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Adult education needs an urgent and radical rethink

A crisis is looming. Adult education via Lisa F. Young/

Adult education is in crisis. Decreasing numbers since 2002 means that there are one million fewer adults learning now than in 2010. Research has charted this reduction over the past five years and the trend is reinforced in the most recent statistics.

Adult education is a broad term that can include formal courses working towards a qualification as well as job-related training such as apprenticeships and informal learning for leisure. Higher education carried out by universities is not included. The typical person doing an adult education course is likely to be female, white and aged between 25 and 59.

Cuts of up to 24% for 2015-16 in further education and adult skills have shocked a wide range of providers, professional associations, commentators and adult learning bodies into responding. Research just published by the Association of Colleges (AoC) calculates that 190,000 places on adult learning courses will be lost in 2015-16 alone and that adult education could disappear completely by 2020.


Such cuts appear not only drastic but foolhardy. A growing body of evidence has demonstrated that adult education is important for economic capital, work, personal skills and economic success, especially in times of austerity.

Research by the National Institute for Adult and Continuing Education (NIACE), Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Oxford University’s education academic Ewart Keep, and 2012 research from the Department of Business, Industries and Skills (BIS) has all shown that education improves well-being and health, enhances civic participation, develops economic, cultural and social capital and has lasting community benefits.

Time for a rethink

Somewhat apologetically, business secretary Vince Cable has started a consultation for employers and further education providers to review the country’s vocational education system. Such rethinking will not be enough to save adult education. What is needed is a re-imagining of adult education, before it is too late.

A narrow, though important concentration on skills and economic improvement represents a short-sighted vision, as adult education is much more than that.

In education policy, schooling always dominates. Stephen McNair, a senior research fellow at NIACE and the AoC has explained how school funding is 20 times greater than for post-school education. He says that this unfairness must change before things can significantly improve.

There is no great expectation that this imbalance will change: it has been urged before but never taken up seriously by government. Many proposals for how adult education could be recast and examples of what has previously been achieved already exist.

Education researcher Christine Bennetts and the OECD have shown how adult education often starts small, with little resources or funding, but has lasting value for individuals, enterprises and communities. Even in hard times much can be (and has been) tried which works.

Tailor-made for the community

My re-imagining would start with “Community Adult Education Networks” or CAENs. These would not involve establishing unwieldy and unrepresentative overarching organisations like Local Enterprise Partnerships, but would be located where adult education works best – in the community.

To start with, I’d suggest the government funds 100 pilot groups made up of employers, educational providers, voluntary and community sector organisations, unions, local councils and members of local communities. These would be expected to work together to gather ideas for, construct, carry out and evaluate at least ten small adult education projects each year.

CAENs could be in cities, rural areas, based in companies, colleges or in charities, and in affluent or deprived neighbourhoods. This approach has been shown to enhance workplaces as learning sites, build the confidence of individuals, and to have sustainable long-term benefits.

Colleges and other education providers aimed at adults would be important contributors but would need to become much more outward facing, as suggested in a recent NIACE report on colleges in their community.

Watch and grow

None of this will happen without expert help, so a final proposal is to establish a team of local adult education organisers in each of the pilot areas who can work to develop and grow CAENs. They would need to be properly trained and supported, and could probably be drawn on secondment from existing roles and expertise within the greater community.

The research and ideas discussed here are based on solid research. I have seen such small actions work in practice over many years, but they have never gained widespread support from governments.

Giving this small idea a chance now could help move us a little closer to the vision of Brazilian educator and philosopher Paulo Freire that adult education can be “the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.”

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