Commercial adult education: cupcakes

Demand for adult learning shows no sign of diminishing, yet in many countries the volume of public provision is in decline. That is certainly the case in the UK, where the Learning and Work Institute tracks participation on a regular basis. Meanwhile, provision by voluntary and commercial organisations appears to be thriving.


It isn’t hard to find examples of new forms of private provision: you can spot them simply by walking around with your eyes open. I photographed these images in a shop window while we were heading for coffee in the Edinburgh suburb of Roseburn. While I mustn’t over-generalise on the basis of a narrow and unrepresentative sample of advertising placards, a few thoughts occur to me.

Businesses sometimes offer courses as a by-product of their main activities, as in this case. Consequently the additional costs of running even an extensive course programme alongside the core activity appear to be quite modest. Prices can seem high (my partner, who is not an adult educator, was shocked in this case by the fee of £65 for a two and a half hour class). The offer is unconstrained by government regulation, or by expectations of a community benefit. There is no bar on participation, but there is also no focus on social or educational disadvantage.


Alan Tuckett sometimes compares adult learning to an infestation of weeds: “However hard you try, you can never kill it off”. If it dies off in one place, it soon pops up in another. And while there are benefits from a healthy range of private and voluntary sector provision, I also think there are risks; what we need is a balance, with public policy playing its part alongside other actors.

More honours for U.K. adult educators

On April 3rd, I posted some reflections on the relationship between adult educators and the U.K. honours system. It triggered some very interesting comments, and also provoked a small torrent of names that I’d managed to miss. Shamefully, I have to admit that they include at least two good friends.

Here they are, anyway.

Joyce Connon (pictured), Scottish Secretary of the Workers Educational Association, received an OBE for services to community education in 2004

Margaret Davey, who was head of adult education in Croydon at the time she was awarded an OBE in 1996, and also a high profile advocate for adult learning

Jim Durcan, then Principal of Ruskin College, was honoured in 1999 with an OBE

Henry Arthur Jones, Principal of City Lit then Vaughan Professor at Leicester, was awarded a CBE in 1974 after making a signal contribution to the Russell Report

Peter Lavender, responsible for adult literacy in Norfolk and a high profile advocate of adult learning, received an OBE in 2006

Mark Malcolmson, Chief Executive of City Lit, received a CBE in 2017

Sue Pember, who as a civil servant helped design the Skills for Life programme, received an OBE in 2000

Ela Piotrowska, Principal of Morley College, received her OBE in 2013

David Sherlock, formerly head of the Adult Learning Inspectorate, got a CBE in 2006

Arthur Stock, Alan Tuckett’s predecessor at NIACE, received an OBE

Carole Stott, a leading figure in the Open College movement who recently announced that she is retiring as chair of the Association of Colleges, was awarded an MBE in 2012

Alan Wells, founder and long-serving director if the Basic Skills Agency, received an OBE

I’m sure this is nothing like an exhaustive list, and look forward to hearing of others that I’ve missed. Two possible further candidates suggested to me were Sir Michael Sadler, the pioneer of university extension in Britain, mainly because I think his knighthood was awarded for other public service (principally a major report on Indian education); and Sheila Carlton, champion of older learners and a stalwart of NIACE, for whose possible honour I could find no evidence.

Asa Briggs, who joined the House of Lords in 1976, chose to teach extra mural classes when appointed to a chair in Leeds, was chancellor of the Open University, and President of the WEA. But I think his baronetcy came as a result of his historical achievements.

It’s a long list, and it will likely get longer. What we don’t know is how many prominent adult educators refused honours, or indeed were considered ‘unsuitable ‘ on semi political grounds.

Adult educators and the UK honours system

Alan Tuckett

Arise, Sir Alan

I’ve been quietly celebrating the award of a knighthood to Alan Tuckett, a lifelong adult educator who is probably best known for his leadership of the National Institute for Adult Continuing Education. Celebrating because the award acknowledges the way in which Alan didn’t simply ‘do his job’, but used his position to provide leadership and visibility for the wider field of adult learning, so that the knighthood can be understood as a public recognition of an important but often overlooked field.

All of this said, I don’t approve of the UK honours system on principle. The system rests on patronage and has been thoroughly tainted by cronyism and rewards for people – notably civil servants – who simply have ‘done their job’. It perpetuates the language of Empire and aristocratic rule, so I find it hard to see how it sits with the egalitarian and meritocratic world of adult education.

This isn’t meant as a criticism of Alan, who will no doubt exploit the platform afforded by his knighthood to argue the case for adult learners and those who work with them. Disagreeing with your friends’ decisions is just a part of life. But I now wonder about other leading British adult educators in the past: how many were offered honours, and how many accepted?

Answering these questions proved harder than I’d expected, but here is what I’ve found so far – thanks partly to a Twitter exchange with John Holford and Alan, and partly to a largely frustrating trawl online.

Albert Mansbridge, co-founder of the Workers’ Educational Association and its first secretary, became a Companion of Honour in 1931.

William Emrys Williams, secretary of the British Institute of Adult Education from 1925 and director of the Army Bureau of Current Affairs during WW2, was awarded a CBE and a knighthood. While his CBE was awarded in 1946, his knighthood came as a result of his work at the Arts Council and as Editor-in-Chief at Penguin Books.

Basil Yeaxlee, secretary to the much-discussed 1919 Report on Adult Education and secretary of the Educational Settlements Association, and author of a doctoral thesis on spiritual values in adult education, received his CBE in the same year as Williams. Like Williams, he received this honour in recognition of his contribution to services education and welfare during WW2.

More recently, Bob Fryer – Principal of Northern College and chief executive of the NHS University – was made a Companion of the British Empire in 1999. I assume there are other recent cases that I’ve either forgotten about or didn’t hear about in the first place.

Then there are those who refused, or weren’t offered in the first place. EP Thompson, Raymond Williams, Michael Barratt Brown, Raphael Samuel and Sheila Rowbotham were all associated with what would today probably be called the ‘hard Left’, and I very much doubt whether it entered anyone’s mind to offer them an honour.

Elizabeth Monkhouse, a leading figure in the Workers’ Educational Association and a prominent acdemic who served on the Russell Committee, does not seem to have taken an honour. Given her eminent record of public service, I find it hard to believe that she did not receive – and therefore reject – the offer of an honour.

Richard Hoggart, on the other hand, refused offers of both a knighthood and peerage. Like Williams and Thompson, Hoggart was shaped by a career in extra-mural teaching, who served as assistant director of UNESCO and as warden of Goldsmiths College.

Robert Peers, the UK’s first professor of adult education, does not appear to have been offered an honour; neither does Sydney Raybould, pre-eminent amoung the post-war adult education academics.

Others might be counted as adult educators depending on how you define that rather loose term. Sir Richard Livingstone, for example, did much to champion residential adult education, but was knighted for his role in university management.

And then there are the ‘genuine’ aristocrats who actively promoted adult learning. Trudie Pearson, first national chair of the Women’s Institutes in Britain, and later director of the Women’s Land Army, became Lady Denman on her marriage to the third Baron. The WI’s residential adult college is named after her.

My list of adult educators with honours is regreattably brief. If you know of others, I’d love to hear about them.  Meanwhile, arise Sir Alan, and more power to your elbow!

It’s back – or did lifelong learning never go away in the first place?

Recently the Further Education Trust for Leadership asked me to contribute a post on the way that lifelong learning has returned to the policy agenda. I thought it would be timely, given the General Election here, to focus on the UK.

You don’t have to dig too deeply into the party manifestos and the recent debates over the UK’s industrial strategy to find considerable policy anxiety over adult skills. Brexit, by removing an alternative source of skilled labour which has been trained at someone else’s expence, is adding to fears that we simply won’t have the human capacities to meet society’s needs at home and compete in a global economy.

Little wonder that policy communities are thinking hard about future options. But we now learn that the UK is far from alone. As part of its work on education, gender and work, the World Economic Forum is drafting proposals for A New Deal for Lifelong Learning, to be debated at the WEF’s Annual Meeting in Davos, Switzerland, in January 2018.


While I am pleased that such an influentual grouping is taking lifelong seriously, the WEF will be concerned primarily with lifelong learning as a social and economic good, which can support strategies for inclusion and growth. So the risk is that the great and the good who meet in Davos will take a narrow and instrumental view.

Still, I am heartened to hear that WEF has asked Alan Tuckett to join the dialogue on A New Deal for Lifelong Learning. As the person who invented the term ‘seriously useless learning’, I think we can expect Alan to put the case for a broad and generative approach to adult learners.

NIACE is dead, long live the Learning and Work Institute

NIACELO1The National Institute of Adult Continuing Education announced in the summer that it was to merge with the Centre for Economic and Social Inclusion. CESI, itself the product of a merger of the Unemployment Unit with other research and lobbying bodies, had already formed a ‘strategic alliance’ with NIACE. The merger was widely expected, and I fully expect NIACE members to endorse the merger at the annual meeting next month.

I’ve already arranged for my postal vote at the meeting, which will be to support the final stages of the merger. This will mark the end of an era: the British Institute of Adult Education was created in 1921, becoming the the National Institute of Adult Education in l949, and adopting its present name in 1983.The inclusion of ‘Continuing’ in the name was controversial at the time; supporters felt it signalled a commitment to working across all parts of a changing field, opponents believed it represented a capitulation to the vocational agenda of the then Tory government.

The name was not all that changed. The Institute shifted from an association of individual members in 1921 to one that was largely dominated by institutional members; it also attracted increasing levels of funding from government, local and national. Initially dominated by the Workers’ Educational Association, its role broadened steadily, expanding particularly in recent years under the energetic leadership of its director, Alan Tuckett, at a time of considerable government interest in adult learning. It has also merged with other bodies, notably the Basic Skills Agency which it had helped create in the first place.

NIACE became, in many respects, the model for a representative umbrella group. It provided a wide range of services, from publishing to research to staff development to a quiet word in Ministers’ ears. It was respected overseas as a willing and competent partner, an informed source of information, and as the producer of invaluable resources. It managed to negotiate a delicate balance between the two UK nations that it was charged with representing and the two that had much weaker representative structures. It was a source of creative thinking and energy, manifested in such influential developments as the annual Adult Learners’ Week.

After such a glorious past, why has NIACE felt such an urgent need to change?  One factor was undoubtedly a sharp collapse in funding, as central government and its agencies felt the impact of austerity.NIACE has already had to shed staff and abandon activities (including much of its publishing arm), and CESI is in the same position.

Financial retrenchment has been accompanied by the weakening or demise of many established adult education programmes, above all in local government. Formerly powerful allies such as the universities were cutting back on general adult education, and even on part-time degrees, while colleges’ capacities to deliver local adult programmes were throttled.

The other major factor is surely the clear vocational turn in adult learning. In many ways this represents an opportunity: from adult apprenticeships to employee development, from personal learning accounts to MOOCs, there is a huge role for a national representative body to engage with providers, help support teachers and trainers, and lobby and advocate at national level.

I can see that the merger with CESI will add to NIACE’s capabilities, as can be seen in the impact the two organisations are having jointly on the Government’s Welfare-to-Work programmes. And I very much welcome the clear focus on equity and inclusion that both organisations already share, and are promising to pursue in the future.

Do I have concerns? Of course I do. I fear that the need to adapt and change will damage core values, and that the new, merged body will find itself drawn to focus on young adults, to the cost of learners aged 25 and over – let alone those who are learning in the third and fourth age. And there is a risk that the merged Institute will be pushed into becoming a partner of government rather than its critical friend. But drifting on as things are is a strategy for irrelevance and marginalisation; better by far to work with those who will join from CESI, and who will bring new skils and capabilities.

That does, though, leave the vexed question of the name. Last week NIACE sent out the papers for its annual meeting, which spelt out the proposed new name: the Learning and Work Institute. The online weekly, FE Week duly ‘revealed’ this news. The name will duly be debated at the annual meeting on 4 November. Is this a name which trips off the tongue, and will it lend itself smoothly to an acronym? How will it play in Wales, where NIACE Dysgu Cymru has established itself as an important player in the devolved nation?

We shall see, of course. But whatever the name, the task of representing and supporting a large, diverse and rapidly changing field is going to present much more significant challenges than a bit of rebranding.

‘We need a cultural revolution’: Alan Tuckett’s inaugural

Alan Tuckett in fine fettle

Alan Tuckett at Wolverhampton University

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.

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.


Infamy, infamy? The International Continuing Adult Education Hall of Fame

IACEHallofFame-headerI’ve just been inducted into the International Continuing Adult Education Hall of Fame (ICAEHOF). I really hope it doesn’t seem too churlish if I start by expressing doubts about the whole process!

For a bit, the experience almost persuaded me that there was something to all this guff about uniquely national cultures. Embarrassment and shame often seem part of the British condition, above all when we are singled out for any kind of public praise. But then I discovered equally sheepish Australians and Scandinavians, muttering queasily together about this “American notion” of a Hall of Fame.

ICAEHOF is indeed an American-led institution, and its main purpose is to support recognition and status for the field of adult learning. This, it seems to me, is very far from a bad thing to do, so my and others’ unease must really focus on how ICAEHOF seeks to achieve this goal.

First up, the idea of ‘Fame’ (with a capital F) in our field seems slightly silly. We aren’t athletes or actors, who strut our stuff in front of a fascinated public, and whose sexual habits feature in the press. We do our work in drafty halls, cluttered workshops, spare corners of primary schools, or upstairs in a pub, and none of us are likely to find journalists tapping our texts in the hope of news about cocaine-fuelled orgies every night of the week.

More significantly, Halls of Fame honour individual achievement. There’s a reason why individuals seldom stand out in adult learning: while some people contribute more effectively than others, ours is an essentially collective endeavour. It isn’t just that we depend completely on our colleagues and our organisations; our work stands or falls by the engagement of learners, which in turn usually depends on the support of their colleagues and their loved ones.

So if I’m not instinctively an obvious candidate for a Hall of Fame, why did I agree to be nominated? Sheer vanity? Well, perhaps; it is mostly nicer to be praised than attacked. There are exceptions to this general rule: I can name a dozen people whose criticism has long served me as a sign that I am probably doing something right. But vanity alone wouldn’t have made me travel to northern Romania to be inducted into ICAEHOF.

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One thing in its favour is precisely the goal which it seeks to achieve: recognising and advancing our field. I’m very comfortable with the idea of promoting the status of adult learning, starting with the USA (where it certainly deserves far more recognition than it has at present), a country from which those who support adult learning elsewhere have much to learn.

And although ICAEHOF is based in the USA, its leaders are keen to widen its base. My fellow inductees included my old friend and mentor Chris Duke from Melbourne and a new friend, Mihaly Sari from Hungary. There is still much to be done in reaching out to courageous and principled adult educators from developing nations or oppressive regimes, but on the whole I’m happy to be part of and supportive of an American educational initiative that looks with sympathy and interest beyond the US’ borders.

Another reason for not dismissing ICAEHOF out of hand is that it involves recognition by one’s peers. Though it certainly distinguishes ICAEHOF from such establishment baubles as the British honours system, this isn’t necessarily a good thing, as there might be similar risks of old-boyism. In this case, I was invited and nominated by Carol Kasworm, an American scholar whose work I have long respected and cited, and while I swithered, I was encouraged by Budd Hall and Alan Tuckett, proud radical adult educators both.

So if I’ve got this one wrong, I am in good company. But I can still hear my mother’s voice telling me sharply that I’m ‘showing off again’. And British readers will already have twigged from the title that any mention of Fame for me evokes not the American TV series but the dying words of Julius Caesar, as played by the popular comic actor Kenneth Williams: “Infamy, infamy – they’ve all got it in for me”.