A new vision for lifelong learning

A new vision for lifelong learning

18th November 2019

The revival of policy interest in adult education is welcome – now we have a vision with which to take the new ideas forward, writes Dame Ruth Silver

Last week saw the centenary of perhaps the most influential report on adult education ever published in the UK. The 1919 Ministry of Reconstruction Adult Education Committee’s Final Report – better known as the 1919 Report – described adult education as a ‘permanent national necessity’; not a luxury that would be nice if only there weren’t lots of other competing priorities, but something indispensable to the future of our democracy, as well as to our health, happiness and prosperity.

The anniversary is at the heart of a revival of interest in adult education and lifelong learning, reflected in the general-election promises of most of the main political parties, notably in Labour’s plans for free adult education up to Level 3, the Conservatives’ national retraining scheme and the Liberal Democrats promise to give every adult a ‘skills wallet’ worth £10,000 to spend on education or training, at any point in their lives.

These are important and overdue interventions which I hope will see their way into policy in some form, whatever the result of the election. Adult education has been the subject of regressive and short-sighted funding cuts for the past two decades, as policymakers have found themselves gripped by a vision of education in which young people feature disproportionately and only economically useful skills are deemed valuable. This meagre economistic view of education needs to be challenged and consigned to the dustbin of education policy history.

We need a new, more rounded and comprehensive, lifelong vision of education, which is why the Further Education Trust for Leadership (FETL) was pleased to fund the work of the Centenary Commission on Adult Education, set up last year by a group of adult educators who recognized the significance of the 1919 Report and undertook to set out a new vision ‘for life-wide adult education for the century ahead’. While much of the revival of interest in lifelong learning is driven by the same instrumental approach to education policy that has resulted in a regrettable narrowing of both curriculum and opportunity, for adults and young people alike, the Commission has kept to the fore the original report’s grasp of the wider benefits and purposes of adult education.

Their final report, A Permanent National Necessity…’: Adult Education and Lifelong Learning for 21st Century Britain, is published today. It argues that ‘“universal and lifelong” access to adult education and learning is as necessary now as it was in rebuilding our society in the aftermath of the War to End All Wars’, and sets out a range of recommendations that go beyond the acquisition of skills for employment to include basic skills, active citizenship, creativity and health and wellbeing, alongside the world of work.

The life-wide focus of the report is welcome indeed, as is the proposal for a new national strategy for adult education and lifelong learning that engages ‘the whole of Government while recognising the importance of devolved decision making’. Putting these proposals into practice, and moving with purpose towards a lifelong learning society, demands that we work in a different way, across departments and sectors, with an unprecedented degree of collaboration.

The proposal for new adult learning partnerships ‘established at regional and sub-regional levels, bringing together local and regional government, universities and colleges, community and educational groups, and local employers’ should help achieve this and represents a welcome reversal of the view that competition must drive progress, but it will be important too that this new collaborative, dialogical approach is replicated in government and encouraged across our politics. And, of course, as the report also recommends, this shift in focus must be accompanied by a reversal of the dramatic funding cuts to adult education offered by colleges, local authorities and adult and community education services.

The report is a hopeful one. Its recommendations are practical and achievable. But realising its vision will require something more, as the report acknowledges: a change of path, away from a society characterised by fear and anxiety, where inequality is tolerated and lives are routinely wasted or written off, to one in which people are valued in the round, not just as economic units, and where the link between education and active democracy is fostered and encouraged.

The report appears at a time when the political, demographic, social, technological and environmental challenges we face call for adult education and lifelong learning to be taken much more seriously. There are signs that we are beginning to do this, and I strongly welcome them. These challenges demand a population that is resilient, creative, critical, engaged, excited and ready to learn, as well as one that is job-ready. The question is no longer whether we can afford to invest in adult education, but whether we can afford not to.

Dame Ruth Silver is President of the Further Education Trust for Leadership