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Social Purpose Education: then and now

May 7, 2013

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:


From → Adult Education

  1. Nice piece Pete! Excellent summary of the issues and the differences between then and now. What excites me about the current situation is that we are opening up this dialogue and it seems to be starting to ‘take off’. For too long there’s been a tendency to stick at ‘widening participation’, as if that is enough, without questioning ‘widening participation’ for what exactly. We’ve taken the eye off the curriculum and what should make the WEA’s curriculum distinctive. This is where social purpose kicks in. I am in little doubt that this presents a formidable challenge to us all, but it’s a thoroughly exciting one to grapple with. Our new on-line Social Purpose Education Module will soon go live and hopefully that will take us up a further notch or two. I anticipate some sparks along the way. Excellent……………

  2. • Is the WEA’s “social purpose education” ultimately a ‘brand’ given it is defined “in contrast to education that has a mainly academic, leisure or vocational purpose”?

    • Is the “social impact” of WEA “social purpose education” actually a reconfigured ‘target’? Long term, it is a measure for ‘performance management’? Will your tutors be required to attend ‘additional training’ courses to make their expertise – in e.g. cookery – broader – to issues of e.g. fair trade? Will they be paid to do so? Will such tutors have a choice? Are you consulting with the relevant trade union/s on these questions?

    • Does the WEA’s “social purpose education” with “social impact” (even if unintentionally) fulfil Cameron’s Big Society and the rolling back of the public sector and the welfare state?

    • Is there not value in ‘education for education’s sake’, and is this not the basic notion to be defending and the one in danger of being eroded?

    Also, the WEA’s Greg Coyne has publicly written:

    “…the WEA will never simply run a programme of courses that provide social and political awareness, it would be too restrictive, too boring and would not recruit students.”

    Is there really no demand for political economy classes? Or for courses on, e.g., globalisation debates? Where I teach, these are very popular modules in which student engagement and intellectual exchange and development is at its best.

    You write (above):
    “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.”

    Can I push you here, what are you getting at?

    Finally, on the meaning of “social purpose education” – beware the hollow vessel, especially if the vessel has a hole at the bottom.

    Good luck in this initiative and I hope a productive debate can be had!


  3. Kay permalink

    Great article and good to see discussion around social purpose education. For me as a teacher and student, the cornerstones of teaching for a social purpose – teaching my values, embedding diversity, encouraging reflexive practice so that ultimately there is a win/win/win situation for all – are paramount. So questioning hegemony, thinking critically, considering wider societal issues become a natural part of the process rather than an ‘add-on’. I would recommend that anyone interested in teaching for a social purpose reads Louise Mycroft’s (@teachnorthern) blog about her teaching at Northern College –

    • jmiskin permalink

      Did you get my response to Camila? Jol

      Sent from my iPad

  4. Kay, thanks very much for your ‘cornerstones’ of social purpose education: teaching one’s values, embedding diversity, encouraging reflexive practice, questioning hegemony, critical thinking, connections to wider society. This is commendable. I wonder though, are these not components of good education per se?

    In a Gramscian vein, I would say education is about creating the space for:
    “thinking well, whatever one thinks, and therefore acting well, whatever one does”; the “exercise of thought, acquisition of general ideas, habit of connecting causes and effects” etc (Gramsci, Selections from Cultural Writings)

    Education then is part and parcel of this active, engaging dialectic of culture.

    My concern with the WEA’s brand of ‘social purpose education’ is the danger that it becomes – in an effort to actually deliver it – prescriptive.

    As an education practitioner, I still believe in the autonomy of the individual practitioner and I sense an erosion of this autonomy within this agenda. For all we value our students, of which I do very dearly, I also value my trade; indeed the two go together.

    Another basic concern with the WEA’s promotion of ‘social purpose education’, which I’ll end on, is: if everything becomes social purpose education then what becomes of social purpose education?

    Again, Avanti.

  5. BREIF RESPONSES AND QUESTIONS TO: Greg Coyne’s “The WEA: a discussion essay” in Post-16 Educator April-June 2013

    Greg starts his piece with an overview of globalisation and education, astutely concluding:
    “a commodification of education … reinforces ‘surface learning’ approaches at the expense of the development of ‘deep’, reflective and critical learning techniques.”

    He then summates the numerous challenges facing the WEA: a decrease in funding; a decrease in the number of learning opportunities; shallow knowledge base; poor initial education, especially for the most disadvantaged; university education increasingly linked to wealth; universities focused on younger people; universities withdrawing from community education; a decrease in academic provision by colleges; the WEA’s own programme too concentrated on leisure and not education for change; few avenues for serious study; with the collapse of the Left, non-existent political education with consequence for independent minded working class people; withdrawal of critical education for adults; decline in community social life; control of much communication by corporations.

    Greg’s solution to this changing context, and the related challenges, is for WEA education to shift from passive instruction to active learning. I find this a curious assertion in that, by implication, there is the suggestion that past and present WEA delivery has been or is largely problematic i.e. ‘passive’ and ineffective. What actual evidence base is there that significant numbers of autonomous educational practitioners in the WEA have simply been running passive, mind-numbing classes?

    Greg also notes that the past option of classes in social sciences and political economy is no longer viable as there is simply no demand for such areas of study. As I have noted in a previous post, I am really surprised by this claim, since where I teach classes in political economy and globalisation are popular and successful.

    Moving on, Greg observes:
    “In my view we do not need to change the classes we are offering, we simply need to change our approach to how we teach and learn within them.”
    By “we” I assume WEA tutors, who are again curiously presumed (by implication) deficit in pedagogic approach (at past and present). Various changes in WEA delivery are proposed (I paraphrase):
    1. ‘Education is a process in which we learn off one another, rather than the expertise of the teacher passing to the passive student.’ Well yes, indeed. But let us also not lose sight of the expertise of education practitioners. I do not go to my Iyengar yoga class every week thinking I can teach my yoga teacher as much as she can teach me. Further still, I am not a passive recipient – regardless of the fact that I diligently and silently listen and follow instruction – I am keen to be there, to learn, to experiment.
    2. ‘Re-establish critical pedagogy such as active research-active learning.’ E.g. asking where the class materials come from? E.g. art work to explore inequality. Yes indeed, good ideas, good approach. But how far can this go in reality in a class where students and tutors alike are there to learn about e.g. the art of cookery or photography?
    3. ‘Job of tutors is to encourage the students to connect their new knowledge to broader contexts, i.e. to scale and power issues, and to political responses.’ Yes okay. But if a tutor simply wants to practice their trade, to deliver on their expertise, can they not retain their autonomy to do so? Surely those tutors who are socially and politically motivated anyway, do this anyway? Also, is this really the route to ‘deep’ rather than ‘shallow’ learning on social and political issues? How ‘deep’ is possible? An example is given of a garment-making class in Rochdale, in which students from Pakistani backgrounds were asked to reflect on why materials were sourced from Pakistan when Rochdale was once the heart of the global rag trade business. I wonder, how might a tutor and students be supported if xenophobia surfaced in such discussions. This is not a class on e.g. “globalisation and the nation-state” in which debates about identity, nation and nationalism, culture, ‘race’ and racism, difference and diversity, trade and capitalism, are tackled head-on and in a way that creates informed, critical and safe space for deliberation.

    4. ‘There is a need for a more systematic engagement with educational theory.’ Yes indeed.

    Greg summates:
    “The aim, of course, is to turn all WEA courses into courses that, as a by-product of their study, promote active citizenship and community involvement. This approach recognises that the WEA will never simply run a programme of courses that provide social and political awareness, it would be too restrictive, too boring and would not recruit students. This approach brings the social and political into whatever we teach and develops an emancipatory, involved style of learning that fits with our ethos and mission.”
    The first two sentences of this quote chime beautifully for any advocate of the Big Society (and the diminishment of the welfare state and the public sector), whereas the last sentence chimes beautifully for a section of leftist grassroots’ activists. In sum, this is both a commendable and a precarious turn in the twenty-first century WEA.

  6. The contributions so far raise interesting issues and challenges for the WEA. But first in Camila’s response to Kay she says that if everything becomes social purpose education what then becomes of social purpose education. Well that could smack of uniformity – and perhaps control – and it would bother me, as it clearly does Camila, and so I would say that were this ever to be the case – a somewhat unlikely scenario– then there’d need to be a movement to reinvigorate education for education’s sake, leisure and ‘pleasure’ education, training and any number of other ‘types’ of education which don’t fit the ‘social purpose’ bit! But to other discussion points.
    1. I’m not aware of anyone in the WEA having thought social purpose education (SPE) should be a brand. Indeed the notion of SPE has been around as long as the WEA and so if it were a brand it’s not been well marketed! For me SPE is about the nature of the curriculum and the pedagogy adopted and in that sense it should be about a type of education which is distinctive and in many ways different, though not always, to that offered by other adult education providers. The distinctive elements of this type of education have been highlighted by Kay- critical thinking, linking to contemporary social and political issues, encouraging activism and so on; or what Camila has suggested is simply ‘good education’. Fine except that not all education is ‘good’ in this sense and that’s why it seems appropriate for this debate to be happening and for the WEA to be re-focusing on our purpose as an educational movement and provider.
    2. The Big Society- whatever came of it? Why should our SPE any more than Camila’s ‘good education’ further Cameron’s Big Society? It most certainly should not have that intent and I would hope we’d be quite explicit on that. A curriculum which embeds social purpose should on the contrary raise critical questions about rolling back of the state and the demise of the welfare state, and Government policy more generally. As an educational movement that should include raising questions about the nature of our education system and how it is and should be funded and held to account. Central to SPE is the enabling of adult students to question and challenge and to construct alternatives to the status quo.
    3. The WEA is not adopting a prescriptive approach to this issue. Neither is its intention to drag tutors screaming and shouting to a place they don’t want to be. Rather we are opening up a debate and we will be offering existing tutors training. I am hopeful WEA Field Staff and tutors will embrace this opportunity and help us along the way. For many they will already be there, perhaps using different language – ‘good education’ – but in fact practising what we call SPE. For others it will be a bigger challenge but this is an educational journey not a quick ‘heavy hammer’ job. And when we take on new tutors we’ll want them to show understanding of our type of education and commitment to it and to embrace our values. Nothing wrong with that surely, otherwise why exist as an organisation?
    4. I know that we would all like to see more explicit political education, Greg included. But, at least in the WEA, we know that’s a struggle in terms of engaging adults and especially those most alienated from the system. Success has mainly centred on ‘active citizenship learning’ where we’ve brought in external funding and consequently not been constrained by having to recruit 12 students etc. We need more of that and are endeavouring to find new sources of funding. Another option would be to develop new and stronger links with colleagues like Camila at Universities. Perhaps the time is ripe to revisit the Joint programmes of old? Whilst I’m at it we should remember that HE and adult education are very different in a variety of ways, not least the starting points of a significant number of our students.
    5. I’m not sure that ‘education for education’s sake’ and SPE are mutually exclusive. I definitely endorse the need to defend it and the simple notion that learning can be fun, can make you happy and be fulfilling and liberating. Why can’t all that sit alongside SPE? And even if it doesn’t, which I challenge, that doesn’t mean the WEA shouldn’t campaign for it as much as it seeks to defend and protect other ‘types’ of education.
    6. As to the meaning of SPE and Camila’s analogy with a hollow vessel, well yes we must be on our guard. Like democracy this is not an easy concept to tie down and, as is evident from this dialogue, it’s likely to run for a while! Suffice it to say it’s down to us to ensure that in that process we aren’t holed!

  7. A good response Jol, thank you.

    On my question, if everything becomes social purpose education then what becomes of social purpose education, allow me to elaborate as I progress.

    Let’s tackle the question – what is social purpose education – first. I return to Gramsci on culture to define what I aspire to cultivate as good critical education: thinking well, whatever one thinks, acting well, whatever one does, exercise of thought, and so on. Does this fit with ‘social purpose education’ and its necessary ‘social impacts’. Well actually, not necessarily. And that’s a pity.

    What is social purpose? New Labour’s community cohesion agenda and Cameron’s Big Society had specific understandings of ‘community’ and ‘society’. I am asking here, how are we defining the ‘social’. Yes Jol is right to ask: “The Big Society – whatever came of it?” But let us not be so naïve. As a discourse it didn’t fly, but as a move in which, for example, public sector libraries are being handed over to voluntary and community groups, the so-called ‘real Big Society’ exists and has its support from across the political spectrum, Right and Left. Can one not imagine social purpose education achieving social impacts along these lines?

    Let’s hand over to Jol to help me define social purpose education, as I am genuinely struggling here (although the indefatigable exponent himself actually hands over to Kay):

    “For me SPE is about the nature of the curriculum and the pedagogy adopted and in that sense it should be about a type of education which is distinctive and in many ways different, though not always, to that offered by other adult education providers. The distinctive elements of this type of education have been highlighted by Kay- critical thinking, linking to contemporary social and political issues, encouraging activism and so on.”

    Okay, but critical thinking, connections to the social and the political, etc., cannot be boxed into this thing called social purpose education and claimed as distinct to the WEA! Well, no, hang on, it can be and is being.

    Jol seems amused at the idea that social purpose education is a brand. I am confused by his amusement, since it is ‘the thing’ which is promised to make WEA education provision appealing: ‘unique’, ‘distinct’, ‘apart from others’, ‘stand-out’, ‘stand-alone’. The WEA competes in a market and needs a brand niche to survive. As a manager, Jol knows this. So, it is a brand (why deny it?)

    That said, what the WEA is doing that is ‘different’ is attempting to make an entire education provision into this thing called social purpose education. Now, that’s an intriguing thing in theory and in practice. And herein lies my rhetorical question, what becomes of social purpose education if everything becomes social purpose education. Actually, that edge and that depth may well blunt out and shallow out. In other words, social purpose education might well cancel itself out by social purpose education.

  8. Let’s celebrate those visionary plebs!

    “Unthinkable? Revive the Plebs League. It wanted to engage the excluded through education and organisation – 100 years on, that still sounds a worthy ambition. […] A century ago, the word was eagerly adopted by trade union rebels at Ruskin College, keen to learn Marxism rather than what they dismissed as the bourgeois economics of gradualism. The Plebs League grew out of the demand for an independent working class education that was taken from Ruskin first to the Rhondda coalfield by Noah Ablett, which might be why current local MP Owen Smith, the shadow Welsh secretary, suggested at the Labour conference that it was time it should be revived. Smart idea. From Rhondda, the Plebs League spread its radical interpretation of economics and sociology among local communities, and with its Labour colleges offered the kind of campaigning and organisational expertise that was needed to make change happen. Labour colleges, absorbed by the party after the 1926 general strike, became the kindergarten for several of Attlee’s cabinet ministers and much of the party bureaucracy. The teachings might be out of date but the way of working isn’t. The original league wanted to engage the excluded in politics through education and organisation. A hundred years on, as turnout at elections falls, and falls fastest among the working class, while disenchantment with politicians reaches new heights, that sounds like a worthy ambition.”
    The Guardian Editorial

    “If there was ever a time for a revival of the Plebs League to guard against such hostile acts and to foster independent working class education, it is now. As Plebs magazine announced in February 1909: ‘Enter the Plebs, not from above but from below, not to fight a sham battle among the shadows by the orders and for the interests of our masters, but to fight a real battle in the full light and with a clear knowledge of the issue before us.'”
    Alex Gordon (president) and Bob Crow (general secretary) National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT)

    BUT HOLD ON! (Yes, momentum stopped for an advertisement of the WEA and ‘Social Purpose Education’)

    “The Plebs League is no more, but the Workers’ Educational Association is still very much here…”
    Jol Miskin, Regional education manager, WEA Yorkshire and Humber


    Jol states in the above blog post:

    “I know that we would all like to see more explicit political education, Greg included. But, at least in the WEA, we know that’s a struggle in terms of engaging adults and especially those most alienated from the system.”

    Yes, I know that too (from my past teaching background and my wider educational activity). That said, in my experience – past and present – this is by no means an insurmountable challenge and efforts and initiatives are out there.

    But what is Jol getting at exactly? Is he saying: political education is so much of a challenge for the WEA to deliver on that we should all lower our demands and aspirations, we should all be realistic, we should all stop trying and succumb to a far more modest agenda. No, he is not saying that explicitly, however, by implication and action he is. What’s more, he then seeks a moral high ground: “But, at least in the WEA, we know…”, ‘at least we, the WEA, actually exist.’ So the rest of us are what? Fools for trying?


  9. A comment on Independent Working Class Education:

    “The basic aim behind IWCE was that the working class should produce its own thinkers and organisers. The autobiographies and reminiscences of many labour movement leaders in the 1930s, 40s and 50s refer to the Plebs League and the Ruskin strike. In contrast, few academic historians have paid attention to these initiatives. Most histories of adult education, for example, assume that what counts is the Workers’ Educational Association (WEA). They either ignore IWCE altogether or see it as an obstacle that briefly hampered the WEA.”

    I’ve been re-reading Colin Waugh’s “The Origin of the Plebs League” and recommend others do so too. Our view of history shapes the present and the future, and our view of the present and the future shapes our understanding of history. History sometimes repeats itself, and sometimes our efforts are to stop history from repeating itself.

    What fascinates me about the ‘history of the WEA’ is how it chimes with the contradictory tension I defined above in relation to ‘social purpose education’. As Colin Waugh observes in relation to a quote from Mansbridge’s “The WEA Spirit”:

    “This reveals a genuine insight into the necessity for dialogue between people with a high level of formal education and working-class people who have been denied this. However, Mansbridge’s project also fitted in with the desire of a growing section of the ruling class to draw union activists into liberal education and through this, class collaboration, or — as it was often put at the time — to ‘sandpaper’ them. This would, it was hoped, create within the working class a layer of articulate people who would blunt the edge of class struggle.”

    For sure, much has moved on since Mansbridge’s time: the nature of education has changed, the condition and the health of the labour movement has deteriorated, the kind of student entering various spheres of education has altered. But something in Colin’s observation about Mansbridge’s endeavour still holds powerful relevance.

    In truth, I have no doubt whatsoever of the leftist spirit driving forth ‘social purpose education’. My caution is this: I can see a present and a future in which such leftist endeavour is captured for outcomes one might not have desired. Yes, call it the sandpaper effect, and history repeating itself.

  10. Pete Caldwell permalink

    It’s good to see probing questions and comments about Education for Social Purpose (ESP). WEA has long had a commitment to ESP expressed through combatting educational inequality and encouraging social, political and community engagement as well as individual and personal development. If you like, it’s central to our ‘brand’.
    My interest is in exploring where we are today with ESP especially with our renewed vision that emphasises ‘a better world – equal, democratic and just…’ My main argument is that we can’t see ESP as associated with particular educational programmes but rather with finding the’ point of connection’ within the disparate range of courses that draw disadvantaged adults back into education. This is not to denigrate political economy courses but simply to recognise our experience as adult educators: that students are attracted initially by their immediate interests. This may be learning a new skill, improving health and fitness, improving spoken English, helping their children with school work. If we want to extend our reach, which we do, we need to connect with and build on these initial impulses.
    In thinking about how we make these educational connections Kay’s comments are very valuable emphasising the need to ensure a questioning, critical and contextualised stance in all community learning. This may be assumed in humanities and social science courses but needs to be there too in skills and craft courses that are the point of entry for many adult students. Ditto the importance of active learning, I know from my own experience as a trade union and second chance tutor how effective student projects can be in exploring the wider context of particular problems.
    WEA is planning to give some shape to our ESP by identifying a number of performance indicators that demonstrate its impact on individuals and communities. This will involve argument and judgement calls about what indicators we select but will give a focus for our energies and evidence of our success, or otherwise.

  11. jmiskin permalink

    Camila writes: ” But what is Jol getting at exactly? Is he saying: political education is so much of a challenge for the WEA to deliver on that we should all lower our demands and aspirations, we should all be realistic, we should all stop trying and succumb to a far more modest agenda. No, he is not saying that explicitly, however, by implication and action he is.”
    I am guilty of many things but I don’t think I have either explicitly or implicitly ‘thrown in the metaphoric towel’ and gone for the more modest agenda Camila suggests,and it’s a shame she sees the social purpose agenda as somehow having that intention. It doesn’t.
    And I have never suggested anyone is a fool -explicitly or implicitly – for seeking to revitalise/build a contemporary Plebs League.
    Finally,not all outcomes are predictable in education so of course this all comes with risks. How could any educational endeavour be otherwise?

  12. Jol, thanks very much for your measured response.

    Assuming this debate might proceed in one way or another, allow me to dispense of the ‘red herrings’:

    1. You rightly state that you are not guilty of ‘throwing in the towel’.
    2. I do not see social purpose education as without merit. Indeed, some of its ingredients are full of merit.
    3. You are absolutely correct in asserting that you have never suggested that anyone is a fool for attempting to rebuild a contemporary Plebs League. (It was not a rhetorical question that I posed.)
    4. Yes all education comes with risk.

    Good. That’s that.

    Whilst genuine leftist spirit within the WEA is driving forth social purpose education, the effects seem to me contradictory.

    Jol, you say in a previous post: “A curriculum which embeds social purpose should…raise critical questions about rolling back of the state and the demise of the welfare state, and Government policy more generally.” This sounds great. But it is far more probable that it will slip into a kind of voluntary, community and citizenship engagement and empowerment which fill the gaps left by the demise of public sector provision (including public sector workers). The future could be: social purpose education = social impacts = the real Big Society.

    Final point. The story of just one small but significant exchange on the revival of a contemporary Plebs League, and within that the net effect of the WEA intervention, appeared to be this: in the grand schema there is a role for a genuine leftist advocate of social purpose education as – unbeknown to him – the Sandpaper Man.


  13. This TES comment piece has so much relevance for this debate (cut and pasted below):

    “Abandoning fluffy fair trade for a tough intellectual agenda gives heft to the new citizenship curriculum, argues Tom Finn-Kelcey

    So we finally have a new national curriculum – or at least a draft of one – from education secretary Michael Gove and friends. As a citizenship-trained teacher, I scanned my copy with trepidation, fully expecting the subject that began my teaching career to have joined New Labour in the dustbin of history.

    I was wrong. It has been retained and its new, more focused format may give it a fighting chance to shed its reputation as a catch-all for the delivery of moral crusading. It may even become a concrete, intellectual, knowledge-based subject. This rewrite of the curriculum is a good opportunity to learn from the mistakes made in the subject’s first decade, and to begin delivering serious political education.

    When citizenship was introduced in 2002 after the Crick report, there was considerable excitement about the possibility of properly “doing some politics” in schools, something that prompted me to join one of the first cohorts trained in the subject. I was enticed away from a career in politics by the possibility of teaching young people all about the political process and the vagaries of the justice system and the law, and engaging in the great political debates of our time.

    What I found in schools was not what I had been hoping for. All too often the subject enjoyed low status and was frequently staffed by a disparate range of non-specialists, who in many cases did not feel confident to teach about political issues and in some cases did not really care either. Into this vacuum of apathy stepped every kind of pressure group imaginable, eager to get their cause taught in the classroom.

    It never ceases to amaze me how units of work from pressure groups have been uncritically dropped into the citizenship curriculum in many schools: from animal rights groups such as Compassion in World Farming; human rights groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch; and, of course, the good old Fairtrade Foundation, without which no mediocre citizenship course would be complete.

    Now, I happen to quite like some of those causes, but that is hardly the point. Fair trade, for example, may have laudable aims but it is not inherently good – many have argued that it hampers development by preventing the free market from operating, and at worst is akin to modern-day imperialism. The idea that it is good teaching to plan a scheme of work on fair trade based solely around a pack of resources from the Fairtrade Foundation should be frankly embarrassing to any teacher.

    The point is that the intention of citizenship should never have been to indoctrinate children into any specific set of political or social values, but to engage them in debate and encourage them to make up their own minds from a base of sound knowledge and understanding.

    Value-laden from the outset

    Perhaps if I had read my Crick report more closely I would have seen these problems coming. The whole citizenship project faced problems from the outset because it conflated two different things. The first was a genuine need to educate young people about the political process and get them discussing politics critically – something previously missing from the curriculum. But the second was the notion that we needed to use citizenship to instil certain sets of values into children.

    The previous curriculum was full of the language of contemporary values – respect for multiculturalism, unquestioning acceptance of social justice, rights balanced with responsibilities, sustainable development, the immense positives of migration and diversity. Reading the document some years on, one cannot mistake it for anything other than a recipe for the instilling of Third-Way, Blairite values into young people. This demonstrates the problems inherent in allowing the curriculum to be used to teach contemporary values as fact. The new one should be viewed as a chance for a fresh start.

    The main positive in this respect is how focused it is. It has been designed to cover just a few areas, centred on the study of the political system, the constitution, our legal system and our traditional liberties. It allows for the study of competing political systems and their relative merits, along with the implications of differing electoral systems. For the first time, it specifically mentions the need to study the legislature, judiciary and executive, and their relationship. It still contains the requirement for active citizenship, but by removing much of the value-laden New Labour-speak of its predecessor, it allows more scope in this area.

    Of course, nothing is perfect. The Department for Education has tacked on a section on financial management, shifted rather thoughtlessly from the PSHE curriculum. This detracts somewhat from the clearer focus on political knowledge. It is to be hoped that the consultation will do away with this particular add-on.

    What we are left with overall, though, is positive. We have a chance to focus citizenship on delivering some high-quality, knowledge-driven education, inspiring young people with the fascinating and sophisticated issues raised by in-depth study of the political. There will need to be a considerable shift in the mindset of teachers for this to happen, but the opportunity exists to make citizenship a really serious part of the curriculum.

    Tom Finn-Kelcey is head of politics at Queen Elizabeth’s Grammar School in Faversham, Kent.”

  14. camilabassi permalink

    Reblogged this on Anaemic On A Bike and commented:
    My initial thoughts on the WEA’s ‘social purpose education’.

  15. This thread reminds me of the names of British battlecruisers such as Indomitable, Indefatigable, and Invincible.

  16. joaniepthemadhatter permalink

    Reblogged this on The MadHatter's Corner.

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