Anyone who follows me on twitter will know I have followed the developments of the ‘Centenary Commission’ with great interest. A little background: in 1919, the then Ministry of Reconstruction produced a report into adult education in England, viewing it as an opportunity for developing citizenship and growth. The most well known quote from the introduction of the original report describes adult education as “permanent national necessity, an inseparable aspect of citizenship, and therefore should be both universal and lifelong” (1).
This year, a new commission, the ‘Centenary Commission‘ was created to review what is now known as the ‘1919 report’, with new recommendations for a 21st century Britain. The report, released on 18th November to tie in with the original report’s release date, makes 18 excellent suggestions, which can be viewed here.
Last night, I had the honour of attending the inaugural presentation of the report, within a wider event celebrating adult education entitled: ‘Changing Lives: Celebrating 100 years of Adult Education’. The event was presented by Mel Lenehan, principal and chief executive of Fircroft College, sponsored by West Midlands Combined Authority, The West Midlands Further Education Skills & Productivity group, West Midlands Adult & Community Learning Alliance and the Association of Employment and Learning Providers, and was hosted in the fantastic conference suite at Solihull College and University Centre.
I had the even greater honour of inviting one of my own adult learners to the event and I invited someone from the women’s centre, who wouldn’t normally get the opportunity to attend a main college campus event due to her class meeting in an outreach centre. This vibe ran through the whole event, with one speaker commenting “wherever we meet, be it libraries, community centres, or in the pub!”, as did the feeling that none of us would be there without our adult learners.
Mel Lenehan opened the event with an inspiring presentation, including a powerful video showing Fircroft learners sharing the impact their education has had on them. She asked different stakeholders to stand and be welcomed with a round of applause, from policy makers, to leaders, to researchers, to tutors and, of course, most importantly: “please stand up if you have been an adult learner in the last 100 years!” No surprise when the whole room rose to their feet!
The first speech came from a practitioner from Birmingham Adult Education Services, who shared inspirational stories of her learners (with their blessing of course), and really highlighted the impact adult learning has on the individual, their families, as well as the wider community and society. One such story was of a dyslexic learner who had struggled with school and, as an adult, was a single parent. He went from his English GCSE onto further and higher education, later becoming a scientist. The role-model he is for his children and what he contributes to our country must be understood and valued and, as the tutor pointed out, he’d been wasted previously spending the morning in the bookies and the afternoon in the pub.
The next story was of a young man called Fizend, who had walked across Europe from Syria, and then lived in The Jungle at Calais. He arrived in England as an asylum seeker and was told the best he could hope for was to work in a car wash. He admitted an ambition to study English, and arrived at Birmingham Adult Education Services hoping to study for a GCSE. Needless to say, after a successful GCSE, he has carried on his studies and he is now looking forward to starting a Masters Degree in English in September. We were honoured that Fizend attended the event to tell his story and the whole room simultaneously rose to their feet to give him a standing ovation. With no disrespect to car washers, but wouldn’t our country be the less if he’d have followed the original advice?
Next speaking was Dr Mary Mahoney, from the University of Wolverhampton, discussing “The Value of Lifelong Learning”. She highlighted some key points that make it difficult to place a value on this type of education, including the vague definition – what actually is adult education? And what is it about? Is it about employability and skills, or is it about a full-life development and opportunity? She highlighted a few other key challenges: we don’t know what the problem we are trying to solve is and there isn’t an imperative for adult education in the way there is for schools, so schools are favoured. It was an interesting presentation with food for thought. Maybe we need a more united front to be able to really demonstrate the value of adult education?
Next Professor John Holford, from Nottingham University and joint secretary to the Centenary Commission, shared the commission’s recommendations. First, he highlighted the original need for the 1919 report: not just at a time of great reconstruction after the First World War, but at a time when many more people were now entitled to vote. He noted that democracy was growing and changing and, as a result, adult education was viewed as a chance for “building citizenship” and for “life-wide learning”. Next, when focussing on the recommendations, he again highlighted the links between what adults learn and the impact on other aspects of their lives and wider society, which he described as “learning spilling into other domains” of our lives. He also noted a key problem with the current adult education provision in England, which is that the majority of those that are accessing adult education aren’t necessarily those in the most need. A lot of funding goes to the already well-educated, and those that could truly benefit aren’t.
It was such a fantastic event, which I was truly honoured to attend, and I hope it is the start of many such events around the country. We must stand up and advocate for adult education and all share the commission’s 18 recommendations so that, in an uncertain future, adult education gets the value and funding it rightly needs.
(1) The Ministry of Reconstruction’s Report on Adult Education, now more commonly known as the 1919 report.
(Please note: this blog reflects my personal experience of the event and I am happy to be contacted to correct any inaccuracies that may have occurred in my recording of it. I was not asked to review or share the event in any way, but have chosen to do so because I think was fantastic and that the message needs to go out. My views in no way are contributed to my own employer.)