Dr Sharon Clancy: On Adult Education and the 1919 Report


Sharon Clancy is Assistant Professor in Educational Leadership and Management. From 2016 to 2019 she was Senior Research Fellow in adult education/lifelong learning on the ENLIVEN project at the University of Nottingham. She completed her PhD in 2017, examining a historic adult residential college in its political and societal context. Her writing focuses on education, class and culture, alongside cognitive and social justice issues.


A voluntary sector leader before entering academia, Sharon was CEO of Mansfield Council for Voluntary Services for 2000 to 2007. She is currently Chair of the Raymond Williams Foundation and a trustee of ARVAC (Association for Research in the Voluntary and Community sector). She was Head of Community Partnerships at the University of Nottingham (2007-13), acting as the university’s strategic lead on public and community engagement with research.


Sharon speaks regularly on political/radical adult education and has acted as keynote for Soundings events, at The World Transformed, for the RWF and for Learning Link Scotland/Scottish TUC.


Below is a transcript of the presentation given by Dr Sharon Clancy celebrating 100 years of radical Adult Education in Scotland.



Sharon: Well thank you very much Sarah, I really don’t know how to follow that. That was an amazing introduction, I’ve never been introduced like that before. I’m here in several capacities, as Sarah has said. I’m here primarily today in my capacity as Chair of the Raymond Williams Foundation and I’ve been in that role for about three years now. But also, I’ve been a Centenary Commission member for the last year, actually looking at ‘Adult Education 100’ as we’ve called ourselves: what was the influence of the 1919 report of 100 years ago, what do we need to do for today in taking adult education forwards after the mass destruction of adult education in the UK generally. I’m going to talk a little bit about the foundational thinking in the adult education original 1919 report and also take us a bit further forward in thinking how that reflects on today, I think, in how we can perhaps use that for thinking about the future.


So the 1919 Adult Education Commission, chaired by the Master of Balliol College, an amazing group of people: trade unionists, adult educators and university academics. They felt that adult education at the particular time they were talking, immediately post First World War, should be about liberal, non-technical adult education. They were very, very committed to trying to pick apart vocational / non-vocational, and they saw that it was essential to all individuals and all communities, and that adult education was a permanent national necessity and an inseparable aspect of citizenship, and therefore should be both universal and lifelong. I think that kind of centrally summarises some of the key points about adult education – there for life, an aspect of citizenship, and it’s part of a permanent national necessity which as we know has been massively eroded.


The report really brought in a whole swathe of legislation; it enabled local authorities to provide adult education. But I think, critically for me anyway as a voluntary sector activist and community person, they crucially understood the role of the voluntary sector as being as important, if not more important, than local authority education. They saw the resurgence, if you like, or the growth, of the Workers’ Educational Association at the time, the co-operative movement, and they were committed to education for transformation at community level. Much more interested actually in communities than individuals, very interesting compared with our focus now perhaps much more on the individual. And they were particularly keen on the idea of how they could enable working class people who had little access to education to engage in education for life.


And I think there are some fascinating parallels with 2019 and 1919 – this world of risk that we live in at the moment, and the world of risk that we saw in 1919. The Great War had just ended, the whole swathe of strikes, rental strikes, etc., which was described as the war after the war. That extension of the franchise to some women but to all men immediately post war, and that kind of international ideological influenced the rise of socialism at the time, the Labour movement and the break with the established two-party system with the growth of the Labour Party. So this surging growth in adult education infrastructure really reflects something about that ideological change and shift, and the tensions – some of the interesting ideological tensions – between the state and the non-state.


Now of course we have Brexit, the challenges to political legitimacy. Our contentions around the EU and ‘democracy in crisis’ is how I would describe it. Ineffectiveness in governance, a lot of people feel that globalisation has affected our ability to govern ourselves as a nation-state. The break-up of the established two-party system, and then of course the erosion of the Left, which is a terrible tragedy, the rise of nationalism, the rise of right-wing populism which we see everywhere. And most crucially I think for today the destruction of adult and further education, and I’ll say a bit more about that, especially for working class communities.


So I see us as in a real contemporary crisis and I think adult education is absolutely crucial to trying to navigate our way through some of these critical contemporary challenges. We’ve got a huge crisis of inequality – social, economic, political inequality – in the UK, huge income disparity. We’re now I think the most unequal society in the whole of Europe, very close to America now as well. And I believe firmly that austerity is a class project and that it disproportionately targets and affects working class communities and households, and, in doing so, as Cooper and Whyte have described it, protects concentrations of elite wealth and power, and I think this is what we are really committed to trying to challenge.


We also hear this tension –this phrase all the time about ‘left behind communities’, and the community that I live and engage with outside work is described as a very typical left behind community: a former pit town, been absolutely destroyed by pit closures in the ‘90s, but also the loss of the textile industry in the area, part of a former industrial heartland of the UK, particularly the coalfield area which is where I come from originally too. So we’ve now got a lot of people in Mansfield – I can speak personally about this – who are right behind Leave, right behind Brexit. But people are very, very quick to judge, and I get this a lot when I speak at things like The World Transformed, you know, there’s a metropolitan elite perception that people are all either very racist, thick. There are all kinds of assumptions and perceptions about why people are so angry, and it’s 30 years of abuse basically, their communities destroyed bit by bit.


So we’re now in a situation where 1.3 million Britons are employed in the gig economy. I did some work for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation a couple of years ago looking at issues of destitution in Nottingham, and everybody I spoke to was in work, so the crisis is not about work it’s actually about the kind of work that we have and the precarity of that work. We have a situation of completely inadequate shared resources, not all education is created equal as we know, so we’ve got fee paying schools, access to grammar schools, and we know that grammar schools in England only take a tiny proportion of pupils who are or have ever been eligible for free school meals. So that is 2% as opposed to 40% nationally.


And I think working class learners have been for a very long time perceived as defective or described as defective in numerous ways. I can describe this myself as someone who went from Bolsover to Cambridge, which was a strange transition, believe me. As a ‘stranger in a foreign land’, Sarah Mann’s brilliant expression, of being in an education system that is actually quite alien if you’re from a very different cultural background. Where I used to have people shout things like, ‘Eh up, trouble at t’mill’, and things like that. So there is this extraordinary perception in our class-riddled culture. There are growing issues as we know of mental health problems, anxiety and depression, and that’s across FE, HE, also in the adult residential colleges where I’ve done a great deal of research, and in schools. And I keep coming back to Raymond Williams’ brilliant phrase, ‘culture is ordinary’, you know, that culture belongs to all of us. It’s not about elitism, it’s not about a particular perception of higher culture – culture is all of us, culture is ordinary. So that’s why I love him so much, Raymond Williams.


I wanted to think a little bit about privilege, inequality, and the Labour aristocracy as well. I’m proud to say that my father was a miner who went to Ruskin College and I feel that my confidence in my own background comes from a sense of being taught and learning from my father, who was radicalised by his experience of going through adult education at Ruskin College. And my grandfather who was a South Wales miner, who was Left Book Club member, and socialist. There is a Labour aristocracy and I use the phrase advisedly, but I think that has been sadly eroded by the destruction of adult education. Even those very colleges themselves now are precarious, in tremendous difficulty many of them. We’ve seen the destruction of Coleg Harlech, and other adult education colleges just disappearing.


There’s always been I think a really interesting tension between the state and non-state educational provision. The 1919 Report was very committed to the idea that the LEAs were not necessarily the right people to provide the kinds of adult education that would connect with communities. They said ‘We do not think that Local Authorities will, generally speaking, take bold steps for the provision of non-vocational subjects’, and they also said ‘non-vocational adult education has not in the past thriven in it’, in the state sector. They were concerned that the local authorities were far more focused on children’s education, as they should have been and understandably, and that the state would only act as a medium for encouraging and assisting the activities of universities and local educational authorities, and the educational work of voluntary bodies. It should do that and ‘we regard this as the main function of the State so far as education is concerned’. So they always saw it as an aide not necessarily as the means of actually creating an educational system. They saw always a strong role for the non-state.


I think this is absolutely fascinating. I had the pleasure of going to the National Archives over the summer and looking at some of the correspondence connected to the 1919 report and the fear and anxiety which I think is there. I think adult education is essentially profoundly political, and I think they are afraid of us in lots of ways, those of us who have been through that kind of system. This was writ large by some of the testimony at the time, some of the comments at the time about a real tension and lack of trust, if you like, so I’ll just read this quote out:


“…there is still a number of education committees who are unable to understand a desire for education of no direct utilitarian value, unless it be for purposes of personal accomplishment, and who suspect dark motives in the minds of those who desire such education. More especially is this so where the demand is for the study of problems which are controversial. It is within our knowledge that there are even today town councillors to whom the term ‘economics’ is synonymous with socialism. The majority of those who most desire to study do so probably because of the interest they have already taken in industrial or other public affairs-“, that Freirean conscientisation, trade unionist.


“This is presumably the basis for the charge sometimes made by Local Authorities, and suggested even by some members of universities, that the classes ‘encourage discontent and socialism’.”


And I love this bit: one tutor was reputedly told upon requesting a room for meetings for educational purposes: ‘If we let you have a room, you will make the place a den of anarchists’.

It is fantastic testimony and is there throughout all the correspondence, through all the letters. It is fascinating, it is a really fascinating glimpse into the history. And I sense that still, very definitely, that sense of people learning their political, social, economic context and understanding their position in the world and being able to contest and challenge it, really important.


I often come back to Stuart Hall’s prescient 1958 quote, and I believe this is absolutely centrally true. He said:

“Class and education have been at the centre of political and intellectual struggles for at least the last century-‘ – and yet this is a book from 1958 – ‘Surely there has never been a greater cleavage between the tone of our society, its manner and forms, and the gross realities? What happens to a society rigidly class bound which uses continually the language of equality? What happens to an oligarchy which conceals itself behind the rhetoric of the popular democracy? What happens when large numbers are trained each year for responsibility and participation but where the sources of power and decision grow every day more remote? All our energies are expended in creating and consuming a culture whose sole purpose is to cover up the realities of our social life.’”


I think that’s incredibly prescient in 1958 and so continues to be absolutely true.

The reason I like Raymond Williams so much is of course he was a university professor from Cambridge, but he spent many, many years working as an adult educationalist with the WEA. He believed categorically that education is about being part of the social change, not just observing but being fundamentally part of the social change. It’s not about remedying deficit or making up for inadequate educational resources, nor is it about just meeting the needs of a new society, and I‘ve had lots of arguments as part of the Commission about this. It’s not just about responding to the fact that AI is there and we need to be more responsive to the challenges of the digital world and so on and so forth, but it is about change, fundamentally being part of the change. He said [we’re not 0:19:09] ‘the bottle with the message in it, bobbing on the tides and waves of history’ but instead we have to be about being part of a process of social change itself and that the learning is fundamental to that. I do think that’s a really important point, the social realities that we are actually facing, the rhetoric versus the reality. I’m a great fan of Diane Reay’s writings and I saw her speak at The World Transformed recently. She says social mobility, which we’re told is the way out – and my father would have always disagreed with this because he went straight back to the community he came from, newly empowered, newly knowledgeable – she said it’s a red herring given the current high levels of inequality. Social mobility is primarily about recycling the inequality rather than tackling it. I think that’s correct.


I also think that this focus on widening participation for those of us who have worked in this world, which I have as well within the university sector, widening participation, we are infatuated with a particular group of people in terms of widening participation, specifically 18 year-olds from under-represented groups, and even that is a moot point, into selective universities. But the total number of learners in further education and skills has fallen 26.5% over five years, and the decline in the numbers of mature part-time and full-time learners is catastrophic. I mean we’re looking at a fall of almost 60% overall. So these are major challenges that we’re facing.


Much of the current emphasis tends to be on young adults, which is also correct, but the group is really complex, the group of people who want to take on adult education in FE and beyond. We’ve got 1.9 million adults who study or train in colleges. Students over 19 in further education generate an additional £70 billion for the economy over their lifetimes, so this is not insubstantial. 30% of adults in colleges are from an ethnic minority background, so there is an incredibly important diversity element in terms of the learners in FE. 200,000 adult apprentices and 106,000 college students are aged 60 and over so there is also that incredibly important age profile.


I think informal learning is at the heart of a lot of this as I’ve indicated. Williams was always concerned that that voluntary sector role, that community sector role, was about escaping the elite-controlled schoolhouse and university. It came through family, through churches, through community centres, through libraries, museums, reading groups. It was about debate, discussion and collectivism. You see important examples of people becoming aware of what’s going on around them. In the army for instance the wonderful Cairo Parliament, if people have come across that, during the war people were given a copy of the Beveridge Report and this was fundamental to the development of the Labour Party and its huge landslide victory after the war as well, in that people were becoming aware of their circumstances, social, political, economic. And I think that’s what I was referring to with the Labour aristocracy, that knowledge and understanding, that you can challenge.


The importance of the evening classes in the NUM, and I mentioned my father went through that route, he was actually supported by the NUM to go to evening classes first and then ultimately to Ruskin. So the important role that we still have around adult residential colleges, few in number now, in fact we had four but now of course Hillcroft which was the only women’s college has merged with Richmond College. So we’ve got a bit of a problem there even defining that entirely as an adult residential college purely for women any longer. And the important role of community education, but also its mass destruction as a result of austerity. I’ve talked to lots of colleagues who were absolutely on their uppers financially in that world, so we have a massive issue here around rebuilding anything. I think particularly that learning as an adult, particularly for those from working class communities, people need to feel that they can actively participate in the construction of their knowledge, that they are not just passive recipients of knowledge. I think universities often do this very badly – don’t recognise the importance of community-based knowledge, tacit knowledge and understanding at community level. Too often they think about knowledge transfer rather than knowledge exchange, and I’ve said this for the last seven or eight years but not always heard. I think education has to value and respect different cultural worlds and backgrounds and ethnically diverse communities and learners, and culture is ordinary, going back to Raymond Williams’ phase.


Adult learning has to be I think through collaborative sharing, small group work and interviewing other people on the street or in the neighbourhood, feeling engaged in that learning process. I think that is the critical thing that adult education did so well and has done well, is being based fundamentally on a pedagogical approach that is about small group discussion and debate. I don’t have a problem with online learning incidentally at all but I do think that face to face connection where you talk to people, you hear other perspectives and other issues, is crucial and that’s what adult education fundamentally did at its best. So adult work concerns the need to measure what goes on in the curriculum against their own experience and their own life stories. And I think without the chance of connecting to that lifetime of experiences, you know, if you’ve got a formal curriculum that doesn’t recognise that, I think adult learners find it difficult to connect and engage with the learning experience.


Just to finish really, to reflect a little bit on those final resources for a ‘journey of hope’, which is again one of Raymond Williams’ important expressions, we’re at an incredibly important time I think at the moment, obviously we’re in the run up to an election as well so everything to play for. But I think political education for me is about criticality, it’s about critical thinking, it’s about consciousness, it’s about being aware of your place in the world. So much at the moment distorts, as Stuart Hall describes, you know, the mirrors that surround us, the smoke and mirrors, so we don’t always see what we’re actually living. I’ve been involved for the last three years in The World Transformed really talking about adult education and I was kind of surprised that their learning platforms initially didn’t have any mention of adult education at all, and I’m sure I wasn’t the only voice asking for adult education to be taken seriously, but I have really pushed for it. There is a growing sense now that The World Transformed itself as an organisation not just a fringe movement is taking that very seriously. So there are two new research fellows working for The World Transformed who are now looking at what political education is taking place across the UK, and they’re trying to develop a network and also a nexus of people who have got the skills and abilities and interested to promote some of the political education work.


In my other life outside work, I am Political Education Officer for Mansfield Labour Party, and I’ve been struck by people’s passion and enthusiasm for getting together and having a debate or discussion. We’ve had two debates on Brexit which was quite scary I have to say, but really powerful, really powerful and not at all a bunch of people being, as I’ve said earlier, being kind of small-minded and bigoted. Not at all actually, it was much more nuanced than that. Okay you could say you’re preaching to the converted to an extent, a group of Labour Party members, they are perhaps more open, but there was a genuine sense of people sharing all kinds of difference of opinion. I also led a session at The World Transformed in September about Brexit, but it wasn’t about Brexit the content or the detail, it was about what it has done to our ability to talk to one another, to communicate. We’ve got increasing this shouting factor where people stand on opposite sides of the divide and just yell at one another. This was really more about critical discourse and ability to talk to one another. I’m passionate about The World Transformed, I can see it is itself transforming. The first time I went, perhaps three years ago, I did feel this strong sense of a metropolitan elite, very London centric, it was held in Brighton as well. The following year it was in Liverpool, and already feeling a sense that there was a growing movement of people from areas like the one in which I live, starting to really argue the case for a more nuanced understanding of left behind communities. A few of us are trying to do that.


The Raymond Williams Foundation has been fundamental in my knowledge and understanding. I’ve learned so much from the people there I can’t tell you, often older people who have been involved with the socialist movement in one way or another, the Left movement for a long, long time and they’ve been my education in many ways. But they are great advocates for informal learning exactly as Raymond Williams said, the community-based education that we have, the ‘culture is ordinary’ approach if you like, each day every day it’s part of everyday life. So they promote informal learning structures. We have discussions in pubs, not everything’s in pubs by the way, these two are, and the philosophy in pubs. But they’re committed to the idea of informal learning structures generally. They do have many debates and discussions across different parts of the UK. And then of course Adult Education 100, coming back to this idea of life-wide education. The Centenary Commission that I’ve been part of, in that capacity as Chair of the Raymond Williams Foundation, has spent a year looking at different aspects of adult education. Our recommendations and final report come out on Monday so it’s embargoed until then. We’re just about to send out some press releases, but there are 17 recommendations in the final Adult Education 100 report, the Centenary Commission report, and it has been a fantastic experience working with the WEA, working across a number of universities. I’ve been part of the steering group that has been doing all the work behind it, along with my colleague Professor John Holford at the University of Nottingham. It has been incredibly powerful working with the Co-operative College with Cilla Ross and other colleagues. What we discovered I think is that it’s very easy to ignore informal, community-based education, so we, Cilla and I and Dr Nick Mahony from the Raymond Williams Foundation also, have spent quite a lot of time going out interviewing at community level. We felt that was really important, absolutely crucial to get that voice in there and to not focus exclusively on state and formal education, adult education, so we’ve spent a lot of time working in that area.


Finally, I think there is an opportunity here, we’ve got this great surge in social movements around us, particularly around climate change, Extinction Rebellion and other groups, and inequality, and I think this is a prime moment where we need to come together and challenge the status quo. I’ve just been doing some work as well for The Society for Educational Studies looking at the 1918 Education Act and relating that to the 1919 Report, and actually looking at some of these tensions around the state and non-state provision of education, really important. So a crucial time I think, an absolutely crucial time. Can I say just a few words about the Report, when it comes out on Monday, I hope people rush out and go and read it. But obviously it’s crucial that we have a partnership approach to this, so one of the key recommendations is going to be around having locally-based educational partnerships which look at education cradle to grave – particularly the way we have it at the moment is very atomised and truncated and chopped up into different segments in life – so this is about a seamless understanding of education. And I’m pleased to say the Labour Party recently of course has talked about this six year opportunity for people to continue to learn into adulthood. And obviously their national education strategies fundamentally now are starting to include elements around adult education which I’m enormously grateful for.


We’re also suggesting strongly that there has to be a strategy at national level for adult education which is part of these locally based partnerships, so the strategy is taken to the community and is enacted at community level, and that there is a strong focus around community and informal learning within that. We’re also saying that FE colleges have become in many instances disconnected from the communities they serve – I can say that certainly from some of the research I’ve done in Mansfield – and that that is partly about their governance structures. We are saying very strongly that FE colleges need to have locally based people as part of their trustee and governance structures because that’s about local ownership. And crucially we’re asking for financial support for this infrastructure. I don’t know how it’s going to go, I don’t know what kind of reaction we’re going to get, but it has been a fascinating experience being part of the Commission which has been a real mixture of people as well, it would be fair to say: captains of industry, myself, Cilla, a real mixture of people, Melissa Benn who is a journalist, and so on. It has been a fascinating journey for the last year and the culmination of our work is on Monday. Thank you very much.


This is part of the 100 Years of Radical Adult Education in Scotland archive


100 years of radical Adult Education in Scotland: Building hope for the future 100 years after the 1919 Report on Adult education, join us to learn from the proud history of adult education in Scotland and make collective plans for a radical future Speakers: Sharon Clancy, Raymond Williams Foundation Working class and union education: Wendy Burton (STUC), Dek Keenan (independent scholar and author) Recovery movement and adult learning: Joyce Nicholson (Glasgow University), John Player (independent scholar and author) Empowering literacies: Jim Crowther, co-author ‘Powerful Literacies’, Sarah McEwen, University of Dundee