Adult education must be pushed up the political agenda so it cannot be ignored, the former House of Commons Speaker John Bercow said last night at the launch event of the Centenary Commission’s Build Back Bolder campaign.

Chairing a webinar with the Commission’s chair Dame Helen Ghosh, former Secretary of State for Education David Blunkett, Oxford historian Professor Selina Todd and Helen Chicot, who spearheaded innovative approaches to lifelong learning in Rochdale, Mr Bercow said the panel had displayed a shared sense of passion on the issue.

“Whatever your politics I get a sense that there is a very proper impatience to better; a  mission to ensure a kind of crystallization of ideas about where we go next,” he said.

“I think we all feel very strongly about it.  I always think that you have to catapult a thing from the back of a decision-makers mind to the front of her or his mind and keep it there, “ he said.

Dame Helen Ghosh said there was great resonance between today’s issues and those facing the original Commission on Adult Education in 1919.

“ The 1919 report was a wonderful thing: It had in it the words we used for our title:  that adult education was a ‘permanent national necessity and an essential aspect of citizenship -universal and lifelong. Both the Brexit debate and now the pandemic have shown we live in a society sadly full of inequalities, and people who have been left behind. So every citizen needs to be engaged,” she said.

Taking control of lives

Lord Blunkett said that for many people lifelong learning was not a second chance, but a first chance: “Being able to take control of their own lives when technological change has overcome them, the ability to cope with rapid social and cultural change, makes adult learning absolutely crucial.

“ I’m afraid adult learning has taken a hell of a hit – between 2001 and 2011, 14 million people took up life skills or basic skills, often just learning to read and to write and to add up: the literacy part of that was the most successful. It dropped by a half from 2016 to last year with the pandemic,” he said. “We’ve never needed as we need it today the ability of people to be able to adapt to new circumstances to find that they have talent; the ability of people to be able to see that they have new opportunities as old ones disappear,” he said.

Professor Todd said that on International Women’s Day the need to make women’s education a priority should be a focus.

“In the early 1960s the Robbins report pointed out that in an advanced society we should want everyone to have an advanced education,” she said. “That’s never been truer than today: to get through this crisis, to get through the climate emergency, to work out how we negotiate with automation, we need new solutions and new people at the top,” she said.

Learning to trust

Helen Chicot said Rochdale’s experience in the last year had been instructive:

“We’ve had more time in lockdown than anywhere else, and the relationship between communities and institutions has changed for the better,” she said.  “Complete clarity of purpose in our communities has meant that we’ve learned to trust each other. Learning is such an important part of cohesion and reducing inequality, and clearly that’s a complex issue.

“Trust – being able to go to a class, to a safe space where we can become confident in what we know and share that with others – that’s why learning is important now for adults. if we’re lucky we can be confident  that we can start to take those steps, and we know who we can ask for help. if we’re really lucky someone helps us to take action to find out how to do those things – because as things currently stand it’s only if we’re lucky that we can learn,” she said.

You can watch the webinar here. The webinar was supported by the University of Nottingham Policy Engagement Fund. A second webinar will take place on Wednesday March 10 – for more details click here: