Last night, Alan Tuckett gave his inaugural lecture at Wolverhampton University. As you’d expect from the much-loved former director of the National Institute for Adult Continuing Education, it was warm, self-deprecating, funny, and incisive. And although he had a lot to say about the history of the adult education movement, the lecture firmly directed us to look towards the future.
Alan gave his lecture a typically perplexing title: ‘Jesus and History, Thunder and Lightning: Lifewide learning for adults’. Equally characteristically, he had taken the first phrase from a learner, when asked what he wanted to learn about. Alan also quoted Alan Johnson, the much-admired Labour MP, who scoffed at adult education as dealing with frivolities like Pilates; needless to say, Alan had encountered a middle-aged plumber who took to Pilates as a way of making sure he could still crawl under a sink.
In short, Alan was arguing for a broad approach to publicly funded provision, which didn’t try to prescribe what adults learned, or whether they decided to take a qualification at the end of it. He name-checked Thomas Carlyle (‘It is the first duty of government to see that the people can think’), Paulo Freire and Raymond Williams, as well as the second wave feminists of the 1970s, as formative influences on his thinking.
The high point of this approach in recent decades was the early period of New Labour, which – as in other areas like pensioner poverty, child poverty and public health – had proven decisive, innovative and progressive. He also noted that when New Labour came to power, the main opposition parties were also interested in adult learning; he modestly forebore to mention the role of NIACE, and Alan Thomson and Alan Tuckett in particular, played in schmoozing with and persuading leading Tories and Lib Dems. The result was that the initiatives of 1998-2003 were largely uncontroversial politically.
Since then, adult learning has slipped progressively down the policy agenda. Alan pointed out that over two million adults have been lost to the further education system since 2003. The only nations which had managed to reduce employees’ participation levels in continuing training since the recession were the PIG nations (Portugal, Italy Greece) and the UK.
This policy neglect will, Alan predicted, command a heavy cost. We are much better informed about the evidenced benefits of adult learning, for one thing; for another, the external forces that drove the European agenda for lifelong learning in the 1990s are still there, with knobs on.
Some of the response may take place through private provision, or by self-help initiatives such as the U3A and reading circles. In an aging society, it may be that health agencies concerned about cognitive resilience will provide adult learning, but it will still be there. And similarly in other policy areas.
‘Adult learning is like ground elder’, he concluded. ‘You can’t kill it off, it grows up somewhere else’. But for it to include those who currently avoid adult learning, who see it as a threat or are excluded by providers’ structures and funding restrictions, we need a long term cultural change.
And there Professor Tuckett finished – only to be asked immediately by a member of the audience just how we might achieve this revolution in attitudes. Alan answered her, citing the learning cities movement as one positive current initiative, but I rather formed the impression that he is inclined to see this challenge as one that he is now ready to delegate to us all.