With the passing of New Labour and the recession, government through ‘big (rubber) levers of power’ has largely been discredited. Years before David Cameron launched the ‘Big Society’ and the localism agenda, David Miliband had talked about ‘double devolution’ of decision making down beyond the local authority level. Now, in FE this is presented as new freedoms to be responsive to communities – apparently quite a change from the certainties of the Leitch Report (written by a former banker).
Has this ended years of confusion in FE between needs and interests of adults with needs and interests of regulators? BIS and the Skills Funding Agency actually talk about ‘freedoms with results’ and rapid contract interventions if ‘results’ aren’t there. This has its parallel in the payment by results of the Work Programme. Leaving aside the contradictions in this I think the Prime Minister’s interest in the Big Society is genuine. Few are arguing the old Blair/Brown ‘we know best’ approach any more – even if they think they do.
Internationally, there’s currently a massive globalised expectation on (and demand from?) working people to get skills through qualifications, at both technical (FE) and HE level. 75% of New York subway ads are about training and qualifications; buses and billboards in Kowloon are the same. Some employers value skills - in Swindon, Honda preferred to retain staff in 2008-09 rather than make redundancies because of the training they’d invested in them. John Field has argued for years that lifelong learning is no longer something cosy or worthy but an imperative on workers in globalised capitalism.
Across Britain, the USA and elsewhere, middle level jobs are being rapidly stripped away leaving a thinner middle class (in pay/benefits terms) sandwiched between a largely insecure working class and the rich ‘overclass’. This is accelerating as the ‘insurance’ provided by the welfare state is hit by austerity. In Cleveland, Ohio this month over 70,000 people dropped out of welfare payments onto food stamps after three years out of work. A high proportion of them were home owners in the suburbs.
In the face of the ongoing Global Financial Crisis (GFC), you’d think there would be an upsurge in workers’ educational activity in this country. However, after four years of recession and financial crisis there is little of the activity that was seen arising in the WEA even during the early 1980s, let alone in the earlier part of the last century. In reality the capacity and institutional infrastructure that supported birth of WEA has gone. The conditions in which the WEA grew included:
- Labour movement connected to localities
- Lively and active local political party branches
- Churches with a reform agenda
- Cooperative societies
- Confident, councillor led, local authorities
- Individual teachers in universities looking outward and into local communities
The loss of the above has led to a much reduced sense of active democracy. Today, networks of individuals acting locally have often been replaced by networks of professionals working within central government initiatives, looking for bids, drafting ‘deliverables’, totting up ‘beneficiaries’.
This loss of an infrastructure of local democratic institutions with their expectations, committee culture and decision making has been said to have individualised working class people into either aspiring or ‘lumpen’ behaviours/cultures. But these are longstanding trends (at least since 1976 economic/political watershed) and now sit in context of the GFC. This crisis likely to lead to despair and social unrest within which new organisations (reactionary or radical) emerge.
In terms of adult education we’ve seen the limits of a government led professionalisation agenda (and its successor – government endorsed, professional ‘self-regulation’) and yet we all know that one of the most critical elements in successful adult education is great teaching by tutors who are engaged with and understand their students and their communities.
In the historic independent working class education model (however true in reality), great teaching engages with communities and their organisations, learns from all participants, attends to their interests rather than ‘banking’ information or knowledge (however radical) with them. This was centre of Freire’s approach.
The GFC has thrown up new debates and arguments. These have been rapidly spread around the world through the Occupy movement and slogans like ‘we are the 99%’. Within that, the publication of research around the consequences of income inequality in ‘The Spirit Level’ has been significant in concisely capturing the essence of inequality whilst supporting the argument with researched evidence. There has been a remarkable response to it in public debate and from the three main political parties in England. Incidentally, the Tea Party movement in the USA seems to correlate the same issues and reach exactly the opposite conclusion: i.e. income inequality is due to individuals not getting educated, eating badly, committing crimes, getting pregnant too soon, not moving to get work, etc. Of course, they don’t make the comparisons with other developed countries that makes the Spirit Level presentations so simple/effective.
However, the Spirit Level audience is probably a professional one, concerned at the impact of the GFC (on them as well as society). The Spirit Level premise is simple: Income Inequality leads to many social ills, but it’s one that most working class people across the world probably know already – things are unfair and the ruling class isn’t necessarily on your side. In Telford in the early 1980s unemployment reached 20%. The Trades Council called a public meeting which was well attended. The Trades Council Chair (a TU lecturer) introduced the meeting by reading from The Sunday Times an article about unemployment in the Midlands. After a few moments he was heckled by people saying they knew all that but what should be done?
2011 seems to have marked a turn in people’s reaction to the GFC. Disillusion with politicians (as well as the collapsed reputation of banking, journalism and the metropolitan police) is repeated in countries across the world. In that sense, 2011 may be like 1968, 1945, 1919. Within the Arts, some argued that the impact of 1968 didn’t appear until 1974/5. Could there be new structures and ideas emerging now. The Occupy protests put education workshops and debates high on the activities organised to pass time in the encampments.
Adult education and its organisations still need to immerse themselves in working class communities – to see what people think, build a continuing relationship and a changing programme that reflects the issues arising from the relationship. That doesn’t exclude working with state agencies and others in authority but it does require close working with working class communities to understand them and develop the case for sustained work and resources from an authentic point of view. This is a challenge when you need to win contracts, make bids, etc. but it is fundamental to an organisation’s reputation in those communities and that builds its reputation above them at local, regional and national level.
The task for an independent adult education is the same as always. To be successful, its work and behaviour needs to be respected by the community, be on their side, in an open and democratic way – not a subcontractor for the state.
England is very different than 100 years ago. It’s not the GFC that is the biggest challenge to independent working class adult education; it’s the disappearance of local networked infrastructure and decision making in which it can flourish. Can new structures develop in a different networked world?