Sunday, 7 February 2010

Learning the wrong lessons about adult education.

Britain is broken and it is all the fault of the baby boomers, the lucky generation born between the end of the war and the mid sixties. That’s the line most of the media and all three main political parties have taken and run with like a dog chasing sticks in a suburban park for the past couple of years.

I don’t usually give much in the way of credence to rumours of impending national decline, Britain has been going to the dogs since before Julius Cesar landed and things still seem to shake out ok most of the time, this week though a story floated onto my radar that gave me cause to feel a lot less sanguine.

According to the Association of Colleges (AOC) further education colleges across the UK could face cuts to their funding of up to 16% as the current government or the next grapples with spiralling public sector debt. The axe, if it falls, will see courses in construction and GCSE and A Level courses cut and the same blow will be dealt to the provision of courses for adults struggling to reach Level 2 in Maths or English.

AOC Chief Executive Martin Doel told the BBC this week that his members understood the challenge faced by the government as it struggles to balance the books and placate a nervous stock market but said that they feared the loss of ‘high quality courses that are essential to economic recovery.’

Sally Hunt, General Secretary of the Universities and Colleges Union (UCU) took up the case saying ‘the government has rightly identified education as a key driver of social mobility, making cuts to adult learning now would be an outrageous affront to the millions of people it promised not to let down.’

What, you might ask, has all of this got to do with the baby boomers, the generation we love to hate for having every opportunity you can think of handed to them on a plate and wasting the lot? The answer is quite simple, further education colleges, along with the former polytechnics that later turned themselves into universities like so many bookish caterpillars, are the concrete symbol of all the generation that still provides most of our ruling elite stands for.

They are, depending on your political persuasion, the engines of egalitarianism, a means of transforming education into a common good rather than something people who are too rich to ever really need it enjoy amidst dreaming spires; or a hothouse for dangerously ‘progressive’ ideas that have brought about social and economic chaos. The most notable feature, of course, of the baby boomers is their unfailing ability to mistake one extreme position or another for the moral high ground.

Those of us living in a less rarefied, meaning anywhere outside Notting Hill or Islington, know that colleges are something much more prosaic and more important; they’re the difference between success and failure.

Colleges are where kids, many of them boys, the perennial underachievers in the educational steeplechase, who were bored rigid by school get the chance to discover that education can be something other than tedious; it can be useful and even inspiring. Many people don’t make this discovery until they have experienced the daily grind of having a dead end job or having no job at all, which is why adult education is more important now than ever. F Scott Fitzgerald was wrong, life does have a second act and education is the tool we use to write its script.

There is also another argument to be made in favour of adult education, one that many people in and out of politics in this country find troubling because it requires them to believe in something. Education is a force for good not just because it helps to produce an efficient workforce to power the country out of the economic doldrums, but because it has the power to create fully rounded citizens by exposing participants to new ideas and teaching them the value of questioning everything.

This used to be something the ambitious men (and not a few women too) who formed the backbone of British civic life and could be found in the ranks of every political party represented at Westminster understood implicitly. Their descendents, many of whom benefited from a free university education, have forgotten this vital truth, meaning that by failing to value the benefits of education, education, education, they risk creating economic and social problems for which future generations will pay a heavy price.


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