Evening classes were once such an unshakeable part of the British landscape. They were the setting for TV and radio sitcoms, editions of the London guide Spotlight used to fly off the shelves on release and the standard advice of 70s ‘Agony Aunts’ – make friends, join an evening class – was the butt of comedians. My own experiences have included learning to touch type, creative writing, car maintenance and pottery. Most of my contemporaries have done evening classes in something, including the near ubiquitous foreign language courses.
But times have changed. In the past few years the headlines have been about falling numbers participating in adult education, a collapse in adult education funding and a collapse of morale.
Back when I was taking part in after work education we were not looking for pieces of paper – although I did get a Pitman’s typing qualification. We were doing these courses to try something out, learn a useful skill, or to be able to talk to the locals on holiday. No doubt some were following the agony aunt advice and were aiming to meet new friends and potential partners.
But it strikes me as sad that since the start of this century, accreditation has become the only game in town. Adult Ed (as we used to call it) has slowly been dragged into the accreditation net, becoming part of the ‘qualifications mania’ that insists on certificating subjects such as dance and music. The prevailing philosophy from all political parties has been that education is not worthwhile unless it leads to a qualification, and that therefore education should not be supported unless it leads to accreditation. No one, it seems to me, will stand up for the idea that education is a ‘general good’.
A European project provides some much needed support for Adult Ed. The Benefits of Lifelong Learning (BeLL) project looked at the individual and social benefits perceived by participants in ‘liberal adult education courses’ in 10 countries. The project produced over 8,500 survey returns, and project teams interviewed more than 80 participants across the participating countries.
The results are striking: adult learners felt that they led healthier lifestyles, had improved wellbeing, had improved their social lives and social networks and were more motivated to continue with learning. Younger participants found the courses acted as stepping stones into adult society, improving their sense of control over their own lives. Older people found that the courses had a cushioning effect, softening some age-related changes associated with retirement. And perhaps most importantly, the lower the participants’ level of education, the stronger the benefits.
An unexpected finding was that these results were not only consistent across the participating countries, but they held regardless of the type of education class being taken. The results were the same for those doing languages, sport or civic education.
Adult education suffers from not being a distinctive sector. It takes place in sixth-form colleges, higher education institutions, FE Colleges, through work-based learning programmes and local authority adult education services. While many courses for over-19s are funded by Government, these tend to be for English, mathematics and vocational subjects leading to qualifications at Level 2 and 3.
Non accredited courses such as those covered by the BeLL report are increasingly hard to find and expensive to participate in. Government, both local and national, appears to have lost sight of the importance of these courses and this report will hopefully provide a reminder of the benefits which used to be taken for granted. There is an echo of that dated agony aunt advice in the finding that adult education classes were one of the few social spaces where you can meet strangers safely, interact with them and make friends. Adult Ed classes are perceived to provide the scaffolding for social cohesion.
There are messages here for many stakeholders, if they are prepared to engage with the study. It provides good evidence for local government, which may need reasons for continuing to support the sector, it should remind central Government that the benefits of adult education go beyond attaining qualifications, and it has particularly strong messages to those that work with mental health or the elderly, particularly in the charitable sector. Adult education really can help people with their mental health and ease older people’s path into retirement.
The sad thing, though is that it takes a European-wide survey with thousands of participants to remind us of something that used to be a self-evident truth. Adult Ed, indeed all education, is a fundamentally good thing; it benefits individuals, their families, society and even employers. It is sad that policy makers and politicians have forgotten this obvious fact. Perhaps in retirement they themselves will reengage with non-accredited education and understand again its importance.