Responding to the Centenary Commission on Adult Education – just do it!

If you are a UK adult educator, you are probably a bit taken aback by the sheer number of current inquiries into lifelong learning. The Liberal Democrats and Labour Party both have their own inquiries, another is being led by the college sector, and the House of Commons Select Committee on Education has just announced its own study of adult skills and lifelong learning. And these come on the heels of a variety of high level reports in the past couple of years.

No wonder that some of us are inquiry-weary.  When I tweeted a link to the Select Committee Inquiry, one person responded: “I cannot see what else there is to learn. It’s essential end of! Back it fund it do it stop talking & I dare to add spend more money on finding out what we know”. Another commented: “Not again! I’ve been seeing these reports all of my long life – and learnt nothing”. So I hesitate, if only briefly, before urging you to respond to the Centenary Commission on Adult Education.

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Members of the Centenary Commission (from Cooperative News)

The Centenary Commission’s starting point is the 1919 report of the Ministry of Reconstruction’s committee on adult education. The report was a landmark in adult education history, and is often credited with persuading the Government to expand the role of local authority adult education, and inspiring the formation of the British Institute of Adult Education (now the Learning and Work Institute).

While the 1919 report is certainly open to criticism, not least for the unmanageably large number of its recommendations (and its neglect of Scotland), it offered an inspiring vision of the broad and constructive contribution of adult education to a vibrant functioning democracy. And that is something we need to explore all over again in our new times.

So if you are interested in adult learning and education, let me urge you to overcome your inquiry fatigue. It is really easy to do, and the more of us who take the time to do so, the more likely it is that the Commission will have some impact. Of course, if you don’t respond, then I think you lose any right to pop up later complaining that you don’t like their report.

Not wishing to influence your own thinking, here’s what I said in reply to the Commission’s question about examples of good practice:

  1. The French approach to individual learning accounts (the compte personnel de formation) is one of a number of learning account schemes that seem to me well worth looking at. While it has not yet reached huge numbers, it nevertheless provides a model of incentivising learning by funding learners rather than simply increasing funding to institutions.

  2. The concerted and intensive awareness-raising of Adult Learners Week made a real contribution to culture change. In England there is now a rather less focused month-long festival; in Scotland and NI, ALW lost its funding, and now no longer occurs at all. By contrast, Wales has maintained ALW, and my impression is that it continues to retain a momentum and impact that is missing elsewhere in the UK. I’m sure you are already speaking with LWI Wales about the WAG approach to ALE, and it would be useful to know also what their view is of ALE vs a month-long festival.

  3. OER/MOOCs. Digital resources and mobile devices are game-changers. Of course there is considerable hype around MOOCs as well as equally vacuous counter-hype, but they present opportunities for extending and widening participation that we really shouldn’t ignore. I suggest contacting Peter Shukie to share his knowledge of who is doing what with COOCs.

  4. Transformative learning. The forthcoming Global Report on Adult Learning & Education (GRALE4) will show that while ALE is in reasonably healthy condition at global level, ALE for citizenship is an exception; in fact it is in parlous health. UNESCO will formally launch report at its November 2019 conference in Paris; if you want a preview of the findings, you should contact the UIL. Incidentally, the UK chose not to respond to the GRALE survey (neither did it respond in 2015).

And here’s how I replied to the invitation to specify ‘the single most important recommendation the Commission could make ‘:

Reintroduce a system of individual learning accounts, supported by guidance, and favouring those who have benefited least from publicly funded post-16 education. Drawing on experience elsewhere, as well as previous experience in the UK, redesigned ILAs will incentivise learners and improve institutional responsiveness. It might take the form of an entitlement, but I wouldn’t at this stage be too prescriptive about administrative shapes – better to get the min design principles right. This will of course be resisted by HEIs and colleges, who would prefer any additional funding to come to them, so recommending something along these lines will send a very clear message about your priorities.

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Does anyone know what became of the Liberal Democrats’ Lifelong Learning Commission?

Last summer, the Liberal Party announced that it had put together a Commission on Lifelong Learning. This followed a conference speech by party leader Vince Cable in autumn 2017, backing the widely-discussed idea of a national system of learning accounts, accessible at any stage of life. This in itself followed the Party’s manifesto commitment in the 2017 election to an ambitious expansion in adult learning, including those famous learning accounts.

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Vince Cable – image licensed under Creative Commons

Chaired by Rajay Naik, a prominent specialist in marketing higher education and formerly Director of Government and External Affairs at the Open University, the Commission was supposed to flesh out these bold ideas. It was launched with the promise that the membership and timescale would be announced in weeks, with the formal consultation process following ‘shortly’ afterwards. The membership was revealed in June 2018, with a number of high profile individuals in its ranks, including Stephen Evans from the Learning and Work Institute, Ruth Spellman from the Workers Educational Association, Matthew Taylor from the Royal Society for the Arts, and Polly Mackenzie, of the think tank Demos.

Since then, I’ve seen and heard nothing further. Of course Cable has announced his plans to retire, and his Party – as the only organised parliamentary expression of support for the European Union – has its hands full. And this year yet another group has established its own commission on adult learning, with Ruth Spellman once again among the members, so we’re not facing a sudden dearth of commissions and reports. Still, it’s a pity if the Liberal Democrats have lost interest in lifelong learning as a result.

Unlike some of my chums, who see the Liberal Democrats as a marginal, I think their views matter. Quite apart from their possible role in any future coalition, they have significant influence in local government, and they can help shape public debate. Further, the idea of learning accounts is worth exploring, and any constructive thinking should be welcome to policy makers of any colour. Creating a lifelong learning commission attracted press publicity and generated hope. Is anyone in a position to say whether it still exists, and if so what it is doing?

 

Adult education in fiction: the rhythms of the year in Jon McGregor’s “Reservoir 13”

I’m constantly impressed by the regularity with which adult education features in German crime fiction. What stands out is that in most cases, adult education doesn’t stand out – it is there in the background as part of every day German life. That’s rare in English language fiction, where adult education is either the main setting or serves as a marker of difference.

In Jon McGregor’s award-winning Reservoir 13, though, adult education features as a marker of passing time. The novel covers 13 years in the life of an English village, mirroring the age of a missing teenager. And every year, as regular as well dressing (Derbyshire perhaps?), harvest festival, or the village panto, the Workers’ Educational Association holds a class in the village.

McGregor doesn’t go into detail about the WEA classes. Their role in the novel is to mark the turning of the months, as one of the threads of continuity that are woven into the changing relationships and lives of the villagers. Who takes part, and why, are not particularly important.

McGregor also has one of his villagers – Susanna Wright – arrange a yoga class in the village hall. This provides something of a contrast with the routine rhythm of the WEA class:

It had taken a while but by now the classes were more popular than some had assumed they might be. She kept saying it was open to everyone, but whenever a man showed up he found himself the only one there, and soon decided not to come back. Most of the women were regulars, and after a few months some of them were disappointed by how few poses they could hold. Susanna tried to tell them yoga wasn’t about goals. There are no badges or certificates here, she said; it’s all about finding your own point of stretch.

This time, the class gives us an insight into some of the characters involved. It also serves to provide an example of change in village life, contrasting with the steady rhythm of the WEA. Susanna is new to the village, arriving in the third year of the narrative, and she is initially greeted with some suspicion. Her first attempt to organise a yoga class attracted three people, and only later does it become popular.

Reservoir 13 is an outstanding novel, and I heartily recommend it. It’s gently experimental in form, but thoroughly engaging, hypnotic even, and the disappearance at its heart remains unresolved. Quite aside from its treatment of adult learning, I really enjoyed it, and despite my general efforts to downsize my book collection, I’m hanging on to this one so I can read it again.

Adult education and the referendum

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As with the Scottish referendum in 2014, the UK’s European Referendum provided a fantastic opportunity to engage adult learners in civic debate. Living in Germany, I’ve had to watch the campaign from a distance (the media here only started covering the issue in depth when it became clear that Leave was gathering support in the polls). But I tried to look out for any examples of adult education providing a space for open and reasoned debate.

And there were plenty of examples of adult educators promoting active citizenship in just this way. Branches of the Workers Educational Association held a number of open discussions, often working with the active citizenship consultancy Talk Shop. In Leicester, for instance, the WEA teamed up with Talk Shop to run a fun, open and balanced discussion ‘in a thoughtful and friendly atmosphere’.

Some local trade union organisations held similar open discussions, as in Haringey. And a number of colleges, libraries and community centres hosted one-off meetings or mock debates around the issues.

Universities didn’t have their finest hour. Some individual academics contributed their expertise to public events organised by others. MOOCs came into their own, with FutureLearn commissioning a small set of courses, such as the terrific Towards Brexit course from Edinburgh.

Otherwise, universities have promoted events for their students but seem to have done little or nothing for the public. That hasn’t stopped them from sitting on their hands and complaining that voters don’t really know enough to make a decision.

Even in its much depleted state, then, the adult education system responded. The WEA and other providers have helped show what was possible. We can imagine how much better-informed the debate might have been if adult education providers had been in a position to support a much earlier and systematic campaign of public information and discussion.

My favourite event was undoubtedly this one, held in a pub/microbrewery that describes itself as ‘more folk than punk’ (a sly dig at the BrewDog brand, as my fellow ale-lovers will realise). The Twisted Barrel in Coventry regularly hosts debates under the name of Skeptics in a Pub.

New Picture (1)It really sounds my kind of place. But that is the core of the problem. While people like me will feel at home in a bar where we can drink craft beer and discuss politics with like-minded people, quite a lot of people would feel deeply uncomfortable in that environment. I sense that we have a declining number of spaces for face-to-face dialogue, particularly with those who do not share our views and values. Adult education used to be one of those places, and we kill it at our peril.

Democracy requires lifelong education and critical thinking

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Congratulations to the Southern Region of the Workers Educational Association for organising what looks like a terrific conference on education and democracy. Democratic education was, as Stephen Roberts’ centenary history confirms, a preoccupation that ran like a thread through the WEA’s activities, and I’m delighted to see it addressed in this way, with some pointed questions and sparky speakers to fire up the debate.

Linden West is a friend and we’ve worked and written together, so you can take what I say with a pinch of salt. He has a background in the WEA; his latest book (nothing if not ambitious) tackles racism, fundamentalism, Islamophobia and de-industrialisation in the context of democratic education; you can find the details here.

I’m equally interested in hearing what Hilda Kean has to say. Again, she has a background in adult education, and stood up in public to attack Ruskin College’s decision to trash its own archives. She is a leading exponent of the public history movement, and is well known for her histories of animals, including work for the BBC on animals in wartime.

This could, and should, be a really important event which shapes discussions not only around the WEA, but over the future of adult learning in the UK more generally. I have nothing against Tonbridge, but why leave it there? Can’t the WEA nationally turn it into a travelling roadshow, igniting debates elsewhere?

In praise of Trove: an Australian reports on the World Association for Adult Education

In 1929, a Tasmanian school teacher attended the conference in Cambridge of the World Association for Adult Education. In early 1931, Mr G. W. Knight spoke of his visit, which had also encompassed a teachers’ conference in Geneva, at a public meeting in Hobart Library.

The Mercury, Hobart’s local paper, duly reported what he had to say. If their account is reliable, Knight’s main preoccupation was with levels of drop-out in adult education, which he thought high. He also reported that the Association adopted a constitution, and appointed a Council representing seven international regions, which he described as ‘Teutonic, Slav, English, Scandinavian, USA, and Latin and the Orient’. However, he failed to secure separate representation for Australia.

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The Mercury, 3 February 1931

This snippet adds just a little to what we already know about the World Association specifically, and early attempts to internationalise adult education more generally. The otherwise largely unknown Mr Knight (briefly famous for dying in an air crash in 1946) does give us some idea of how an Australian educator viewed the London-based, WEA-led World Association.

Founded in 1919, but unable to survive WW2, the Association’s archives are well represented in the Albert Mansbridge Papers in the British Library. This snippet from Hobart adds to our understanding of the Association’s history, if only at the margins. In its way, then, it is a nice example of the way in which digitised records can make the past accessible to historians, amateur and professional, who cannot possibly travel to view the originals.

The Hobart Mercury is one of many records – diaries, letters, archives and newspapers – that have been made available through the National Library of Australia, through its Trove repository. I found Trove invaluable in researching my book on work camps, and many other historians will echo this praise. In return, I continue to do bits of editing for Trove, improving the accessibility and accuracy of this wonderful resource, as do many other historians.

The Australian Government has slashed the NLA’s budget, and Trove is now at risk. It is a world class resource, and we shouldn’t let it go without a world class fight.

 

Remembering Michael Barratt Brown

SeekersMichael Barratt Brown was the first Principal of Northern College, a residential college for adults which opened in September 1978. I was lucky enough to take one of the first jobs at the College, and taught there from 1978 to 1985.  Working with Michael was a baptism of fire for a young and inexperienced lecturer, particularly as he had no patience with the belief that you could learn anything about teaching from books or training courses.

I already knew of Michael before joining the College. His political work in the peace movement and in the campaign for industrial democracy were well known; he often co-authored with Ken Coates, another adult educator who like Michael had left the Communist Party in 1956, and who became quite a high profile figure in the Labour Left. I had also met Michael, through my Warwick mentor Royden Harrison, the historian and an old friend and political comrade of Michael’s (Royden also wrote a reference that was, I suspect, instrumental in getting me the job).

Michael was an inspirational figure who was capable of haranguing the College staff – and students – when things didn’t go entirely to his liking. My first experience of Michael in rant mode was when the Deputy Principal, in Michael’s absence, declared the College closed during a snowy cold snap; Michael was furious, spluttering that if he could get in to the College then there was no reason to close it down. He then went out skiing.

To be honest, his harangues tended to cause more amusement than anxiety. Yet, as you might expect of someone with his wartime experiences, there was real toughness in the man – and indeed there had to be. For the first few years of its life, the College battled to survive. The Sheffield Conservative Party was particularly virulent in its attacks, both through its one local MP Irvine Patnick, a nasty piece of work who fed misinformation to the media in the wake of the Hillsborough disaster), and through the local Chamber of Commerce. And all this during the Thatcher years.

Michael was robust in his defence of the College, and disarmingly charming with its critics. He was also capable of puncturing others’ self-importance, usually employing his sly sense of humour. I remember him one chairing a disciplinary hearing involving two students, both activists in the Yorkshire Area of the National Union of Mineworkers, who had been involved in a fight. It was a tense and difficult occasion, with claim and counter-claim over the origins of the dispute, which Michael defused by asking “And what exactly is a pillock?” To this day I’m uncertain whether he genuinely didn’t known what the word meant, but it brought us all back to our senses.

He worked hard and expected others to do the same. He was an enormously productive writer while contributing a full teaching load and doing all the networking and admin that came with the job. He also drank hard: the College then expected all its teaching staff to serve as residential tutors once a week, and occasionally I’d find him in his study at night, polishing off a bottle of red wine while writing an article or a pamphlet.

He was capable of enormous generosity, supporting students in terrible hardship with ‘loans’ (rarely repaid) from his own pocket. As some students never tired of pointing out, he could well afford to be generous, though much of his wealth came from canny investments. I did once ask him about the ethics of a Quaker Marxist gambling on the stock market; his response, with a grin, was “Why be an economist if you don’t use it?”

In many ways Michael became an adult educator almost by accident – or at most through planned happenstance – as I did. His formal education had been richly supplemented by a lifetime of political activity, but he had taught for the WEA before joining the Extra-Mural Department at Sheffield University, where he was drawn into teaching on the miners’ day release programme. He thought that adult educators were made through experience; when I asked about financial support to undertake an OU course called Education for Adults, he snapped at me: “Why on earth would anyone want to study adult education?” I paid for the course myself (and thoroughly enjoyed it).

Robin Murray has written a beautifully worded obituary of Michael for the Guardian. And there is plenty more detail in Michael’s autobiography for anyone who is interested in his remarkably varied and influential life. There is much more to be said, and critiqued, about his life and work, and what it tells us about the turbulent trajectory of British adult education. But now is a time for mourning and celebrating, and sharing personal memories of someone who contributed so much to the lives of those around him.