For much of the English-speaking world, the forms of adult education developed during and after colonialism draw on British experience. Widespread adult education developed in Britain along with industrialization and the growth of the demand for popular democracy, yet its roots stretch back in religious education to the beginnings of organized Christianity in the British Isles and, in secular education, to the Renaissance. King Alfred, in the 9th century, was a passionate and committed adult learner for the benefit of himself and others, establishing educational institutions to spread learning among the population; however, books were scarce before the invention of the printing press, and popular knowledge was mainly shared through the pulpit and the troubadour.
The Renaissance acted as a fillip to secular as well as religious enquiry, and public lectures on scientific subjects, attracting large attendances, are recorded in London from the 16th and 17th centuries, but more widely from 1700. During the period leading up to the English Civil War, thousands of pamphlets on how the world should be organized the stimulated debate. Later, coffee clubs, newspapers, and libraries all fostered a learning culture; and a wide range of bodies, including the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge, the Welsh circulating schools, and dissenting schools, all contributed to spreading literacy.
Nevertheless, it was, in Britain, the Industrial Revolution and the growing concentration of population in towns that extended the opportunity for ordinary working people to gain instruction “in the principles of the Arts they practise, and in the various branches of science and useful Knowledge”. The Mechanics’ Institutes were founded on these principles. They started in Glasgow and London in 1823 and spread rapidly across Britain and to Australia. Like many later initiatives, the Institutes attracted radical manifestos and reformist practice in the debate about what constituted really useful knowledge. The Christian Socialist Working Men’s College was founded in 1854; Quaker-influenced adult schools followed later in the century, and, with the rise of the new unionism, the Workers’ Educational Association (WEA) was established in 1903. Parallel initiatives to bring education to workers prompted the rise of university extramural provision, and from 1919, following a key policy report, local government provided mass adult education opportunities for people to gain qualifications through “night school” or to keep fit, extend their creativity, and stretch tight budgets through a crafts and domestic skills curriculum. From the 1920s, community schools, based on the Cambridge Village Colleges, involved adults and children in complementary studies on single sites. Together, the WEA, the universities, and local authorities offered a rich and varied menu of education for self-improvement. However, they also marked a clear separation of learning for pleasure from vocational education.
World War II offered the largest-scale general education programme mounted by employers when the Army’s Bureau of Current Affairs offered compulsory adult education for soldiers to discuss the shape of the post-war world.
After World War II there was a marked shift from practical to leisure-based learning. Increasing affluence led to a demand for languages and lifestyle courses, and rapid expansion of provision overall, but adult education failed to attract those people who had benefited least from initial education. A series of measures addressed this issue from the 1970s. In 1975 a major campaign was launched to teach literacy and numeracy to the six million adults in Britain with basic skills needs. English programmes for speakers of other languages settling in Britain, programmes targeting people with disabilities, and women’s studies initiatives followed as providers targeted excluded groups. Access courses, which developed in the 1980s, offer adults one-year courses preparing them for entry to university. However, adult education in Britain, and in many other industrialized countries, remains more effective at reaching the affluent and those with extended initial education.
Just as the growth of libraries had a major impact on adult learning in the 19th century, broadcasting had a comparable impact in the 20th century. It brought people access to information and the stimulus to learn, free at the point of use in their own homes. The literacy campaign was launched on prime-time television. The Open University, which opened to students in 1971, exploited this power, with a broadcasting-led distance education degree programme, delivered in modules, with high-quality print materials, supported by face-to-face tutorials, and an exclusively adult, part-time student population.
B Industrial and Technological Change
By the 1980s millions of adults were participating in formal or informal opportunities for learning, yet adult education was almost invisible to policy-makers. In public debate, education was interpreted as schools and universities, and training was concentrated on new, young entrants to the labour market. However, changes in the structure of the economies of industrial states have made lifelong learning more central to social policy. Demographic, technological, and industrial change, the emergence of information economies, and of global markets combine to make lifelong learning vital to international competitiveness. This has led to a demand for credit-bearing courses, for opportunities to have recognized the learning that adults have previously achieved. It has led to the need for qualifications that are transferable, and to the need for modes of study flexible enough to be fitted around the other pressures on adults’ lives (see also Education, Vocational).
Because industries now have a shorter life, and because there is a high level of international mobility, there are pressures for qualifications to be harmonized. In Australia, with 40 per cent of professional workers coming from abroad, the new national qualifications system has been built around the National Office for Overseas Skills Recognition. In South Africa, the new South African Adult Basic Education and Training strategy is based on a qualifications system, with a clear competence statement for every standard. Similar measures are part of the policy frame of the European Union, too.
Adults now make up the majority of participants in post-compulsory education in Britain and the United States. Their participation is increasingly in qualifications-bearing and work-related study. The prospects are that they will demand and get increasingly adult-friendly structures in which to study. In Britain, though, an increased commitment to vocational opportunities for adults has been bought at a price, with weakened public commitment to courses offering to learn for its own sake.