I’ve been participating in a lively email debate recently about the way in which adult learners and providers ought to be represented. The debate was triggered by the Learning and Work Institute’s announcement that it had appointed Stephen Evans as its new director, someone with considerable experience in the areas of employment and skills, but less well versed in some other areas of adult education.
One reply to LWI’s email came from a retired university adult educator who used to hold a senior position in the National Institute for Adult Continuing Education.While he remains a keen supporter of liberal adult education, he no longer wishes to continue his life membership of NIACE’s successor organisation.A number of other senior adult education supporters and professionals responded to his original message, some of them also resigning their membership.Some have even suggested that a new organisation is needed.
It has been an informative and thoughtful conversation, in which I’m firmly on the “remain” side.Partly this is because of the excellent work that LWI continues to do in support of adult educators of many different varieties, including those involved in areas such as prison education, citizenship education and literacies. I value the work LWI does in promoting adult learning at the main party conferences and in its lobbying, as well as its contribution to European policy debates.
For me, there is far more continuity with the work undertaken by NIACE than some colleagues are suggesting, and far less discontinuity. Of course there has been a shift, and it is clearly in the direction of skills and employability as well as towards younger learners.
But this shift has taken place across the board, including in the field of practice. Many universities have pulled out of extramural type provision, local adult education services have been slashed, and some liberal adult education providers have vanished.While new providers are flourishing, from private initiatives to voluntary and self-help providers, they do not necessarily identify with the adult education tradition.
A profound change in the field, though, is no reason for the adult education tradition to go off and die. I can’t see any reason why adult educators – and their representative organisations – should not engage with labour market training.
Perhaps I am partly influenced in this view by coming from a slightly different corner of our little forest from some other colleagues. My early days in adult education were spent at Northern College, which tried to weld together the best of the liberal tradition with social purpose adult education, and deliberately recruited working class students.
As others were very happy to point out, this separated us both from the numerically dominant mainstream of local authority adult education, and the culturally dominant world of the extra-mural departments. And when I moved to the new continuing education department at Warwick, working in the areas of access and second chance education, plenty of extra-mural specialists were happy to tell us that we were selling their tradition down the river.
So I’m used to hearing how crap employability is, usually by people in comfortable employment themselves. And when the proposed merger between NIACE and the Centre for Economic & Social Inclusion first came up I was fine with the choice of partner (link). I’d known colleagues from the Unemployment Unit (CESI’s predecessor) from its early years, and had enormous respect for some of its specialists such as Dan Finn and Paul Convery. They undertook project work and research with marginalised and stigmatised groups – as did NIACE, particularly through its REPLAN team.
Over time the Unit evolved and changed, as did many other bodies. It merged with YouthAid in 2001 to form CESI, and it sharpened its focus on research. CESI struck me as an appropriate partner, and in the circumstances as a very good one. Others took a different view (see here for Stephen McNair’s critique). To sloganise a bit, unemployed learners and young disadvantaged adults are adult learners too.
And as Paul Stanistreet pointed out at the time of the merger, the circumstances were dire. Carrying on as before was not an option. First, the field was changed and continues to do so, and NIACE’s role was always to represent the field as it is (rather than as we would like it to be). Second, the national policy context changed and is shifting rather quickly as we write these messages; the context after 2010 was always likely to be much tougher for adult learning, with serious implications for NIACE. Third, and closely related, the money dried up. Member subscriptions and book sales won’t fund a national representative body, so the options are limited.
As some of you will know, I’m committed to and proud of the social and civic purpose tradition of adult education. It isn’t the only significant part of our field, nor should it be, but I’m glad that it survives and in some cases thrives. I don’t see resigning my LWI membership as in any way helping to strengthen and maintain that tradition, or even contributing constructively to the future.
And even if a new association is needed, it will have to appeal beyond the old adult educators like myself who look back yearningly to better days. It will also need to engage with colleagues outside England, especially in Wales where NIACE and now LWI play a major role.
I don’t think LWI is perfect, but it’s what we have. My preference is to work with it and help it succeed. One thing it needs to sort out soon is why it has members and engage in them in debate about what it would like them to do and where we all want the future priorities to lie. But it also has to get on with negotiating its place in a world that has become much less hospitable to an open, broad and generous view of publicly funded adult learning. And we shouldn’t blame LWI for creating that world.