Adult education has faced constant batterings in the past 20 years, says Alan Tuckett. But, like ground elder, it will continue to pop up through cracks in the system.

“There’s no such thing as adult education – it is all further education,” the civil servant charged with the legislation that incorporated colleges once told me. To prove his point, he designed a programme to limit public funding to certified courses listed in an appendix (schedule 2) of the 1992 bill.

Faced with the end of public support for liberal education for adults, the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education, working with local government associations and the Women’s Institute (WI), organised a campaign to change the bill. Around 400,000 people signed a petition in three weeks and 9,000 WI branches mobilised members to write to MPs.

Within six weeks the policy was ‘clarified’ — national funding for courses of national priority would go through the new Further Education Funding Council (FEFC); other uncertified classes could be funded by local authorities. FEFC funding expanded, local government was cash-strapped — with the result that French for pleasure classes became level one to qualify for national funding. Local adult services became mini FE providers riding the expansion of the sector — and proving the civil servant’s point. A new industry emerged, offering credit to community-based courses, and provision where learners might negotiate the curriculum reduced in number.

However, in the mid 1990s, finance ministers of countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development became intensely interested in lifelong learning as a means to secure economic advantage, and successive Conservative and Labour governments sought to encourage outreach and participation to people turned off by learning the first time round.

Then Education Secretary David Blunkett’s faith in the holistic benefits of adult learning, helped the sector

The Kennedy, Tomlinson and Moser reports, backed by then Education Secretary David Blunkett’s faith in the holistic benefits of adult learning, helped the sector to identify, reach and provide successfully for groups of adults under-represented in FE. The high water mark of public policy for adult learning was reached with the remit letter given to the new Learning and Skills Council (LSC) that took over from the FEFC and the training and enterprise councils in 2002.

But the business people charged with overseeing the LSC had radically different priorities; Blunkett moved off to the Home Office and, before long, utilitarianism became the order of the day as year after year we were exhorted, through yet another skills strategy, to shape up and get qualified. Meanwhile FE funding continued to expand and post-25 funding stalled and shrank — one million adult learners disappeared from publicly-funded provision in three or four years. In came the deadweight funding of the Train to Gain programme where, among other things, the LSC paid the Army for basic skills teaching it was already doing in order to hit targets. Still, Train to Gain did reach people in work in their 40s and 50s.

Late in the decade John Denham, the Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, put energy — though little cash — into a renovated community learning policy that sought to celebrate and encourage learning outside formal provision, in universities of the third age, libraries, museums, reading groups and voluntary associations.

But the bankers’ excesses and the onset of the recession scuppered any hope of a real renaissance and inhibited John Hayes, the incoming Tory Skills Minister, from financially backing his and Business Secretary Vince Cable’s vision for learning for its own sake.

So, here we are, with post-25 numbers leaking from colleges, a bleak spending round in prospect, and reasons to be cheerful in short supply. Yet adult education, like ground elder is resilient, and pops up through the cracks in the system, whatever the planners may want.

Alan Tuckett, president of the International Council for Adult Education, former chief executive of NIACE and a visiting professor in lifelong learning at Nottingham and Leicester universities