It’s Adult Learners' Week here in the UK. Adult education is one of those things that makes me feel proud and sorrowful about being British – like good council houses, allotments and Greggs pasties. (Where else do you still find organisations called things like Workers Education Association?) The Ashington Group, subject of Lee Hall’s The Pitman Painters that I wrote about recently, began as a WEA class in the 1930s. And that tradition carries on today with many thousands of people enjoying the arts through adult education, and artists and arts organisations being heavily involved in both formal and informal adult learning. (Literature in the North East has always been particularly strong in this field, with writers and editors like Michael Standen, Gillian Allnut, Andy Croft and the late Bill Scammell amongst many others having played especially important roles.)
In recent years some of the tradition of adult education has come under attack by the forces of modernisation. Some of this has been for the good – there have been benefits from professionalisation of teaching – but other effects have narrowed the people who can benefit, and narrowed the activities. I did a lot of adult ed teaching earlier in my career, and got a huge amount from it. I also saw some great writers emerge who might not have taken the first steps if adult education had not been so welcoming. Increasingly, though, you could harshly characterise the approach as being that most people will need to pay, need to get accredited whether they like it or not and they’ll only be able to pay for things for which are deemed ‘useful’. (Unless we’re especially keen to get them off benefits.)
The government is currently consulting on proposals for ‘informal adult learning’ which seem to be something of a corrective to that trend. There do seem to be dangers within – not least the idea that a Google search and an online experience is as effective adult education as meeting other human beings in a room. (Call me old-fashioned… I know it’s AND not or.) If your practice or your work brings you into this sphere it’s worth looking at that and responses such as those from the WEA and NIACE and perhaps putting your two penn’orth in.