Lifelong Learning: The centre cannot hold; must things fall apart?

In this opinion piece, Professor John Holford explores the role of further and higher education professionals in forging a future for lifelong learning.

A Failing System

In the middle of last year’s election, an important report appeared: “A Permanent National Necessity …”: Adult Education and Lifelong Learning for 21st Century Britain. The report of the Centenary Commission on Adult Education, its message – though less strident than ‘Get Brexit Done’ – was clear. For all kinds of reasons, Britain needs a revitalised and vibrant adult education system. The current system is failing.

A Worsening Picture 

We all know how important lifelong learning is. Governments have told us in no uncertain terms for 25 years or more. Technological change and globalisation mean our skills have a short shelf life. We have to learn and relearn through life.

Yet the evidence is clear. Across the board, the proportion of UK adults participating in lifelong learning roughly halved between 2004 and 2018.[1] The situation is worst for those who need education and training most. The Social Mobility Commission tells us nearly half of people from the lowest social classes have undertaken no learning at all since leaving school. People working in higher managerial, professional and associate professional occupations are around twice as likely to participate in training as workers in intermediate and routine and manual occupations.[2]

So things were pretty bad – and that was before the COVID-19 catastrophe came along!

“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world …”[3]

The Decline of the Adult Education System

How did we get to this dire state of affairs? Only a few decades ago, Britain’s adult education system was world-leading. Further education colleges and polytechnics worked closely with local employers. Universities provided extensive adult education programmes, often working with the WEA, local authorities, employers and trade unions. Professional commitment and networks were strong. Discussion about policy and practice was vigorous.

Since then, governments have demolished much better than they have built. The mantra has been ‘creative destruction’. Institutions that gave voice to professionals have been seen as opposition. Power has been centralised. Colleges and universities have learned – and they have learned – that unless they do what they’re told, they’ll be named, shamed, and very likely reorganised.

A Centralised System

In this centralised system, the centre must know best. Yet rather than taking advantage of professional expertise, governments prefer strategies peddled by think tanks. In a competitive market, think tanks succeed getting politicians to take up their proposals. Claiming to build ‘evidence-led policy’, they in fact deliver policy-led evidence. Rather than speaking truth to power, they pander to politicians’ prejudices.

The result has been a world of permanent disruption. When a seed sprouts, a new initiative digs it up before it can bed in. If a root takes hold, it is chopped out. New growth is tested, measured and found wanting before it has time to flourish.

The Impact of Covid-19

And then COVID-19 came along. Though in many human, economic and social respects disastrous, a lot has been learned during lockdown. We have seen that systems of governance, national and institutional, work best when they involve and to learn from people, not when the centre pretends to have all the answers. The centre has not held.

Yet across the FE and HE sectors – and indeed, across society as a whole – experience has turned Yeats' famous aphorism on his head. The centre has not held – but things have not fallen apart. College premises may have closed, but education has carried on. Staff have acted fast and creatively to teach online – and new courses as well as existing programmes.

The Role of Professionals

The lessons are clear: if we are to rebuild adult education – and doing so will be a priority post-COVID-19 – we must listen to the professionals who make up the Further and Higher Education sectors. We must say to government: you provide the means, let us do the job.

(John Holford is Robert Peers Professor of Adult Education at the University of Nottingham. He was joint secretary to the Centenary Commission on Adult Education, and recently led the three-year ENLIVEN project on lifelong learning in Europe.)

[1] Eurostat data: see

[2] Social Mobility Commission. (2019). The adult skills gap: is falling investment in UK adults stalling social mobility? (London: Social Mobility Commission), pp. 26, 38.

[3] W.B.Yeats, The Second Coming (1919).

You can join Inside Government in November to hear from the Department for Education,  the CBI and the Social Mobility Commission about the next steps for lifelong learning and adult education provision in the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Find out more about the Lifelong Learning Forum 2020