The conditions of possibility – and hope? A research circle building community, democracy and dialogue

In this new introductory blog, Sharon Clancy, Iain Jones, Jo Forster and Linden West collectively reflect on the origins, purpose and latest work of the research circle on community, democracy and dialogue.

The Research circle on Fostering and building community, democracy and dialogue first met in September 2020. Our work has built on the key chapter in the Centenary Commission on Adult Education’s 2019 report that focused on the importance of community-based and ‘popular’ adult education.

In the last three years, the circle has engaged with diverse ideas, as well as identified and created resources of hope. It has sought to ask: how does adult education link with and foster our democracy? Why are our shared histories, memories, and instances of managing previous struggles all-important? The writers of the 1919 Adult Education Committee’s Final Report faced these questions head on – they recognised that our democracy and spaces for dialogue, debate and dissent need to be defended and constantly fought for. This has, arguably, never been truer than at the current juncture in the UK, in countering a sense of despair and impotence, particularly in the communities hardest hit by the exigencies of the past four decades and the long-term impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Research Circle is made up of around 10 people, drawn from diverse backgrounds in adult, further and higher education, the voluntary and community sector and trade union education. Building on the work of Harnsten (1994) the circle has: identified problems that receive no or limited attention, including, specifically, who and what shapes the world of education; how it is controlled and whose voices are heard; and how we might liberate conventional structures of lifelong learning. The Circle has offered space to reflect on such issues and begun to examine how to develop new forms of knowledge in dialogue with the needs and interests of diverse communities. A theme emerging out of our dialogues is ‘what do we mean by democracy and can we still reason with each other?’ We concluded that what lies at the heart of a living democracy are safe protected spaces with clear ground-rules where we can listen respectfully in dialogue with the other – sometimes another radically opposed to our own perspectives – in the knowledge that others might learn to listen respectfully in dialogue if and when we take the lead. In hearing ideas different from our own we enter the mindset and imaginations of others and, in turn, make visible our own ideas and insights for critically questioning the taken-for-granted at all levels.

Three sets of online events have taken place in successive years. In 2021, we examined ‘Resources for Hope’ during the Covid pandemic. This series of events provided an opportunity to learn about existing practices, meet and think about different forms of democratic adult education and imagine new forms of critical engagement. 50 adult educators, from across the UK, Italy, Bulgaria and Canada, joined together to listen to presentations and discuss key questions and emerging themes in small and large groups. During, and after, this first event series participants highlighted the power of learning about existing practices and ways of re-shaping new forms of adult lifelong education with an explicit social purpose.

The 2021 presentations

The possibilities of an education for social change were woven through each presentation in our first series during 2021. (The 2021 presentations can be viewed on the Raymond Williams Foundation (RWF) YouTube site: see the links below.)

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. You can see this discussion here. What was especially important in this work was the idea that everyone has things to teach as well as learn; and how conviviality can be created in sharing food and storytelling.

Rob Peutrell and Mel Cooke then discussed 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. You can watch the discussion here. (Rob and Mel have also edited a book, Brokering Britain, Educating Citizens: Exploring ESOL issues and principles). Nalita James then asked how diverse forms of ESOL, in Leicester, related to different communities of place and multiple senses of belonging. You can see Nalita’s contribution here.

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, who are 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 his work and re-thinking practices. You can see what he said here.

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 to each of the other presentations. Williams’ 1961 Open Letter to WEA tutors 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. Watch them here.

2022: Dialogues for Democracy: Cultures and Ecologies in Crisis

The second series of events (2022) sought to develop and broaden our focus to examine and counter the current crises and hollowing out of representative and participatory democracy with three events focusing on ‘Dialogues for Democracy: Cultures and Ecologies in Crisis’. 

This link takes you to the RWF website and four films from 2022 events, including:

  • Keynote presentation for Adult Education Research Circle – ‘Dialogues for Democracy: Cultures and Ecologies in Crisis’ – Health Inequalities in Communities: What is the role of Community Adult Education? chaired by Professor Marjorie Mayo, Emeritus Professor in Community Development at Goldsmiths, University of London. The event, on 17 May 2022, featured this keynote from Professor Sir Michael G. Marmot, FRCP, Director of the University College London, Institute of Health Equity entitled ‘Build Back Fairer’.
  • Video presentation by Professor Helen Chatterjee, Professor of Biology, in University College London Biosciences and UCL Arts and Sciences: The role of cultural, community and natural assets in addressing societal and structural health inequalities in the UK. At Dialogues for Democracy: Cultures and Ecologies in Crisis Health Inequalities in Communities: What is the role of Community Adult Education?
  • Dr Ana Cruz’s presentation, Professor of Education at St. Louis Community College-Meramec, who won the 2022 Paulo Freire Democratic Project Award of Social Justice: Paulo Freire’s Political-Pedagogical Approach to Education: Questioning Inequalities Through Dialogue.

On June 10th 2022 we focused on ecological/climate emergency and environmental action. This session aimed to debate and plan possibilities for adult lifelong education, tackling ecological climate emergency and taking environmental action. Short presentations were given by Professor Steve Martin, University of Nottingham; Mel Lenehan, Principal and CEO, Fircroft College, Birmingham, and Ross Weddle, Chair, WEA Green Branch. This was followed by opportunities to join discussion groups and plan action.

On September 15th, 2022, we looked at universities and their relationship to participatory action and social movements, asking ‘What should the University’s social and cognitive responsibilities be in the face of rising inequality and injustice and how should research engage more directly with “real life” problems and politics? What is the role and function of the “public academic” and the critical activist?’ The event featured 10-minute presentations from Shirley Walters, Professor Emerita from the University of Western Cape, South Africa, who talked about universities and their relationship to participatory action and social movements, and Dr Michael Hrebeniak, Convenor of the New School of the Anthropocene, who outlined the role of NSOTA, configured as a new kind of school which ‘is born out of a need. Linden West also dialogued with Professor Laura Formenti of the University of Milano-Bicocca, Italy, about universities and social responsibility in Italy and the UK. An important link was made around the theme of dialogue and democracy in the classroom, and how this could build communities in diverse locations. The dialogue linked back to the tutorial class movement in the UK and family learning in Italy.  Their argument was clear: we must practise what we preach. The mainstream university has proven unable and unwilling to engage with the condition of social crisis and the prospect of democratic and ecological ruin that characterise the 21st Century.

2023: Dialogues for Democracy: Learning neighbourhoods, cities and societies – building a dialogical learning democracy

Our latest event series builds on our earlier work by combining global with local learning dimensions. Our emphasis is on challenging issues of power and control over education and democratic engagement.  We recognise democracy is in crisis. There is a widespread unease pervading communities, politics, economics, and education which is connected to the sustainability of the entire planet.

Many years ago, Raymond Williams described Westminster as an ‘elected court’ – even more true in recent times. Over-centralised states, which may be both authoritarian and paternalistic, tend to problematise communities more than identify them as sources of democratic hope. There is a growing recognition that we must learn our way – collaboratively and democratically – to a better, more hopeful, inclusive and sustainable future. How we do this as part of a shared project is a massive challenge. Ideals, ends and means are all important – we must learn how to nurture real dialogue as part of the process of changing communities. Our 2023 virtual seminar series is designed to addresses these issues.

Our April seminar, Learning neighbourhoods, cities and societies: learning for participation and democracy, examined ‘learning cities’ which can be found across the globe. They aim to revitalise and embed learning in families, the workplace, communities and educational institutions in order to nurture a culture of learning throughout life. They also aspire to support sustainable social, economic and environmental development.

We focused on the UNESCO award-winning Learning City of Cork: based on partnerships between local government, diverse organisations, universities and local people who see adult learning as crucial to any community. Fergal Finnegan (University of Maynooth, Ireland) also dialogued with Professor Linden West (Canterbury Christ Church University): a theme arose of the ambiguous role of faith and religion in popular education. In Maynooth some of the origin of community initiatives came from young priests inspired by liberation theology. This had to be set against the hard, controlling influence of some established and hierarchical churches. These ideas were returned to in our engagement with the liberation theology of Paulo Freire.

Our May event, Pedagogy, Dialogue and Democracy (watch the films here) focused on the need for Latin American educator Paulo Freire’s critical as well as deeply relational and spiritual pedagogy: Freire would have emphasised keeping whole human beings at the heart of the process. In the language of theologian Martin Buber, who so inspired Freire, where I might meet Thou. We examined pedagogy in social and public spaces to enable young people and adults to become informed and critically engaged citizens to keep justice, equity and social democracy alive – a need which has perhaps never been greater. Linden West and Colin Kirkwood examined how the work of Freire has inspired initiatives, including in inner-city Edinburgh and Staveley in Derbyshire. (The direct link to the film is here.) They have written about the dialogue in a blog shortly to be available on the Centenary Commission website.

You can watch the second dialogue in this May event, between Dr Jo Forster and renowned Freirean scholar Professor Antonia Darder, Loyola Marymount University, USA, here. Antonia is a Puerto Rican and American scholar. Her activism, teaching, and critical scholarship over the last five decades has consistently focused on racism, political economy, and questions of liberation. She has extended Paulo Freire’s pedagogy of love and contributed to furthering our understanding of inequalities in schools and society. Through her decolonizing scholarship on the body, ethics, racism, methodology, and the arts, she has contributed to rethinking questions of empowerment, pedagogy, and liberation from a worldview that centres on oppressed populations. She focuses on reclaiming the relationship between education and democracy, using critical pedagogy. A blog about the dialogue will be available shortly on the Centenary Commission website.

What next?

Following these blogs we will compile a list of materials, suggested reading and organisational links from all three series so far and will make this available on the Centenary Commission website.

Please look out for these additions, and for details of our next event on 6th October.

Lifelong learning must ‘increase in scale’, & ‘expand in scope’, says Bank of England’s chief economist

Writing in The Guardian, Bank of England chief economist Andy Haldane calls for a more and better vocational and lifelong education to ‘meet the skills challenge facing the UK economy and limit the long-term scarring to it’: ‘the only way of immunising against economic long Covid will be through a skills programme every bit as large-scale, sure-footed and front-loaded’. Read his Guardian article here.

Andy Haldane contributed a preface to the Centenary Commission’s report praising its ‘compelling recommendations for transforming and embedding adult education’. You can read the report and his preface here.

Zooming in Adult Education

As we complete a year since the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown began, William Tyler reflects on his growing online skills. William spent his professional life in adult education, retiring as Principal of The City Lit, London, in 1995.  He is also a freelance historian. Awarded an MBE for services to adult education, William has been particularly involved with older learners, chairing a Council of Europe Working Party on the subject, and completing an MPhil degree in educational gerontology.

All those of us who have spent our professional lives advocating educational gerontology need no reminder that you can teach an old dog new tricks.

This time last year I hadn’t heard of Zoom, let alone given a lecture via it.  Now, I am almost a veteran. 

On a personal note, I have found Zooming a marvellous additional arrow in Adult Education’s quiver, and moreover it may allow me in five years time to continue teaching into my ninth decade.

My very first history class for JW3 (London’s Jewish Community Centre, offering a full programme of adult education courses), on Zoom saw me in a mild state of panic.  The lecture was delivered in a rather hesitant and self-conscious way.

However, I persevered, buoyed by supportive comments from the students, the majority of whom I had known for a number of years.  The students, aged 60+ to 90+, were as nervous and as unsure of using this new medium for study as I was.  It was good to share our concerns in a 15 minute open chat before the class began.  We soon realised how important these classes were to all of us, providing a fixed point in the week when everything else seemed to have been cast adrift in a new Covid world. 

The first point, therefore, to note about Zooming is that it enhanced, rather than diminished, the social aspect of Adult Education.  Not always in the past has this role of Adult Education been fully appreciated, either by political decision makers or budget holders. 

Zooming has some definite educational benefits for older learners.  No longer should Adult Education be restricted to those able to access it physically, but can now be made available to those who are prevented from attending either by lack of provision in their area or through their physical or financial inability to travel to a class.  Earlier attempts made by Adult Education to meet these issues have by and large been a story of failure.  No longer need that be the case.  

The second lesson, therefore, learned from zooming is universality of provision.  The challenge will be to utilise this new knowledge and technology.  A regional college hub, for example, will not be limited by student travelling distance thus enabling it to reach those who otherwise would be deprived of provision.  Such an advantage need not be limited to England alone but can reach out internationally. 

The other Zooming I have been involved with has been the delivery of history lectures to an international audience via the Lockdown University initiative of The Kirscher Institute.  This initiative has opened up even more possibilities.  There is now the possibility of team teaching by tutors based in different countries.  Thus a study of The American War of Independence could be co-tutored from The States and from England, or the consequences of The French Revolution by co tutors from France and Britain.  The possibilities are endless. 

The third lesson learned from the experience of the Lockdown University is that class size is no longer limited.  My webinar audiences for the Lockdown University have risen to 1,500.

As well as the tutor, as said above, the students have had to learn zoom, and soon became proficient enough to use chat rooms with confidence and to provide intriguing backgrounds, ranging from a picture relevant to the topic under discussion to one student who appears before a background of France’s greatest gardens.  Many have been grateful to grandchildren showing them the ropes.  A wonderful example of inter-generational teaching and learning.  It also show that learning by exploration still has a role to play as an androgogical tool.

Two further points learnt by this rookie zooming tutor:-

  • Synopses of classes, posted on tutor’s blog, have proved very popular, and interestingly as a revision aid after the class rather than as planned a pre-course handout.  Book lists have proved even more popular than normal, leading to a series of additional reading suggestions, fiction as well as non-fiction, posted on the blog. 
  • E-mails between students and tutor have helped keep people in touch and led to both sides gaining new insights.  I was sent, after a lecture on The Second World War in The Far East, a copy of a letter from a member of a student’s family to his brother giving a first hand and contemporary account of Japanese cannibalism.

However, as any adult educator will attest nothing can replace the face to face interaction between student and tutor.  I have always emphasised that Adult Education is theatre not cinema.  So the new challenge is how do we build this aspect in when we return to a new normal, in which we have learnt the advantages of Zooming?

Well, we can look to the past and seek to re-invent the short residential experience offered to adult students.  Sadly there is today a mere shadow of what was once a widely distributed system of short term residential colleges, LEA, University, and Independent.  Linking the idea of residential back up to Zooming, with the possibility of international Zooming, reminds me that in the 1960s Kingsgate College in Kent hosted an Anglo-French Summer School for students drawn from the Paris WEA and Kent WEA.  Old ideas can be refreshed to meet new demands.

I finish, therefore, as all adult educators should, with a comment from a student, ‘Thanks for helping to keep me sane and motivated this last year.’   I thoroughly re-endorse that sentiment from my own perspective.  Zooming has been a lifesaver for many older tutors and learners alike.

When lockdown becomes a drag…

… do a course with the WEA!, says Gillian Evans

Retired nurse Gillian Evans has relished the opportunity to keep learning on Zoom during the pandemic.

The WEA allows me to catch up on areas of history and culture that I neglected during my working life. When I saw the course on the History of Drag with Caroline Baylis-Green, I quickly signed up. I’ve always been intrigued by drag. My father was into amateur dramatics and I wanted to know what makes these performers tick.

The Zoom sessions allowed us to interact with some drag artists, which was very exciting. I was nervous about joining. Would I be accepted in the group? What would they think of me wanting to find out more about them? Happily, everybody was extremely welcoming. Drag artists are quite self-opinionated people who care a lot about how they are seen. Besides, Zoom brings a degree of distance and protection – in the same way that a uniform gives you more confidence to ask questions you might not ask as ‘yourself’.

Caroline was excellent. She didn’t push anything very hard at first, but made us think a lot about what we were looking at. I previously thought drag was about men dressing up as women, like they did in Shakespeare’s day. But that was more necessity, as men had to play the female part. Today, drag has evolved into a real art form. It’s highly skilled, and it’s quite an expensive interest too. The makeup is absolutely exquisite. Their clothes and physiques are immaculate. The whole ethos of drag is a wonderful way of expressing how they’re feeling, which comes very much from within. You can’t make yourself do this unless it comes right from inside you.

Queens use drag as a leisure part of their normal lives – they are delightful folk spending a considerable amount of money on their clothes, make up, wigs and general presentation to bring the very best to their audiences.

I’ve always been interested in computers and tried to keep up to date, so the transition to Zoom was straightforward. I was able to continue to volunteer at a local hospice, which got me out the front door and gave me a link to my past career. But as lockdown has continued, so the incarceration has become more of a dirge for me and my friends. The physical interaction of a coffee morning is hard to replace.

The WEA has helped enormously. They really pulled their finger out, right at the start, and put on a mass of courses across the board, which has given us something to hold onto. I’ve appreciated their support immensely.

Further Education & Skills: a place-based response to Covid

In this blog, Julie Nugent and Clare Hatton explain the West Midlands Combined Authority’s skills and adult learning response to the pandemic.

When Coronavirus hit in March 2020 it presented our region, like others across the country, with new social and economic challenges. Research suggested that the West Midlands could be the hardest-hit region – and indeed we have seen levels of unemployment spike.

Disadvantaged residents, young people and BAME communities have suffered the most. We have also seen an unprecedented surge in the number of adults requiring retraining and upskilling as they navigate a new job market during, and post Covid-19. 

A solid foundation

Yet we feel we were well prepared to respond to the crisis. At the start of the 2019/20 academic year, the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) took ownership of the £126 million Adult Education Budget (AEB) for the West Midlands. This was in an effort to align skills delivery with the wider economic strategy for the region, ensuring more people were able to get into jobs, had accessible opportunities to build skills, and could develop career opportunities through strong and inclusive further education (FE) and skills provision.

While the impact of the pandemic is far from over, we have been able to adapt swiftly to become flexible and receptive to the challenges we face. Our recovery plans involved working closely with employers, businesses, governmental bodies, charities, and educators to monitor the landscape and stay ahead of the curve. Doing this has allowed us to create and tailor programmes that provide the right level of training, across key sectors, to help get people back into employment as quickly as possible.


The West Midlands is the largest regional economy in the UK, with a labour market of national significance. Yet as a region, it faces challenges in relation to high levels of unemployment, low productivity, a shortage of skills and limited social mobility. However, recognising the need for greater insight to identify the causes and address these issues, at the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA), we set out in 2019 to deliver a better match between the skills of the people in the region and the current and future needs of businesses, to accelerate productivity and deliver economic growth.

It wasn’t long before our strategy was showing real promise. By the end of 2019, the employment rate in the region was at a record high, with 75.5 per cent (2.82 million) of people in work. Productivity was improving at a faster rate than the national average, and the working age population was more qualified than ever before. The training funded through the WMCA was delivering even more economic impact for the region with provision increasingly focused on getting people into jobs, on delivering higher level skills and developing our pilot programmes alongside employers, providers and job centres to ensure courses equipped people with the skills they needed to fill their recruitment gaps.

Our WMCA regional skills plan has been central to this success; understanding the needs of the region, forming partnerships and adding value were central to driving this meaningful and lasting change. As part of this, we have worked closely alongside various key stakeholders including Local Authorities, Local Enterprise Partnerships, TUC, Colleges, Universities, training providers, Adult and Community Learning organisations and the voluntary sector, to build on the work they are already undertaking and create robust, and high-quality education and training for the diverse communities we serve. We have also forged strong employer relationships to identify the skills needed to help them grow and thrive both now and, in the future, and ensure we have provision that is fit for purpose and gets people into jobs.

Dealing with the pandemic

For example, we know there are recruitment and skills shortages in construction, advanced manufacturing and engineering, business, and professional services as well as digital skills. Therefore, we have been focusing on these areas to match the demand with the newly acquired skills gained by those seeking employment and retraining.  

The WMCA currently spends around 72 per cent of its adult education budget on unemployed adults, with a large portion of this attributed to basic level English and maths training. However, assessing recent events and the needs emerging from this crisis, we now have a mixed pool of adults and skilled professionals looking for new jobs or wanting to start their own businesses. Therefore, in the absence of any additional funding, we have adapted our FE provision needs to meet these new demands and provide accessible, engaging and skill-appropriate content.

When allocating the AEB, we need to be fluid with our funding to meet the demands of the local economy and react accordingly to the ever-changing landscape. For us, this has meant working closely with colleges and businesses to identify the provision needed and provide the most suitable training to fill the employment gaps. This doesn’t just span sector-based skills either, but also includes accessible training for workplace wellbeing, in order to support the wider employee health and wellbeing agenda and help employers with productivity and engagement levels.  

Covid-19 has also impacted the way training is delivered, and we have seen a greater shift to online delivery and blended learning options to provide a greater access to skills. We have also created new training opportunities through our free sector work-based programmes which provide a clear roadmap to help people get back on track, particularly if they are unemployed, have been furloughed or are worried about their current employment prospects.

Our Construction Gateway programme provides formal, job entry construction training through both online provision and practical onsite experience with Tier 1 employers and their supply chain. It has so far helped over 2,000 residents over two years, with over 50 per cent of those securing skilled career opportunities within a matter of weeks of completion. Since Covid-19, we have had to adapt the programme and shift to online training which has not only provided a bridge for people to build skills and experience without having to physically be on-site or in the classroom, but also presented a timely opportunity for the construction workforce to continue adapting to new ways of working. For example, new technological developments, such as GPS machine controls, are entering the construction industry – demonstrating a need for workers to continually evolve with the sector regardless of Covid-19.

Our community learning providers have risen to the challenge of supporting people with the skills they need to prepare them for work but also for life – digital skills so they can access services and support children with home schooling and wrap around support to ensure people remain connected to support their mental health. Keeping communities and residents engaged in learning through the pandemic is critical to ensure they are supported with their goals.

Looking ahead

Further education is critical in safeguarding the region’s employment opportunities and supporting our economic recovery, providing people with the training and skills required to thrive in the workplace. Crucial to this success has been our investment and commitment into a place-based approach to FE and skills, working closely alongside employers to deliver exactly what they need, while adapting to the changing landscape. By working together and reacting swiftly and effectively to regional demands and a diverse audience, we believe we have a clear roadmap to navigate the pandemic, reboot our economy and accelerate growth in key sectors.

Dr Julie Nugent is Director of Skills and Productivity at the West Midlands Combined Authority. She has held a range of senior roles across government and further education, with particular expertise in financing further education, having developed new funding systems for the Skills Funding Agency and the Learning and Skills Council. Julie has worked in the Black Country and in Birmingham – strengthening her understanding of skills in improving economic competitiveness and people’s life chances. Recently Julie led on the West Midlands negotiations with Government securing the first Skills Deal in the country with additional investment of £100 million to develop the region’s skills.

Clare Hatton is Head of Skills Delivery at the West Midlands Combined Authority, leading on the delivery of the WMCA’s skills portfolio. This includes the recently-devolved £130m Adult Education Budget and a range of pilot initiatives including digital retraining, and employment support pilots.  She works with regional partners to shape support for skills and employment aligned to priority growth sectors, particularly those targeted through the Local Industrial Strategy, driving up skill levels to secure sustainable employment, enhance skills and improve productivity. Previously, Clare worked for the Learning and Skills Council in senior policy roles, for PWC in their public sector practice supporting a range of national and government clients, and spent four years working in the senior leadership team at City College Coventry.

Adult education & innovation

On 13th March 2021, The Economist published a letter from Professor Jonathan Michie, Centenary Commission joint secretary, in response to its leader (‘How to make sparks fly’, 27th February 27th – published online as ‘Lessons from Britain’s pandemic on promoting innovation‘). The Economist‘s content is behind a paywall. This is the text of Jonathan’s letter:

Your ingredients for innovation include “good education” (“How to make sparks fly”, February 27th). Quite so. “Good” should mean broad based, crossing disciplinary ranges, and lifelong. This needs stressing, as governments too often take a narrow view, emphasising skills training, STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), and education ending at age 18 or 21. When Britain faced its ultimate STEM-based challenge, breaking the Nazi codes at Bletchley, which included developing the world’s first digital programmable computer, researchers were recruited from across the disciplinary spectrum.

In 1919 the British Ministry of Reconstruction’s report on adult education urged “good education” so that the newly extended electorate could think critically and weigh evidence. It also had the foresight to warn that unknown industries and technologies were on the horizon, so it was no use just training workers for today’s skills. A workforce had to have the capabilities to make the most of new technologies as they emerged.

The Bank of England’s chief economist argued 100 years later, in a centenary report on adult education, that “the education system of tomorrow needs to span the generational spectrum—young to old—and the skills spectrum—cognitive to vocational to interpersonal.”

Professor of innovation and knowledge exchange
University of Oxford

Williamson’s Folly

Sir Alan Tuckett, Centenary Commission vice chair, offers some trenchant views on Gavin Williamson’s white paper, Skills for jobs: lifelong learning for opportunity and growth

Once again we have a skills for jobs white paper.  Once again it calls for employers to be at the heart of shaping further education in the system.  Once again there is nothing on offer to address how best to foster active citizenship, creativity, and the mental well-being of people.  Unlike Theresa May’s Industry White Paper there is no recognition that to meet the vastly different needs faced by people living in Redruth or Barrow in Furness, Southend or Sunderland the key to economic prosperity and tor further education policy and practice can only be forged in dialogue with the communities served, as well as with employers.

There is no place in the current vision for the wider educational role of the further education sector.  Schools and universities celebrate learning with vocational applications, but they also teach philosophy, ethics, art and music – the tools needed for active citizens.  Only FE is denied this breadth.  And so yet again, and despite the welter of advice government has received, adult community education is left to wither.

No, what we get is a faith in the power of central oversight – an ever more finely sharpened system of accountability to oversee staff struggling with inadequate budgets.  The stick, but no carrots. There is like every White Paper since 1991 a touching reliance on employers – who themselves train and develop staff less than any of their European competitors with woeful consequences for productivity – to shape the answers to our needs.

There are of course things to like – like the delayed access to Lifelong Learning Loans for anyone without a level 3 qualification.   But as we wait for 2025 where are the routes from fragile jobs in the gig economy to the sunny uplands of secure employment? Where is the adult guidance system?  Where are the first steps for people to re-engage, the outreach programmes that start from where potential participants are.

Yet again this is a centralist fantasy, without adequate resourcing. What a damp squib!