Adult education – from queues to a “best-kept secret”
September 13, 2016 4 Comments
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.