Sunday, August 02, 2020

A silent crime

Outside the specialist education press, nothing is reported. I know from experience how hard it is to get a hearing. Yet, it's life saving and life changing. Adult education in all its alternative guises - continuing education, community education, lifelong learning, etc - matters. It matters very much indeed. Millions and millions of our fellow citizens have used and benefitted from it at all levels. But it's on few people's political radar and its loss is only lamented by those who used it. It's a national scandal that has been quietly accepted.

This might look like a local issue, but it is illustrative of the damage done by narrow, utilitarian and philistine government funding policies that have seen more than 4 million adult learners lost since 2003, with cuts accelerating through these past 10 years. Adult education centres, committed to literacy, numeracy, learning for active citizenship, social solidarity and a second chance at education for people failed by the system have a vital place in securing a post-Covid society. 

But they are not alone in experiencing the consequences of blinkered policy. In 2006, the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education, NIACE, published an independent inquiry on lifelong learning in colleges. Its title, Eight in Ten reflected the proportion of FE college students who were adults. Today, only a fraction as many remain. University extra-mural departments for adult learners now are all but a thing of the past. Libraries close. Museums have shorter opening hours. Public spaces for communities to meet together, for people from different backgrounds to meet and share enthusiasms, to make art and music, to understand and help shape the future fabric of our society diminish.
Step by step we lose the places for us to create a world worth living in.

I started working in adult education in 1982. I retired early over thirty years later. In that time, I set up dozens of programmes and initiatives for hundreds of students, in both urban and rural areas, and in community, further, and higher education institutions. There is not a single one left. I repeat, there is not one left. Everything that I built has been closed. Those thirty years were spent in an increasingly desperate battle against cuts. In the end, they won.

It would be easy to sit back and demonise the Tories, but, after a burst of initial encouragement, the New Labour years were as bad, and hard-left Labour authorities were horrendous. My experience has coloured my politics. The needs and dreams of so many people, the elderly as well as the young, were unseen and unvalued. It worries me about what people can tolerate and assimilate in relatively comfortable societies. It isn't just that "we don't know what we've lost till its gone," it's that we forget that we ever had it. And that's a lesson for today alright.

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