A Centenary Commission on Adult Education

November 2019 will mark the centenary of the Ministry of Reconstruction’s final report on adult education which set the groundwork for liberal adult education in Britain for the rest of the 20th century. NIGEL TODD explains why the time is ripe to revive and re-evaluate adult education for the 21st century.

The centenary of the 1919 report – largely authored by RH Tawney – is a vital opportunity to reflect on the needs and possibilities for adult education today and into the century ahead. Britain in 1919 faced immense economic, political and social challenges. Today’s challenges, though different, are no less profound.

A programme of activities will mark the centenary. As part of this, and to stimulate a wide-ranging debate and open up new avenues for the development of adult education for the century ahead, a number of organisations have come together to set up The Commission on Adult Education.

RH Tawney, ILPer and author of the final report

The Commission is made up of leading public figures and adult educators. It includes young, emerging as well as established figures. Its remit is identical to its 1919 predecessor’s: “To consider the provision for, and possibilities of, adult education (other than technical or vocational) in Great Britain, and to make recommendations.” It will explore the relevance, for the 21st century, not only of liberal education for adults, but of the many other forms it takes today.

The Ministry of Reconstruction, set up under Lloyd George’s wartime coalition government in 1917, was to oversee rebuilding “the national life on a better and more durable foundation”. Its adult education committee, chaired by AL Smith, Master of Balliol College, Oxford, had 19 members, including leading public figures such as Tawney, Albert Mansbridge, founder of the WEA, and Ernest Bevin.

The 1919 report provided a template under which adult education, oriented towards building a democratic, tolerant and liberal civil society, flourished through most of the 20th century. Adult education – committed to enriching the communities where men and women live and work – played a vital, if often unacknowledged, part in the social fabric. The 1919 report’s ringing assertions of principle laid the foundations:

  • “Adult education is a permanent national necessity, an inseparable aspect of citizenship, and therefore should be both universal and lifelong”; it “should be spread uniformly and systematically over the whole community”.
  • “We need to think out educational methods and possibilities from the new point of view … of the adult learning to be a citizen”.
  • The state “should not … refuse financial support to institutions, colleges and classes, merely on the ground that they have a particular ‘atmosphere’ or appeal to students of this type or that. All that it ought to ask is that they be concerned with serious study.”

Over the last three decades many of the opportunities for, and institutions of, adult education have been swept away. Much of what remains focuses largely on training younger adults in workplace skills.

Training for employment matters. But adult education must be rebalanced so that democratic, inclusive values and social justice – enhancing people’s lives as a whole – are at the heart of provision. 
Britain faces major social and economic challenges. The Commission on Adult Education will address the need for, and role of, adult education in relation to such factors as:

Globalisation and the future of work
For millennia, work has been a vital part of the human condition. Today, ‘precarity’ has become a permanent feature of working life for many – while, as Sir Alan Tuckett wrote recently in The Guardian, “robotics and artificial intelligence promise to do for white collar jobs, as globalisation did for their blue collar counterparts”. Some suggest that a universal basic income can replace employment – but few have found welfare payments sufficient to fulfil their intellectual or emotional needs. Others imagine work in new ways. What role will adult education have in a world of non-work?

Civic engagement and democracy
Our democracy is increasingly strident and polarised, prey to populism and demogoguery. New forms of connection provided by social media often privilege ill-considered and ill-tempered substitutes for reflection and debate. An educated democracy has long been a key aim of adult education: how can it strengthen a considerate civic culture in the digital age? What forms should political education for adults take?

Education as a human right
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) established education, “directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms”, and to “promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups”, as a human right. Adult education has a central role to play in strengthening these values.

Inequality and social mobility
Recent debate about educational opportunity has focussed on social mobility. But enabling a few exceptionally talented individuals to climb the social ladder, to escape from deprived communities, does nothing for those who remain. None should be left behind. Many second chance learners have become activists in their own communities. Adult education’s mission is to enable all – even the most deprived – to lead fulfilling lives.

Communities, migration and identities
Our society comprises many communities. Based on residence, occupation, religion, interest, and much else besides, they are associated with identities. Some are formed by migration; others feel threatened by it. What part should adult education play in supporting and valuing diverse communities, and in developing mutual understanding between them?

New social movements
Adult education emerged from social movements, and is vital to connecting educational institutions with contemporary concerns. It has supported them in challenging social injustice and raising political consciousness. Social movements today – many reconfigured around new identities – generate and require new forms of knowledge and learning. How should adult education adapt to them?

Values, religion and spirituality
Adult educators like Tawney and Mansbridge combined deep shared values with a secular spirituality. Today, religious identities are increasingly diverse, while the state requires ‘British values’ to be taught in schools. Has adult education a continuing role in the promotion of some forms of spirituality, of common values?

Demography and ageing
The population grows older. We know that people stay healthier, and make a bigger contribution to society and civic debate, when they are active and engaged learners. How should adult education support older women and men – and also ensure their wisdom becomes an asset to communities of all kinds?

International educational policy
Across the world, the educational policies of governments and institutions is now driven by a plethora of official and unofficial metrics. Too often these fail to encapsulate the full richness education should offer – the focus on skills and employability in lifelong learning is an example. Can global metrics and policies embrace the breadth and democratic nature of adult education?

Structures and institutions
Colleges, institutes, universities, local education authorities, and voluntary organisations providing adult education have been radically disrupted in recent decades. Some have not survived; others no longer see adult education as their remit. The Open University, a pearl of British adult education, faces major financial challenges. How might new institutions and structures based on need and aspirations be supported and encouraged? What structures and institutions are needed to enable adult education to grow for the common good?


Nigel Todd is chair of trustees at the Co-operative College and an ambassador of the Workers’ Educational Association.

The Commission on Adult Education and the Adult Education 100 campaign are supported by the Workers’ Educational Association, Raymond Williams Foundation, Co-operative College, Unversity of Nottingham, and Kellogg College, University of Oxford.

1 Comment

  1. Harry Barnes
    13 May 2019

    Nigel Todd attended Ruskin College as a full-time adult student from 1967 to 1969. Ruskin then provided a pattern for adult education which (with state funding) needs to be re-built and adapted to the modern era of technological change. I had the good fortune to study Politics and Economics at Ruskin between 1960 and 1962. Nigel has also involved himself fully with this educational tradition, both before attending Ruskin and ever since.

    Ruskin provided me an opening to study Politics and Philosophy at Hull University, then I taught mainly on classes for trade unionist via Sheffield University Extramural Department for 21 years. My following 18 years as an MP (in an era of the decline of both trade unionism and of such forms of adult education) gave me a full appreciation of its past values and the avenues which need to be re-established – yet to fit into a changing world.

    Here’s a link to some 35 items related to adult education which I have placed on my blog over the past 12 years. http://threescoreyearsandten.blogspot.com/search/label/Adult%20Education

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