A history of the Learning and Work Institute as it turns 100 today

29 May 2021, 7:48

Through its many incarnations, the Learning and Work Institute has supported initiatives that are still with us now, writes Alan Tuckett

The Learning and Work Institute celebrates its hundredth birthday today. Despite never being blessed with a surfeit of cash, the LWI can look back on 100 years of advocacy and research for lifelong learning.    

Along the way it has fostered a range of successful innovations that led to the establishment of major national and international institutions. It has throughout been a critical friend to governments, challenging and supporting policy around adult education. 

The LWI was founded as the British Institute of Adult Education (BIAE) in 1921. It was the brainchild of Lord Haldane (who went on to become Lord Chancellor) and Albert Mansbridge, who also created the Workers’ Educational Association.  

I was an active member from 1974, and led its work from 1988 until 2011. Its membership when it first opened was limited to individuals rather than institutions, drawn from universities, voluntary bodies and local government. They recognised the value of a national voice promoting adult education that could also research and share good practice. 

In the 1920s it fought budget cuts and launched two inquiries, one on broadcasting and adult education, and the other on the role of film in national life. These led to the BIAE helping to create the British Film Institute, and the BBC’s education advisory council.

In 1934 the BIAE’s charismatic secretary, W.E. Williams, noticed the lack of public art in provincial towns and established Art for the People, taking exhibitions of borrowed works to municipal settings.   

Parallel initiatives in music led to the creation of the Council for Encouragement of Music and the Arts, which from 1945 became the Arts Council, eventually led by Williams.  

Meanwhile, Williams also became chief editor of Penguin Books, and during the Second World War, the BIAE seconded him to run the Army Bureau of Current Affairs, too. The weekly discussion materials sent to soldiers about current affairs are often cited as contributing to Labour’s 1945 landslide.  

In 1945 local authorities established the National Foundation for Adult Education, with local authorities and other providers as institutional members. 

BIAE was strapped financially, and in 1948 the two amalgamated as the National Institute of Adult Education.   

NIAE’s international work helped create the European Bureau of Adult Education in 1954 and the International Council for Adult Education in 1974.  

From 1975 NIAE hosted the government-backed Adult Literacy Resource Agency and its successor bodies, playing an active role in the establishment of English as a Second Language courses.   

Throughout the 1980s it also supported activist member committees on gender and race equality, and promoted learners’ voices.    

Its work had a major influence on the expansion of adult opportunities between 1997 and 2003

Then in 1973 the NIAE became the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education, to mark a broadening brief. Until 1991 it hosted two additional innovative government-funded agencies, REPLAN – for unemployed adults – and the Unit for the Development of Adult Continuing Education.    

NIACE returned to advocacy with a bang in the run-up to 1992 legislation, where the government threatened to end public funding for community adult education.  

Working with the National Federation of Women’s Institutes and local government, NIACE co-ordinated a campaign that saw the proposal reversed in just six weeks.   

At the same time NIACE launched Adult Learners’ Week, to celebrate existing learners and encourage others to participate, with free helplines and in partnership with television companies. It was a striking success, was adopted by UNESCO and spread to 55 countries.    

NIACE’s annual adult participation surveys have also helped the government to focus on who doesn’t participate, and its qualitative studies have put forward solutions.   

Its work had a major influence on the expansion of adult opportunities between 1997 and 2003, and has been essential in the fight to limit cuts as public policies have narrowed in the years since.   

The latest name change came in 2014, with the amalgamation of NIACE and Inclusion, which was the research organisation that developed from the unemployment unit. 

As it celebrates its centenary, the LWI’s work is as relevant and vital as ever.

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