Denham booed over adult education budget cuts

March 5, 2009

John Denham, the Universities Secretary, was booed as he defended the Government's record on education at a volatile meeting with campaigners in Westminster last week.

Responding to persistent heckling, Mr Denham told members of the Campaigning Alliance for Lifelong Learning (CALL) that he could "give as good as I get" as he sought to explain the Government's policy on education and lifelong learning.

At one point, the mood in the meeting became so hostile that he threatened to leave as the chair struggled to control the audience.

Mr Denham attempted to answer whether the Government could truly claim its spending priority was education, or whether the Iraq War and the multibillion-pound bailout of the UK banking sector took precedence.

He told CALL campaigners that the money spent on rescuing British banks could not have been diverted into education.

"Believe me, if we had let the banks collapse you would be worse off. It is quite ridiculous to suggest that the money that has been acquired to keep the banks afloat could have been spent on adult education courses," Mr Denham said.

"I'm in one of those departments whose budget is increasing above inflation in real terms. This is a Government that has demonstrated its commitment to education."

The lobby was organised by CALL - an alliance of groups including the National Union of Students and the University and College Union - in response to concerns over the withdrawal of funding for 1.4 million adult education places.

Mr Denham told the meeting that the cash had been withdrawn because priority had to be given to courses that helped people into work, improved the literacy of under-educated adults and taught English to foreign nationals.

"I do think that the Government needs to set some priority areas," he said. "There are choices to be made."

One member of CALL said that members were particularly angered by what they saw as Mr Denham's inference that adult education often amounted to little more than learning "holiday Spanish".

"That really riled everyone," he said. "I know people say he is a thinker, but he came across as very flaky and easily upset, with little idea about how to work a crowd."

He described Mr Denham as "visibly shaken and red-faced" during the meeting.

Gordon Marsden, a member of the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Select Committee and CALL, tabled an early day motion calling for the restoration of funding for lifelong learning in advance of the meeting. It was signed by more than 100 MPs.

However, Mr Marsden said that many more MPs who privately support the motion may have declined to sign because they were worried about keeping their jobs in the Government.

Editor's note

Gordon Marsden MP has made the following points regarding this news item:

"As the proposer of the Parliamentary motion in support of the Campaigning Alliance for Lifelong Learning (CALL), I was extremely surprised by the account given in that report. It reflected neither the specifics of what I said there, nor in my view the overall tone and attitude of the CALL supporters present.

“For the record, I emphatically did not say (as was reported) that ‘many more MPs’ above the 100 plus who have signed the motion ‘may have declined to sign because they were worried about keeping their jobs in the Government’. Indeed, since John Denham, I and several others who spoke emphasised the points of agreement between CALL’s campaign and the Government’s objectives on the value of adult learning there was no reason to view the motion as hostile.

“Had your reporter looked at the article I wrote for the Adults Learning magazine accompanying the lobby or had the THE report published contained a fuller account of my remarks, your readers would have seen I both welcome John Denham’s positive consultation on informal learning and the Government’s focus on progression when funding continuing education.

“The debate between CALL and ministers is around the need to give proper weight and flexibility to such learning – not the polarised confrontation implied by the truncated account of the meeting the THE carried. It is not a case of either skills or lifelong learning – we need both.”

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