Friday, March 13, 2009

A dispatch from the front

The news from the world of adult education is unremittingly bleak. Amongst the tales of cutbacks and closures, a request to sign a petition to protest about the ending of Manchester University's adult education courses for the public has reached me, whilst Baroque in Hackney has posted eloquently on the loss of City University's poetry workshops.

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.


ad said...

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.

Then the cuts probably started even earlier than the Thatcher era. On the face of it, it is unlikely that the cuts coincidentaly started within a year or two of your starting...

Not sure what to conclude from that.

Blogger Brader said...

I attended that meeting addressed by Geoff B-K. It aroused more comment than most meetings, all in favour of life long learning. Not surprising perhaps since our favoured submission to Compass was "Politcal Education, Political education, Political Education"

The Plump said...

ad, Thatcher was elected in 1979. You are technically correct that there were pressures on public spending from 1976. However, there was no serious challenge to educational thinking. The first big cut in post-16 learning was the deflationary budget of 1981. 1982 was not the best time to start my career!

The closure of the college of adult education was a consequence of the impact of the unified business rate, part of the Poll Tax legislation, on Manchester City Council who had spent reserves trying to keep services going. Then there was the legislation of 1992 that radically changed the funding regimes of residential adult education and University responsible bodies. So, yes, the Tory government was decisive.

However, it is a crushing disappointment that instead of stopping the damage, Labour have compounded it and seem intent on delivering the coup de grace. I can't forgive them.

Blogger Brader, the interest is the result of the deep attachment people have to adult learning. Demand is as strong as ever and it is a cause that has always been an intrinsic part of the left.

I recommend following the link to the Alison Wolf article in my post link. Good luck with Compass.

Brigada Flores Magon said...

All of this is deeply depressing. I know from my own limited experience on the voluntary fringes of adult education, the WEA and the local council's adult literacy programme, that there is a huge demand for lifelong learning and that it has a real and lasting impact on people's lives. That any greasy little political apparatchik can dismiss all this as 'holiday Spanish' makes we want to tool up with a load of mollies and sort the tosser out.

skipper said...

Fat Man
Could not agree more with your post. I come from Manchester and was Director of Extra-Mural Studies there 1986-91. I absolutely despise the attitude of the university, my former employer, to the service whiuh served the region so well for so many years. I agree our department was inefficient and could have beehnj run more effectively but to get rid of rthe Dept in 94 than the pathetic residual rump in 2009 smacks of vandalism. I took myown current asffairs course out of the university this year to run it 'privately' at half trhe price for studnets and am glad I did in the light of what has happened

Bob B said...

Please don't overlook the many adult education opportunities created through the agency of the University of the Third Age (U3A), an international network of branches focused on providing self-help courses for retirees by sharing knowledge gained from their work experiences.

Try this link:

The Plump said...

Bob B -
I like the U3A and other examples of self-help, but I don't think that it can replace the comprehensive service that was offered through local authorities, nor the aim of inclusive, popular universities.

Skipper (aka Bill)
I remember you well from my days at the College of Adult Education at All Saints when you used to employ me on the Politics Association study weeks. Glad you are still going strong.

Brigada Flores Magon
Throw me a weapon - let's get the bastards.