100 Years and Counting: The Continuing Importance of Adult Education

In 1919, the Ministry of Reconstruction’s adult education committee published its Report on Adult Education, arguing that the continuing education of adults was of vital importance to the nation’s welfare and security. 

Now, 100 years on, a Centenary Commission has been formed to stress the continuing importance of an educated populace – and to find solutions to the adult education challenges of today.

The Commission is part of a broader ‘Adult Education 100’ Campaign – with patrons including Baroness Joan Bakewell, Mary Beard, Michael Sheen and Ruby Wax.

At their first meeting, on Thursday 10 January at Balliol College, Oxford, the Centenary Commission will consider the educational provision required in the face of longer lives, changing work, and global challenges.

“There is a national – indeed global – consensus that lifelong learning is increasingly required: for the world of work, alongside machine learning and robotics; for a population living longer; and for an electorate facing new and complex challenges,” said Professor Jonathan Michie, who is Director of the Department for Continuing Education, and co-secretary of the Commission.

Membership of the Commission includes representatives from the University of Oxford, the Workers’ Educational Association (WEA), the University of Nottingham, the Co-Operative College and the Raymond Williams Foundation.

The Commission will publish its report in November 2019, marking the centenary of the Ministry of Reconstruction’s Final Report on Adult Education. That report set the groundwork for British adult education during the 20th century. Its centenary is an opportunity to reflect on the needs and possibilities for adult education today, and into the century ahead.

1919 and 2019

The challenges we face as a nation in 2019 are eerily similar to the challenges of 1919.

The 1919 report considered it vital that citizens be made able to weigh evidence and critically reflect on political claims, so as not to be taken in by populist demagogues; electoral issues are just as complex today.

It noted the growing number of new technologies and industries, and warned that simple ‘skills training’ would not be sufficient for the nation’s future needs.

The population of 1919 faced ‘great challenges’, the foremost being to prevent another slide to war. That danger remains – and today’s world has the added threat of climate change.

The Centenary Commission will address the need for, and role of, adult education in relation to:

  • Globalisation and the future of work
  • Civic engagement and democracy
  • Inequality and social mobility
  • Communities, migration and identities
  • Demography and ageing

'Adult Education 100'

The Centenary Commission is part of a broader ‘Adult Education 100’ Campaign, whose patrons include:

  • Baroness Joan Bakewell, President of Birkbeck University of London
  • Mary Beard, Professor of Classics, University of Cambridge
  • Lalage Bown, Professor. Emeritus, Adult & Continuing Education, University of Glasgow
  • Andy Haldane, Chief Economist, Bank of England
  • Mel Lenehan, Principal and CEO, Fircroft College
  • John Sentamu, Archbishop of York
  • Michael Sheen, Actor
  • Ruby Wax, Mental Health Campaigner

Patron Andy Haldane commented: “Never has the need for life-long learning been greater, given longer lifespans and a greater volatility in career paths. At present universities do not appear to be meeting these needs. The future university may need to be a very different creature than in the past. It may need to cater for multiple entry points along the age distribution, rather than focusing on the young.”

Then and now

The Ministry of Reconstruction, established under Lloyd George’s wartime coalition government in 1917, was to oversee rebuilding “the national life on a better and more durable foundation”. Its adult education committee was chaired by A.L. Smith, Master of Balliol College, Oxford.

The committee’s 19 members included leading public figures from the worlds of business, trades unions, religions, academia, and key figures in adult education, including the historian R.H. Tawney, and the founder of the WEA Albert Mansbridge.

The 1919 Report provided a template under which adult education, oriented towards building a democratic and tolerant civil society, flourished through most of the 20th century.

Over the last three decades many of the opportunities for, and institutions of, adult education have been lost. Much of what remains focuses largely on training younger adults in workplace skills. 

Members of the Centenary Commission feel that democratic, inclusive values, and social justice – enhancing people’s lives as a whole – need to be at the heart of educational provision.

This broader approach to adult education may be more appropriate for the unknown industries and jobs of the future, where many of the current ‘skilled’ professions will be replaced by machine learning, artificial intelligence, and robotics, making creativity, empathy and imagination vital in the future world of work.

Members of the Centenary Commission on Adult Education 2019

Dame Helen Ghosh (Chair): Master of Balliol College, Oxford. Previously Chief Executive, The National Trust; Permanent Secretary, Home Office; Permanent Secretary, Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs.

Sir Alan Tuckett OBE (Vice Chair): Professor, University of Wolverhampton. Previously Chief Executive, National Institute of Adult Continuing Education; President, International Council for Adult Education.

Melissa Benn: Author, novelist, journalist, broadcaster. Chair, Comprehensive Future; Council member, New Visions for Education Group.

Lord (Karan) Bilimoria: Co-founder & Chairman, Cobra Beer; Chancellor, University of Birmingham.

Dr Sharon Clancy: Chair, Raymond Williams Foundation. Previously Head of Community Partnerships, University of Nottingham; Chief Executive, Mansfield Council for Voluntary Service.

Melissa Highton: Assistant Principal, Online Learning and Director of Learning, Teaching & Web Services, University of Edinburgh.

Uzo Iwobi OBE: Chief Executive Officer, Race Council Cymru. Previously Principal

Equality Officer, South Wales Police; member of the Commission for Racial Equality.

Roger McKenzie: Assistant General Secretary, Unison. Previously Vice Chair, West Midlands Assembly; Midlands Regional Secretary, TUC; Race Equality Officer, TUC.

Sir Ken Olisa OBE: Chairman, Shaw Trust; Lord-Lieutenant of Greater London; founder & Chairman, Restoration Partners; Deputy Master, Worshipful Company of Information Technologists

Sue Pember OBE: Director, Holex (professional body for Adult Community Education and Learning). Previously lead Director for FE, Dept for Business Innovation & Skills (BIS) and Dept for Education & Skills (DfES); Principal, Canterbury College of F&HE.

Paul Roberts: Chief Executive Officer, Aspire, Oxford.

Dr Cilla Ross: Vice Principal, Co-operative College, Manchester.

Sir Peter Scott: Emeritus Professor of Higher Education, UCL Institute of Education. Previously Vice Chancellor, Kingston University, Pro-Vice Chancellor and Professor of Education, University of Leeds; Editor, The Times Higher Education Supplement.

Ruth Spellman OBE: General Secretary, Workers’ Educational Association. Previously Chief Executive of Chartered Management Institute, Institution of Mechanical Engineers, and Investors in People UK.

Joint Secretaries/Research Directors:

John Holford: Robert Peers Professor of Adult Education, University of Nottingham.

Jonathan Michie: Professor of Innovation, President of Kellogg College, and Director of Continuing Education, University of Oxford.

Researcher: Dr Nick Mahony.


Published 10 January 2019