Sneering at adult learners

Why do we let people get away with it? asks John Field

August 6, 2015

Adult learning is in crisis across the UK. While demand appears to be as high as ever, and the wider public case is as strong as ever, all four governments are busily cutting direct and indirect funding for provision. And when pressed to justify the cuts, it seems that they simply can’t help themselves from deriding adult learners.

Here’s one example. Asked about a collapse in part-time information technology courses, Angela Constance, the Scottish National Party minister responsible, said: “There has been a deprioritisation in the range of computing courses that are about things such as how to work a mouse and how to organise your calendar at Christmas.”

Leave aside that wonderful word “deprioritisation”, and reflect for a moment on the idea that adult courses in IT are about no more than organising your Christmas calendar. Just take five seconds to think about why “organising your Christmas calendar” might help to engage some hesitant learners – and then spend another five seconds thinking about who such a course might appeal to.

I’m sure you’re ahead of me, but here’s one example. A study by Age UK found that whilst 13 per cent of the adult population in the UK have never used the internet, the over-65s comprise over 75 per cent of this excluded group – almost 5 million people. Then add to that the overwhelming evidence of the benefits of learning for older adults.

It’s easy to show that these are silly comments, throwaway remarks that are designed to belittle adult learners and those who support them. But enough. What is important is that sneering at adult learners is so commonplace.

Alan Johnson, when Labour’s education secretary, justified cuts in 2006 by saying that we needed “more plumbing, less pilates; subsidised precision engineering, not over-subsidised flower arranging”. John Denham, then Labour’s minister for higher education, defended his government’s 2008 cuts by describing adult education as little more than “holiday Spanish” (only among the Brits would learning a foreign language be seen as frippery). The Coalition’s skills minister Matthew Hancock, also justifying cuts in 2014, jeered at “qualifications in coaching angling, aerial balloon displays and self-tanning”.

This discourse of derision has a long history in our field. Alan Tuckett used to recall his days organising an adult centre in Brighton, when a local Tory councillor tried to dismiss its courses as “tap-dancing on the rates”. Our early days at Northern College – where working class people came to study – heard cries of “the Kremlin on the hill”. And needless to say, similar jibes faced the men and women who created our adult education institutions.

So what can we do about it? To start off, we can benefit from building a different relationship with policymakers, based on dialogue and reason. And that might mean that we in turn start to treat policymakers as people who are trying to get something done, in conditions that they understand better than we do. Speaking truth to power is an easy slogan, but we need to create platforms for exchange rather than just shouting from our studies.

This doesn’t mean accepting insults that are designed to dismiss us before we even get in the room. In the short term, we need to rebut each and every small-minded jibe. We might even indulge in the occasional cheap shot ourselves – for example, I can’t help pointing out that our dismissive Scottish minister was educated at public expense for four years in one of Scotland’s ancient universities.

In the longer term, we need to make a concerted effort to explain the benefits of adult learning, and put policymakers in situations where they engage directly with adult learners. We have a small mountain of robust evidence on the economic, social and health benefits of adult learning; let’s get it in front of the widest possible audience. And let’s sit policymakers down with learners who can explain exactly why learning how to manage a calendar on a laptop might be an important first step back.

John Field is professor emeritus lifelong learning at the University of Stirling. This article was originally posted on his blog.

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