The man who invented the ‘adult learner’ and ‘seriously useless learning’

A Guardian article about the influential adult educator Alan Tuckett has resurfaced on social media this week. It’s almost 2 years old but very relevant as adult learners begin a new academic year of part-time courses.


Alan Tuckett is a prominent campaigner for adult education including what he calls, “seriously useless learning” – by which he means learning that offers no immediate obvious route into employment but has demonstrably positive benefits. The Guardian article gives some examples of how effective part-time adult education  can be.


A news item published today by the University of Oxford adds to the evidence that adult education has many benefits. In partnership with the Workers’ Educational Association (WEA), the largest voluntary sector provider of adult education in England and Scotland, a team from Oxford’s department of experimental psychology studied attendees at seven separate day-time adult education classes. Their findings are published in a series of papers which can be found by following links from the University’s website here.

Dr Eiluned Pearce who led the research said: ‘The students reported benefits including increased self-confidence, a greater feeling of control over their lives and more willingness to take on new challenges. Some said the classes made them more motivated to be more active, despite the classes not specifically involving physical activity.

Many students will be embarking on learning journeys this month. Some will have specific plans to make their journey a commute to work or a better job. They know what they want to learn, where they want to go and how long they will take to get there. Others will be starting learning expeditions, explorations, adventures or even jaunts. Who knows where their courses will take them? What difference will it make to families to have adults who are intellectually curious, creative and excited about finding out more about all sorts of subjects? What will the impact be on students’ health, well-being, confidence, competence and sense of belonging?

Alan Tuckett and others make a strong case but voices like his are needed more than ever as the numbers of adult learners decline and yet more opportunities for adult learning are lost with the sad news that the University of Leicester plans to close Vaughan Center for Lifelong Learning. We need to work hard to reverse this trend.

Adult education – from queues to a “best-kept secret”

I was struck by the contrasts between two tweets in my timeline this morning.

The first showed a photograph of a long line of people queuing for adult education classes in Worcester in 1981. September queues were also an annual feature of adult and community learning in Leeds in the 1980s.


The second tweet provided a link to the Irish Times describing adult education as a “best-kept secret”.


What has happened over 35 years that has changed the profile of part-time adult learning from highly desirable and public to only semi-visible? Why has supply and overt demand fallen?

Measuring the number of adult learners can be challenging but all the reliable indicators and reports show a fall in participation. After years of decline, Government figures for 2014/15  show a fall of 7.2% in adult learners taking part in Government-funded community learning courses in just one year.

Online enrolment might have made would-be students less visible than they would have been in the 1980s but the number of adult learners has declined in real terms as those queues have become a nostalgic memory of times gone by.

Certainly changes in technology, online resources, society and the use of leisure time have had an impact on face-to-face collective learning as have savage reductions in public funding and a narrowing curriculum.

Some specialist organisations including City Lit, Fircroft College, Hillcroft College, the Mary Ward Centre, Morley College, Northern College, Ruskin College, the Working Men’s College and the Workers’ Educational Association have continued to offer distinctive adult learning with a broad curriculum but there have been big changes in many local authorities in England.

The 1991 transfer of community learning from local authorities – where it was part of the fabric of public services – to FE colleges was significant as colleges’ funding has been squeezed in subsequent years. University departments of adult and continuing education have also seen big changes and closures. The current campaign to save Vaughan College in Leicester is indicative of developments in recent years.

Public funding for adult education has been slashed by successive governments and there has been an overwhelming focus on courses with direct and immediate links to employability.

We celebrate the Festival of Learning today.

Inspirational award winners will be honoured so it’s timely to reflect on a not-too-distant past when people were eager to learn what they wanted to learn instead of being coaxed into learning what someone else thinks they need.

Has sucking some of the joy out of adult learning contributed to reduced numbers and made it unfashionable? There is masses of evidence to show adult learning’s impact, usually collected to support the case for preserving what’s left of the diminishing supply, but there’s a big job to do in terms of stimulating demand and reinstating a positive image for potential students and the general public.

Adult learning should be accessible, tempting and sought after in a civilised society. The organisations mentioned above form a nucleus of well-regarded community learning and successful students are the best advocates. We should collect and amplify messages from them to spread the word about the joy and fulfilment of learning.

It would be very fitting if today’s Festival of Learning becomes a springboard for this.




A tribute to NIACE

NIACE, the National Institute of Adult and Continuing Education is merging with the Centre for Economic and Social Inclusion and its name will disappear after 94 years at the forefront of promoting adult learning. The Who’s Lobbying website describes NIACE as, “the main advocacy body for adult learning in England and Wales and probably the largest body devoted to adult education in the world.” Its achievements as an independent organisation deserve the utmost respect and many adult educators will regret the loss of its identity while wishing the newly merged organisation every success.

NIACE has been a source of practical and coordinated support, encouragement, inspiration and effective campaigning for adult education – and more specifically, adult learners – over the years. I have never been employed directly by the organisation, but I have worked alongside it throughout my career. I have felt a strong affiliation and found common cause with its dedicated staff and supporters who have shown deep professional and practical understanding of the sector, backed up by thorough research and active networks.

Among their many achievements, NIACE deserves credit for:

  • Adult Learners’ Week awards and events, which have grown to become international celebrations
  • Extensive, respected and influential research on adult education
  • Securing and managing funding for major projects including adult and community learning, literacy, numeracy, technology, equality, mental health, family learning and innovative practice.
  • Lobbying effectively on behalf of the sector and especially for under-represented groups
  • Publications, including influential reports and the well-regarded Adults Learning journal
  • Support for third sector organisations.
  • High quality conferences, seminars and events

On the subject of the merged organisation’s name, FE Week reports NIACE’s Chief Executive, David Hughes, as saying that, “(the name) his team had decided on was the Learning and Work Institute, although it still has to be approved by members.” He will lead the new organisation and explained that:

“We spent the summer consulting with members and stakeholders over what direction the organisation should now be taking and want to stress that we won’t lose touch with the historic work of Niace in supporting adult education for everybody throughout their lives and for campaigning for the wider benefits of lifelong learning.

“We just feel that the new name will better reflect the range of work we do now.”

Adult education is facing a crisis, receiving only 6% of the government’s total spending on education and facing further cuts to learning opportunities and staffing. The petition to save adult education is indicative of concerns affecting the sector.

Adult learning needs a coordinated voice more than ever. NIACE has had a pivotal role in such campaigning over many years so David Hughes’ continued commitment to the ‘historic work’ is important.

Thank you to all at NIACE, past and present, for your immense contributions since 1921 and very best wishes to the newly merged organisation. Adults with increasingly limited chances to learn need all the support that they can get.

After the EU referendum – Message to my MP

The 52:48 EU Referendum result was close – too close to be reliable and conclusive for such a momentous decision. Nigel Farage said that such a ratio should trigger a second referendum (, so should accept that there is an issue about whether an almost neck and neck outcome can be ultimately determinative.

Farage 5248There is now increasing evidence that many who voted for Brexit feel duped by false claims from the Leave campaign including the notion of an additional £350m per week for the NHS. Others regret their vote for other reasons. The “Bregretters” could well add up to more than the 3% of voters who tipped the balance on a decision that is already having negative effects on the UK’s prosperity and wellbeing. The impact is being felt most keenly by younger voters who will be affected for more of their lives. Going ahead without certainty that the decision has clear majority support reflects poorly on our democracy.

David Cameron’s resignation speech gives 3 months before the formal exit process begins (

Most people would probably not want to rerun the campaigns by either side. They were neither very helpful in tone and content nor always entirely truthful. The debates generated more slogans and soundbites than useful information and guidance to inform our decisions. While there was an increasing sense of referendum fatigue before 23 June, we can now see what a Leave vote means without rehearsing all the arguments again and a second referendum based on the evidence we have seen already would give a democratic opportunity to confirm or revise the strength of voters’ feelings on the hugely important decision. It would be the equivalent of having a ‘cooling off’ period after signing a contract.

Brexiteers called on the UK to take back control through the UK Parliament in Westminster. The referendum result is not legally binding. Parliamentarians can reflect the will of UK voters and vote against Brexit if there is evidence that the narrow outcome of the referendum is unreliable or based on false assumptions. There are ways to avoid a catastrophic mistake for our country by stopping the implementation of a withdrawal process which might not have a credible and decisive mandate. (

As my representative in the UK Parliament, I ask you to take note of the strength of feeling shown in the fast growing petition at ( – with almost 2 million signatures at the time of writing – and to speak up for urgent action to enable the UK to stay in the EU if that proves to be the majority view now that the outcome is better understood.

Thank you.

10 reasons to Save Adult Education

Please sign and share the link to the petition to Save Adult Education. Evidence shows successive and massive funding cuts over recent years and a decline in numbers of adult learners in part-time education.

Why does this matter?

There are countless reasons, but here are some:

  1. Education equips us for life, but the world keeps changing after our compulsory school leaving ages. Adults need to adapt to social and technological changes if they are to keep up with developments. What is the cost of leaving people behind?
  2. Being able to read and write English fluently and to use numbers accurately are basic skills, not only for jobs but for understanding how public services work, being a savvy consumer, reading health information, taking an active part in society and for leading a dignified life. What is the cost of low levels of adult literacy and numeracy?
  3. All government services are now designed to be ‘digital by default’. How does this work for people who can’t use technology effectively? What is the cost of digital exclusion?
  4. Young people leaving school now without specific grades in GCSE English and Maths have to reach those standards. How will they be supported if full-time education didn’t meet their needs and adult learning is being starved of resources? What is the cost of limiting adults’ educational opportunities when need is evident?
  5. Many school leavers with low attainment levels will become parents of children who follow the same pattern. Educating the parents through family learning partnerships is shown to break the cycle and improve attainment levels for both generations. What is the cost of continuing cycles of educational inequality?
  6. Education is not just for work. It promotes health and wellbeing, reducing isolation for older people and keeping their minds active, while harnessing the benefits of their experience and knowledge.What is the cost of not enriching older people’s lives through learning?
  7. Low levels of participation in voting means that democracy is not representative. Learning about how political systems work is important if we are to engage people in civic life. What is the cost of disenfranchised citizens?
  8. All aspects of life depend upon adaptability and active minds. Learning to learn is a skill in itself. What is the cost of failure to adapt?
  9. Education is a means to address inequality in many forms.What is the cost of inequality?
  10. Learning is one of life’s greatest pleasures. Art, literature, history and culture should be available to everyone and not only those who can afford them. What is life without interests and pleasure?

Every question about cost can be replaced with another, more positive, about opportunities and possibilities.

Spending on adult education is an investment. There is evidence that it can lead to saving money in various government departments by reducing reliance on public services.

How you can help

1. Write to your local MP – the sooner the better

2. Spread the word on social media

  • Use #saveadulteducation on twitter and tell the world about the impact adult education has had on your life, family and community
  • Join our Facebook Campaign at

3. Sign our campaign petition at

Go to the WEA’s website for more information about the Save Adult Education campaign.

Policy Exchange – Fining secondary schools to fund FE

A think tank, Policy Exchange, published a report this week arguing that secondary schools whose pupils fail to achieve required grades in GCSE maths and English should be fined, with funding for a ‘resit levy’ reallocated to Further Education colleges. It has prompted some strong reactions but provides an opportunity to exchange some relevant policy ideas.

You can read a synopsis and download the full report here. This extract from the summary identifies an important issue at a time of severe funding pressure in post 16 education.

The report highlights that currently, the post 16 funding system does not recognise the additional burden that FE Colleges have to take on from the failure of schools to educate their students to a C grade or above. FE Colleges receive £4,000 for a 16-17 year old and £3,300 for an 18 year old to teach a full time qualification. This funding does not include remedial maths and English teaching for students resitting their GCSEs.

The paper says that the burden on FE Colleges has further increased since the government’s policy to force 16 year olds who fail GCSE English or maths kicked in in 2013, and many are struggling to cope. Potentially hundreds of thousands of students who received their GCSE results last week will be required to retake their  GCSEs or a similar qualification, and most will probably choose to attend a Further Education college.

The report draws welcome attention to a growing problem but its proposed solutions have provoked inevitable controversy. Pitting sector against sector is counter-productive and schools are not the only influencing factor affecting their pupils’ performance. The impact of home and family cannot be underestimated as children and young people grow and develop.

This extract from a Department for Education article, The role of parents in a child’s learning, from 26 April 2012 describes the impact of parental support for their children’s education:

….research shows that parental involvement in children’s learning is a key factor in improving children’s academic attainment and achievements, as well as their overall behaviour and attendance.

The role of parents during a child’s earliest years is the single biggest influence on their development. Good quality home learning contributes more to children’s intellectual and social development than parental occupation, education or income.

A parent’s attitudes, aspirations and behaviour are all important, as is their ability to:
• understand their child’s day-to-day progress
• undertake family learning together
• talk regularly with their child about their learning.

For some parents, developing this confidence can be difficult – especially if they also need help with their own literacy, language and numeracy skills.

Secondary schools are a pivotal stage of education, but they are part of a continuum in lifelong learning. There is a wider context of family and community circumstances, of earlier educational experience and expectations. Teachers of adolescents can control some but not all factors affecting attainment.

Is the partitioning of education sectors part of the problem? In policy terms, early years, primary, secondary, further and higher education are not overseen by a single government department. The system is front-loaded and the Policy Exchange’s report is right to highlight the disproportionately low amount of funding available for post-16 students, especially those who need more intensive support. Failing to consider education as a lifelong and life-wide process perpetuates a cycle of low expectations, attainment and negative attitudes that can be transmitted across generations. The closer pupils get to leaving school, the closer many get to becoming parents and influencing their own children’s learning.

Two older reports offer alternative approaches and solutions. A policy exchange incorporating their recommendations would be timely, as would extending the shelf life of important reports.

Written by David Watson and Tom Schuller, the 2009 report on Learning though Life remains very relevant. It merits further reading. It proposes policy approaches for learning throughout life and into the fourth age, locating school education on a continuum.

Learning through Life

Family Learning Works, a 2013 report,  makes recommendations and proposes actions based on 12 months of detailed research and analysis by a NIACE-led Independent Inquiry into Family Learning chaired by Baroness Valerie Howarth. This diagram summarises some points from the report.


Both reports offer more positive approaches that punishing secondary schools with fines that are unlikely to improve teaching and learning.

#signupnow for adult learning

What more can we to encourage adults to sign up for courses this autumn? What will encourage people to enrol at times when fewer people are taking up part-time learning? Could we coax some potential students with a #signupnow hashtag on social media, reviving a campaign from the past and sharing some seductive reasons for taking part in adult learning?

sign up now

A 2013 Government Report: Benefits of Adult Education by the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills found that after their courses:

  • 75% of learners felt they had a more defined career plan
  • 66% stated their quality of life had improved as a result
  • 72% percent of learners had made new friends or taken part in voluntary work
  • 80% had gained increased self-esteem, with many feeling enthusiastic about learning and their future.

These are strong and worthy arguments but are they catchy and engaging enough to persuade tentative students or the general public? Adult Learners’ Week showcases student’s compelling stories. It would be good to harness some of that positivity at this stage of the year and to spread the love for FE and adult learning.

Why should people #signupnow?

What would hook you in?

Who can influence people to take part?

There is a useful list of uk courses for adults here. Can we spread the message?