Conference: ‘Useful Knowledge: Historical & Contemporary Perspectives on Part-Time & Mature Higher Education’

Birkbeck, the University of London’s college for adult, part-time students, will be celebrating its 200th anniversary in 2023. In the lead-up to this, it will be hosting a Conference (22-24 February 2022) on “Useful Knowledge: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives on Part-Time and Mature Higher Education”.

The organisers have circulated a Call for Papers. They encourage speakers to reflect on part-time and mature higher education “broadly and even globally”, as well as on topics directly relating to the London Mechanics’ Institution and Birkbeck College. They welcome proposals “from diverse groups of researchers, scholars, and other interested publics”.

The deadline for proposals (300 words) is Friday 5 November 2021.

For further details, please contact Jonny Matfin ( and Ciarán O’Donohue (

New Regional Mayors to speak at Centenary Commission online seminar

How can England’s New Mayors Rebuild Adult Education?
Webinar: Monday 21 June, 6.00-7.20p.m.

Manchester’s Andy Burnham, West Yorkshire’s Tracy Braybin, London Deputy Mayor Jules Pipe, and other regional leaders to discuss their plans and Centenary Commission ideas.

Power is being devolved to England’s regions. For the first time elected Mayors and combined authorities are setting policy and allocating spending on Adult Education. What should their main aims be? How can they make sure a rich educational offering is available to all adults – including those in excluded and “left behind” communities? What other problems do they face?

The Centenary Commission on Adult Education has made important recommendations on why adult education matters and on how it should be renewed. At this seminar, leading figures from regional combined authorities will discuss their ideas and plans with commission members and other experts.

The webinar, chaired by former House of Commons Speaker John Bercow, will discuss the challenges and opportunities available. The panel will include:

  • Andy Burnham, Mayor of Greater Manchester Region
  • Julie Nugent, Director of Skills and Productivity, West Midlands Combined Authority
  • Jules Pipe, Deputy Mayor of London
  • Tracy Brabin, Mayor of West Yorkshire

Centenary Commission chair, Dame Helen Ghosh, Master of Balliol College, Oxford, Deputy Chair Sir Alan Tuckett, and Commissioner Dr Cilla Ross, Principal of the Co-operative College, will also contribute.

Book your place here.

“We have to be bold and exciting!” A German view of Centenary Commission webinars

The current issue of weiter bilden, the quarterly magazine of the German Institute for Adult Education, carries a full-page report of the Centenary Commission webinars held in March. They were chaired by former House of Commons Speaker John Bercow – his reputation is clearly international (“Oooooorder!”):

David Blunkett’s emphasis on the need to understand adult education as being about much more that work and jobs is singled out for mention, and the reporter was surprised at the concrete figure mentioned as necessary to meet future needs.

You can read our reports of the first webinar here, and of the second here.

Celebrating Resources of Hope: Community, democracy & dialogue through adult lifelong education

The first of the Centenary Commission Research Circle’s conferences on ‘Building community, democracy & dialogue through adult lifelong education‘ was held on 7 May, focussing on the theme of ‘Community, democracy and dialogue through adult lifelong education: Celebrating Resources of Hope’.

Organised by Sharon Clancy, Iain Jones, and other members of the research circle on fostering community, democracy and dialogue, it was the first in a series of three events which provide opportunities to learn about existing practices, and to meet and think about different forms of democratic adult education and imagine new forms of critical engagement.

Fifty adult educators, from across the UK, with others from Bulgaria, Canada, and Italy, joined together to listen to presentations and discuss key questions and emerging themes in small and large groups. During, and after, this first event participants highlighted the power of learning about existing practices and ways of re-shaping new forms of adult lifelong education.

“This is one of the first times I’ve actually spoken with people who share my visions – beyond books!!”
“To keep going we need events such as this. It raises the spirits, and that is so very important in what are very nasty times…”
“Thanks to everyone; this has been really uplifting!”

The possibilities of an education for social change were woven through each presentation. Rose Farrar, from WEA West Yorkshire, began by showcasing an innovative collaboration with Rich Wiles, an artist and photographer. The power of the video-photo stories of the lives of refugees, near Hull, was a starting point for dispelling stereotypes, myths and misconceptions. Rob Peutrell and Mel Cooke continued this emphasis on the voices of students and lecturers and asked how the politics of ESOL relates to different forms of citizenship. They highlighted struggles between dis-citizenship, and having capacities stripped away, and acts of citizenship and contesting exclusions and claiming new rights. Nalita James then asked how diverse forms of ESOL, in Leicester, related to different communities of place and multiple senses of belonging.

Further presentations extended the discussions about the scope and range of practice – and why these matter for practice – and policy. Richard Hazledine reported on young adults, in Nottingham, furthest from work. Their mistrust and lack of confidence, because of what has been done ‘to them’, embodied the danger of scarring. This was a starting point for re-thinking practices. Similarly, Elaine J. Laberge joined us from the west coast of Canada and argued why the Shoestring Initiative was formed. Communities of mentorship, advocacy, intercultural connectedness, and belonging are being created for students with lived experiences of persistent poverty at Canadian universities.

The final presentation, by Jeremy Goss and Jayne Ireland, related the work of Raymond Williams on social purpose in adult education to contemporary practices – and each of the other presentations. Williams’ letter to WEA tutors, in 1961, defined his own purpose as a teacher ‘as the creation of an educated and participatory democracy’. Jeremy and Jayne argued that the foundations for a democratic curriculum could be developed by learning democratically, learning for democracy and learning about democracy.

The power and richness of each presentation was highlighted by other participants:

“Today has sown some seeds and demonstrated a collective impetus, for which I’m grateful.”

This impetus can draw on Williams’ resources of hope and continually remind us that ‘to be truly radical is to make hope possible rather than despair convincing’ (Williams, 1989).

As one speaker emphasised, through our collective action we can create a place for ‘remembering, not forgetting, past practices’, enabling us to store and share our memories of creative policy responses and practice.

One of the research circle summed this up after the event:

“I felt all the presenters, in their different ways, were saying something similar: [we need] spaces in which dialogue, cooperative learning, democracy and community can begin to thrive.”

We are increasingly having to do this work outside the state, as well as within it, after swathes of funding cuts to adult/community education infrastructure and a new neo-liberal onslaught within some universities on the humanities, targeting budgets for art, music, theatre, literature, sociology and music. We seek to keep alive the conversations which focus on making learning “part of the process of social change itself” (Williams, 1983) and continue to develop ourselves within this process as brokers, advocates and critical thinkers.

As Williams said, ‘There are ideas, and ways of thinking, with the seeds of life in them, and there are others, perhaps deep in our minds, with the seeds of a general death. Our measure of success in recognizing these kinds, and in naming them making possible their common recognition, may be literally the measure of our future’ (‘Towards 2000’, Williams, 1983).

The next Research Circle events are on Friday 2 July and Friday 17 September. Some places are left. Details and how to register are here.

Queen’s speech: Welcome news, but we need more than ‘skills for jobs’

The Centenary Commission on Adult Education has welcomed the Government’s announcement on a Lifetime Skills Guarantee – but calls for the reform to go much further.

The Queen’s Speech (11 May 2021) announced that new laws on post-16 education and training will be central to the Government’s legislative programme for the next Parliamentary session. The government promises a training system ‘fit for the future, providing the skills that people need for well-paid jobs and opportunities to train throughout their lifetime.’

The Commission, which launched a Build Back Bolder campaign for lifelong learning in March, welcomed the news – but added that much more was needed.

Dame Helen Ghosh, Chair of the Commission, said: “Education for adults means so much more than ‘skills for jobs.’ For some, it means learning how to read and write, or use a computer. For others, adult education means learning a new language, mastering personal finance, understanding mental health better. It means engaging with others, exploring difficult topics together, and shaping communities through understanding and tolerance.  A long-term learning strategy for all adults is needed, properly funded and implemented.”

The Centenary Commission on Adult Education published its report in November 2019. In March this year it launched its Build Back Bolder campaign, backed by more than a hundred senior figures nationally, including seven former ministers from all political parties, 11 current and  former vice chancellors, the heads of nine Oxbridge colleges, a former head of the home civil service a former House of Commons speaker and almost every professor researching lifelong learning. The commission believes the Government’s promise of £2.5 billion over five years to fund a ‘skills revolution’ will do little to reverse a decade of deep cuts.

The Commission has called for a programme to ‘Build Back Bolder,’ with wide-ranging reforms which could include:

  • A community learning centre in every town;
  • Funds for community groups so they can shape their own learning;
  • a regional Adult Learning Partnership including local authorities, universities, colleges, voluntary groups, employers and trade unions.

Successful mayoral candidates among the 20 who gave their support to the Commission’s aims during their campaigns include London’s Sadiq Khan West Midlands’ Andy Street, Greater Manchester’s Andy Burnham, the West of England’s Metro Mayor Dan Norris, Doncaster’s Ros Jones, Liverpool City’s Joanne Anderson, and Cambridgeshire and Peterborough’s James Palmer.

Fostering community, democracy & dialogue through adult lifelong education

The Centenary Commission’s research circle on fostering community, democracy & dialogue through adult lifelong education is organising three half-day events, on 7 May, 2 July, and 17 Sept 2021. These will be an opportunity to discuss with, and to learn from, colleagues about a range of creative practices in adult education, and to explore ways of re-imagining new possibilities for practice and for critical thinking about adult education.

Further information and details of how to register are available here.

Has the ‘lifelong learning house’ been pulled down?

An article in today’s Morning Star suggests ‘the lifelong learning house has been pulled down’. Doug Nicholls, General Secretary of the General Federation of Trade Unions, is downbeat about the current situation. ‘Only isolated pockets of excellent practice, largely unsupported by the state, and funded on something far more precarious than a shoestring, now seek to keep alive what were once internationally pioneering services and educational interventions throughout life.’

He is particularly concerned about the future of residential adult education. Read the article here.

A New Passion for Lifelong Learning?

Calls for a new movement to persuade Government to put adult education at the heart of its plans to rebuild were heard last night at the second of the Centenary Commission’s ‘Build Back Bolder’ campaign launch gatherings.

The gathering was chaired by the former House of Commons Speaker John Bercow and the panellists were Lord (Karan) Bilimoria, President of the Confederation of British Industry, Robert Halfon, MP, Chair of the House of Commons Education Committee, Sir Alan Tuckett, Vice Chair of the Centenary Commission on Adult Education and former Chief Executive of the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education, and Baroness (Alison) Wolf, Sir Roy Griffiths Professor of Public Sector Management, Kings College, London and advisor to the Prime Minister on Further Education policy.

Baroness Wolf said there had been a ‘disappearance’ of broad adult education under successive Governments:

“I have to say it’s not just this Government,” she said. But all governments needed to address the need for lifelong learning as opposed to training: “It’s all very well to get rich, what are you getting rich for? So you  train in order to get rich, in order to pay more taxes, to train to get richer. At what point do you actually use any of this to do stuff that makes you into a better and more rounded human being?

“Obviously people have to have good jobs. We have to make the economy prosperous. But what about education? Should we be thinking about it more specifically?” she asked.

Long-term decline

Robert Halfon said participation in adult education had fallen to its lowest level in 23 years, with 38 per cent of adults not participating in any learning since leaving full-time education. That rose to almost half of the poorest in society, he said.

“The fourth Industrial Revolution may represent opportunities, but only if people are trained and reskilled now,” he said. “Of course the Government is doing some good things -the Skills for Jobs White Paper, the Lifetime Skills guarantee. But what we do need is an ambitious long-term funding settlement for adult education, and what I’d like to see and am passionate about is a Community Learning Centre in every town.”

Lord Bilimoria said the CBI had welcomed the Prime Minister’s initiatives to solve urgent skills challenges which had arisen in the pandemic, but more needed to be done.  

“Nine out of ten employees will need to reskill by 2030 at an additional cost of £13 billion, and Covid of course is accelerating the change in the way we work. We must use this momentum to drive a national rescaling effort,” he said.

Sir Alan Tuckett said a major issue was the top-down approach of Governments to adult education:

“Why does the Government want to limit it to those courses if approves?” he asked.  “People need to do that for themselves. Time after time we are told employers should be at the heart of the new strategy – my feeling is we’ve done that year after year. So what I want to see is a national strategy, locally determined,” he said.

John Bercow said all the speakers had displayed a passion for the topic, and that should be harnessed.

“I have felt that these webinars this week have been infused with a passion for an adult education and lifelong learning renaissance in this country. Transforming the immediate sense of excitement into something that is durable, tangible and effective requires statecraft, allocation of resources and considerable persistence, so there is a long way to go. But I hope that people who have taken part have felt genuinely energized by the experience.

“In the name both of upskilling and more importantly of human enrichment it is something that should endure and be a resonant feature of our lives, from cradle to grave,” he said.

You can watch the webinar here.

Watch John Bercow’s first webinar with David Blunkett, Helen Chicot, Helen Ghosh & Selina Todd

On International Women’s Day, 8 March 2021, former Speaker of the House of Commons John Bercow chaired a fascinating discussion on Why do we need adult education now? with Lord (David) Blunkett, former Secretary of State for Education & Home Secretary, Helen Chicot, Place Integration Lead at Rochdale Borough Council, Dame Helen Ghosh, Chair of the Centenary Commission on Adult Education and Master of Balliol College, Oxford, and Professor Selina Todd, Professor of Modern History at Oxford University and author of Snakes and Ladders: The great British social mobility myth. You can watch and listen to a recording here.

Centenary Commission chair quoted in Mail Online

In the Mail Online, Dame Helen Ghosh comments on what she calls ‘worrying figures’ which show ‘the extent of education inequalities in our country’. ‘As we emerge from the pandemic,’ she urged government ‘to rebuild lifelong learning as a key part of their commitment to levelling up’.

Read ‘One fifth of adults in the country’s ‘education blackspots’ have NO academic qualifications, figures reveal’ (8 March 2021) here.