From education to employment

Adult Education – Has its time come again?

Martin Doel, FETL Professor of Leadership in FE and Skills, University College London, Institute of Education

One of my greatest regrets whilst Chief Executive at the Association of Colleges was in our failure, with partners, to arrest the decline of adult education funding.

Adult education proved to be the easiest of all targets in the effort to reduce the budget deficit in the coalition years with a reduction of 45% in cash terms (much more in real terms), being without a middle class or otherwise politically significant constituency to fight its corner. The largest proportion of what funding remained was actually consumed by young people aged upto age 24 who required longer to complete their upper secondary education in achieving a first level 2 or level 3 qualification.

In truth, the decline in wider adult education actually tracks back to the latter years of the Labour Government when, from 2006, substantial sums were transferred to build the Train to Gain programme. But after a decade of decline adult education seems to be back in the thoughts of the political parties and hence policymakers. The 2015 spending review stemmed the reduction in funding in cash terms and adult education featured in the Industrial Strategy and in the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democratic manifestos.

This return of attention to wider adult education is as wholly welcome as it is overdue, but in reviewing the manifestos and the industrial strategy in advance of a conference at Northern Adult Education College last week, I was struck by the continuing narrowness of their conception of adult education. As well as a degree of inevitable vagueness, all but one of the references (to ESOL in the Labour Manifesto) alludes to the need to skill and re-skill adults through longer working lives and in face of a need to grow our own skills in the wake of BREXIT. This is, of course right, but as the visit to Northern College served to remind me, the manifesto commitments, in comparision to the what that College was achieving, embody a very limited conception of what adult education can contribute to our nation.

As well as the manifesto references being limited to adult education’s potential to improve productivity and skills, it was also a surprise to me to see that the references in the Labour and Conservative Manifestos were confined to the chapters on education. There was no mention of the role that adult learning in the Conservative chapters on ‘A restored contract between generations’ or ‘A Strong and united nation in a changing world’ or the Labour chapters on ‘Safer communities,’ or ‘Leading richer lives’ or ‘Extending democracy.’

Each of these chapter headings seem to me to offer shared recognition of things that need fixing in our society, but the role of adult education, whether delivered in colleges, local authority adult education centres or by charities isn’t being recognised in these regards. In a post-Grenfell and post-Manchester world where communities need to be at greater ease with one another, education, and adult education in particular, has a critical role to play. It also has an under-recognised role to play in redressing the incidence of social isolation and mental ill-health. But in looking at the Manifestos you would be forgiven for thinking adult education’s only role was to deliver more economically productive human units. Indeed, to the extent that adult education does contribute to productivity it can sometimes via a long and winding road, rather than in the simple instrumental way beloved of economists.

If adult education is to be back in vogue we need to make the case for a wider conception of its contribution to the well-being of individuals and their communities. In reflecting on how this might be achieved, I think we need to avoid harking back to a golden age of adult education; in my experience politicians rarely want to retreat to a bygone era. In muted criticism of some of my colleagues in academia we also need to avoid alienating language when presenting research and thinking in this area to wider audiences. ‘Pro social pedagogy,’ ‘neo-liberal subjectivity’ and ‘liminalities’ are terms that may have weight and meaning amongst academics and adult education insiders, but they will not convince politicians and policymakers, much less the general public. We need to present arguments for the value of adult education with plain language and in a direct way that connects to a wider population’s world view and preoccupations. Perhaps then the full potential of adult education to deliver for the good of individuals, communities and the nation will be realised.      

Martin Doel, FETL Professor of Leadership in FE and Skills, University College London, Institute of Education.

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