an important factor in explaining these patterns. Ding tests for other factors including poverty levels, levels of public spending on education, and average levels of wealth, and found no evidence of any correlation with intergenerational educational transmission. In the case of income inequality, Ding finds a very clear correlation: ‘countries with the high level of inequality had some of the lowest mobility’. Here, the UK and USA are marked by very high levels of income inequality and low levels of educational mobility.

I think this is an important paper which contributes to our understanding of social mobility and its constraints. The main findings support the argument of English researcher Andy Green, who with his colleagues has used different techniques to analyse the OECD survey data, coming to similar conclusions about educational inequalities. If we are to tackle these blockages to social mobility, then these findings suggest to me that investing in family learning for the least advantaged really should be a much higher priority than it is at present.

Remembering Eric Hobsbawm: historian, Marxist and adult educator

I was delighted to learn about Birkbeck College’s Eric Hobsbawm Postgraduate Scholarships. Hobsbawm was one of Europe’s leading historians, who inspired several generations of younger scholars through his remarkable syntheses of world history. He was also a fine teacher and one of British Communism’s few intellectual giants.

Theoretically, Hobsbawm’s work was visibly strongly informed by his Marxism. But as well as a broadly Marxist conceptual framework, his interests and thinking were also influenced by his lengthy membership of the Communist Party. He claimed in his autobiography, as well as in person, that his political loyalties were forged during the struggle against Nazism, and when others forged new movements in the 50s and 60s, he remained.

Coming from a later generation, viewing the Soviet Union as an oppressive, imperialist and violent dictatorship, I found this hard to swallow. But it wasn’t something he was prepared to argue about with young whipper-snappers like me, and – as Perry Anderson points out – his autobiography is at best oblique about his views on Stalinism and the dishonesty that it engendered.hobsb times

What he did take from the Communist tradition was a strong belief in the virtues of discipline, hard work and organization. I have strong memories of Hobsbawm’s bewilderment and dismay when Raphael Samuel and others involved in History Workshop suggested that creativity and even a bit of chaos never did anyone much harm. For Hobsbawm, this was the sin of ‘romanticism’.

He was also – although I don’t think ever he saw himself this way – a lifelong adult educator. He often spoke of his disappointment at being denied a post at Cambridge, which he attributed – publicly at least – to the anti-Communist anxieties of the University authorities.

Even McCarthyism could have unintended consequences, and perhaps one of them was that Hobsbawm spent most of his working life teaching at Birkbeck College. Or perhaps it was partly that, like several of his friends and comrades who also found themselves teaching adults in the late 1940s, full-time academic posts at that time were few and far between.

Hobsbawm must have given gave hundreds of lectures to non-academic audiences, of trade unionists and weekend schoolers and others, in Britain and elsewhere, showing every sign of enjoying the lively exchanges that followed. He was a spell-binding speaker, combining analytical precision and clarity with a broad sweep across the historical landscape.

So it should be clear that I am ambivalent about Hobsbawm, whom I see as a complex figure and a flawed one. But he was an inspirational writer, an encyclopedic historian and a great teacher, and the Birkbeck scholarships are a fine way of marking his memory.

Attlee, labour colonies and the welfare state

Clement Attlee

Clement Attlee

In 1920, a thirty-seven year old university lecturer published a book on social work. Clement Attlee, later to become famous as Prime Minister of the 1945 Labour Government, had spent several years after graduating at Oxford serving charities in London’s East End, most notably as secretary of Toynbee Hall. Like most men of his background and generation, he was commissioned in the Great War, and was one of the last to be evacuated from Gallipoli.

I was reminded of Attlee’s book when reading Georgina Brewis’ terrific study of student volunteering in Britain. Brewis shows that the university settlement movement of the late nineteenth century was part of an emerging student associational culture in which voluntary social service started to develop some of the forms of professional social work. She also, incidentally, demonstrates the disproportionate significance of women in the worker

Attlee’s book can be understood as part of the transition from organised volunteering as a form of inter-class bonding through to a professionalised body of social workers. In it, he describes the opportunities available to would-be social workers, and devotes a chapter to the training and qualifications that he deemed desirable. Interestingly, he wrote the book while serving as Labour mayor for Stepney.

It was inevitable that Attlee would say something about the labour colony movement. Given its scale and its much-debated status, he could hardly ignore it. Among others, he singled out the Salvation Army’s colony at Hadleigh, the municipal colony inspired by George Lansbury at Hollesley Bay, and Joseph Fels’ land settlement colony at Mayland.

What did Attlee make of these ventures? His view of Hadfield was coloured by his suspicion of the Salvation Army, whose combination of boisterous religion and financial relief put ‘a premium upon hypocrisy’. He also feared that the Army’s workshops were undercutting ordinary workers. Hadleigh, though, was ‘far better conceived’.

He also admired the other colonies for training the unemployed, though noting that attempts to settle them on the land had come to little. The solution, Attlee suggested, lay in translating the methods of the co-operative movement to land settlement.

It would be unfair, and flawed, to overstate his interest in the labour colony movement: it merited a few mentions in a detailed study of British social service. But Attlee’s reasons for sympathising with the movement are instructive:

It must be recognised that prolonged unemployment is very demoralising, and that it is idle to expect those whose moral stamina has been undermined by casual work and insufficient food to become useful citizens and workers by the mere provision of work. Some form of training is necessary, and also some form of moral suasion, and the Salvation Army employs methods that are, at least in some cases, effective.

Attlee, of course, was far from alone in his sympathies. George Lansbury, Labour’s leader for much of the 30s, was an enthusiastic proponent of labour colonies as a means of resettling London’s unemployed on the land, while the Webbs were among other socialists who took a more punitive view of labour coloniesBeveridge expressed interest in the labour colony as part of the wider remedy for unemployment.

Such ideas and practices were found across large parts of progressive British opinion. We cannot understand the nature of Britain’s welfare state, as it was forged during the 1940s, without having some grasp of this longer background and its influence on the thinking and principles of those who shaped the settlement of the 1940s.