Revitalising Adult Education for the 21st Century

It’s 100 years since publication of the landmark Final Report on Adult Education, published in 1919.

Commissioned by the government’s Ministry of Reconstruction, the Committee on Adult Education formed part of a wider drive to create a better life for people after the horrors of World War I. The committee itself was chaired by the Master of Balliol, AL Smith, and included notables such as RH Tawney and Ernest Bevin.

The result was a ‘visionary’ report, says John Holford, Robert Peers Professor of Adult Education at the University of Nottingham: ‘It proposed ideas that have worked their way into the structures of adult education through most of the 20th century, in particular the setting up of university extra-mural departments.’

Earlier this year, we reported on the creation of the Centenary Commission to propose new ideas about how to meet the needs of adult education today. The 13-strong Commission, chaired by the current Master of Balliol, Dame Helen Ghosh, will publish its report on November 19. Its other members come from a variety of industry and academic backgrounds and include Professor Holford, Jonathan Michie, president of Kellogg College and Ruth Spellman, General Secretary of the Workers’ Educational Association.

The disappearance of extra-mural classes

The twentieth century made some great strides in adult education, including the creation of the Open University – but the twenty-first century has done less well, says Professor Holford.

With the exception of Oxford and Cambridge, most universities have now closed their extra-mural departments, and underfunding of local authorities has resulted in the disappearance of many of the adult education classes they used to run. ‘Very often local authorities have hived it off into some semi-non-profit organisation, so the idea of local authorities having their own provision has largely disappeared,’ says Professor Holford. ‘It varies a great deal by the affluence of the area, so that has resulted in a topsy turvy approach, where the richest areas are best endowed with all these services and the poorest areas that probably need them most are least well-endowed.’ Further education, too, has ‘taken a battering’.

It’s not just that adult education provision has been slashed, says Professor Holford, but that ideas about what it is for have narrowed. ‘One of the key elements has been the turn away from adult education as being a broad curriculum to the idea that it’s only justified if it's relevant to what you’re doing in your job. And that’s been a very negative development.’

One of the committee’s aims is to recommend a reversal of those trends.

Adult education is not just about jobs

The final report, says Professor Holford, is ‘loosely designed to reinvigorate and value adult education in the community.’ The more detailed recommendations remain under wraps until November, but Professor Holford is able to give a broad idea of the direction it will take.

‘We’re going to be emphasising the voluntary sector and the importance of adult education in community settings. I think that’s an important dimension. So we’re trying to bring out the importance of adult education for strength of democracy and the community, and not just for doing well in work and national competitiveness’. It will also, he adds, talk about provision by universities, including the importance of the roles played by the Open University and Birkbeck, University of London.

We face daunting challenges

Dame Helen says that she sees many parallels in the challenges identified by the 1919 commission and the challenges we face today. ‘They believed that properly funded and universally accessible lifelong learning was essential if the nation was to rebuild itself. In 1919 they were worried about mechanisation at work, meeting the growing demands of women as voters and workers, maintaining world peace, or simply equipping people to be active, engaged citizens. Today’s challenges are just as daunting:  climate change, AI and its impact on jobs, deep social inequality, divided communities and a growing mental health crisis. Finding solutions needs to start with a clear, well-resourced National Strategy for Adult Learning, in which central and local government, business, voluntary organisations and communities all play their part.’

Unlike its 1919 counterpart, the Centenary Commission isn’t an official government body, so what is the likelihood that its recommendations will be adopted?

Professor Holford notes, diplomatically, that by November, the political context into which the report is published ‘could vary a lot’. But he points out that there is now widespread recognition of the need to revitalise adult education, and that numerous other committees have been formed to look at the problem: ‘I think there is going to be a recognition that the crisis is there, and something needs to be done about it. The question is who will pick up the baton and move it forward.’

Find out more information about the Centenary Commission.

Published 11 September 2019