Ninety years ago this month – on 19 January 1921 – Albert Mansbridge, founder of the Workers’ Educational Association and a member of the Ministry of Reconstruction’s Adult Education Committee, chaired a meeting at 20 Tavistock Square, London, to consider the formation of a British Institute of Adult Education.
The Institute, established in March that year by Mansbridge as a branch of his World Association for Adult Education, was, in the words of its first President, Lord Haldane, to be ‘a centre for common thought by persons of varied experience in the adult education movement’; a representative body and a ‘thinking department’, focused not on teaching but on discussion and advocacy. In 1983, following a number of changes in name and focus, the British Institute became NIACE, the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education.
The story of how we got from there to here is a fascinating one, demonstrating, among other things, NIACE’s enduring influence on the political life of this country, not only in adult education but also in other areas of social and cultural life (the Institute’s growing interest in the ‘remoter provinces’ of adult education led, among other things, to the creation of the British Film Institute and the Arts Council).
But it is worth taking a few moments to reflect on the circumstances of NIACE’s birth. One doesn’t have to read too far into it to see some interesting and instructive parallels.
Britain had emerged from the First World War in the grip of enormous debts following years of escalating expenditure. Calls for retrenchment in public spending reached fever pitch when, in January 1921, Lord Rothermere, owner of the Daily Mail, founded a political party called the Anti-Waste League to campaign against what he argued was wasteful government expenditure (the party won three by-elections in ‘safe’ Conservative seats in the first six months of 1921).
In August 1921, the Conservative-Liberal coalition government, led by Liberal Prime Minister David Lloyd George, asked Sir Eric Geddes – a Conservative politician and businessman otherwise noted for having remarked ‘We shall squeeze the German lemon until the pips squeak’ at a rally before the Versailles peace conference – to chair the committee on national expenditure which formulated a programme of public spending cuts famously dubbed the ‘Geddes Axe’. Between 1921 and 1922, the committee recommended economies of £87 million, £52 million of which were agreed by cabinet, including big cuts in defence and education, with the withdrawal of all funding for 14-16 ‘continuation’ schools.
Although the reductions won wide support among businessmen and politicians, there was also widespread anger, as cuts to social services made Lloyd George’s promise of a ‘land fit for heroes’ seem somewhat hollow. There was a rise in trade union membership, and greater militancy, reaching a head in the General Strike of 1926.
At the same time, these were years of measured optimism among adult educators. The 1919 report of the Ministry of Reconstruction’s Adult Education Committee emphasised the social purpose of adult education, presenting its rationale as to create a ‘well-ordered welfare state or Great Society’ organised in support of the ‘common good’. The report promised a ‘blue print not only for adult education but for a free and full participatory democracy’.
We can hear echoes of the 1919 report’s stress on adult education’s ‘permanent national’ role in delivering healthy, active and inclusive democracy in David Blunkett’s 1997 Learning Age Green Paper, and in some recent speeches by Secretary of State Vince Cable and skills minister John Hayes. But in terms of concrete policy interventions, its more lasting legacy perhaps lies in its helping to cement the distinction between liberal studies ‘without thought of vocational advantage’ and more vocational education, often used by politicians since to justify funding work-related education at the expense of learning ‘for its own sake’. In hard times it is typically to the latter form of education that the chancellor has turned his axe.
Now, as in 1921, we face a challenging economic environment in which to make a case for adult education as a major force for good in society. Now, as then, there are encouraging signs that the role of adult education as a ‘national necessity’ and an ‘inseparable aspect of citizenship’ is understood, and that the value of a stable framework embracing all forms of adult learning is recognised.
However, without such a framework the danger remains that adult learning, thus far protected from the worst of the Treasury’s cuts, could again lose out as budgets tighten and, to borrow Geddes’s famous phrase, the pips begin to squeak. There are many areas of learning – English for speakers of other languages (ESOL), for example, which has seen public support fall by 50 per cent over two years – where the getting-more-for-less formula won’t wash, and where funding reductions will put in serious jeopardy the prospects of creating a genuinely ‘big society’.
Ninety years on, the Geddes cuts are as divisive as ever. One clear lesson that most commentators can perhaps agree on is that the cuts were short-sighted, a response to a campaign led by a vociferous and influential minority rather than a part of a long-term strategy for recovery. Scrapping plans to extend secondary school education for poorer children at a time when workers under 30 were in short supply soon started to look as short-sighted as it was, frankly, wrong, and, unsurprisingly, it was not long before public expenditure began to climb again. Changes to rules on eligibility for ESOL courses, which will see only those on ‘active benefits’ fully funded, could prove similarly short-sighted.
The current coalition government’s programme of public spending reductions are presented as part of a wider programme to build a ‘big society’, but the positive, longer-term part of the plan remains under-developed and there are well-founded concerns that the depth of the cuts will prevent those agencies expected to deliver the agenda from surviving, never mind flourishing, in this brave new world.
If the ‘big society’ vision is to become reality, adult education will have a critical role to play, encouraging and supporting the kind of active citizenship that is an essential part of healthy democracy. But to deliver that agenda, we need a viable, long-term strategy, based on a coherent, life-wide plan for education that recognises that adult education in not an optional extra but, as NIACE’s founders believed, a ‘permanent national necessity’.