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Social Purpose Education: then and now

Recently I went to a WEA curriculum event and Jol Miskin, the indefatigable exponent of Social Purpose Education, provided copies of a 1949 article on the subject by Sidney Raybould, then Professor of Adult Education at Leeds University. I took advantage of the train ride home to read it through a couple of times and it prompted me to think about what had changed, and what hadn’t, since then.

Raybould was particularly concerned about what subjects lent themselves best to social purpose education and addressed a debate between those who believed that social sciences (particularly economics) were the holy grail and the growing influence of provision in arts and humanities. He seemed to be saying that economics (and industrial relations that was beginning to grow) educated people in the mechanics of change, the how, and humanities could provide the vision, the why, if the subject was related to contemporary society. However he reflected a concern that classes in humanities were less rigorous and less likely to attract students active in unions, political parties or voluntary organisations. In discussing this he picks up on a comment by Richard Hoggart (who’d just started in adult education at Hull University) about a ‘pipe and slippers’ attitude to teaching literature.

Raybould also picked up on other aspects  important to him such as the focus on educationally disadvantaged students (who’d not had a secondary education or, after the 1944 Education Act, were going to secondary modern school.) Social purpose was about understanding society and equipping students to change it. He strongly believed that this required long classes as well as ‘balance’ in liberal education;  the tutor should present both, or all sides, of an argument and encourage the student to make up his or her own mind.

Whilst Raybould’s article addressed the WEA, the courses he talked about would have been taught by his university staff working through joint arrangements with the WEA.

I’ve provided a link to a pdf of the article below so that you can read it and see if you agree with my interpretation.

Raybould’s argument is illuminating but he was fighting a losing battle. Social science provision declined in proportion to arts and humanities (that by and large didn’t address contemporary society). In the iconography of post-war adult education, Raybould stood above all for ‘standards’ and in his terms they were declining as courses became shorter and written work was no longer required of students. For him the three-year tutorial class was the gold standard. Social purpose education did remain within trade union education for some time with 3 year day release courses for miners and some other groups of workers in nationalised industries and WEA residential weekend schools providing the main opportunities for manual workers to gain a wider education.

Social purpose education had a revival (albeit in a quite different form) in the 1970’s and 80’s linked to social movements such as second wave feminism, community development, tenants’ struggles and workplace health and safety. International influences were significant, particularly from liberatory literacy movements in Central and Latin America.

I want however to fast forward to the present day as there is a revival of interest in social purpose education in the WEA and elsewhere, for example at Northern College. Back to Yorkshire again and a video clip in which a range of tutors talk about what social purpose education means to them and their students (link below).

Watching one can see that the thread linking understanding the world and changing it remains central. The tutors refer to students engaging with society, the impact on the wider community and awareness of issues we should be campaigning on. But there is no common subject, or group of subjects, comparable to the earlier debate about Social Sciences and Economics. The  students come through different courses like family history, parenting, archeology and cookery with the tutor finding the connection between the subject and wider social concerns and action; for instance between cookery and fair trade in food products. The feel is authentic and more personal, diverse and tentative with an underpinning of building confidence, awareness and skills to support greater community engagement and social action. The ethnic and national range of the student groups bring a global perspective to the local community within which the course is located.

 So what’s changed and what hasn’t? It could be argued that in the late 1940’s there was a shared paradigm within which social purpose adult ed operated. There were millions of working class adults who had been denied a full secondary schooling (let alone HE) and 80% of the next generation were heading for  secondary modern schools under the 1944 Act’s tripartite system. Trade unions, political parties and activity (nationally and locally) and a strong civil society offered a range of mechanisms to get involved in social and political change. And there was a wide-spread assumption that political action and economic management could ensure that never again would the poverty and inequality of the 30’s be experienced.

Today’s society is much more diverse, fragmented and uncertain; there is less confidence and participation in political parties (and more parties too) and mediating organisations, most notably trade unions. They have lost influence and support whilst campaigns and single issue pressure groups have grown. Digital communications and social media are transforming the campaigning landscape. The context is highly complex but immensely rich. Whilst many students value the local there is a continual interplay with the global; the tutor who talked about learning from students from Mexico and Slovakia echoes a frequent experience.

Raybould refers to the vagueness and lack of clarity surrounding the meaning of social purpose education despite, according to one contemporary WEA writer, its  ‘undoubted emotive merits’ . There is today some excellent social purpose practice in the WEA and elsewhere; the organisational challenge will be to develop this in a coherent, consistent, exciting and well evidenced fashion.

Link to find social purpose video clip:

Raybould article:


Coast to Coast Walk

Coast to coast is a really good walking challenge and gives a marvellous perspective on the diverse landscape and social history of this slice of northern England. I’m recently back from completing it along with my longstanding friend, Chris.

St Bees Head: the start of the walk

St Bees Head: the start of the walk

Leaving St Bees on the West coast, it starts with a short stretch of coastal path then gradually begins the crossing of the Lake District, taking in three high passes alongside some of the area’s major mountain peaks. It then follows a limestone plateau to reach the northern Pennines winding down Swaledale before crossing the Vale of Mowbray  and tackling the northern side of the North Yorkshire Moors, ending with another stretch of coastal path to reach Robin Hood’s Bay on the East coast. I was already familiar with some areas visited but doing it this way gave a fresh perspective seeing the landscape gradually change and approaching moors and valleys from a new direction.

Alongside the beauty and variety, the walk is hard work and at times the emphasis needs to be on ‘pushing on’ and reaching the day’s destination rather than exploring and appreciating the surroundings. Totalling nearly 200 miles, completing in twelve days means 15+ miles a day sometimes covering difficult, if not technical, terrain. The part through the Lakes is the most dramatic and toughest going with steeper ascents and the hard stony ground putting pressure on feet and joints. Several of the days involved 8-9 hours walking although a few were almost half that. I had my 69th birthday on the second day; I’m a practised fell walker but not an athlete!

The route in brief

This is to give an idea of the walk’s appeal and variety- there are many guides  to provide detail and find the route; guide authors often have their own idiosyncratic take on the walk and what are the best bits. I used the Cicerone one which worked fine; it uses extracts of OS maps and includes useful contextual information.

Western coastlands: along the coastal path for a few miles with fine views of the Isle of Man and Galloway, leaving it at a quarry, the distinctive red sandstone having been used for many local buildings including the church and school at St Bees.  Then following paths and lanes across agricultural land and former mining villages; gradually the terrain changes and the Lakeland mountains come into sight.



The west doorway of the Church in St Bees, dating from 1160 and built from locally quarried stone




The Lake District: begins by skirting Ennerdale Water and then a slow ascent to Black Sail pass and Youth Hostel. The days in the Lake District include several long ascents and descents with excellent views of some of the main peaks and groups of fells including the highest, stoniest and sharpest central fells and the gentler grassier slopes of the far eastern fells.


After Black Sail there is a splendid view of Great Gable and Pillar (see pic) and later (having climbed by Loft Beck) the Western fells and Buttermere and Crummock Water. After Borrowdale a steep ascent to Greenup Edge and a long descent to Grasmere before ascending to Grisedale Tarn (with Dollywaggon Pike one side and Fairfield the other) and then down to Patterdale. The last day in the Lakes ascends the far eastern fells towards High St (with good views back to Patterdale and Ullswater if the mist allows), heading East before reaching the summit and heading east for Kidsty Pike (the highest point of the walk at 780m) and then descending to Haweswater, a reservoir.

Limestone country: for the time being the steep climbs are over and the route crosses milder limestone country with views of the Lakes to the West, the Pennines to north and east and Howgill fells to the south. The terrain is not flat but undulating with dry stone walls, sheep grazing, limestone escarpments and valleys. It is much less busy than the Lakes where there are always plenty of walkers, whatever the weather. The route goes through two market towns – Shap and Kirkby Stephen – that were on important historic north-south trade routes.

Pennines and Swaledale: from Kirkby Stephen the route goes across the northern Pennines (later crossing the Pennine Way at Keld)

Standing Stones

firstly ascending to the Standing Stones (above) (and lies on the watershed of Britain) and then with classic Pennine walking across marsh, peat bogs and grouse shooting terrain to  reach the head of Swaledale.

Pennine view

Swaledale towards Ravenshead







The Swale is followed for twenty plus miles with a pleasant mix of riverside, field and moorland walking; gradually it becomes less remote, gentler and more populated reaching the prosperous market town of Richmond. For the first half, as far as Reeth, there is an alternative high level route that takes you though the former lead mining area; tougher – especially in bad weather – but rich in evidence of the valley’s industrial importance in the 19th century.









Swaledale high route in misty weather

The Vale of Mowbray

The crossing from Richmond to the edge of the North Yorkshire Moors at Ingleby Cross is 24 miles mainly of field walking with some minor roads, including a detour to cross the A1 (being widened) and a scary crossing of the A19 right at the end. The vale is flat and can be covered quite quickly (10 hours including breaks and one or two minor detours). For many this is a ‘push on’ stage although some may appreciate a predominately flat and agricultural stretch.

North Yorkshire Moors

A fine stretch of walking initially with a lot of ups and downs and then long stretches of higher moorland following tracks and disused railway lines surrounded by heather with views across the moors and down valleys.



The perspective from Cringle Moor, weather permitting,constructed in memory of a local pioneer of long distance walks on the North Yorkshire Moors



The final stretch, from Glaisdale, leaves the main moor behind and mainly follows valleys before ending with a short walk along the coastal path to reach Robin Hood’s Bay. It includes a wooded walk along Littlebeck passing the magnificent waterfall, Falling Foss: scenic but very muddy following rainfall.

Nuts and bolts

This is a popular walk and you meet many others on your way including lots from North America and Australia as well as the UK. It’s reassuring to check the route with others (many now use GPS) and hear the different attractions and backstories that led people to do it. We met many fellow ‘baby boomers’ who thought it ‘demanding but doable’ and particularly liked the variety of landscape passed on the route.

We did it in twelve walking days with overnight stops as follows: Ennerdale Bridge, Rosthwaite, Patterdale, Shap, Kirkby Stephen (+ rest day), Keld, Reeth, Ingleby Cross, Claybank Top, Glaisdale.

A number of organisations assist with the logistics such as transporting your main baggage, booking accommodation and safe car parking. We used Sherpa Van Project for baggage and booking and the service was faultless. B&B, pubs and small hotels en route have benefitted from the steady stream  of coast to coasters and in turn cater well for walkers. Some a few miles from the route will pick you up and return you to the path.

Some brave people backpack and camp.

How many days? People we met varied between eleven and sixteen days walking. It’s quite common to take four days from Ennerdale to Shap and stop in Grasmere, perhaps including a few peaks between Borrowdale and Patterdale. Some cross Mowbray Dale in two days usually stopping at Danby Wiske. We did meet some, particularly backpackers, who said they’d take ‘as long as it took’- backpacking gives extra flexibility but at the cost of carrying a substantial weight.

Glimpses of industrial and social history

Today much of the rural economy on the route is based on agriculture and tourism but you see ample evidence of a different social and industrial landscape during the industrial revolution and Victorian times. There were large mining communities in the West (coal), Swaledale (lead) and Rosedale (iron ore) as well as quarrying for stone and slate; there’s a large slate quarrying visitor centre at the top of Honister Pass. In addition there are many disused railway lines that had connected mines to urban centres.



A former lime kiln near Orton, Cumbria; these were usually at the edge of a limestone outcrop with the lime being used mainly for agriculture and also buildings






Remains of smelting mill by Gunnerside Gill, Swaledale. Lead was mined here from Roman times peaking in 18th and 19th centuries. The last mine closed in 1912. Several thousand miners worked here; they were mostly self employed and supplemented their income with agriculture and knitting





Machine formerly used in lead mining





The walk across the North Yorkshire Moors includes a five mile stretch of the former Rosedale railway line. This was built to transport iron ore from the busy Rosedale mines (peak production of 560,00 long tons in 1873) to the main railway line and then on to Durham smelting mills.




Social Purpose Education

The concept of Social Purpose Education (SPE) is important within adult education and stretches back at least a century. It expresses the commitment to social change and action and signifies a distinctive strand of adult education, contrasting with that with a primarily academic, vocational or leisure purpose.
This couldn’t be more relevant today. The revival of the term in the WEA, Northern College and elsewhere in the residential and voluntary sector is a most welcome antidote to the decline in liberal adult education and overwhelming focus on ‘vocationalism’ and qualifications. It demonstrates our striving to maximise the social impact of our work and restate the vital importance of adult education in building a better and equal world.
And yet the meaning of the term is hard to pin down; many adult educators would sign up to it but would explain this in different ways ranging from a broad commitment to combating disadvantage through to education as a committed and integral part of a social movement.
I want to look at how the term has evolved and how best it could be understood and built in today’s complex and diverse society.
Social purpose and adult education’s ‘Great Tradition’
My starting point here is an article written in 1949 by Sydney Raybould, who was Professor of Adult Education at Leeds University which had a large and influential Extra Mural Department working closely with what was then the Yorkshire North District of the WEA. Raybould noted that ‘there is a good deal of vagueness, or lack of agreement, as to what it (education for social purpose) actually means.’ To him it meant ‘education that helps students to understand the society in which they live, and to change it in ways that seem to them desirable.’ He was driven to make this clarification by a concern that the social purpose education tradition of the interwar years was being undermined by shifts both in subjects and standards. He felt that economics and industrial relations were the subjects most likely to appeal to the students the WEA wanted to attract and that the growth of provision in other liberal arts subjects (whilst not in itself a bad thing) undermined this focus. Raybould was also an intransigent defender of academic standards; these required long courses (tutorial classes met over three years), regular attendance and written work. He seized upon the phrase ‘pipe and slippers’ attitude coined by the young Richard Hoggart to describe a growing and not uncommon approach to teaching literature.
The WEA and University approach to workers’ education did not go unchallenged and was fiercely contested by the labour colleges’ movement, supported by some trade unions and adult educators. The Labour Colleges taught within a partisan and Marxist framework and considered that public funding provided for WEA and university extra mural departments gave the state a fifth column into workers’ education. Raybould strongly argues that the tutor’s role is to put forward the views of all ‘recognised authorities’ on a subject and ‘encourage them (the students) to form their own judgments about their worth rather than impose his (sic) own.’
Social purpose education and community development
The high watermark of this brand of SPE is often seen as 1945 signified by the large numbers of MPs, local councillors and trade union officials and leaders whose formation had included WEA and university adult education. However Raybould in 1949 was fighting a losing battle as liberal arts and humanities courses grew in popularity at the expense of social sciences, shorter courses came to predominate and written work by students was an optional extra. The social purpose tradition continued in trade union education, particularly through the three year day release course in mining and some other nationalised industries and through the WEA’s trade union scheme.
However, the 1970’s saw a renewal of social purpose education as part of the of new social movements amongst women, tenants, inner city residents, unemployed adults, trade union health and safety activists and others. The education, often informal, benefited from connections with and support from the expanding community development initiatives. These were often sponsored by central government to support policy objectives such as political engagement, social cohesion, neighbourhood renewal, job creation and public service reform.

The philosophy of this SPE had a quite different flavour to its predecessors. A contributor to a Scottish 2007 symposium on ‘reclaiming social purpose in community education’ said ‘social purpose education can be characterised in the following terms:
-Participants/learners are treated as citizens and social actors
-Curriculum reflects shared social and political interests
-Knowledge is actively and purposefully constructed to advance these
collective interests
-Pedagogy is based on dialogue rather than transmission
-Critical understanding is linked to social action and political engagement
-Education is always a key resource in the broader struggle for social
(Ian Martin, Reclaiming Social Purpose: framing the debate, 2007, link below)
Particularly important is the powerful emphasis on a ‘student centred’ pedagogy in which knowledge and curriculum are developed between students and tutor rather than provided by the tutor from an existing body of knowledge. There is also an assumption about shared values and sense of what change would be desirable. The previous commitment to ‘balance’ (in theory at least) is no longer there although the stress on ‘critical understanding’ presumably requires debate and contrasting view points.
Still present is the link to social action/changing society but here it’s framed differently reflecting the fragmentation and diversity of modern politics. Interwar adult educators appeared to share a picture of political parties, local and national government, trade unions and other large voluntary organisations as constituting the political process. Community development started from the local and specific, recognising the range of social action and political engagement. This is well illustrated by Take Part, a New Labour initiative that sponsored community education initiatives with a diverse range of mainly local groups but with a common thread of ‘learning that enables people to make an active contribution to their communities and influence public policies and services’.
SPE today
I hope I’ve shown an evolving tradition with important elements that should be retained and developed: the power of education as a contributor to social change; the centrality of experiential and student centred learning; the necessity of critical understanding to change society; the need for education to relate to social movements and organisations.
At the same time the contemporary challenges are considerable. There is a continuing scepticism about the mainstream political process with membership of political parties and voting declining. Union membership is falling. Social movements are not disappearing (witness the enormous courage and impact over 20 years of the Stephen Lawrence and the Hillsborough families’ campaigns) but they are more fragmented and diverse. Many too work with social media and other forms of digital communications, media with which conventional adult education has not yet effectively caught up.
In addition central government policy towards community development has hardened: government funding initiatives favour lean and sustainable delivery models, often using volunteers and with an emphasis on business partnerships and sponsorship. Furthermore public expenditure cuts have led to a drastic reduction in the numbers of local community development-type roles such as parent link workers in schools. The scope for a discrete strand of SPE, separate from ‘mainstream’ adult education is greatly reduced.
So how do we develop large scale SPE in the current circumstances? A starting point has to be a rigorous focus on members of disadvantaged communities. This reflects the continuing commitment to equality throughout the whole SPE tradition and is particularly important now, at a time of squeezed resources. However whereas earlier SPE focused on organisations and groups, today’s appeal will mainly (not exclusively) be to individuals who can be attracted into adult education provision.
Experience says that this is most effective when we address people’s immediate interests and concerns where they have, as they often do, a potential link to SPE. This may be to speak English better, to improve fitness or manage a health condition, develop literacy and numeracy skills, learn craft and digital skills or be better able to support child or grandchild development. It is topics such as these that often persuade disadvantaged adults to take the plunge into adult education.
SPE requires us to find the ‘point of connection’ between these direct concerns and wider social context and action. These don’t exist in watertight compartments after all. For example work on a physical fitness class will often present questions about opening up of leisure facilities for particular groups or improving public health facilities, for instance by providing gym equipment in public parks. Practical activity learning English makes students confront issues of prejudice, racism and insensitive public service delivery.
It is important that ‘social purpose’ isn’t a ‘hidden curriculum’ revealed by the tutor to unsuspecting students but something that grows organically out of active and experiential learning. Small scale projects are a well-established way of enabling this to happen as they give the opportunity to explore a topic of great interest to them; often this transforms understanding from the personal to the social. Research, for example, into support for a disabled child may well open up a whole set of issues around the treatment of disability in today’s society.
This line of argument will be recognisable to many adult education practitioners who can provide rich and varied examples of SPE outcomes. The challenge though is to raise our game ensuring good SPE outcomes for as many students as possible and documenting this as part of establishing SPE as a vibrant, respected and widely known part of post 16 learning.
The recent policy focus on impact analysis as part of the rationale for public funding provides a key as to how this can be done. Follow up research done earlier this year by BIS, and by individual providers like the WEA, revealed some fascinating outcomes such as that over 20% of community learning participants had become involved in voluntary activity as a result of their course. This creates the opportunity to decide more specifically the SPE outcomes that are being sought and refine research strategies to track the progress of particular groups such as how far members of deprived neighbourhoods are – as a result of SPE – taking part in community or political action. Reflecting on what students do and do not achieve is revealing and can in turn inform curriculum development. For example the WEA found that English language courses in one area had very positive employment outcomes; this identified the scope for providing an employment ‘record of achievement’ for students and really consolidating this link.
My conclusion is that SPE is a living tradition but one that needs continually recreating. Contemporary society is diverse and uncertain; there are rich opportunities to create a modern Social Purpose Education and it is vital that we do so.

This article was originally published in Adults Learning winter 2013 volume 25 number 2

Ian Martin, ‘Reclaiming Social Purpose: framing the debate’
Link to Raybould article, Education for Social Purpose in S.G.Raybould (1949) ‘The WEA, the Next Phase’ WEA, London

The Young Tawney and Workers’ Education

R.H.Tawney was a big contributor to the development of workers’ education in the first half of the last century as well as an important and influential social historian and left-wing political figure. I’ve just finished reading an excellent new biography of him by Lawrence Goldman and strongly recommend it.

Particularly interesting to me are Tawney’s early years and his innovative work in developing tutorial classes for working class students in the early part of the 20th century, a formative period for the labour movement and workers’ education. Tawney was appointed by Oxford University as tutorial class tutor in 1908 when he was in his late twenties and charged with teaching classes in Stoke and Rochdale, summer schools in Oxford and writing a book on early modern history.

Tutorial classes were a major initiative arising as part of the drive by some Oxford academics, the newly formed Workers’ Educational Association  (WEA) (Tawney joined the WEA in 1905 and was soon on the Executive), along with labour movement and church figures to ‘widen participation’ in university education, particularly Oxford. They comprised a course of sustained and purposeful education undertaken over three years of weekly classes. They benefited from some public funding subject to minimum numbers of students attending at least two-thirds of the meetings and ‘doing such written work as may be required by the tutor’  This was the beginning of the ‘golden stream’ of public funding for adult education, fortunately still extant today.

Tawney had already knowledge and experience of adult education through the work of the Settlements and University Extension lectures. However tutorial classes allowed for more thorough and systematic work and to engage with organised workers as opposed to the disorganised urban poor or the middle class.

‘The genius of English workmen for organisation has covered some of the districts of northern England (for example Lancashire) with a network of institutions, industrial, social, political and religious…There are certain towns in which almost every adult appears to a stranger to be connected with half a dozen different associations. It is obvious that the common atmosphere thus created is favourable, like that of an Oxford college, to the dissemination of ideas.’ (Tawney, quoted in Goldman p 54) The WEA was part of this network of labour and co-operative organisations; they provided the students and were able to select the subject and – to an extent – influence the curriculum.

At the same time, Tawney’s vision was a predominately male one. In his largely sympathetic assessment and review of Tawney and his critics, Goldman concludes ‘Tawney’s signal weakness was…a particular type of insensitivity or blindness with regard to women and their place in society’. For example, Tawney, relating an evening’s class to his wife reported, ‘…there’s enthusiasm for you. But I’m afraid the ladies, mainly school teachers, felt rather left out in the cold, as the discussion after the class is usually dominated by enthusiastic socialists’. In the iconography of tutorial classes manual workers play a predominant part but elementary school teachers and routine white-collar workers were also important participants.

Tutorial class became associated with a particular teaching method based on an hour’s lecture followed by an hour’s discussion. A student described Tawney’s approach as being to begin with ‘the presentation of the factual detail’, then ‘give you the case for and against’ and then sum up. Wherever he could, he taught from the sources. Then followed an hour’s discussion in which class members, that would include young members of the Independent Labour Party and Social Democratic Federation, would ‘go for Tawney like a bull at a gate’. He though refused to be drawn on his interpretation of events. This notion of ‘balance’ was integral to the WEA’s idea of liberal education and the development of independent critical thinking amongst students. It was strongly criticised by the Plebs League and Labour Colleges (whose tutors taught from the viewpoint of a particular brand of Marxism) and others such as George Lansbury, who became a left-wing Labour MP and leader of the party. Tawney did though point out that socialists predominated in all classes and many students had said how the WEA had helped them in the labour and trade union movement.

These principles of tutorial class teaching became widely adopted but it’s worth reflecting upon Tawney’s particular impact; a young, eccentric middle class Oxford academic with a rare ability to inspire many of his students and build a thriving learning community. To him tutorial classes represented a micro version of the sort of society for which he strived.  Recollections by former students present a picture of a charismatic tutor. One of his former students writes of his ‘nobility’, ‘I don’t think I’ve ever met a more humble yet at the same time a more noble creature’. This charisma went alongside an egalitarian and at times self-deprecating style, mixed with an authentic interest in his students’ experience. Tawney was clearly able to draw out and learn from their experience and he acknowledged this in his scholarly work.

The subject of the bulk of Tawney’s classes was 18th and 19th economic or industrial history. Why? He was not trained as a historian, in fact history was just emerging as an academic discipline at Oxford and his own research and writing focused on an earlier period. His idea was that by studying the creation of their communities, working class students would be better placed to understand and change their current conditions. In a sense this was the beginning of the ‘social purpose’ curriculum espoused by WEA and university adult educators in the inter-war.

Finally I want to reflect on how Tawney saw workers’ education within the wider education system. Whilst an influential and formative innovator within workers’ education, he did not see this as a discrete area of educational activity. The tutorial classes’ movement was conceived as part of opening up Oxford University, replacing the ‘idle pass men’ with talented working class students. He campaigned vigorously for this attracting considerable notoriety, as well as praise. His teaching experience vividly brought home the limitations imposed by inadequate schooling and long hours of heavy work on people’s capacity to study. His response to this was policy and campaigning work for universal secondary education, the raising of the school-leaving age and improved working conditions.

Tawney was one of the greats of workers’ education in the first half of the last century. Goldman’s book, drawing on much previously unused source material,  provides a fascinating ‘warts and all’ study.

Goldman Lawrence, ‘The Life of R.H.Tawney’ London, 2013


‘If you could do one thing’: how WEA can help local authorities combat health inequalities

It’s great that leading experts recognise the importance of adult and further education in combating health inequalities; this is highlighted in one of nine contributions to ‘if you could do one thing…nine local actions to reduce health inequalities’ produced recently by the British Academy.
The authors, Tarani Chandola and Andrew Jenkins, draw on extensive published research to show the positive link between participation in education and improved health. Importantly they suggest that improvements are greatest amongst adults with the least educational qualifications and that vocational, qualification-bearing and ‘leisure’ courses all play a part. Provision needs to reach different disadvantaged groups including unemployed as well as employed and old as well as young. They stress that to be successful adult education must address the barriers amongst the least well off; this includes financial and accessibility issues as well as confidence and the need for education to be seen as relevant. Their study concludes by summarising two successful initiatives, one training staff in care homes to provide educational activities for residents and the other enabling doctors to prescribe access to an educational adviser for some of their patients.
The Workers’ Educational Association (WEA) is excellently placed to work in partnership with local authorities who wish to further develop their work in this field. Whilst we recognise that resources are tight, initiatives such as these can greatly benefit residents, support local authority priorities and lead to significant savings on health and social care.
Our own follow-up ‘impact research’ supports Chandola and Jenkins’ conclusions. An in-depth study of former students undertaken in 2013 found ‘Nearly all respondents (98 percent) reported a positive social or health impact as a result of doing their course. The majority (87 percent) noted the course had kept their mind and body active which rose to 94 percent in those with a long-term physical or mental illness.’ In addition there were hundreds of individual stories attesting to how WEA education helped students work through life crises (such as bereavement), overcome isolation and depression, develop healthier lifestyles and manage existing conditions.
We strongly agree too about the necessity to target and shape educational initiatives around the most disadvantaged and vulnerable groups in society. Importantly, adult education recognises and can build on existing knowledge and understanding, a ‘community asset’ approach rather than a deficit model. We have a long and successful tradition of working with community leaders and organisations to engage local people in education that’s useful and relevant to them. Examples include Tandrusti and similar projects in the urban West Midlands that involve thousands of adults, mainly from BAME backgrounds, in tailor-made physical activity and health educational programmes.

For example during 2007-2012 over 95% of participants in our Tandrusti programme reported health maintenance or one (or more) health improvement , for example in reduced blood pressure, weight loss and waist circumference. Measurable improvements in confidence, mental health and community cohesion are also frequently recorded. 

The impact extends beyond course participants as it’s cascaded to family members, friends and others in the local community.
WEA educational programmes work well in partnership with local authority health and well-being priorities such as reducing the incidence of obesity and diabetes and increasing physical activity in the local population. The impact on the individuals is often long-term improving ‘health literacy’ and enabling people to manage their health and life styles more effectively. Benefits accrue to the local population as a whole reducing pressure on GP surgeries and A&E departments.
The WEA is the UK’s largest voluntary adult educational organisation and volunteering can play a vital part in health improvement education. A recent project in partnership with St Luke’s Hospice in Plymouth saw the WEA train and support volunteers and Hospice staff in providing an imaginative and widely praised programme of ‘creative well being’ education. This model is recognised as being widely transferable.

There is a rich experience and expertise here that can greatly assist local authorities’ efforts to reduce health inequalities.

Some useful links:

British Academy report:

WEA impact study:
Blog on health education:

Adult education pedagogy: lectures and discussion?

A good starting question is: ‘Do lectures have a place in pedagogy of adult education?’

Lots of adult education classes, particularly in the arts and humanities, are lecture based and they’re popular with some classes and particularly older students. A well presented lecture gives students an opportunity to hear and see an enthusiastic expert, even a celebrity, develop an argument that can engage and stimulate a serious interest and debate in the subject. The presence of the web has greatly increased the availability of lectures. Many MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) provide a series of lectures as their core; TED offers an attractive playlist of virtual lectures, many by well known experts; etc.

Lectures are an important part of adult education but in my opinion they can only form part of a learning programme especially given the student centred ethos of adult education.

Early WEA tutorial classes included a lecture, class discussion and independent work by the student producing an essay which in turn received assessment and feedback. In most educational settings (Universities, FE colleges etc) this sort of mix would be the case: lecture, seminar, essay or other assessed work. However in much of post-war adult education, student written work withered on the vine; tutorial classes became shorter (one or two terms rather than three years) and the requirement for written work was dropped.

Writing is about learning as well as communicating. It  gives the opportunity to take hold of ideas and arguments and refine and develop one’s own understanding and perspective. The process of drafting and redrafting (admittedly often painful and time consuming) enables this to take place as well as producing a piece of work for  individual feedback from the tutor.

It’s true that many adult education students have continued to do independent work outside the classroom, quite a considerable amount in some cases including researching, preparatory reading, visiting museums and galleries, and getting involved in local societies and organisations. And, from the 1970’s there were new opportunities, such as the Open University and expanding adult provision (like Access courses) in Further Education,  for adults seeking an accessible and academically challenging education.

Discussion was always an important part of the tutorial class tradition, very effectively used by historians like Tawney to draw out students’ experience and enrich their and his understanding of the subject. It is interesting too to see how the young Raymond Williams (who became an eminent Marxist cultural theorist) approached this as a WEA /Oxford University literature tutor in East Sussex in the 1950’s. He abandoned the existing approach based on literary criticism and instead asked students to read and discuss the texts, or extracts from them. Complaints were made about Williams because he would often remain silent until a student instigated discussion rather than speak himself.

Discussion-based learning is  an essential, if not sufficiently appreciated, part of the core of adult education practice that requires considerable skill amongst tutors and students. In my experience, some of the main teaching, learning and assessment issues are:

  • ensuring inclusive participation in what are often very mixed groups
  • discouraging deference either towards the tutor or towards knowledgable students
  • encouraging independent and critical thinking
  • developing the learning skills and confidence to enable students to benefit from course discussions
  • drawing out the experience and ideas of students and incorporating their particular learning aims
  • giving feedback to individuals to help them develop their understanding
  • getting feedback from students and securing an accurate sense of what learning is taking place
  • managing the discussion and ensuring adherence to ground rules

Adult educators have accumulated a vast amount of experience in addressing these sorts of issues through class discussion and particularly through the use of small group work. The latter gives greater opportunity for each student to participate, ask questions and test out ideas and doubts. It’s a good way to draw out students’ experience and existing knowledge and skills. It can be used to develop listening, summarising and reporting skills and enables the group to put forward collective responses. Reporting back enables the tutor, and other groups, to give feedback and comment. Used effectively it can shift the tutor/student power relations towards a more collaborative effort and enable the course as a whole to have ownership of things like ground rules.

Returning to the original question, I think lectures are best used to spark and shape student engagement, encouraging questions and an exploration of the information and argument provided. A mini lecture (10-20 minutes max) can set the scene, outline an argument (or range of arguments) and then present questions for students. This approach could be extended to  virtual lectures and learning circles  using group discussion methods to explore and respond to the issues raised in the lecture.

The role of the lecture is still a live issue in adult education, including the WEA, and I would be interested in other people’s perspective on this.

Positive messages for Active Citizenship and Social Purpose Education in Social Attitude Survey

 I’ve been reading British Social Attitudes 30 and found much of interest and encouragement for adult educators interested in active citizenship and social purpose.

The survey has been done annually since 1983, allowing us to see change over time, and it probes attitudes on a number of subjects. I’ve mainly looked at politics but there is fascinating material too on gender, welfare, devolution, lifestyle and other topics.

 The results confirm the decline in voting in elections and affiliation to a political party. Voting in both General and Local elections is falling along with the number of people who feel it’s ‘everyone’s duty to vote’ (down from 76% in 1987 to 62% in 2011) and -no surprises here- there is a growing scepticism about politicians.. The number of people who identify with a political party has gone down too, from 87% (1983) to 76% now. There is interesting material also showing how the alignment of social attitudes with party identification is weakening. In the last 25 years, for example, the proportion of Conservatives agreeing that ‘government should redistribute income’ has increased whilst the proportion of Labour supporters agreeing with this has fallen. There’s still a significant gap but it’s narrowing.

But this is not the whole story by any means. The evidence of the survey points to an increased interest in politics, greater participation in non-voting political activity (such as contacting an MP, signing a petition, going on a protest or demonstration) and a stronger belief in ‘personal efficacy’ (that is the individual’s capacity to influence events, in this case the political process).  It’s particularly encouraging  that there is a significant fall (from 1986 to 2012) in the proportion of respondents agreeing ‘people like me have no say in what government does’ (down from 71% to 59%) and ‘politics is too complicated to understand’ (69% to 57%).

 The evidence does point to a growing and worrying age gap; younger people being less likely to particpate in electoral and non-electoral politics although the point is made that the survey doesn’t pick up on some forms of informal political action such as consumer boycotts. Growing engagement in politics has been stronger amongst people with fewer educational qualifications although this may partly relate to age (older people having fewer formal qualifications than younger ones).

Another interesting question is how far attitudes are changing particularly as a result of the onset of the ‘Age of Austerity’. Here the data on attitudes to welfare are relevant. There is some tentative evidence to support the view that declining public sympathy for supporting the unemployed (clearly evident between 1983 and 2007) is beginning to reverse. For instance, between 2007 and 2012 there was an increase (from 7% to 11%) in the proportion of people considering benefits for the unemployed one of their two main priorities for extra welfare spending. Not all the evidence on attitudes to unemployment pointed in this direction though.

In my mind this raises the question of the relationship between experience and attitudes: is a greater awareness of unemployment (self, friends, family, neighbours) leading to attitudinal shifts?

The emerging picture then is complex; a shift from the big picture of elections and political parties to a more fragmented and individualistic one. There are though grounds for optimism and points of connection for adult education.

 Firstly the greater interest and confidence in being able to make a difference must provide some sort of springboard for an educational response. There is room for classes and discussion groups specifically on current affairs, U3A often run these as do some WEA regions.

The previous Government had a commitment to political or civic education supported most notably through  funding ‘Take Part’, ‘a distinctive approach to learning that enables people to make an active contribution to their communities and influence public policies and services’. Much valuable and innovative work arose from this, involving WEA regions and other adult education organisations. There remains a legacy of experience and practice from this and other projects that can be drawn upon. The current government has launched a ‘Democratic Engagement Fund’ although the funding for this is quite modest.

There are many opportunities to introduce elements of political education into many community learning programmes identifying ways to take up issues that arise on courses for instance by signing or initiating a petition, contacting a councillor or MP, organising a local campaign or joining a local pressure or interest group. It would also be interesting to run short activities based on some of the survey questions and contrast responses of students with the survey outcomes. Most importantly, adult education can explore the relationship between students’ experience and  attitudes to social and political questions.

None of this is new of course. I’ve written the blog mainly to highlight the findings that suggest that we are not living through apathetic and apolitical times. On the contrary, there is plenty of interest and confidence; the challenge is connecting with it.

If you have time, have a look at the survey report yourself.

 Link to Survey report

Pedagogy of Adult Education 2: Curriculum Negotiation

The importance of making full use of students’ experience and ensuring effective expression of their aims, intentions and ambitions is recognised by many adult educators. This hasn’t led, in the main however, to a model of the ‘self directed learner’ facilitated by the tutor. Rather approaches have been developed that draw out and enable students to reflect upon their aims and pursue them within a framework of knowledge and skills provided by the tutor and/or the educational provider. When working well, this permits a creative tension between students and tutor in planning and providing the curriculum; a process often described as ‘curriculum negotiation’.

In practice the term curriculum negotiation may mean many things. It’s common, for example, for an adult tutor to start a course by setting out her or his planned learning outcomes and asking for any additions or amendments which can be incorporated. Here though I want to outline two particular approaches: ‘workplace reports’ or discovery learning in trade union education and student projects in second chance type courses. Educators in other curriculum settings will recognise the general approaches. The interest is that both provide a structured framework within which negotiation takes place.

Workplace reports

The TUC transformed its approach to shop steward education in the 1970s by moving to centrally produced course materials, a single course tutor (rather than a number of different specialist lecturers) and ‘student centred’ learning methods. The course work was based on problems and issues (workplace reports) brought by students into the class room rather than contrived cases studies and role plays designed by the tutor.

For example prior to a session on involving members in the union, students would be asked to conduct a survey of their members identifying concerns and interests. The class session would discuss the points raised by members and consider the best ways to involve them in tackling them. Following the session students could practise planned strategies (such as members’ meetings) in the workplace, applying skills developed on the course. Similarly with collective bargaining issues; the workplace was brought into the classroom via students’ reports; strategies were debated and then tried out in the workplace.

Collectively this had a significant impact on the curriculum enabling it to focus on emerging and changing workplace issues of relevance to the students. Trade union tutors who also worked as Industrial Relations researchers often commented that stewards’ reports cast a revealing and novel light on the subject. Stewards said they gained greatly by learning from each other, hearing a diverse range of experiences and issues, and gaining a much broader outlook in the process.

Assessment focused on getting stewards to tackle problems systematically, defining the problem fully and looking at different sources of information, and in a rounded way, taking into account equality issues and other wider concerns. From their perspective, stewards, and their union convenors, judged the effectiveness of their learning primarily by their impact in the workplace.

Student research projects

A frequently used method in Second Chance type courses is to ask students to plan, undertake and report upon a small-scale research project based on interviewing a key informant or conducting a survey. This gives an opportunity to investigate a matter of their choice, often of personal or local concern within the broad subject area. For instance on Second Chance courses students would often follow-up issues relating to their children’s education or health, local facilities or planning decisions, or changes in the work place or to local services. This enabled them to explore the connections between the immediate and wider social policy and structure. By starting from research questions identified by them they had a much greater ownership of the curriculum.

Teaching and assessment need a strong focus on developing study skills and critical thinking. A small-scale research project helps develop a wide range of writing and research skills. A key point in assessment is critical thinking; this can be demonstrated by contrasting findings with initial hypothesis (what did you expect? What did you find out?) and awareness of wider context (e.g. how does this contrast with current government policy of this subject? ) WEA tutors have shown, for example, how significant connections can be made in this way, for example between sugar craft and fair trade and globalisation.  From a social purpose perspective, these projects provide the link to social action such as joining a charity or pressure group, or contacting an MP or councillor.

A research project is a big step educationally and can put off some students, and indeed tutors. I believe though they can be of huge benefit to students but support is needed in identifying a manageable research question and making the necessary contacts e.g. for an interview. Guidelines about conducting research, set out step by step, are essential.


This shift in Teaching, Learning and Assessment methods challenged the role of the tutor and her or his relationship with students. I think though that the notion of ‘facilitator’ greatly understated the skills involved in working with students in these ways. Curriculum negotiation removes a lot of predictability and requires a flexibility and capacity to introduce concepts and skills in unexpected settings as well as encouraging students to learn in more challenging and adventurous ways. It can form the basis of the more democratic and reciprocal relationship between students and tutors to which many of us aspire.

As ever comments welcome from different perspectives and experiences.