100 years of women in FE and skills. Learning works: Baroness Helena Kennedy
In number seven in our series of posts on the women who shaped further education – marking 100 years of women's suffrage – we assess the contribution of Baroness Helena Kennedy whose report, Learning Works, shaped further education policy in the early years of New Labour
The Further Education Funding Council, established by the 1992 Further and Higher Education Act that removed colleges from local authority control, was given a brief to promote access to further education ‘for people who do not participate in education and training, but who could benefit from it’. In 1994, the council appointed Helena Kennedy QC to chair a committee to advise it on this aim. The report she produced has proved enormously influential, most notably on FE policy devised under Labour Secretary of State for Education and Employment, David Blunkett, and remains a key reference point for those who recognise the potential of further education to improve social mobility and reduce exclusion.
Kennedy’s own background is testament to the transformative power of education. She was born on the south side of Glasgow in 1950 to working-class parents whose Catholic faith and commitment to social justice shaped her political outlook and fostered in her a sense of responsibility to others. Both were active members of the Labour Party and her father, who was a printer at the Daily Record, was a trade unionist. Unlike her three older sisters, Kennedy stayed on at school before moving to London to study law. She had to curb her Glasgow accent to make herself understood among the highly confident, polished ex-public school boys who were now here peers. She soon came to think of their ‘superiority’ as merely ‘cosmetic’; a ‘veneer’ with no real substance.
Human rights became her legal specialism, as well as her passion. It shaped her career, not only as a barrister but also as a broadcaster, author and campaigner, as well as in a series of high-profile public roles. The desire to see a fairer, more equal and socially just society was a driver in all her work, and because she had experienced first-hand how education can transform lives, making those opportunities available to people from non-privileged backgrounds became a keen and growing concern.
The invitation to chair the Further Education Funding Council committee on widening participation in FE came at a time when, she felt, colleges were overly preoccupied with competing with each other and were, thus, going ‘in pursuit of the students who are most likely to succeed’. ‘Second-chance’ education had fallen out of view. Her committee’s final report, Learning Works, published in June 1997, set out to challenge this neglect of what Kennedy saw as a core part of the mission of FE colleges. It argued that education was the common foundation for economic prosperity and social cohesion and condemned the inadequacy of the policies that had achieved significant growth in post-16 learning in the 1990s on the grounds that they had failed to include socially and economically disadvantaged adults. ‘Education must be at the heart of any inspired project for regeneration in Britain,’ it said.
The report called on government to take the lead by creating a national strategy for post-16 learning to support the aspiration that all should achieve at Level 3 (A-level or vocational equivalent) and to reinforce this by creating a ‘lifetime entitlement’ to education up to Level 3, establishing new national learning targets and offering financial incentives to enable colleges to expand their missions. Widening participation should be at the heart of the priorities set for the education world, with particular attention paid to people outside the workforce, women returners and adults with poor basis skills, it said. The committee saw the opportunity to achieve at Level 3 as the essential basis for the creation of a ‘self-perpetuating learning society’ and argued that public funding should be redistributed towards those with less success in earlier learning, moving towards equity in funding in post-16 education. The report also called for a credit accumulation system and new ‘pathways to learning’: a ‘united system for recognising achievement’.
The newly elected Secretary of State, David Blunkett, warmly endorsed the vision and spirit of the report. He created a National Advisory Group for Continuing Education and Lifelong Learning to advise him on a new lifelong learning strategy. Its first report, Learning for the Twenty-First Century, was heavily influenced by Learning Works, not least in its call for the development of ‘a new learning culture, a culture of lifelong learning for all’ to meet the challenges of economic, social and technological change. This call was taken up by Blunkett in his foreword to Labour’s 1998 Green Paper, The Learning Age: A renaissance for a new Britain. ‘To achieve stable and sustainable growth,’ Blunkett wrote, ‘we will need a well-educated, well-equipped and adaptable labour force. To cope with rapid change we must ensure that people can return to learning throughout their lives. We cannot rely on a small elite: we need the creativity, enterprise and scholarship of all our people.’
While The Learning Age remains a touchstone for those with radical ambitions for further education as an engine of social mobility, for others it is also a reminder of much Labour’s ambitions for the sector narrowed over the course of its time in office, as it focused increasingly on young people and embraced a more utilitarian approach to education, and further education, in particular. Regrettably, more than 20 years after the publication of Learning Works, Kennedy’s memorably phrased admonishment, ‘If at first you don’t succeed … you don’t succeed’, remains as relevant as ever for people from less privileged backgrounds. While progress has been made in widening participation in higher education, the potential of further education remains to a large extent unfulfilled, and for most disadvantaged young people opportunities are narrower than they were in the 1990s.
Kennedy was created a life peer, as Baroness Kennedy of the Shaws, in 1997. She played a pivotal role in getting a Human Rights Act into the Labour Party manifesto of 1997 and continued to put social justice and the defence of civil liberties at the heart of her work thereafter. In her own words, she remains a ‘champion of the underdog’. Her incredibly diverse work portfolio includes chairing constitutional reform group Charter 88 from 1992 to 1997, the Human Genetics Commission from 1998 to 2007 and the British Council from 1998 to 2004. The Helena Kennedy Foundation was set up a decade after the publication of Learning Works by former college principal Ann Limb to widen participation in education. The foundation provides bursaries, mentoring and support to disadvantaged students, enabling them to complete their studies and move into employment. Kennedy has been Principal of Mansfield College, Oxford, since 2011 (she steps down in September 2018). She has sought, in the role, to improve access for those applying from FE and other non-traditional routes. Her abiding passion for social justice was evident in an interview with the Guardian last year. ‘We’re making a society that’s hard, celebrating money as the only thing that really matters,’ she said. ‘I still believe in the common good. I can’t reconcile myself to this market-led world. I shall fight it till my dying breath.’