‘Are you old enough to remember non-vocational adult education? This was the term used to describe courses for adults that enabled them to pursue interests and acquire skills which were not necessarily relevant to their employment and did not lead to recognised occupational qualifications.
‘Often they did not lead to any qualifications at all, and were sometimes referred to as “leisure courses”. They were usually provided by further education colleges or adult education centres.
‘Organisers employed by local education authorities were given a budget within which they had to balance payments to tutors and fees from students.
‘Adults would sign up for a range of courses and classes that would fill any A-Z list. It was part of a culture which deemed education a “good thing”, and was an example of “lifelong learning” before that became management jargon.
‘It had an honourable tradition, too. From early in the last century some universities saw it as a duty to take learning beyond their walls, and offered “extension classes”. In time, university extra-mural departments would organise impressive programmes of academically rigorous but informal courses.
‘Like youth work, however, non-vocational adult education seemed to operate on the fringe of the public education service. In colleges it was rarely accorded the same priority as the serious stuff, that is, the vocational courses which led to qualifications that enabled students to get jobs. Local education authorities, squeezed between the needs of schools and colleges and financial pressures, often viewed it as a nice but non-essential aspect of their responsibilities.
‘It could be a hot potato for local politicians. Yet it was one area of the education service where market forces worked. The organiser would assess the potential interest for particular activities in the local area, would seek out tutors, fix the fees and publish a programme of classes one day, weekend or one term or more. The classes ran if enough students signed up.
‘The quality of the tuition could be judged by the attendance rates if students did not find it interesting they would stop coming. It was simple, straightforward and valued greatly by thousands of adults every year. For those ideologues for whom market forces were seen as the solution to every problem, it must have seemed a perfect model.
‘How ironic then that, at a time when market forces were being advocated as the way to improve performance in schools and colleges, non-vocational adult education should be subjected to a new bureaucratic approach.
‘It began in the early-1990s, when it was deemed that there had to be progression in learning. University extra-mural departments had to introduce written assignments in their courses leading to formal accreditation, and local authority provision had to have a more socially relevant purpose. It was no longer enough to want to join a class because the subject sounded interesting or because learning a new skill had been an ambition.
‘Tutors had to produce detailed lesson plans. Extra-mural students had to write essays again. Unsurprisingly many tutors and students decided these were chores they could do without and gave up. With financial retrenchment in the universities, it led to the collapse of extra-mural courses.
‘Students on local authority-financed courses had to complete forms stating what they hoped to achieve and, later, whether their aspirations had been met and what they proposed to do next. Many regarded it as a tiresome and irrelevant exercise. But it had to be done because Ofsted was now involved. Forms had to be completed and filed so it could be proved that all the right boxes had been ticked and the government appeased.
‘Teachers in schools looking forward to eventual, if delayed, retirement and the prospect of having time to pursue other interests can be assured that all that experience of form-filling will not have been wasted.
‘But why introduce expensive bureaucratic requirements and inspection where they were not needed? Control freaks need not reply.’