Sneering at adult learners – why do we let them get away with it?

Adult learning is in crisis across the UK. While demand appears to be as high as ever, and the wider public case is as strong as ever, all four governments are busily cutting direct and indirect funding for provision. And when pressed to justify the cuts, it seems that they simply can’t help themselves from deriding adult learners.

Here’s a case from this morning’s newspapers. Asked about a collapse in part-time information technology courses, the minister responsible said

there has been a deprioritisation in the range of computing courses that are about things such as how to work a mouse and how to organise your calendar at Christmas.

Leave aside that wonderful word ‘deprioritisation’, and reflect for a moment on the idea that adult courses in IT are about no more than organising your Christmas calendar. Just take five seconds to think about why ‘organising your Christmas calendar’ might help to engage some hesitant learners – and then spend another five seconds thinking about who such a course might appeal to.

I’m sure you’re ahead of me, but here’s one example. A study by Age UK found that whilst 13 per cent of the adult population in the UK have never used the Internet, the over-65s comprise over 75 per cent of this excluded group – almost 5 million people. Then add to that the overwhelming evidence of the benefits of learning for older adults.

It’s easy to show that these are silly comments, throw-away remarks that are designed to belittle adult learners and those who support them. But enough. What is important is that sneering at adult learners is so commonplace.

Alan Johnson, when Labour’s education secretary, justified cuts in 2006 by saying that we needed ‘more plumbing, less pilates; subsidised precision engineering, not over-subsidised flower arranging’. John Denham, then Labour’s minister for higher education, defended his government’s 2008 cuts by describing adult education as little more than ‘holiday Spanish’ (only among the Brits would learning a foreign language be seen as frippery). The Coalition’s skills minister Matthew Hancock, also justifying cuts in 2014, jeered at ‘qualifications in coaching angling, aerial balloon displays and self-tanning’.

This discourse of derision has a long history in our field. Alan Tuckett used to recall his days organising an adult centre in Brighton, when a local Tory councillor tried to dismiss its courses as ‘tap-dancing on the rates’. Our early days at Northern College – where working class people came to study – heard cries of ‘the Kremlin on the hill’. And needless to say, similar jibes faced the men and women who created our adult education institutions.

So what can we do about it? To start off, we can benefit from building a different relationship with policy makers, based on dialogue and reason. And that might mean that we in turn start to treat policy makers as people who are trying to get something done, in conditions that they understand better than we do. Speaking truth to power is an easy slogan, but we need to creat platforms for exchange rather than just shouting from our studies.

This doesn’t mean accepting insults that are designed to dismiss us before we even get in the room. In the short term, we need to rebut each and every small-minded jibe. We might even indulge in the occasional cheap shot ourselves – for example, I cant help pointing out that our dismissive Scottish minister was educated at public expense for four years in one of Scotland’s ancient universities.

In the longer term, we need to make a concerted effort to explain the benefits of adult learning, and put policy-makers in situations where they engage directly with adult learners. We have a small mountain of robust evidence on the economic, social and health benefits of adult learning; let’s get it in front of the widest possible audience. And let’s sit policy makers down with learners who can explain exactly why learning how to manage a calendar on a lap top might be an important first step back.


10 thoughts on “Sneering at adult learners – why do we let them get away with it?

  1. Two thoughts:
    I agree so much about making a Xmas calendar being a point of entry. I trained colleagues in the use of the internet some 20 years ago. I didn’t get them trying to do work-related stuff, I challenged them to look up sites and perform tasks which were of personal interest, eg finding a holiday, or looking at family history sites, or stamp collecting, or whatever they were really motivated to look at. This approach was extremely successful, especially as many people were nervous of/inexperienced with the internet at that time.
    I think part of the sneering is because to so many policy makers learning new skills is too closely and narrowly associated with getting a job or advancing your career, so learning for older ppl, who are retired or near the end of their careers, is seen as nugatory, and of marginal use, if any.
    Denigrating lifelong learning is part of a continuum which sees no value in arts and humanities degrees too!

  2. As someone who is nearing 60 and very keen to finally take up a lifelong ambition to become a polyglot, I find I am constantly up against the general belief that “older people” can’t learn languages. I am determined to prove them wrong. I have learnt Welsh since moving to Wales and I am slowly digging in my memory to resurrect the schoolgirl French I learnt over 40 years ago, and other languages I’ve dabbled with at times but never ever reached fluency in.
    I think the only thing holding older people back from learning is the attitude of others. Give someone basic computer skills, teach them how to access the internet, and nothing can hold them back. There is so much information out there, so much that can be learnt online, the only issue is finding enough hours in the day to do it all!

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  5. Not sure we owe the policy makers a reasoned dialog. They’ve learned their “powers of reasoning” in an environment devoid of critical thinking and wouldn’t know a reasoned argument if it bit them from whence their arguments originate. Alternately, many of us are familiar with how systems work and my sense is that foolish pronouncements can be turned to erode credibility.

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