I am very pleased to introduce the Scottish Parliament’s first ever debate on the reach of adult learning in Scotland’s disadvantaged communities.
I congratulate Midlothian Council’s lifelong learning and employability service and Melville Housing Association on their joint adult learning project. I am particularly pleased to highlight it not only because it is running in my constituency but because it illustrates how such educational interventions can change people’s lives. I know from colleagues in the Parliament that, across the country, there are many great examples of adult learning.
It is timely to discuss the issue now, in what can be seen as a year of celebration for adult learning in Scotland as well as in the Scottish Parliament. Significantly, this year we will mark the centenary of a revolutionary milestone in the history of adult education in the United Kingdom and internationally: the publication of the final report of the adult education committee of the Ministry of Reconstruction, which is better known as the 1919 report. It represented a hugely important statement of the value of adult education and its role in creating and sustaining successful democratic societies, animated by shared civic, social and economic goals. Not only did it recognise the wide impact that adult education can have on society, notably in responding to the massive social, economic and political challenges of the time, it accorded national and local government direct responsibility for ensuring its adequate supply.
The 1919 report argued that adult education was not a luxury but was indispensable to national recovery and to sustainable, effective democracy. It also emphasised the social purpose of adult education in supporting enlightened and responsible citizenship and creating a well-ordered welfare state organised around the common good.
In 1919, the goal of all education included the advancement of citizenship. It promoted an understanding that access to adult learning was a right and that, as a skilled member of the community, each individual had responsibilities to help to meet local needs and reduce disadvantage. The report also argued that the main political, social and economic challenges that the country faced could be tackled only with the help of a greatly expanded, publicly funded system of adult education. It was decided that
“adult education must not be regarded as a luxury for a few exceptional persons ... nor as a thing which concerns only a short span of early manhood” or womanhood. Rather, it was
“a permanent national necessity, an inseparable aspect of citizenship, and therefore should be both universal and lifelong”.
The report stated that
“the opportunity for adult education should be spread uniformly and systematically over the whole community, as a primary obligation on that community in its own interest and as a chief part of its duty to its individual members ... every encouragement and assistance should be given to voluntary organisations, so that their work ... may be developed and find its proper place in the national educational system”.
The report laid the foundation for what became a publicly funded adult education sector, in which local education authorities were encouraged to see non-vocational adult education as an integral part of their activities. It recognised that all men and women had the capacity to participate in a humane and liberal education and to contribute to the democratic life of the country. It also saw that different approaches to teaching and organisation were required for adults, emphasising the reality of their lives and the breadth of their interests, along with their need for the fullest self-determination in their learning.
One hundred years later, the Scottish Government has been laying the foundation for a strong culture of community learning that helps to build individual and social capacity. The strategic guidance to community planning partnerships, the Requirements for Community Learning and Development (Scotland) Regulations 2013 and the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015 are the keystones that support community-based learning and see the power for change rooted in and flowing from Scotland’s residents.
Between 1919 and 1945, each education authority was responsible for ensuring the delivery of adult learning and worked closely with the voluntary sector and universities for support.
It was not until 1975, with the publication of the report “Adult Education: The Challenge of Change” and the reorganisation of local government that we saw the emergence of discrete community education services, in which adult education, youth work and community work were brought together to target disadvantaged groups. Those three strands of work now form the three national priorities for all community learning and development providers in Scotland.
For much of the next 25 years, a shift in focus to community-based adult learning enabled individuals and groups in local communities to participate in the widest possible range of education and/or training opportunities. The report, “Communities: Change through Learning”, which was published in 1998, focused on the development of a national strategy for community-based adult education, youth work and educational support for community development.
Those developments focused on social inclusion and lifelong learning. The acceptance of the report’s recommendations resulted in the Scottish Office guidance of April 1999 providing direction to local authorities on the provision of community education. It also detailed the requirement to produce community learning strategies with authorities’ partners.
With the establishment of the Scottish Parliament in 1999, “Partnership for Scotland: An Agreement for the First Scottish Parliament” set out Government priorities for Scotland, including the development of an enterprise economy through investing in jobs and skills. Adult learning was seen as key to achieving those goals, and a focus on literacy, numeracy and employability was introduced into the programme.
The Scottish Government is working with others, including the national strategic forum for adult learning, to develop a strategy for that in Scotland. Initial consultations with adult learning providers and learners have taken place. Hearing directly from learners helps us to empower communities and remember that education has a purpose beyond solely promoting skills growth.
Our predecessors in 1919 recognised that education had relevance to people’s livelihoods and success and to the nation’s prosperity. Further, they were just as concerned with values, citizenship, the nature of a good society and the intrinsic benefits of learning.
The infrastructure of adult education has increasingly been challenged at a time when the challenges that are posed by changes in technology, climate, demography and politics seem to demand much more adult education, not less.
The centenary of the 1919 report provides a much-needed moment for introspection and reflection on what we think adult education is for and why we value it. It is an opportunity to put adult education once again in the spotlight and to recognise the importance of thoughtful civic engagement through citizenship and to show how adult education can help us to renew our democracy and become a kinder, smarter and more cohesive, open and prosperous society.
The Scottish Government has made a good start by introducing guidance and legislation to promote community engagement and empowerment. I look forward to hearing from the minister how we can now go forward by resourcing community learning to give districts across Scotland the ability to deliver an education that meets the aspirations and needs of communities of geography or interest, especially those where a reduction in disadvantage can be delivered most effectively by those who understand how to challenge it best.