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By Phil Stevens

One of adult learning’s most respected figures retires this summer after 40 years of dedication to the sector, firstly as a mature student, then a teacher, and finally as Principal of the Northern College in Barnsley, one of the most prestigious adult centres in the UK. We can ill-afford to lose people of the calibre of Jill Westerman, TES FE Lifetime Award winner, who spent her career fighting for the rights of adults to have access to high quality learning.

Westerman is in a long tradition of fine figures who have defended adult learning against a punitive financial environment and political interference. Fred ingles, cultural theorist and great defender of our strange expensive institution describes adult education as:

… one of the most impressive achievements not only of national education but also of the nation’s democracy.

There are few more qualified witnesses than Ingles, biographer of Raymond Williams and Richard Hoggart. Jill Westerman, and others like her, have both protected and extended the enormous success of adult learning over its 150 years history. Her career is testament to her commitment to the cause. Progressing from community work on a Hackney housing estate, to teaching literacy and numeracy in London, she moved to Barnsley and the Northern College where she flourished. In this sense she is in a line that runs from RH Tawney, Hoggart and Williams who dedicated their lives to what Ingles refers to as our militant tradition. These towering figures were no functionary bureaucrats but had years of experience teaching adults before producing a small library of books between them. Unlike these legendary adult educators, Westerman did not produce a body of writing to support her exemplary vision. As Principal of one of the busiest adult centres in the country she would have hardly had the time. But impending retirement has given her the opportunity to share some thoughts on the future of adult education.

In the TES (24 June 2018) Jill Westerman outlined what she believes are grounds of optimism for the future of AE. In an article to mark her retirement the Principal of the Northern College reflects on her time in adult learning, which despite the austere climate in which it operates, continues to illuminate our culture and society with its far-reaching and gentle light. What is interesting, and which links her to her distinguished predecessors is her thoughts on the aims of adult learning. It is this that provide her grounds for optimism.

Westerman’s glimmers of hope are based around her claims that adult learning can promote and extend social cohesion and social mobility. The claim that adult education can create social capital is held by many teachers, managers and policy-makers, particularly in inner-city areas where social divisions are most apparent. Outreach teams have been assembled to find common ground among disparate sections of our cities. Building on the idea of social cohesion being one of the most pressing aims of adult learning, Westerman further argues that the divisions in the country revealed by Brexit have triggered what she sees as a renaissance of this kind of work. These are grand claims for the sector. Should adult learning with its image of primary school classrooms, working men’s institutions, and echoing upstairs rooms in pubs have a moral duty to try to help resolve the problems of our troubled towns and cities? And, lastly, is Westerman right to be so optimistic?

In The Long Revolution, Raymond Williams argues that the modern British education system acts like a ladder. People go up one at a time, often pulling the ladder up after them. Nothing much has changed in the 35 years since Williams’s book was published that would challenge his account. The former Cambridge Professor of Drama proposed an alternative view that education should be seen more as a broad highway through which we travel together in a collective endeavour. This seems to be how Westerman sees adult learning today and in the future: as a guiding principle for programming, curriculum design and pedagogical innovation.

During the research for my book Rita and Gerald: adult learning in Britain today (2014) I discovered some outstanding examples of attempts to promote community learning and build social capital. One example should suffice. The Mary Ward Centre in Camden have an outreach team who work with diverse ethnic groups, health professionals and community activists. Their aim is to bring together diverse section of the community around adult and family learning, in this case through art. The project culminated with a colourful exhibition and activity day at the British Museum. I think Jill Westerman would have applauded the Mary Ward team’s efforts. And, of course, there are many other examples.

These projects are not simply community events, they are very much learning activities, expensive to organise and funded from income attracted by individual students on the project completing a programme of learning. The success of programmes like those at Mary Ward are what gives Westerman her optimism for the future of the sector. The aim of community learning is to liaise with external agencies and community groups to help ease tension in disparate communities and give individuals the time and space to develop. In this sense she is right, there is real potential for creative adult learning programmes that give purpose and hope to disadvantaged communities with a complex set of needs and aspirations. On the issue of divisions caused by Brexit I am less certain – this seems both too early and too ambitious even for the most creative of our adult educators.

Fred Ingles argues that adult learning makes the connection between individual sensibilities and formal arrangements for learning and scholarship, and of the moral imagination of society and life itself. This has been the triumph of our work, but the political and cultural advances of the past 150 years are in real danger of being lost. The processes of self-education and democratic access, typified by the heroic work of The Open University, are under threat. Adult learning is a vital resource of hope for communities and neighbourhoods up and down the country and is needed now as much as ever. At this time, we can ill afford to lose people of Westerman’s stature.

To mark her retirement the Principal of the Northern college calls for rigorous long-term planning for the sector in which her ideas can play out. We can sense her enthusiasm when she calls for:

… a national adult education strategy that thought 10, 20, 30 40 years ahead and looked at things like demographics, disadvantage, labour market needs, social needs, and the needs of an ageing population … a real coherent strategy.

It is too easy to be cynical and say, good luck with that. But Westerman’s optimism must be seen at a time when funding for adult learning has been cut to the bone and LEAs have lost the will and the means to support a service which was once a jewel in their crown. But she is to be applauded for leaving on a hopeful note – why not? She might have also issued a warning about the future of the sector, but that’s not her style. One might hope that this most energetic and thoughtful practitioner should be given the job of developing the strategy she so eloquently argues for the glimmers of hope she recognises grow into full maturity. It would be a fitting testimony to her contribution to the noble tradition and to an exemplary career.



Stevens, P. Rita and Gerald: adult learning in Britain today (2014) Trentham Books/IOE Press

Times Educational Supplement (24 June 2018)

Williams, R. The Long Revolution (1961) Penguin Books

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