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by Dr Philip Stevens

Malcolm Williams changed his life. In his late 20s, he was working in a sheet metal factory on the North Circular Road. Within a few years he was Head of Department at one of the largest Further Education (FE) colleges in London. His intellectual interests developed alongside his career and a PhD followed, as did a fine appreciation of the intricacies of modern jazz. Evening classes at East London College sparked the transformation of this young Londoner.

Shanti Skeggs, a young Londoner who has a learning disability, wrote,

“My confidence still dips but it is a work in progress … I just get on with it to get where I would like to be. My education has changed me as a person in so many ways. It is the chance to do my very best and never give up no matter how hard it gets. I hated school it was very disheartening and I thought I had no future!”

Fully recovered from her harrowing school experience, Shanti now works at the Mary Ward Centre in London, and continues to follow her passions of photography and music.

The notion of transformation lies at the heart of adult education and is one of its principal aims. The life stories of 150 adult learners from six major adult colleges – the basis of the research of my latest book, Rita and Gerald: Adult learning in Britain today confirm this claim. With the research completed and book published, I have begun to think further about the students’ assertion that their lives have been transformed by their late educational experience. Almost all the students at every level from English Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) to higher degree study state this claim.

The students are encouraged to change by the providing institutions. One of the six institutions, Ruskin College, specifically states that its aim is to:

“Provide educational opportunities to adults who are excluded and disadvantaged, and to transform the individuals concerned along with the communities, groups and societies from which they come.”

Ruskin has succeeded in its ambitious aim and the transformational element is key to the college’s mission. Ambitious it might be but is clearly justified on the basis of the evidence – student testimony. Almost all adult students in the research for Rita and Gerald say their new educational experience has changed the way they look at the world and altered their lives in the most radical way. This is the case regardless of gender, class, or social background. If we accept all of this is true; that adult education transforms lives, it raises some important questions I am keen to explore. For example, just what is it that is being transformed? How does adult education assist in achieving the transformation? Lastly, what is it to say that someone’s life has been transformed?

To accept that adult learning is capable of transforming lives, is surely to admit that things are not quite right in a student’s life, that all is not right with their world. That person may feel a degree of alienation, frustration, a desire to be understood in a world of misunderstanding, or a lack of fulfillment. Some students even expressed a sense of anger as the driving force behind their decision to begin a course of study – anger at their school experience or, as in the case of many women students, being forced to accept outmoded views of a woman’s right to education.

Philosophers down the centuries have explored the idea that we can become alienated from what Marx called our ‘species being’, an over-complex term for realizing our full potential, or being as good as we can be. In this argument many of us feel alienated and are fully conscious that this is the case. Adult learning can provide a space in which students can begin to flourish and become fully conscious of themselves. Our research confirms this is how many adult students view their new study experience.

One of the ways adult colleges approach teaching students to become more self-aware is by providing creative opportunities for students to think. Image-based rather than text-based subjects offer a path to learning when students have language difficulties or have been put off by text-based learning at school – of course this does not preclude students making progress through more traditional learning methods. The artist, Mohammed Ali, argues that self-expression through creative activity enables people to claim a space for themselves to think and reflect on their experience. This is what adult learning can do by helping students to find a language through which they can express themselves in ways previously denied to them.

The outcomes of adult learning are habitually framed in terms of economic benefit or as some kind of generalised, community interest. Nor does the idea of transforming lives rest on claims for political education or social advancement, although it might involve both of these things. Transformation is about how adult education helped people like Malcolm Williams and Shanti Skeggs and thousands of others to change their lives by reconnecting with the world in the most dramatic fashion. We need to understand the process which underpins their achievements.


Dr Philip Stevens was a firefighter before returning to education as a mature student in the 1970s. Since then he has had a long career in adult education, where over many years he gathered the stories of learning that form the backbone of this book. Read more and order Rita and Gerald: Adult learning in Britain today out now from Trentham Books@IOE Press.

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