Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Politics
22 May 2000

Will you still teach me when I’m 85?

. . . not if Chris Woodhead can help it. Francis Beckett finds conflict over adult education's bigge

By Francis Beckett

When the chief inspector of schools, Chris Woodhead, openly sneers at a cherished ministerial policy, it is a fair bet that the policy is an unusually good one. “Is lifelong learning a utopian ideal?” was the title of his annual lecture this year. “What”, he wanted to know, “is lifelong learning realistically going to achieve and against what timetable?”

Woodhead takes the same view as Conservative governments: that the only point of lifelong learning, or adult education as it is sometimes called, is to fill “skills shortages” and, as a top IBM executive put it to a recent business-school seminar, to prevent people becoming “technologically obsolete”.

But to Alan Tuckett, the director of the adult learners’ organisation NIACE, lifelong learning is about something much more important than driving up IBM’s bottom line. Education is first and foremost for the learner’s benefit and only secondarily for the employer’s. Without adult education, argues Tuckett, the message to those who did not do well at school is: “If at first you don’t succeed, you won’t succeed.”

The Conservatives systematically vandalised adult learning. They did it in the usual weasel way: they gave local councils a duty to provide “adequate” adult education, and then made sure they had no money with which to do it. One council, Doncaster, decided that, because the money available would not provide anything you could conceivably call adequate, they had best put it into a legal defence fund instead, in case they were sued for failing to provide adequate adult education.

But, as he prepares for the annual Adult Learners Week (20-26 May), Tuckett at last has cause for celebration. There is a good chance that the government’s new regime will start repairing the damage. There is also a fair chance that it could be sabotaged from within – but we’ll come to that.

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. A handy, three-minute glance at the week ahead in companies, markets, regulation and investment, landing in your inbox every Monday morning. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.

From April 2001, a new Learning and Skills Council will be responsible for all post-16 education and training. It will replace two existing quangos but, more importantly, it will supplant a funding regime which ensured that public money was available only for courses leading to recognised qualifications. This was a way of ruling out the non-vocational, the quirky, the leisure learners; and of concentrating on those who wanted to improve their skills, their employability or their career prospects. In future, a college may be as likely to get funding for an octogenarian who fancies learning philosophy in evening classes as for a 16-year-old preparing to take an engineering qualification.

Content from our partners
How do we secure the hybrid office?
How materials innovation can help achieve net zero and level-up the UK
Fantastic mental well-being strategies and where to find them

According to Graham Lane, the chairman of the Local Government Association’s education committee, the government “has stumbled by accident on a huge educational advance. There is a revolution coming – a proper planning framework for education and training.” Within ten years, Lane believes, colleges, universities and adult education institutes will merge into one co-ordinated system, drawing funding from the same source. “If the government gets this right, it will be the most important educational revolution since the 1944 Education Act. The signs are that the government will get it right in a way that it failed to do for schools.”

For the moment, universities are not included in the Learning and Skills Council remit. There was talk of bringing them in, but it would have been over the dead bodies of the vice-chancellors, and defying Establishment figures isn’t what new Labour does best. But Lane thinks universities will come in eventually to create a seamless system of post-16 education, where a traditional degree course is just one of many acceptable ways to pursue learning after school. The new two-year degrees, which will be taught mostly in further education colleges, will help to break down the barriers. What we are seeing, although ministers would hate the comparison, is the introduction of a version of the comprehensive ideal to the post-school sector.

Alongside these major reforms come modest dollops of money to support small local schemes – such as the one in Oxfordshire that teaches basic English to retired Chinese people who have lived in Britain since the 1950s, but who never learnt the language because they worked 14 hours a day in the kitchens of Chinese restaurants.

Increasingly, our growing population of retired people wants to learn something new, hence the extraordinary growth of the University of the Third Age, which had 22,000 members ten years ago and now has almost 100,000. Even when people reach the fourth age of dependency, they should still be able to learn, argues NIACE, which is critical of the low standard of adult education in old people’s residential homes.

This brings out all of Woodhead’s scorn. He said: “I have some sympathy with the 25 per cent of 85-plus-year-olds who said they have done enough learning in their lives, and . . . the 22 per cent who said simply that they were too old. Some non-learners even confessed to liking spending time with their grandchildren. Shame on them!” As Woodhead well knows, there is not the slightest prospect of anyone making learning compulsory for 85-year-olds. All anyone wants to do is to make sure it is available if they want it.

Since Woodhead’s remit is schools, does it matter what he thinks? Unfortunately, it matters a great deal. Woodhead has once again succeeded in expanding his empire. Ofsted is to be responsible for taking the lead in inspecting any establishments where 16- to 19-year-olds are taught – which will, under the new arrangements, include several establishments where 85-year-olds are taught.

It makes no sense. There is to be an adult education inspectorate, but that will now play second fiddle to Woodhead. Since Woodhead is a personal favourite of the Prime Minister, we must assume that this was the price that education ministers had to pay to get the package past Downing Street.

But it leaves Woodhead in a position where he can wreck the most hopeful advance for adult education in 25 years. The devil, as so often, is in the detail.