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Adult Education

– in the House of Commons at 1:44 pm on 19th December 1980.

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2 pm

Photo of Mr Harry Greenway Mr Harry Greenway , Ealing North

The future of adult education is of the greatest concern to all of us at a time when it is in decline for various reasons. Despite the pressures on the service, there are in Ealing basic literacy and numeracy courses which have been highly successful in catering for the community needs for these areas. I repeat my suggestion that vouchers for courses might be given to the unemployed and to pensioners to enable them to take part when they might not otherwse have the means to do so.

Adult education means the many and various forms of continuing education for adults, mostly part-time, including academic studies from O-level and A-level to degree courses. These courses include literacy and numeracy, physical education, and civic and community vocational education. They are directed towards training for occupations. In addition, there are important newer concepts such as role education for various responsibilities such as parents, school governors, magistrates and voluntary group leaders. There is also "second chance" education, by which I mean the chance for women to study new opportunities. Pre-retirement studies also come under this heading.

The extent of adult education is considerable. Three million people are following academic or vocational courses in public colleges, centres, universities and other agencies. About 2 million people are following courses in vocational and role training for industry and commerce. About 1 million are taking largely academic and vocational courses in private establishments, including correspondence courses. Nearly half a million people are following courses in cultural, physical and role education in voluntary organisations. Nearly 15 per cent. of the adult population participate in adult education every year. The proportion having done so since leaving full-time education is as high as 46 per cent. That still means that 54 per cent. of the adult population does not participate, though many need to.

I am sorry that public sector enrolments in adult education centres were reduced by 10 per cent. last year and will probably be reduced a further 10 per cent. this year. The recent large fall in enrolments has been due to a number of reasons, mainly to do with disproportionately large fee increases. There has been a high rate of increase of fees, which is more detrimental to enrolments than the fee for the course. Fees for this year show average increases of one-third. Enrolments will be down 10 with 12 per cent. on average compared with last year. We should note the large range of enrolment shift from 30 per cent. up in one authority to 68 per cent. down in another. In the former, small increases in fees plus dedicated full-time staff were factors at work, and in the latter massive increases in fees and no full-time staff were operative factors.

I do not advocate that adult education should be free. However, when several authorities have severely reduced their offer of courses, reduced enrolments follow. Several authorities have closed local centres altogether, thus making it impossible for many citizens to reach a source of adult education. Several authorities have levied large letting charges on voluntary groups and agencies which have effectively curtailed the use of community education plant. Some authorities have cut in whole or in part their grants to university extra-mural departments and WEA districts, thus reducing the programme offered by these bodies. Some authorities have closed residential adult colleges which served the whole nation, including industry and commerce, as well as the public at large. Seven colleges were closed last year, and five are threatened this year.

Some authorities have made redundant key adult education field staff, such as principals, organisers and teachers whose dedication and wholehearted efforts previously enabled the underlying demand to be met. I pose the question: is there an underlying demand? There is strong evidence that there is an underlying demand. The recent Advisory Council for Adult and Continuing Education population survey demonstrated that as a fact. Where fee increases are no more than inflation and organising staffing levels are adequate, enrolment increases. There are large waiting lists for courses in many authorities. Further evidence comes from the thousands of letters of complaint from disappointed potential adult students which have appeared in the local press.

Where adult education exists—clearly limited in its distribution and uncontrollable in terms of standards—enrolments have increased. Much of that chaotic position and the results are in contrast to the previouly stated intention of the Government. They are a product of outdated, anachronistic legislation, which means that there is no national system of locally administered adult education. That is something to which the attention of the House should be drawn. Instead, there are more than 100 local systems in England and Wales that increasingly have no relationship or complementarity to one another. I instance the breakdown of the inter-authority recoupment payments as tragic evidence of that position.

The interpretations of the relevant well-meaning 1940s phrases of sections 41, 42 and 53 of the 1944 Act are legion. Before too long, and that means soon, the House must turn its attention to the matter, because the present legislative base is inadequate for the known future requirements.

The all-party adult education committee, of which I have the honour to be chairman, has received a great deal of evidence from all quarters about the present position. Dorian Williams, of showjumping and commentating fame, is a notable pioneer of adult education. For 30 years he has directed the highly successful college at Pendley Manor. His concept, which I commend to the nation and to other colleges that are not following his example, is worth bringing to the attention of the House. With my colleagues, I had the honour of visiting the college and seeing it in full operation It provides full-time courses for industry and other paying groups. Money obtained from those courses, which are run at a profit, is used to subsidise less expensive courses that are intended to be widely available to the population at large. That sort of example is a clear way in which residential colleges could proceed, and perhaps local authorities also. It is a pointer, and I recommend it to the House.

he all-party committee received representations from the Universities Council for Adult Education about the dangerous trends that are contrary to the necessary advances in part-time higher education for adults, about extension work and about liberal adult education for educated citizenry. I refer to its own terms. The representations about the plight of the Friends Centre at Brighton have stirred us. It is a Quaker foundation which has been an excellent innovator, especially in literacy and basic education. It faces closure from the next financial year because the local authority grant is to be removed entirely. In a period of financial difficulty, we all recognise that there are great pressures on local authorities. That is one example of the pressures.

I turn to the future of adult education. Plans should be based on future needs, not on old administrative structures. New vision is required, which includes the necessity for updating and training at many stages in people's lives. It should also include meeting the underlying demand for continuing education by and for adults, the adaptation to, and control of, vast technological change and new careers and roles for many. Finally, future plans should include the necessity of an educated population in matters of public concern, such as health, energy and independence in older age.

The self-dignity that can be achieved by less adequate adults through a suitable course of education is worth the attention of the House. If such courses can be provided, it is important to the mental and spiritual well-being of the nation that they should be provided.

A change of perspective is required for the future—a paradigm shift in thinking about education, away from the old-fashioned idea that all education takes place in the first 16 to 20 years of life. The front end is important but should increasingly be seen as education for subsequent reeducation and training. All education, whether in the first 16 to 20 years or later, is for life. It is not a process that finishes when a young person leaves school, college, university or any other centre of education. Adult education has a crucial role in the continuing process.

Investment in such education is increasingly understood by other developed and developing nations. With expenditure at £144 per head of population, the United Kingdom is seventh in the league table of the nine EEC countries. Denmark at £227 per head, Belgium at £209, West Germany at £197 and France at £166 are all ahead of us and only Ireland and Italy are below us.

Statistics can be misleading, and I realise that our per capita product and income are probably not comparable with those of other countries. Indeed, we are doing substantially better than some countries, but the others are a goal to which we should be aiming in global terms.

As the World Bank recently demonstrated, investment in education, especially continuing education, correlates highly with economic well-being and health and development in all countries. The future can be bright, but if the first local contact points for all types of adult education continue to be cut to the bone in some areas—a development against which my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary wisely warned local authorities and the nation in January—it would be a tragedy and would butcher adult education out of existence. If adult education is cut to the bone, it will not augur well for the necessary mid-decade development of a proper, broad-band, continuing education system for this country.

The value of adult education in the lives of every type of individual is beyond estimate, because people remain motivated, content, integrated and thrusting in their ideas and intellectual vigour if they remain stimulated by what adult education can and should provide in so many forms in its courses.

Without a further development of adult education and a reversal of contraction where it is occurring, it is difficult to envisage a British administration cherishing the continuity of our island life", as Sir Winston Churchill eloquently described it.

Photo of Dr Rhodes Boyson Dr Rhodes Boyson , Brent North 2:14 pm, 19th December 1980

I sometimes wonder whether this is becoming a dual turn, especially with regard to the day on which the House goes into recess. We engaged in a previous debate on a similar occasion. My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway) puts in his request, and while it is always a pleasure to speak in the House it is no desire of mine always to be present on the last day of term. However, my hon. Friend seems to be determined that I should be present.

As we first met at Oxford University Settlement when I came to London—and there is no better institution for youth and adult education—it is particularly significant that my hon. Friend has today raised the question of adult education and that I should be replying to him.

My hon. Friend is the distinguished chairman of the all-party adult education committee, which has done so much good work. I also know that he takes a keen interest in all aspects of education, both as a distinguished schoolmaster and as Member of Parliament for the constituency of Ealing, North. His constituency adjoins mine, and from time to time rumours come across the frontier regarding his activities and the respect in which he is held by his constituents.

The question of expenditure is linked to Government policy. We were elected in order to bring expenditure and income into balance. I am sure that my hon. Friend entirely agrees that for too long we have continued to live on the basis of paying interest on what we have borrowed. As the Government believe in self-help, it is right that they should cut Government expenditure and bring it into balance. As always, this is a question of priorities.

Had this debate been inaugurated not by my hon. Friend but by someone whom I did not hold in such high regard, or who did not hold me in such high regard, I would have asked "Where would the money come from if we were to reinstate the cuts that have been made?" I would have pointed out that between 1976–77 and 1977–78 the previous Government made a cut in education of £351 million—more than £⅓ billion— and that during those two years there was a cut of 6·5 per cent. in adult education expenditure.

My hon. Friend is right about the cuts that had to be made. We have tried to give priority to the 5- to 16-year-old statutory age group, which is compelled to go to school, because the country believes that its standard of education must be maintained. We have also been concerned about higher education.

Photo of Mr Harry Greenway Mr Harry Greenway , Ealing North

I have said before, and I shall say again, that statutory education, particularly between the ages of 5 and 16, must take priority over all things. Keen as I am to fight for adult education, I would not support that to the exclusion or diminution of the sector to which I have referred.

Photo of Dr Rhodes Boyson Dr Rhodes Boyson , Brent North

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. His intervention clearly shows that he is in complete agreement with Government policy. That does not surprise me, as he is a former schoolmaster.

In 1980–81, the amount included in the rate support grant for adult education—although, as my, hon. Friend knows, once it goes to the local authorities they can spend it in whichever way they wish—was cut by 25 per cent. Over the next three years, the cut will average out at about 33 per cent.

My hon. Friend mentioned the decrease in enrolments. The checks that we have made show that there has been a decrease of 10 per cent. My hon. Friend will also be aware that there is evidence of increased enrolment to private courses. As my hon. Friend and myself are believers in the self-help philosophy, it is interesting that there has been a development of private education along those lines. However, we must realise that many avenues cannot be covered by it.

My hon. Friend gave figures of comparative expenditure on adult education and education for various countries. It is difficult to get comparative figures on any particular aspect of educational expenditure between one country and another. The only guide is the share of gross national product that is spent on education in those countries. I have studied these figures for years. I am not throwing doubt on any figures produced by the World Bank. We bow to these great and mysterious organisations from time to time.

In 1975, the United Kingdom spent 6·4 per cent. of its gross national product on education, against France's 5·6 per cent. and Germany's 5·2 per cent. Consistently over the years, France and Germany seem to have spent a lower share of GNP on education than has Britain. I am not arguing that if it were decided to spend less on education in Britain we would rival the economic progress made by those countries. I do not believe that there is any automatic relationship between the amount spent on education and the development economically of a country. What really matters, as I am sure my hon. Friend will agree, is the handling of priorities within the amount of money available.

I turn to the question of the Government's overall attitude to adult education. I agree with my hon. Friend that we have to look at the overall picture. The Government are trying to apply this principle also to higher education. Ever since the war, when we have doubled expenditure the effect has been to double provision. It is what I call amoebic expansion, in which the one cell breaks into two cells identically the same. The time has come to ask whether the amount that is spent, particularly in higher, further and adult education, goes to the right places. Should some spheres expand while others are cut back to allow the expansion to take place? I concur entirely with the views of my hon. Friend. That is why we are funding the Advisory Council for Adult and Continuing Education, which has operated for three years and which this Government inherited. We agreed to fund it for another three years. Public money amounting to £87,000 is going to that advisory council this year, so that the Government continue to receive advice about priorities in adult education and where every £1 of expenditure can produce the best results.

The adult education fee per hour has increased from 30p to 41p. It might be a good idea to compare the value for money of adult education with other sectors of leisure time expenditure. An adult education class costs 41p an hour. Admission to a football match is £1.50 or £2. A cinema ticket costs £1.60 upwards. A pint of beer, which will not necessarily last an hour—that depends on the rate of consumption and the thickness of the straw—costs 50p. Twenty cigarettes, which would last more than an hour unless one smoked several at the same time and became a member of the Magic Circle, cost 70p.

I understand that my hon. Friend was riding on a horse until 10 o'clock this morning. I do not know at what hour he got on the horse, but it was 10 am when he got off. I understand, however, that hacking costs an average of £3 to £8 an hour. All that emerges from what might be called those graphic illustrations, although I have no blackboard available, is that 41p an hour, which is the adult education fee level, represents good value for money.

My hon. Friend made a specific point about old-age pensioners and unemployed people. Let me make it clear that we commend to local authorities the need to keep down these fees or to make the courses free wherever possible, because it is very important that less-well-off people be given every opportunity to avail themselves of the facilities.

Photo of Mr Harry Greenway Mr Harry Greenway , Ealing North

I particularly appreciate that remark.

Photo of Dr Rhodes Boyson Dr Rhodes Boyson , Brent North

It may not have been noticed by vast numbers of hon. Members in the House, but I know how keenly Hansard is read all over the country and I know that hundreds of people read each copy. So I have no doubt that the agreement of my hon. Friend and myself about that will be known throughout the length and breadth of the land within two or three days.

I turn now to the Government's priorities on three issues. The first is the one mentioned by my hon. Friend, with his reference to rapid technological change. Education is not simply a provision that is available between the ages of 5 and 18 or 21. It must be a continuous process. It must be like a 13 amp plug, which can be connected to a ring circuit from time to time to make the lights go on again. Visiting Sweden a fortnight ago, I was interested to see how well organised along these lines the Swedes are.

Recently, we published a pamphlet entitled "Continuing education: post-experience vocational provision for those in employment". We put that out to start a discussion about people coming back and retraining at any stage of their lives. About a fortnight ago, I also commended the work that the Open University is doing.

The second issue is that of remedial and basic education. We have funded for the next three years the adult literacy and basic skills unit with£½million this year, and, despite the tightness of the economic situation and the need to contain public expenditure, we have indicated that we shall be prepared to put in some more money next year, when we can see what has been done. I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree that no money is better spent than that which cures adult illiteracy and innumeracy and allows people to fit back not just into employment but into social groups again and play their part. We have made that a priority, and I visit such institutions regularly.

The third issue is that of direct grants from the Government to adult education institutes, which are being made immediately. There is no question of a game of "passing the parcel", with local authorities wondering whether the parcel will ever arrive. We have kept up the expenditure to the Workers' Education Association. The same amount of money is going into university extension courses and the long-term residential colleges. This year, Fircroft is reopening as a residential college. We are putting £100,000 of public money into it. The same applies to national bodies linked on the voluntary side with adult education, including the National Association of Women's Institutes, the Townswomen's Guilds and, I am sure my hon. Friend will be glad to know, the Welsh Council for the YMCA.

My hon. Friend referred to pre-retirement courses, which I am sure will be of interest to many hon. Members whenever a general election approaches. We have kept the money up there. Three weeks ago, though not with any personal interest, I spoke to the Pre-retirement Association. If my hon. Friend has not seen a copy of my speech, I have no doubt that his Christmas will be enlivened by receiving from me copies of the magazine issues that came out at the time.

This debate could continue for much longer, but I know that there is still another subject of national import that must be dealt with before the House rises. I agree with my hon. Friend that the facilities for adult education are part of a civilised society. It is a question not just of work training but of the enrichment of leisure and of the social links made in those courses. All these arrangements are extremely important. The Government are aware of that importance, and that is why we have maintained our direct funding. Where local authorities have to cut, it is important that they make sure that their cuts do not affect the main stream, which they can then develop further. I have no doubt that this debate will indicate to them the priorities which they should keep in mind.

Photo of Mr John Stradling Thomas Mr John Stradling Thomas , Monmouth

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.