Skip to content

Social Purpose Education

October 14, 2015

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

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: