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.

Thirteen new princesses – FE, adult education and dancing

The Princess of Cambridge was born in the first week of May 2015 and – with a bit less fanfare – a new book, Further Education and the Twelve Dancing Princesses, was published on International Workers’ Day.

Dancing Princesses

We often hear Further and Adult Education being described as the ‘Cinderella Sector”. It’s easy to see why – hard-working, productive, put upon, poorly funded and often invisible next to (far from ugly) sister sectors in education. This collection of writing from twelve experienced practitioners has a preface by Frank Coffield and takes another fairy tale from the Brothers Grimm as a basis for an extended metaphor, celebrating the sector’s exuberance and possibilities. Here is the publisher’s summary description:

‘Cinderella’ is the dominant metaphor used to describe further education, but this book challenges the deficit metaphor and replaces it with another of the Brothers Grimm’s tales, the ‘Twelve Dancing Princesses’. The twelve princesses escape from the room they are locked in to dance all through each night. As a metaphor for teaching in FE, this tale suggests the possibility of subversion, of autonomy in teaching and learning, and a collective rather than individualist notion of professionalism, even within repressive contexts.

Twelve chapters from twelve experienced practitioners suggest professional development that will culminate in a collective, celebratory alternative. They explore the professional aspirations and commitment to social justice of prospective teacher education students in spite of the current ideological context of FE. They argue for inspiration from critical pedagogy so FE can maintain transformative professional space. They explore the impact of technology on learning, and the physical spaces in which teaching and learning are situated. They challenge the prevailing managerialist use of lesson observation and the resistance and collusion of FE managers. And they propose a notion of professionalism that focuses on educational values rather than market forces.

This engaging, accessible and thought-provoking book is essential reading for teacher training courses, postgraduate students, sector researchers, and members of professional bodies and trade unions. If the sector is to be Grimm, asserts this inspirational collection, it should be so on our own terms: powerful, democratic and professional.

The link between dancing and adult education is not unique to this book. Writing almost 15 years ago in the Times Educational Supplement, Alan Tuckett, who is now President of the International Council for Adult Education, said that policy-makers could do well to remember the dictum of anarchist and feminist Emma Goldman: “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to join your revolution.”

The book is full of enthusiasm and idealism tempered by realism. It is accessible and based on a wealth of experience. It should stir up debate as people think about critical pedagogy and possibilities at a time of constraints. You can find some early reviews of the book here.

Launching EPALE – and learning to pronounce it

The EPALE launch conference in Brussels this week was a significant event for adult education professionals and policy makers across Europe. EPALE is the Electronic Platform for Adult Learning in Europe. Discussing its pronunciation was one of the day’s ice-breakers in a large multi-lingual gathering, with general acceptance of “Ee-pail”, “Ay-pal”, “Ay-pal-ay”, and other variations. Each of us can choose whichever sounds right to us. There’s probably a metaphor there somewhere.


The well-attended event was a chance for lively face-to-face discussion and learning about the work done so far on developing the platform and for setting the scene for further long-term collaboration and EPALE’s evolution. The mixture of well-paced presentations was entertaining, informative and challenging.

Following a brief introduction by Brian Holmes, the European Commission’s Director for Education, the Audiovisual and Culture Executive Agency (EACEA), Tibor Navracsics was the day’s first contributor. He is the European Commissioner for Education, Culture, Youth and Sport.

Tibor Navracsics addresses the Conference

Tibor Navracsics addresses the Conference

Pointing out that it is 50 years since the first collective European actions for adult learning, he made three key observations about community learning:

  • In terms of citizenship, it is central to peace, solidarity and democracy.
  • It has a vital role in culture, including activities in museums, art galleries and libraries.
  • It addresses issues arising from great demographic changes in Europe, including ageing societies.

He talked of the role of adult and inter-generational learning to enhance digital skills for retired people and the young unemployed, citing the need to deal with online tax and insurance processes, telemedicine and other tasks that depend increasingly on digital skills.

He commended the launch of EPALE to the audience saying that it’s,”by you for you”, before concluding that we are.”stronger and smarter together”.

Michel Servos was the next speaker. He is the European Commission Director General: Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion. He spoke about the decline of low-skilled jobs and the emergence of new jobs requiring more sophisticated skills. He observed that skills in managing transition are more important than ever as the concept of a single career for life is being replaced by a series of careers throughout a longer working life-span.

Michel Servoz

Michel Servoz

He said that these circumstances place adult learning and training at the heart of the European agenda and mean that the time is right for EPALE as a new and different approach to collaboration. He described EPALE as, “not just a platform but a partnership – a cornerstone for exchanges.”

Alan Tuckett. President of the International Council for Adult Education, offered a complementary view of EPALE as a “notice board, rich in possibilities”, before describing adult learning in exuberant terms as a means to, “providing a world worth living in for all of us”. He asserted that lifelong learning is a vital catalyst for social and economic change but noted that funding is fragile across European countries, with professionals doing similar things in different contexts.

Alan Tuckett

Alan Tuckett

Alan talked of EPALE as a vehicle for enhancing policy advocacy and sharing practice before listing his personal view of great adult educators’ characteristics as:

  • Dreaming
  • Stealing (or borrowing / adapting other people’s ideas)
  • Dancing
  • Showing off

Ulf-Daniel Ehlers brought another change of style and perspective, focusing on changes in adult learning patterns, which he described as moving from institutional boundaries and exclusivity into spaces where people can learn informally. He spoke of transition from, “industrialisation, massification and standardisation”, to a new paradigm of learning that is, “post-modern, individualised and disaggregated.”

A slide from Ulf-Daniel Ehler's presentation

A slide from Ulf-Daniel Ehler’s presentation

A lively question and answer session followed. This was live-streamed and interactive based on twitter links using the hashtag #epale2015.

After the all-male morning session, Carolyn Hay, EPALE’s Project Director, started the afternoon with more specific information about the platform’s concepts and content, introducing team members in person and virtually.

Carolyn Hay

Carolyn Hay

The afternoon’s focus then moved on to case studies and user perspectives before an invitation to contribute views, feedback and recommendations. Gracieta Sbertoli, Chair of the European Skills Network spoke compellingly, “from one stakeholder to another” on how we can benefit from EPALE followed by a panel discussion.

If you haven’t done so already, it’s well worth exploring the EPALE website at

The main themes on the platform are:

  • Learning Support
  • Learning Environments
  • Life Skills
  • Policy
  • Quality

What do you think of the platform? What would you like to see included? What can you contribute?

Fat Man on a Keyboard said… (Adult Ed)

I missed “Adult Education – Another Rant” by Peter Ryley, who blogs under the name of “Fat Man on a Keyboard”, when he published it in October. He was responding to Peter Wilby’s Guardian article about Alan Tuckett.

Here is an extract from Peter Ryley’s blog, which you can find here.

The picture of adult education that, “It’s just flower arranging, tap dancing, Pilates, lonely old folk going to dusty classrooms to learn about the Tudors”, was never the whole truth. There may have been a time in the post-war boom when so-called ‘leisure classes’ were the most visible part of our provision, but it is atypical of our history. Political radicalism, social egalitarianism and adult education marched together as part of a movement for emancipation; the Mechanics Institutes, working class autodidacts and self-improvement associations, the university extension movement, the WEA, trade union education, the residential colleges, Birkbeck and so on, were all constructed in the belief that what we now tend to call lifelong learning was central to the creation of a better society and to the development of individuals and communities. It was a cause.

And we lost this sense of mission, together with its language, and with them went the provision, as Wilby makes clear in an understated way. Fighting back with utilitarian justifications was always going to seem to be special pleading. We need to recover that vision of human possibility, though I fear it is too late.

I had a glimpse of just how much adult education is a deep human need today when my window cleaner tried to recruit me for his pub quiz team. He was intrigued by the number of books he saw in the house and thought I might help them win things. He described how he reads anything and everything, sitting in bed every night with a factual book, learning. He loves learning things, anything. Adult education’s problem is that this is seen as having no utility, a private pleasure maybe, but never a public good. I see it as something more, as a human right. And we’re losing it.

The WEA and others share his vision of human possibility and education for public good and we know it’s never too late to highlight the cause. It’s too important to give up on and there is kernel of determined support for it.

In the WEA we have reaffirmed our traditional commitment to adult education for collective and social benefit as well as for individual advancement. Our longstanding vision and mission are back at the heart of our planning and we are not alone in seeing education for social purpose as a vital part of a civilised society.  Mechanics’ Institutes might have gone but we are still working alongside residential colleges such as Northern College and Ruskin, as well as trade union educators, Birkbeck and other universities. 

We are still active in (non-party) political education, community engagement and self-improvement – as well as, yes, running courses about the Tudors as Peter Ryley mentioned. There is a demand for community based part-time, high quality, tutor-led Humanities courses.

The Winter edition of WEA News shows how the Specialist Designated Institutions – Hillcroft College, City Lit, Fircroft College, the Mary Ward Centre, Northern College, Ruskin College, Morley College, the Working Men’s College and the WEA – are still going strong and continuing to raise the profile of adult education while we working with our students and their communities. You can read it here.

Adult and Community Learning is an important, but often overlooked, part of the education landscape so any further rants in support of lifelong, life-wide are very welcome!