Exactly 100 years ago, it was argued in the 1919 Report, published by the Government Ministry for Reconstruction after World War 1, that Adult Education was essential for a confident, fair and democratic society. Its central recommendation was:
‘Adult education must not be regarded as a luxury for a few exceptional persons here and there… but a permanent national necessity, an inseparable aspect of citizenship, and therefore should be both universal and lifelong’.
Three separate Commissions on Lifelong Learning have published their reports in the last few weeks, and a fourth, a Parliamentary Inquiry, published its oral and written evidence in October.
The timing of these reports – by the Labour Party, the Liberal Democrats, and also a politically-independent Centenary Commission, is striking. Rates of participation in learning activities among adults have fallen dramatically over the last decade, and the decline is sharpest among those who have benefitted least from their schooling.
We have also had research reports on the impact of adult learning from nearly 40,000 UNISON workers and from more than 5,000 Workers Education Association students; and if that isn’t enough, UNESCO’s 4th Global Report on Adult Learning and Education was also published last week.
The trends they reveal are part of the broader decline in the social and cultural fabric over the past decade. They are a key issue in the general election, but they emerged first in the 1990s, when successive governments decided that public funds should be focussed on education for employment and for formal qualifications.
Tightly-focussed outcomes and test results, rather than participation, became the primary indicator of value for money, and as a result much of the loose network of community organisations and local authority services which directly or indirectly supported adult learning lost its funding. Alison Wolf argued against these trends in 2002:
‘We have almost forgotten that education ever had any purpose other than to promote growth. To read government documents of even fifty years ago…gives one a shock. Of course their authors recognized that education had relevance to people’s livelihoods and success, and to the nation’s prosperity. But their concern was as much, or more, with values, citizenship, the nature of a good society, the intrinsic benefits of learning.’
However, things got steadily worse: since 2010, government funding for adult education has been cut by 40%, and nearly 500 public libraries have closed during the same period as a result of the policy of austerity.
The original 1919 Report, and the 2019 descendant, both argue explicitly and cogently that the whole social and cultural infrastructure, including clubs, theatres, libraries, allotments, parks and museums, all of which have suffered funding cuts, needs to be understood as supporting opportunities for adults to learn. This is because much of the most significant learning is informal, incidental and takes place as a result of participation in a wide range of activities, none of which need necessarily to be purposefully or wholly educational. They maintain that a broad and generous conception of adult education and its social value, and its integration with more or less all the organisations and institutions of civil society, is desperately needed now, no less than it was in 1919.
The UNESCO report also sees adult learning infrastructure as a central feature of a healthy democracy, as a central element of the ‘safety net’ supporting individuals at risk, for example, of homelessness or loneliness, as well as a stepping stone to more formal and certificated learning leading to improved employment prospects. It assesses progress made by 159 countries (sadly not the UK, which did not take part) against 30 Recommendations for Adult Learning and Education published in 2015, which support the Belem Framework for Action on ‘Harnessing the Power and Potential of Adult Education’ adopted by UNESCO exactly ten years ago.
For me, the most encouraging aspect of this sequence of global policy documents on Lifelong Learning is that they highlight clearly and explicitly the importance of informal networks for learning, not simply provision of formal courses; and of participation as the key goal for productive policy frameworks, rather than narrowly-defined commodifiable outcomes. The value of informal learning in supporting broad social, political and economic goals within a participatory and informed democracy, has not been taken seriously enough since 1919 to warrant much attention from policymakers, but I for one hope that December 2019 may be turning point for Lifelong Learning in the UK.
Dr Jay Derrick UCL Institute of Education Department of Education, Policy and Society, and the UCL Centre for Post-14 Education and Work