Across my working life I spent a significant amount of time being responsible for youth, adult and community work, even if the latter was more often honoured in the breach than the observance. Whilst Wigan’s Youth and Community Officer in the 1990s I struggled vainly to resist the undermining of Adult Education by the Further Education Funding Council, whose instrumental ideology demanded that classes and courses should be vocational or else. In this context it is sobering and revealing to read Doug Nicholl’s overview of the neoliberal assault on the rich and radical tradition of life-long learning as a whole.
Lifelong learning – dead.
Only publicly funded places of learning, communities of exploration, can instil the excitement to think critically and assimilate knowledge and provide the personal support needed to develop.
Virtual search engines are no substitute for the real investment in real people in real institutions engaging together in a community of learning from birth to old age. Useful knowledge may be gained from a random google or Wikipedia search, but the discovery of truth and real understanding are skills accrued and nurtured with others.
It is an organised presence of educators at every stage of life from pre-school to retirement years that can make lifelong learning a lived reality.
The building of lifelong learning resources and methods has a wonderful history in Britain. Practitioners and academics, local councils and voluntary organisations, trade unions and community groups, sometimes separately, sometimes together, always on very meagre budgets, created in most areas, the architecture of cradle to the grave learning provision.
Sure start and other early years provision sowed seeds. Play work nurtured the growing mind in beautiful ways. Youth work, also a British pioneering methodology, engaged and promoted young people in an empowering and much underestimated way. Community development work involved and educated often the most beleaguered and brought social coherence and social justice, hope and joy.
Adult education, arising originally from a long tradition of democratic practice in dissenting churches, brought us the opportunity not just to have second chances to learn, but to transform our lives and thereby our world. In the workplace, intense exploitation and discrimination and brutal working conditions would be more prevalent today were it not for generations of trade unionists learning negotiating moves, but importantly too, history, politics, economics and philosophy.
In terms of funding these strands of lifelong learning were always seen as Cinderella services. In reality their widespread popularity and effectiveness in developing confidence and capability put them at the forefront of advanced pedagogies.
I am using the past tense. The lifelong learning house has been pulled down. Only isolated pockets of excellent practice, largely unsupported by the state, and funded on something far more precarious than a shoe string, now seek to keep alive what were once internationally pioneering services and educational interventions throughout life.
A requiem for Coleg Harlech was produced as a documentary last year. This was a dynamic place that brought so much education to those who had had too little, the premises were sold off. Unfortunately there will be more property developers looking at the remaining English adult residential colleges. A new unfair government funding regime has already seen the iconic Ruskin College end its residential offer to students. This is representative of a new, deep assault on the best of adult learning opportunities and the Labour and community movement links behind them.
Most people do not go to university and relative to our life span and the number of hours in the day, we spend little time at school. Lifelong learning services have been the main provider of education for our people for generations. It’s where most of the learning linked to enlightenment, collective action and social purpose has taken place, and where some of our greatest educators have worked and the environment where some of our keenest intellects have been created. Not to mention some very important community and political leaders.
Lifelong learning opportunities have disappeared and now two relatively small yet extremely impactful and important components of the national offer are up for the chop. The government has proposed to end its funding of trade union learning despite its demonstrable success in delivering the upskilling agenda.
But I want to draw attention here to the imminent, potential complete demise, of adult residential education.
University is not for everyone so for over a hundred years trade unions, co-operative organisations, the Labour Party, faith groups, community organisations and educational associations have found ways of creating residential learning opportunities for adults. This has provided a range of options from essential skills development, preparation for university, specialist higher education courses, short residential programmes, community leadership training and so on.
Just as some have their public schools and elite universities, so we, the majority, have had our special places of useful and inspiring learning. The founders of Ruskin deliberately built this in Oxford, not just to give students access to the Bodleian library, but to ensure women and men from the UK and all around the world exercised their rights to access the best learning environment.
Unions, community networks and churches would pay for members to go to colleges like Ruskin, Hillcroft, Northern, and Fircroft. Miners, steel workers, shop workers, railway workers, you name it, they would get an education because of their union giving them grants to spend two or three years growing through learning.
My own organisation funded particularly women to go to Ruskin as long ago as the 1940s. And many went from there to University, including the dreaming spires, and most came back to serve trade unions, community organisations, governments, political parties or caring professions like social work. I can think easily of many leading academics today who came through this route too.
As the quality of education was so good tens of thousands of students from overseas came to Ruskin and returned home in some cases to lead their countries. At least one British Prime Minister, Clem Attlee, was a Ruskin tutor.
Residential provision not only gave time and space to learn how to learn for those who had left school at the youngest age and been rejected by formal learning, it gave a welcoming environment with colleagues from all over the world to broaden horizons and enjoy cultural and academic variety to stimulate the imagination.
Special debates and initiatives could be held in the safe exploratory spaces of these colleges and many examples can be given, but at Ruskin we celebrated recently the 50th anniversary of the formation of the Womens’ Liberation Movement there. We also celebrated last year our 120th anniversary and many moving stories of personal transformation from over the years were shared.
Pedagogically the adult residential experience was exceptional as many detailed studies have revealed, most recently by Professors Sharon Clancy and John Holford in their report. Economically, like all its relatives in the other strands of lifelong learning, adult residential education represented champagne at lemonade prices as all cost benefit research reports have shown as John Schifferes showed.
The adult residential financial settlements, previously agreed by Ministers of all stripes, who appreciated the vital role the Specialist Designated Institutions, as they are referred to in the Further and Higher Education Act, were never generous, but adequate. The formulae that underpinned them, agreed at the time by Ministers, seems to have been forgotten by the notoriously forgetful Department for Education, and new rules have been introduced which, for the main provider at least, have led to the closure of residential provision altogether.
Not only that, the current government is seeking to claw back spending from previous years in such a way as to prevent any future growth or sustainability. They are trying it feels to force complete closure and the remodelling of specialist designated institutions into merged FE providers. Punishment is being meted out for providing education (the quality of which Ofsted have consistently applauded) to students who would have had no other chance.
Such manoeuvres fly in the face of the most significant report on adult education for a hundred years published last year under the stewardship of Dame Helen Ghosh, The Centenary Report into Adult Education. They ignore too the report by Dame Mary Ney reviewing college financial oversight where she says the ESFA and FEC should take a more nurturing and developmental, supportive approach.
Adult education, as even the 1919 national Adult Education Committee report said, is a permanent national necessity. Moves afoot now are closing its vital residential component just at the time when all those residential providers are at the front line of supporting some of the most significant initiatives to retrain redundant workers, and reskill others keen to be at the heart of building back better.
The pattern is clear: destroy education and institutions designed to create new generations of Labour Movement leaders.
Doug Nicholls is General Secretary of the General Federation of Trade Unions.