Q&A: Nigel Todd on the Adult Education 100 campaign

We speak to the chair of the Co-operative College about a new drive to boost life-long learning

What is the Adult Education 100 campaign?

It’s rooted in the centenary of a far-reaching government report, the 1919 Report, that covered adult education, libraries and museums, and army education. The campaign will boost the profile of life-long learning. It’ll engage individuals, institutions, voluntary organisations and local groups in feeding into a Commission on Adult Education charged with producing a modern version of the ‘1919 Report’.   

Why is it so important?

Adult education enhances people’s lives.  It helps in acquiring skills for work and everyday life, building self-confidence, and improving or maintaining health and wellbeing. And it enables more people to participate in the way we live, whether in community activity, or through insights into literature, history, philosophies, arts and culture. Adult education also cultivates independent, critical thinking. At a time when fake news and social media are concerns, being able to form your own judgement is pretty vital.

How has adult education changed over the last century?

There’s now more emphasis on ‘learning through doing’ rather than being talked at. We no longer see adults simply as empty vessels to be filled up with information by experts. We’ve moved from the world of the overhead projector to more effective uses of PowerPoint, the web, iPads. And traditional correspondence courses have been supplanted by the emergence of MOOCs – Massive Open Online Courses – making more learning opportunities available for everyone to access.

Adult educators have always championed change. The Workers’ Educational Association (WEA) pioneered the use of educational radio in the 1920s, and the experience of adult students provided the basis for the Open University.

What are the biggest challenges?

Access for all and funding! For example, the 1919 Report temporarily enabled adults to go to university, but eventually ‘mature students’ became a significant proportion of the student population. Yet student loans and other priorities for universities have had dire impacts. Staggeringly, the number of mature students in universities has halved in the past five years.

Related: A look at plans for a co-operative university

Sufficient funding has always been a problem, and government funding has now diminished substantially. So, there are 2 million fewer adult learning places in further education than in 2004.  In England, especially, the coming transfer of much of the adult skills budget to devolved and mayoral authorities is posing a major threat to broad adult learning provision where adult education is seen as only about vocational skills, important though those are. Humans are multi-dimensional beings, and therefore routes into learning must be broad and comprehensive.

Why is it relevant to co-operatives?

Co-operatives have generally seen education as developing co-op members’ participation in their co-operatives, and also to gain the skills required to direct, manage, operate and shape their co-ops. We call this commitment Principle 5, don’t we?

There’s some research evidence that members like taking part in their co-ops if it’s a way of learning new things. Hopefully, the Co-operative Group’s recent members’ survey on life-long learning will reinforce Principle 5 as a co-operative ambition.

Related: National campaign on adult education marks report centenary

How is the Co-operative College involved in the campaign?

We initiated it to a degree. The co-operative movement was well-recognised in the 1919 educational landscape, and as Chair of the College I approached both the WEA and the University of Oxford who had been key partners in producing the ‘1919 Report’. I proposed that we get together to mark the centenary. This brought a very  positive response, leading to a joint steering group that soon included Nottingham University and the Raymond Williams Foundation.

The College has been contributing staff support, and it hosts the ever-growing contact list of people across the country who want to help the campaign.

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