In the meantime, Times Higher Education has an account of the CALL lobby of Parliament. It doesn't make particularly good reading, not least because the MP who had put down an early day motion supporting the campaign has disassociated himself from the THE report. The booing and apparent discomfort of the minister, John Denham gave me some malicious pleasure, especially after his throwaway derogatory remark about "holiday Spanish". However, this was embarrassing:
Mr Denham attempted to answer whether the Government could truly claim its spending priority was education, or whether the Iraq War and the multibillion-pound bailout of the UK banking sector took precedence.I am sorry, this is a crass piece of linkage. Even the most ardent supporter of adult education couldn't argue for giving priority to poetry classes over rebuilding Iraq and dealing with the global economic meltdown. Anyway, this crushingly disappointing policy is less about total funding than its distribution, emanating from a particular educational philosophy, the concentration on a narrow vocational agenda.
Peter Kingston makes the case far better in his Guardian report of the lobby, highlighting David Blunkett's powerful advocacy of adult learning and summing up government policy perfectly.
Labour's proposition is that courses - daytime or evening - that are more about addressing people's curiosity or desire for self-fulfilment than making them employable should get less assistance from the exchequer.Of course this representation of adult education provision as being divided between deserving and undeserving learners is a crude pastiche of reality where no such neat division exists. The perfect example of the power of intellectual curiosity as an engine for social mobility is to be found in Geoff Bratley-Kendall's life story, brought to my attention by the former Labour MP and adult educator, Harry Barnes. Geoff's journey from the pit to FE teaching is worth reading about in full and this struck me as absolutely right.
He learnt that education does not have to happen at a particular time in one's life. He had seen the regular tapping of unknown talents. He saw the strength of educational provision which started out on a voluntary basis, where those studying did not have to be present if they weren't interested.He also traced the decline of adult education to 1992, but the crisis has much longer roots back to the early years of the Thatcher administration. I started working in it in 1982 and since then there has scarcely been a year when I have not been dealing with cuts and insecurity. My old College of Adult Education in Manchester closed in 1990 and since then the gloom has been only occasionally illuminated by hopes that proved to be groundless. The situation now, though, is the worst I have known.
As a career choice, this wouldn't have been the best if it hadn't been for the people I have met and taught along the way, with their humbling and inspiring life stories. They were always the ones who kept me going and I would not have missed the wonderful privilege of working with them for anything. But now, at a time like this, the sense of disappointment is palpable. And for the new generation thinking of taking that nerve-wracking first step back into education later in life the opportunities of genuine lifelong learning are slowly being removed.
And as the government stubbornly refuses to listen, the patient's condition is becoming critical. I fear that we are on the brink of completely losing something special, something that should be a source of pride and something that is a mark of a civilised society. These are bleak times indeed.