Our Vision

We have taken these words from the 1919 Report as the vision for our Centenary Report. We believe 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. A generation later, William Beveridge identified ‘ignorance’ as one of the ‘five giants on the road to reconstruction’.

What do we mean by ‘adult education and learning’? The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation UNESCO defines lifelong learning like this:

The integration of learning and living, covering learning activities for people of all ages (at home, at school, in the workplace, in the community, etc.) through formal, non-formal and informal modalities, which together meet a wide range of learning needs and demands.

The Sustainable Development Goal 4 clarified its focus as:

to complement and supplement formal schooling, broad and flexible lifelong learning opportunities should be provided through non-formal pathways with adequate resources and mechanisms and through stimulating informal learning, including through use of ICT.

In one sense, educational opportunities in this country have expanded dramatically over the last hundred years. Since the mid-twentieth century, a succession of educational reforms have created a system of full-time, compulsory education for all, from the ages of 5 to 18, and 50% of our young people now go on to university.  Much of the provision is outstanding.  For many, the route to the learning they want or need is clear, as they move through formal, compulsory schooling into post-18 learning in Further Education colleges, universities, apprenticeships or employment. 

There are others for whom the route is less clear, whose formal education has been disrupted, or who go through some transition in their lives or careers that calls for new skills or understanding.  Young people leaving school without basic skills, new arrivals in the country who need support in becoming fully integrated citizens, those whose jobs are insecure or disappearing, those leaving prison or care – all should have their needs met.  There are all too many who, for whatever reason, fall through the gaps or whose needs at work or at home are not met as they face new challenges or opportunities in life.

To learn more, read our “Key Points” section below or download the report here.

Key Points

Focus 1

Framing and delivering a national ambition

Focus 2

Ensuring basic skills

Focus 3

Fostering community, democracy and dialogue

Focus 4

Promoting creativity, innovation and informal learning

Focus 5

Securing individual learning and wellbeing

Focus 6

Attending to the world of work


The 1919 Report advocated the ‘permanent national necessity’ of adult education to deal with the democratic, societal, and industrial challenges that were already at that time unfolding.  A similar range of challenges were faced in 1945, and again adult education was seen as a vitally important part of the way forward, with investment over the subsequent thirty years leading to an expansion of university adult education departments, the active role of local authorities, increased industrial education and training, and the expansion of the WEA and other community and voluntary groups – culminating in the creation of the Open University as a world leader in adult and lifelong learning provision.

However, as Helena Kennedy QC put it in her 1997 report on Further Education, the UK system is still based on the principle that ‘if at first you don’t succeed, you don’t succeed’. That remains true today. The regulator for Higher Education, the Office for Students, allows universities to focus on 17 and 18 year old applicants. If at first they don’t succeed, universities are permitted to wash their hands of them. The Access & Participation Plans don’t require universities to give any second chances, as other countries do.

Following the 2008-9 international financial crisis and global recession, Britain has suffered a ‘lost decade’ of austerity, increased regional inequality, stagnant productivity and living standards, and a fractured society and democracy.  Once again, the promotion and development of adult education across our communities and society has become an urgent ‘national necessity’.  

Provided such catastrophe is averted, we can expect lifetimes of up to a hundred years, with increasing numbers remaining mentally and physically fit into their 90s. Lifelong learning needs to be about individual benefit and fulfilment as well as productivity at work and social engagement – although the enhanced mental and physical health that is associated with education will in turn benefit the economy and society. A far greater investment in lifelong learning will pay off in every sense. There is no benefit to be had from further delay.

To learn more about the Centenary Commission background, chair, and membership click here

To read the full report click here.

Download the full report

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The Centenary Commission encourages discussion of its report and proposals. If you would like a representative to contribute to an event, and for other enquiries, please contact one of the joint secretaries: john.holford@nottingham.ac.uk or jonathan.michie@kellogg.ox.ac.uk.