Skip to main content

Adult Education

Volume 976: debated on Wednesday 16 January 1980

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[ Mr. Peter Morrison.]

12.18 am

I am grateful to the House for this opportunity to raise the subject of adult education, which I believe is of increasing interest to several hon. Members in the House and will come increasingly to the fore in several constituencies up and down the country in the next few months.

The first movement towards that increase in interest is reflected by the fact that during the past two or three months a number of Back Benchers have grouped together to pursue the interests of adult education in the House. My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway), who I understand will be seeking to catch your attention later in the debate, Mr. Deputy Speaker, is the chairman of that group of Members of Parliament and is responsible for articulating some of the concerns that are shared by Back Benchers interested in this subject.

I begin by making clear my objective in raising this subject in the House this evening. I am not asking my hon. Friend the Minister for detailed statistics on the level of spending by local education authorities on adult education nor am I asking him to defend the particular spending decisions which local education authorities may or may not have made. My hon. Friend will rightly tell me that local educiation authorities are the primary decision-making machines on adult education matters and must carry the responsibility for their own decisions. However, I believe that the Government have an important contribution to make, not so much by making individual spending decisions but by creating the political environment in which those decision are made. Many of us feel that adult education lacks a clear political commitment from the top about the underlying value of the work of that sector. That is not something that has come forward in the last few months. The whole sector has been drifting for the last two or three years. What is needed is a new top-level commitment to the ideas, aims and goals of adult education.

Some of the spending decisions that have been taken by local education authorities in the past four or five months reflect a lack of political will and direction. I shall mention one or two of the more publicised examples.

My hon. Friend will know that Humberside, West Glamorgan and Hampshire have all imposed, at one time or another, a total suspension of adult education activity. Nottinghamshire, the county next door to my own, has imposed cuts that will reduce the number of places offered to adults by approximately 80 per cent. My own county of Leicestershire has, perhaps, been less swingeing than most in the cuts that it has applied, but I was told this morning that the local people involved in adult education expect a drop in student numbers of about 25 per cent. to 30 per cent.

I have for many years been a tutor in adult education, via the University of Wales extramural department and in many other ways—the WEA, and so on—and I am surprised to hear what the hon. Gentleman says. He refers to West Glamorgan, where I was a lecturer in various subjects in adult education. I had the interesting experience of talking to a broad range of talented people who had never had the opportunity of education in the conventional sense, and they were dependent on a very small element of higher education grant which was taken away from them by the Government of which the hon. Gentleman is a supporter.

I heartily support the hon. Gentleman in having an Adjournment debate tonight on higher education, and I have in mind especially those who have not had the opportunity of grants, who have not got A-levels, O-levels and the rest. But these are the people who are bereft of help at the present moment, and it surprises me that the hon. Gentleman can be so passionate at a time when his own Government are taking away the very cash which gives help, succour and joy to a wide range of people.

Order. I know that the hon. Gentleman is a new Member, but I must tell him that it is not customary to intervene in an Adjournment because it is such a short debate, and, if the hon. Member whose debate it is gives way, it is not customary to intervene at undue length.

The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point but not, I think, an accurate one, because I said at the outset that I was not concerned about the particular application of specific spending decisions because that is not a subject which is directly the responsibility of my hon. Friend the Minister or of the House. What is the responsibility of the House and of my hon. Friend is the political environment in which those decisions are made. That is why I ask my hon. Friend to make clear tonight—or at some other time if he cannot do it now—the Government's underlying political commitment to the aspirations of adult education so that decisions of that kind are taken in an atmosphere more positive towards the ideas to which the hon. Member has given expression.

Adult education is nothing very new, and certainly my party's political commitment to it is nothing at all new. Anyone who is involved in the adult education world, as the hon. Gentleman was, will be well aware of the letter written by Winston Churchill to the TUC in 1953 in which he said:
"There is perhaps no branch of our vast education system which should more attract within its particular sphere the aid and encouragement of the State than adult education."
I am asking the present Government to renew the commitment which Winston Churchill gave in 1953 and underline their attachment to the idea which he then embraced.

I turn now to one or two aspects of this subject. The hon. Member for Huddersfield, East (Mr. Sheerman) was, I thought, a bit scathing about this Government's record in adult education, so perhaps I should begin by speaking briefly about what they have done in the basic education of adults, because here they have, I think, already made a start down the road which I suggest they take.

In a parliamentary answer to me on 17 December, the Secretary of State announced that the adult literacy unit was to continue for a further three years and that the funding of this unit was to be increased from £330,000 to £½ million.

That does not fit in with a picture of total cutbacks on all forms of adult education. My right hon. and learned Friend announced also in accepting many of the recommendations in the report of the Advisory Council for Adult and Continuing Education that the adult literacy unit would be extended to cover a wider range of basic skills.

I warmly welcome that, though I enter one caveat. I hope that that commitment at the centre will be reflected in the local education authorities, for there is not much point in having that commitment to the adult literacy unit if at the same time we do not have the commitment in the local education authorities at the sharp end to carry out the ideas that the literacy unit is supposed to be propagating.

Adult education is not primarily about basic education. It is concerned fundamentally with the much wider subject of the development of knowledge, skills, judgment and creativity for each citizen throughout adult life. I hope that the Minister's statement will emphasise that adult education is concerned not merely with the use of leisure time. Nor is it confined to the way in which a few privileged persons use their evenings to enjoy themselves. It is about providing an opportunity for all our citizens to develop throughout life. We must move away from the idea that education ends when we leave school, whether that be at 16 years, 18 years or, for the lucky few, when they leave university at 21 years. Education is a continuing and permanent process.

It is necessary that that is made clear for two reasons. First, there is the purely utilitarian reason that we are short of talent. We do not have talent to waste. We cannot afford to allow those who are late developers to fall by the wayside. We need their talents. We need them to contribute to the economy. We need to encourage upward mobility so that extra skills may be acquired and the quality of the population is developed and is better able to contribute to a fast-changing society.

Secondly, we need to provide a second chance for those who do not take full advantage of their time at school, for whatever reason. We need to provide an opportunity for people to improve later in life and to improve the contribution that they make to our society.

Those are utilitarian arguments. However, adult education is also concerned with the development of a free society. The development of the individual and the improvement of the contribution that he can make is not confined to improving the economy. It is also concerned with everything that the Conservative Party has stood for—namely, higher individual attainment and the pursuit of excellence. That is a process that cannot stop at 18 years. It is something that should be pursued throughout adult life.

If that is the role that we understand for adult education, it cannot be regarded merely as a commercial enter- prise. The public funds education for the primary, secondary and university sectors because it sees public benefits coming from that funding. Individuals benefit, but the public benefit as well. That is equally true of the adult education sector. We accept that if cuts are to be made in other sectors of public expenditure they must affect adult education too. However, we argue that they should not affect it disproportionately.

12.28 am

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough (Mr. Dorrell) on his initiatives in this important area. I thank him for accommodating me for a few moments in this Adjournment debate.

I speak as the chairman of the new all-party committee on adult education. The committe has already had two meetings and it is getting down to business. It looks forward to making a contribution in the important sector of adult education. I have had 15 years' experience of adult education. I have worked in this field in addition to my other big jobs in education.

Clearly, schoolchildren and young people in colleges and universities should come first. However, we must try unremittingly to establish and maintain throughout the nation a firm infrastructure for adult education upon which, when the economy is stronger, can be set up those vital classes for older people, young mothers, the increasing number of early retirers, the unemployed, the illiterate, those with increasing leisure time and others in every walk of life with active minds and bodies who seek stimulating and/or relaxing courses which can come only through the adult education service.

Such people make keen students. As my hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough said, some of those people may well have not made the most of their schooling and have to come to understand the need for education later in life than many of us. Whether they are late developers or people within the categories that I have described, they are keen students who want to learn. They inspire, among those who teach them, keen tutors. Such tutors give a service that makes adult education probably the most cost-effective sector of education, public or private. The tutors are paid by the hour, but they give their time freely for travelling and lesson preparation before and after classes.

Authorities throughout the country, but particularly Inner London and notably Ealing of the outer London boroughs, have long had a good record in adult education. If a local authority offers a good adult education service, it reaches the whole community. Although people do not necessarily enrol every year, in an area near this House research has shown that 20,000 people have enrolled for adult education courses over the past three years, whereas the annual enrolment has been 9,000 a year. Notable people in this matter in London—Joan Adams, Jimmy Maple, Peter Clyne, Sidney Hearen and others—are equipped to comment on the situation. On adult education they say:
"We touch a large part of the community."
Any of us, just by talking to people, can usually discover in that conversation that people have attended a class in adult education at some time or another. I should like to see, as soon as possible and by whatever means possible, daytime classes, as well as evening classes, increasing in academic, physical education and vocational areas. Over 2,000 classes in the small region that I have referred to are held in the daytime. The adult education institute concerned has some accommodation of its own, but it has to work hard to find extra accommodation. Such accommodation should become increasingly available as school rolls fall and premises are vacated. Not all schools will easily be sold and some might well be saved for the purposes of adult education. They would make a valuable contribution.

I should like to continue the quotation that was started by my hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough from what Sir Winston Churchill said to the Trades Union Congress in 1953, in the context of the post-war situation:
"How many must there be in Britain, after the disturbance of two destructive wars, who thirst in later life to learn about the humanities, the history of their country, the philosophies of the human race, and the arts and letters which sustain and are borne forward by the ever-conquering English language? This ranks in my opinion far above science and technical instruction, which are well sustained and not without their rewards in our present system. The mental and moral outlook of free men studying the past"—
as well as the present, I would add—
"with free minds in order to discern the future demands the highest measures which our hard-pressed finances can sustain.
I have no doubt myself that a man or woman earnestly seeking in grown-up life to be guided to wide and suggestive knowledge in its largest and most uplifted sphere will make the best of all the pupils in this age of clatter and buzz, of gape and gloat".
This, for me, is the crunch of his remarks:
"The appetite of adults to be shown the foundations and processes of thought will never be denied by a British administration cherishing the continuity of our island life."
No Administration cherishes our island life more than the present Government. We have a deeply patriotic Government and I am confident that they will do all they can for adult education and thereby for the true fulfilment of our people.

12.35 am

I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough (Mr. Dorrell) has chosen the topic of adult education for the Adjournment. The last time that we spoke together was in a school meeting during the general election. I first met my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway) when we were in the Oxford university settlement in Mope Street, Bethany Green. Both of us were then involved in the teaching profession.

My hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough asked whether the Government's commitment carried on that of previous Conservative Governments to adult education. I reassure him that that is so. We believe that expenditure on adult education is one of the most purposeful and productive aspects of all education expenditure.

Does the Minister accept that it was the Labour Government of 1966 who pushed the Open University through Parliament? Surely that is the greatest contribution to adult education that the country has ever known. I seem to remember that the Conservative Party was in two minds about whether to support that great advance.

The greater product of adult education is the Workers Educational Association. I welcome the Open University, but the Workers Educational Association has battled on for over 60 years. If the Open University does as well as that association after 60 or 70 years, I shall agree with the hon. Member for Huddersfield, East (Mr. Sheerman).

We did have doubts about the Open University. All rational men have doubts from time to time. We looked at the proposition, but we were not sure whether it would be successful. That does not seem to indicate an irrational frame of mind. When my right hon. Friend the Pirme Minister was Secretary of State for Education and Science in 1970, she came to the conclusion that the Open University was doing a good job. As the Open University is now within my sphere of responsibility, it was one of the first places that I visited upon taking office. I am convinced that the money spent on the Open University is well spent, and I agree that it is part of adult education.

There are three facets to adult education, all of which have been covered by my hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough. First, there is the technological facet, in which the Open University plays its part. Because of the rapid change in technology and industry, not only do we require a well-educated population possessing the basic skills, but special skills need to be ret aught from time to time. There also needs to be the development of new skills that are flexible to new demands if we are to attain the economic revival that we all seek.

Secondly, the remedial or balanced aim of adult education is for children who leave our schools to be able to read and write. We have by no means reached that stage. I have talked to people about the figures for adult illiteracy. Adult education has a role to play in remedial education, because people can return to education when they feel the need for literacy and numeracy. I am particularly sympathetic to that need, and facilities are provided to those people so that they can learn skills for their own satisfaction, as part of their job, and to make up for something that they missed when they were at school. The same consideration applies to the minor ethnic groups. Many of these people require the skills of numeracy and literacy to enable them to fit into our society. This applies also to the boat people who have recently arrived here. The older ones would gain from adult education.

I welcome my hon. Friend's statement. I said that the Government had made a good start on adult literacy. I ask my hon. Friend to address himself to the problem that arises when the Government put funds into the adult literacy unit but some local authorities reduce their spending at the sharp end on those objectives.

I shall come to that when I have completed what I want to say on the other matter.

There is a third need that has to be met, and that is self-fulfilment. It means that people can go to classes similar to the old WEA classes in literature and history and in that way gain a further insight into the society in which they live. That is a justifiable expenditure.

I shall come in a moment to our commitment to adult education and compare the figures for this year with those for last year.

Let me deal with the rate support grant. It is not just a question of adult education. One has to consider also stationery, books, and so on. Once money has been put into the rate support grant, one has to reply upon the local authority and public opinion within that authority to ensure that the money provided for adult education is used in that way. That can be done only by creating the proper climate of opinion.

Where cuts have to be made—and in many cases they have to be—one must ensure that that is done. After all, we were elected to bring the economy into balance. That is something in which all of us on this side believe. Special cases are difficult to deal with. Everyone is a special case if one allows it.

It is essential that local authorities do not cut so near the bone that we cannot get the situation going again once we put more flesh on. That is the first important point to make. Secondly, voluntary associations and voluntary bodies have an important role to play. The WEA is one such body. A local education authority must not just keep its own classes going and run down the funds that go to voluntary bodies, because in many cases those bodies meet the demands of people in the area and can expand most easily when the situation eases economically.

I must make a point about guidance to local authorities. I understand that the Advisory Council for Adult and Continuing Education hopes to provide indications of practical ways in which provision is being maintained at local level within reduced budgets. I think that that would meet the point raised by my hon. Friend about what is happening where cuts have to be made but where there has been a retention of the standards that had been achieved.

I am sure that my hon. Friend will be glad to hear that there will be no reduction in grant-aid from the Department to bodies such as the WEA and university extra-mural departments, which are also grant-aided by the local authorities and which supplement LEA provision. We intend to provide the same amount of money in 1980–81 as has been provided this year, so there will be no reduction in adult education. That shows that we believe in adult education. We are providing real money for this purpose.

That was a very pleasant intervention. If the hon. Member for Huddersfield, East wants to intervene and give only one cheer, I shall gladly give way.

Just before Christmas, my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State announced that he had decided to extend the term of the Advisory Council for Adult and Continuing Education for a further three years beyond October 1980, to which it was timed, to enable it to complete its important work of reviewing current practice and the means of most effectively deploying existing resources and of identifying the policies and priori- ties which it considers important for the evaluation of a coherent pattern of provision in tune with present and future needs.

Similarly, just before the Christmas Recess, we took an initiative with the adult literacy unit—with which I have had many conversations—for the development after March of the unit into one with a wider remit, covering not only literacy but other related basic skills. Although my right hon. and learned Friend felt able to give central support, it is particularly important to mention tonight that we are providing the same funds as before. We have given it another three years. We are working very closely with it.

In particular, we want to move the adult literacy unit into a basic education of adults unit, where it will cover proficiency in areas such as literacy, numeracy and communication, without which people are impeded in applying or even being considered for employment. I have had a number of conversations with these people and I have no doubt that they are doing an excellent job. We shall watch carefully to see what further help we can give them. We have given them a budget of £500,000 in the first year, and we have promised its continuance over three years.

It gives me pleasure this evening to answer my hon. Friends and say that our commitment to adult education is clear. It has been shown financially. We have put our money where our beliefs are, by not cutting the amount going to adult education. If we can give a lead by saying that this is one of the priorities that must be maintained not just for the present but for the future—and that includes the Open University—I am sure that this debate will have been useful for all concerned.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at fourteen minutes to One o'clock