Dame Ruth Silver is President of the Further Education Trust for Leadership
The 1919 Ministry of Reconstruction Adult Education Committee’s Final Report – better known as the 1919 Report – described adult education as a ‘permanent national necessity’; not a luxury that would be nice if only there weren’t lots of other competing priorities, but something indispensable to the future of our democracy, as well as to our health, happiness and prosperity.
For the past two decades Adult education has been the subject of regressive and short-sighted funding cuts as policymakers have found themselves gripped by a vision of education in which young people feature disproportionately and only economically useful skills are deemed valuable. This meagre economistic view of education needs to be challenged and consigned to the dustbin of education policy history.
We need a new, more rounded and comprehensive, lifelong vision of education, which is why the Further Education Trust for Leadership (FETL) was pleased to fund the work of the Centenary Commission on Adult Education, set up by a group of adult educators who recognized the significance of the 1919 Report and undertook to set out a new vision ‘for life-wide adult education for the century ahead’.
Their final report, ‘A Permanent National Necessity…’: Adult Education and Lifelong Learning for 21st Century Britain, argues that ‘“universal and lifelong” access to adult education and learning is as necessary now as it was in rebuilding our society in the aftermath of the War to End All Wars’, and sets out a range of recommendations that go beyond the acquisition of skills for employment to include basic skills, active citizenship, creativity and health and wellbeing, alongside the world of work.
The life-wide focus of the report is welcome indeed, as is the proposal for a new national strategy for adult education and lifelong learning that engages ‘the whole of Government while recognising the importance of devolved decision making’. Putting these proposals into practice, and moving with purpose towards a lifelong learning society, demands that we work in a different way, across departments and sectors, with an unprecedented degree of collaboration.
The report is a hopeful one. Its recommendations are practical and achievable. But realising its vision will require something more, as the report acknowledges: a change of path, away from a society characterised by fear and anxiety, where inequality is tolerated and lives are routinely wasted or written off, to one in which people are valued in the round, not just as economic units, and where the link between education and active democracy is fostered and encouraged.
The report appears at a time when the political, demographic, social, technological and environmental challenges we face call for adult education and lifelong learning to be taken much more seriously. There are signs that we are beginning to do this, and I strongly welcome them. These challenges demand a population that is resilient, creative, critical, engaged, excited and ready to learn, as well as one that is job-ready. The question is no longer whether we can afford to invest in adult education, but whether we can afford not to.
Editor: Lifewide Education welcomes this vision for the future of adult education in the UK. Clearly, we have a role to play in helping people, educators and policy makers understand what lifewide learning means and supporting them as they engage in learning through and across their whole life.