A permanent national necessity

A permanent national necessity

13th February 2019

It’s time politicians took lifelong learning seriously, argues Dame Ruth Silver

This promises to be a significant year in the development of thinking and policy about lifelong learning in the UK.

The centenary of the publication of the final report of the Ministry of Reconstruction’s Adult Education Committee – known as the 1919 Report – is already prompting new thinking and a reassessment of the concept in the light of contemporary challenges. At the same time, both the Liberal Democrats and Labour have promised to outline the findings of their respective commissions on lifelong learning, and Pearson has launched a Commission on Sustainable Learning for Life, Work and a Changing Economy. The Lib Dem commission, led by Sir Vince Cable, is expected to report shortly. Labour’s progress is less clear.

It was against the background of these important developments that the Further Education Trust for Leadership (FETL) decided to make lifelong learning the topic for its Winter Symposium in December. Colleges have always been about second chances and they have a critical role to play, alongside a range of local, regional and national partners, in ensuring that the potential of lifelong learning is fully realized. The event underlined a determination within the sector to reverse successive governments’ neglect of lifelong learning.

Of course, all of this recognition is welcome. However, there have been commissions of inquiry before, notably that led by Tom Schuller and Sir David Watson a decade ago. Far too often, their recommendations go unactioned, their ideas drowned out by the clamour of short-term priorities – so often the enemy of effective, coherent planning. I wonder where we would be now had the recommendations of the Inquiry into the Future for Lifelong Learning been taken up avidly by politicians rather than being kicked into the long grass.

Such too was the fate of the 1919 Report, which described adult education as ‘a permanent national necessity, an inseparable aspect of citizenship’, ‘indispensable to the health of democratic societies’, that should be ‘both universal and lifelong’. Economic crises and cuts to education spending from the 1920s on helped ensure the report had little practical or political impact, though, of course, it remains ‘a reference point for advocacy and a landmark statement of the value of adult education’.

Reading the report now, one is struck by how narrow and unambitious our thinking about education has become. There is a huge gulf between what politicians say about lifelong learning and what they do. Ministers often give voice to the wider benefits of adult education, whether to health or democratic participation, but when it comes to making policy, the economic considerations trump all. Increasingly, policy-makers have fallen under the spell of a grim, utilitarian focus on economically valuable skills, neglecting all other areas of human activity, in a way that would have baffled the authors of the 1919 Report.

To ensure that the current relative prominence of lifelong learning in the policy-making agenda is not looked back on as yet another wasted opportunity, we need to widen our understanding of the value of education and demonstrate to the policy community that lifelong learning has a contribution to make not only to employability, but also to the health and wellbeing of communities, the quality of our democracy and the cohesion and sustainability of our societies.

Lifelong learning is not a panacea but it is clear that we need more of it not less if we are to address the challenges posed by the crisis in our democracy, our rapidly changing demographic profile and the entrenched inequalities that stifle the hopes of many. We need a new vision that builds on the legacy of 1919 but in a way that is sensitive to the challenges of the twenty-first century, exploiting the opportunities represented by the digital revolution, localism and, indeed, Brexit, and drawing on the best of new thinking, such as the cities of learning movement. For too many years, we have been going full speed in the wrong direction – underfunding further education and stripping away the infrastructure of lifelong learning, hollowing out local government and ignoring the wider role of education. Now we have the chance to do something different. I hope we take it.

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

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