WEA Annual Lecture : 2017

Jan 26, 2017 · 18 min read

Night-schools and the rediscovery of Adult Learning

I was invited by Ruth Spelman to give this lecture immediately after a presentation at the RSA (Royal Society of Arts) which had been conducting a project on the future of continuing, lifelong, learning. I shared a platform with David Blunkett who, along with people like John Prescott and Alan Johnson, personally embodies the tradition of working class self-improvement, achieved with the help of adult education delivered through the WEA, trades unions or municipal adult education colleges. My parents, who left school at 15 to work in factories and then progressed in life through FE and adult education, were part of that night-school tradition, and they inspired my own belief in the importance of lifelong learning.

I notice that the phrase night-school is again entering the vocabulary of those who want to recapture the spirit of that era. But nostalgia is backward looking and doesn’t help us to be clear about what the future needs and demand are and how they can best be met. When I was in government I was conscious — as someone who believed in adult education — of fighting a defensive rather than an offensive battle: trying to help the sector minimise the impact of cuts, contraction and consolidation. Tonight I want tonight to be more forward looking and optimistic which is, I guess, easier when I no longer have to plan for the next battle with the Treasury.

And it is inspired too, by having, in my new life, become a governor of my local adult college (RACC) where it is possible, just, to see beyond the current financial deficits, Area Reviews and OFSTED inspections to a future in which modernised adult education has an enhanced role in the community; I also have close links with the very popular City Lit in London whose scale and variety of courses is ample proof of demand.

A Backward Look

But, before I try to sketch out what the future might look like, I need to look back at how we got to where we are and at some of the inherited problems. The sector has been struggling with serious financial cuts not just in the post-crisis era of austerity but for over a decade since the government at the time decided to raid the piggy bank of adult education to finance subsidised tuition in expanding universities. The 2010 National Adult Learning Survey suggests that overall participation in non-formal learning (ie without formal qualifications) fell precipitately after 2005 while formal learning continues largely unchanged. And, indeed, even before that, the move towards incorporation broke the link with local councils which hitherto funded adult colleges as a popular, valued, community resource.

And the WEA in particular will know that the mission of a century ago — providing an educational ladder to ambitious, clever, working class men and women who were excluded from formal education — has gradually atrophied. I became conscious of this decline when I did some WEA tutoring in Glasgow 40 years ago. The political idealism was still there — the late Robin Cook was the WEA organiser in Edinburgh at the time — but the student base was declining. And the new Open University offered a more exciting route to self-improvement with sophisticated multi-media teaching methods and the lure of a university degree.

The contrast with universities is a striking one and I want to dwell on it briefly. Universities have also suffered a sharp contraction in public funding (not least at my hands!) but are, for the most part, booming, with expanding numbers of students, healthy balance sheets and diverse, expanding, sources of income. There is a painful contrast with much (but not all) of the FE sector and adult education in particular where cuts seem to have precipitated a decline in student numbers and college viability.

The first point of contrast is that the tightening of financial belts in the FE sector has been accompanied by stronger central government control over curriculum, with output-related funding and micromanagement through quangos. Universities, by contrast, have managed to see off raids on their independence. They have also been able to tap into the lucrative overseas student market, though the Prime Minister’s obsession with treating these students as immigrants and reducing the numbers may mean that that opportunity is short-lived.

Although I tried with my ministers to lessen these central controls, whenever I met college principals they would describe to me the many insidious ways in which government funding controls inhibited them from providing courses which they wanted to teach and pupils wanted to study. A classic illustration at present (and a subject of much conflict between myself and Michael Gove in government) is the imposition on FE colleges of the requirement that pupils cannot progress until they have achieved GCSE English and Maths at C grade). This is steering the ethos of FE away from the goal of high quality, and lifelong, vocational education towards post-school remedial work for sullen teenagers.

More generally, we have seen the tying of increased funding to broad streams of income generation favoured by central government. Some FE colleges, including adult colleges, have taken advantage of the funding available for higher education qualifications and student loans to delivery university courses. This is especially useful in areas — like Wiltshire or Herefordshire or Suffolk — where there is no campus for those who — like adults with families to care for — cannot utilise or do not want a traditional campus-based university experience. Apprenticeships have also been supported by government and some FE colleges (West Notts is a good example) have expanded considerably on the back of them. But much of what we regard as adult education falls outside these categories.

There is one major, and bad, reason. This is the link between the centralisation of control and the requirement that government subsidy must be used for subjects which are “useful” and contribute to meeting the skill “needs” of the economy, and can be certified as such through formal qualifications. I was always amused and sometimes angered in government by the way in which highly educated mandarins and politicians, who cheerfully send their offspring to universities to read philosophy or the history of art or classics, would express outrage at the idea of publicly funded adult colleges offering the same courses. I first made the acquaintance of NIACE a decade ago when I wanted to mobilise opposition to ministers who ridiculed adult education as the preserve of middle class women learning about tapestry weaving or other manifestations of time-wasting decadence.

I was able to argue back not just on a philosophical basis of hostility to philistinism but from family experience. My mother, whom I have mentioned, left school prematurely — to earn money for a low-income family — working packing chocolates on the production line at Terry’s. Later, when I was about 10, she had a serious nervous breakdown. After a spell in a mental hospital she tried to recover permanently by going back to school: adult education. Despite urgings from my father, and others, that she study something “useful” like typing or shorthand, she opted to study mediaeval history, poetry and art appreciation. Learning restored her self-confidence and her mental health and she found a new role in life guiding tourists’ around York Minster. I am sure that adult education can boast numerous stories of this kind. And in telling mine I am not just recycling ancient personal history but an experience which led me to launch, and obtain funding for, an adult education programme targeted on those with mental illness issues (which has survived the change of government).

So, the legacy is one of public funding reductions combined with centralised intervention and restriction. I sought to combat both by preserving the £200m adult community learning grant: not a big sum in the greater scheme of things but useful, and symbolically important. I cannot tell you how much this funding was resented by the Treasury in particular and government in general. It represented everything about adult education which government bean counters loathed, and I expect it has been cut to pieces since. I recognise moreover that, whilst it could be portrayed as a personally satisfying vanity project, it wasn’t a sustainable funding model. So, what is?

The big divergence between FE and full-time university education in the last five years has been around the impact of fees. When we made the politically toxic but economically rational decision to raise student tuition fees substantially, but extend student loans to cover the fees, the conventional wisdom was that this would have a big deterrent effect on the demand to study, especially from low income, debt averse, households. In fact, the opposite has happened. Demand continues to rise strongly, as students understand that the system operated like a form of progressive graduate tax and required no cash commitment. Moreover, there was higher demand for higher cost universities as these were seen as higher quality.

But in respect of part-timers, and adults in general, there was an opposite effect. We, and the sector, believed that the negative impact would be cancelled out by my decision to extend the loan system to part-timers. In the event, it wasn’t. Part-time higher education fell sharplly. And in adult education, full fee charging for courses which are for general self-improvement and leisure rather than accredited qualifications, has undoubtedly reduced demand.

We learned a powerful lesson from this experience. Adults appear to be much more sensitive to the cost of further education than teenage undergraduates. This may be because continuing education is not seen as a semi-obligatory ‘rite of passage’ , and a way of deferring entry to the ugly world of work, but involves difficult budget choices, especially in the post-crisis world of squeezed real incomes. Many adults are aware not just of the cost of courses but also of the opportunity cost: overtime earnings forgone; time no longer spent with families but studying. It may also be the case that while there is still a ‘graduate premium for many first-degree courses, even after fees and loan repayment, this is no longer true for many other post-school courses, including second degrees for people trying to change career direction. Moreover, many of these courses do not qualify for student loans under the ELQ rules.

The effect of the rationing of public funding to limited, targeted, groups; restrictions on access to loans; and full cost charging has meant that adult education has increasingly been forced into a small number of courses for which subsidy is available (ESOL, benefit recipients with special needs, 16 to 18 year olds on basic remedial courses) or else leisure courses for well off pensioners and early returnees for whom cost is not a major issue. For institutions which are primarily concerned with survival the adult educational mission is in danger of being lost.

The Potential Demand

Since I am being allowed, by this lecture, to roam more freely than the constraints imposed on colleges to balance next year’s budget, I am inclined to look at the issue from a different standpoint: what is the potential demand (and, indeed, need) for continuing adult education? The most recent adult learning survey suggests that as much as 70% of the adult population engage in some form of learning and just under a quarter do so formally, the rest informally at home or in courses which do not attract qualifications (though a decade ago the figure was 80%). On a very generous definition of learning, most adults do participate though participation is often very limited and is declining. Within that number, roughly 3 million attend, mainly, short courses in what can loosely be called public institutions. What, realistically, is future demand?.

First, the total labour force is 33.4 million. Most will have specific training and retraining requirements which are the responsibility of employers and employees jointly to develop. The renaissance of apprenticeships, especially higher apprenticeships, is one major route and the FE sector has a major role in helping to deliver those skills. In the Green Paper on Further Education, which I published in my last few weeks in office, I described in detail how this activity was one of the two aspects of the ‘dual mandate’ for FE and the more entrepreneurial FE colleges are now doing this well and at scale.

But, there are many learning needs which are non-specific and which will not be covered by apprenticeship-type arrangements nor financed by employers, even after the new levy arrangements. There is the dreadful statistic that 9 million adults lack basic literacy and numeracy having been failed by the school system a generation or more ago. In young adulthood, with a reasonable level of physical fitness, it has been possible to get by in unskilled and semi-skilled work. But the labour force is getting older, many of those jobs are disappearing with automated processes, and the prospect of later retirement with a receding pension age means that large numbers are currently ill equipped, without remedial adult education, to remain in the labour market.

Then, there is the challenge being posed by robotics and AI, operating through sophisticated IT systems, to many established occupations which have long been regarded as reasonably secure but no longer are. I personally don’t believe in these dystopian stories about mass unemployment caused by robots — I remember similar stories form the 1960’s about the likely impact of computers — but millions of traditional jobs will disappear in back-office functions, handling cash, standardised legal work, architecture and design, public administration or operating trains (to take a topical example) and possibly road vehicles. Workers who may be currently well qualified, literate and intelligent will find themselves having to retrain and acquire new skills in mid-career and for a lengthening working life. It is not clear who, outside the adult education world, is able to perform this role.

Then there are those careers which have never properly got off the ground because of parenting and other caring responsibilities. We now tend to assume that families consist of two earners, and in some parts of the country like London it is not possible to pay mortgages and survive economically on any other basis. But in many parts of the country that is not the norm or the difficulties of obtaining employment and/or childcare mean that it is not feasible. There are around 6 million women under 65 not in the labour market many with caring responsibilities. They face the need for general or specific training to re-enter the labour force.

And there are the roughly 1 in 6 adults, over 6 million of working age, who struggle to remain in the labour force and to live a fulfilling life because of mental illness. Mental illness of course varies greatly in intensity and permanence but perhaps 1 in 10 adults have or have had severe conditions and the overwhelming majority are seeking to manage in the community. I am pleased that the present prime minister has put mental illness centre stage as we sought to do in the Coalition. What is insufficiently emphasised is the role of adult education in enhancing a sense of well-being and thereby preventing, and helping to cure, mental illness. I referred earlier to my family experience but there is now more scientific evidence for the link. The limited programme which I introduced in 2014/15 for those with mild to moderate mental illness has provided some models on how to do this well.

Mental illness is just one example of a disability which can be addressed constructively in adult education. RACC in Richmond has built a reputation for its work with learning difficulties and provides the only meaningful support for this group of individuals and their carers. The City Lit has pioneered work with another marginalised group, the deaf, 65% of whom want to work but only 7% are currently able to. I also discovered that the college works to help people with stutters and Ed Balls has been a source of great help, in a lower profile capacity than dancing on TV.

Finally, there are the early retired and younger pensioners not in work, who are physically able but need to remain mentally active. There are roughly 10 million people over 65 and the numbers are growing. Moreover this number excludes those who have retired early: perhaps 1.2 million A minority are entirely self-supporting and have comfortable incomes to afford overseas travel and stimulating lifestyle. Large numbers are not, and in the absence of community activities and organised leaning, could well atrophy mentally. A study by Gratton and Smith at London Business School has described the potentially massive demand on adult education as life expectancy stretches toward 100.

The Future

There is therefore potentially enormous demand. There is certainly enormous need for continuing education. The question is whether and how this is delivered. I have four broad principles which should govern the policy response.

1.The Mixed Economy of Adult Education

My starting point is that adult education is delivered through a mixture of private, voluntary, self-organising and through public sector institutions. Some of us here have a personal loyalty to particular institutions but that shouldn’t be the starting point.

Many aspects are delivered through small or large businesses. My own main source of adult learning is dancing and I am taught entirely within the private sector. My teacher and my partner are dancers who teach, for cash, to earn a living and they pay a rental for space in a private dance studio. There are professional exams run by the dancing profession and competitions run by teachers in their spare time either to build up the business or for the love of it. Anyone who has seen that wonderful Australian film Strictly Ballroom, will know how seriously — and passionately — the aficionados treat their hobby. Musical instrument tuition operates on a very similar model.

You could say that money is a barrier to access the private market. A lot of people can’t afford to pay £50 an hour for private tuition, though shared classes obviously, are less. But when I turn up at a big dancing competition in Blackpool I am not amongst rich people. For most people of modest means the private market, operating through small businesses, works pretty well. There are, of course, gaps in the market and some colleges organise dancing classes to fill those gaps which is a useful role though not an essential one. The market works less well, and formal adult education has a much clearer rationale, when — as with arts and crafts — there is a need for pooling expensive equipment or, say, shared use of a model; or when a wide range of specialised courses are on offer as in institutions like the City Lit and Morley College; or for graduate level education as with Birbeck College and the Open University.

Many adult education activities operate through volunteer groups. Britain’s lively civic culture of choirs, orchestras, drama groups and sports clubs functions in this way, operating out of schools or church halls. The Women’s Institute runs an excellent network of adult education classes. The University of the Third Age, essentially a co-operative network of 1000 local groups and 385,000 older members, depends heavily on voluntary organisations to provide uncertified learning.

Where does the mixed economy fail? It fails for those who are excluded by mental or physical disability (or learning difficulty) or low income (not just the poorest but many on relatively low pay or retirement income who cannot access courses on a commercial basis). The income constraint is, of course, not just the cost of courses but the opportunity cost of time- for those younger learners especially- who are time poor and overstretched even when they are reasonably well paid. Those are the market failures public adult education is trying to address.

2.Joined up Systems

Adult education colleges are not the only institutions trying to find a role for themselves. Public libraries are also seeking to adapt to a world in which reference material can usually be accessed online and works of fiction are available on Kindle, if not in cheap paperbacks in Waterstones and W H Smith or, even cheaper, in the second-hand book market. I can’t be the only person in the room who will readily sign petitions denouncing the closure of public libraries but who no longer feels the need to use them. There are, of course, special issues around books and children in a world of iPhones and of multi-channel TV — though home and school are the main battlegrounds. But, that apart, it seems to me obvious that adult education centres and libraries could co-locate and pool their stretched resources. Museums too. I know that my own adult education college has had conversations with council libraries but institutional separation acts as a formidable barrier.

There are potential synergies too with local business chambers and college-run business schools; with schools, which often have the advantage of being located in areas which adult educators will otherwise find it hard to reach; and in, and with, universities whose excellent facilities are often unutilised and should, often, be doing more to serve local communities. Some of these things are already happening and where they are they are likely to be far more productive than forced amalgamation between colleges under the FE local area review process which represents the narrowest and least imaginative form of institutional collaboration.

The decentralisation of adult education budgets to the newly constituted combined authorities, as with Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds, Sheffield and Liverpool, gives a potential at least to try out such collaboration, though I know that many in the sector view these developments with alarm, envisaging a more brutal Darwinian future, fighting over scraps of funding. A more positive vision is that of the ‘Cities of Learning’ which have been pioneered in the USA in 12 cities starting with Chicago. Dallas has signed up around 35,000 adult learners, 70% of them disadvantaged. I believe several British cities, such as Sheffield, are trying to adapt this model to the UK.

3. New Teaching Methods

Such learning centres make more sense when they are allied to new learning methods and communications technology. The advantages of distance learning are often oversold by those promoting them, leading to disillusion and waste. But for time-poor, younger, adult learners, for those who have difficulty with transport access and the growing numbers who are totally at ease in the digital world, distance learning is a big opportunity. The Open University has demonstrated, over a long period, and latterly with Future Learn, that distance learning, combined with learning centres and summer schools, is an ideal medium for many adults. Since I am currently preparing to launch a MOOC with Future Learn, and Nottingham University, perhaps I had better declare an interest here!

The obvious limitation is that large numbers of older workers and retired people in particular are not digitally comfortable and many are digitally illiterate and have little or no access to computers. A survey by Bamfield and Painter for the RSA suggested that a majority of adults are, in varying degrees, unable to make full use of the potential of digitally based learning. These are often, though not always, the same people who are not comfortable with books and whose literacy and numeracy level is poor. And more and more younger people, ex-offenders, migrants and refugees are augmenting the numbers of poorly educated adults.

This large adult educational underclass is particularly exposed to the disruptive effects of technological change and faces a long uncertain future of intermittent, insecure, usually badly paid, intellectually undemanding work until retirement and, then, a long retirement on a low income with little challenge and physical and mental decline. While much attention is paid to young people who are NEET far too little attention is paid to old people, adults, who may be in employment and even trained to a degree but lack broader education skills. If there is an adult education mission for the future for bodies like the WEA, Union Learn, for the new citizen’s learning networks and for established adult education colleges, it is this. But who, you ask, is going to pay to educate the adult, educational, underclass?


As I have discussed above, some specific channels of adult education are recognised and supported. Vocational training in the UK isn’t a great success story but there is now a recognised model, through apprenticeships up to higher and degree level. A new levy will provide more secure funding. For those who have formal higher education to degree level there is a recognised progression route, for adult and part-timers as well as younger, full-time graduates. For all its faults, the UK university system generally works well. Then there are specific needs — adult education for the mentally ill, for people with learning difficulties, for English language tuition for minorities — which are recognised, though funding is precarious and depends mostly on ministerial whim. There is funding for young people who have failed at school and need remedial study to get on the first rung of the ladder of training. And for those of us who want to dance, sing, act, paint, sculpt, learn a language and can afford to pay, there is a wide range of private and public provision.

But that leaves out vast numbers — especially older — adults and general adult educational provision which is not leading to recognised, formal, training, qualifications or university degrees. The case for subsidising adult education more broadly is made most eloquently by Professor Alison Wolf. She cannot be written off as a woolly, left wing, Guardian-reading economist who wants to spray around tax payers’ money. She has advised, and is listened to, by Conservative ministers and her case is best set out in a paper published by the IEA, a free-market think tank of what we could loosely describe as Thatcherite. She argues strongly that a lot of FE funding has been wasted on unnecessary subsidies to universities and to employers for workplace training (though much of that criticism was acted on post 2010) while there is a serious deficiency of funding for adult education on both economic and non-economic — well-being — grounds, especially for those on low incomes. I think that is correct.

She also argues for what she calls an ‘adult’ approach to adult education treating adults as adults not as occasionally deserving recipients of rewards for what government bureaucrats deign to be ‘useful’ activities. She makes the case for vouchers in the form of individual learning accounts which were, regrettably, stigmatised after the failure and withdrawal of a badly designed scheme using that name. This is not the place to get into the detailed mechanics of a better designed scheme. Suffice it to say that schemes exist: enlightened employers like Ford have given adult education vouchers to their employees. It is not difficult to envisage organised arrangements funded by contributions from individuals, employers, central and local government.

If a tiny fraction of the attention and resources currently lavished on schools, universities and — belatedly — apprentices, were devoted instead to the organisation and funding of adult education, the country would, I believe, be an altogether better place and better equipped to prosper materially and emotionally.


Written by

British politician and economist, former MP for Twickenham and Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills from 2010–2015 under coalition government