A Bygone Era?

Peter Batten wonders what happened to adult education…

One fine morning in early September 1972 I walked up the Brighton Road in the London Borough of Sutton on the way to my office. I had been chosen to be the first Principal of a new Adult Education College called The Sutton College of Liberal Arts. The college would provide a wide range of Adult Education classes and activities for the Borough and the surrounding area.

The new college would bring together a number of existing evening and day centres plus the Adult classes which had been provided by the much respected Sutton Art College. That college had closed but several of its full-time and part time staff had been retained to form a nucleus for the new college. A purpose-built headquarters for the college was under construction as part of the Sutton Civic Centre. It would open in the Autumn of 1974. The whole development, which included a large new Central Library, was planned to give a much needed heart to the new London Borough, which had been created by the Local Government Act of 1964.

The establishment of the Sutton College of Liberal Arts as an independent centre for adult education, with its own governing body and a small full-time staff, seemed to herald a bright future for adult education in the UK. A similar college, in former school premises, had already opened in the London Borough of Richmond and another purpose-built centre was about to begin construction in Manchester. Several local authorities were considering similar developments.

Then disaster struck. Almost as soon as the College of Liberal Arts had opened its headquarters and begun to increase its activities, the UK plunged into a severe financial crisis. All plans for expansion were put on hold, new developments elsewhere were either delayed or abandoned, and critics began to question whether the UK could really afford to provide adult education. The only good news was the creation of the Open University, which was to give a wonderful second chance to so many people.

Over the last 30 years the provision for Adult Education has steadily declined. In 1972 the hope was that fees for adults would remain very low, especially for pensioners. Unfortunately they have risen steadily year on year. Despite the excellent work of many village and community colleges, Adult Education has remained the poor relation of the Education Service. This is very apparent in Brighton and Hove, where the City Council provides less and less as the years go by.

One heartening development has been the increase in the number of organisations prepared to provide Adult Education for themselves. The prime example is the University of the Third Age, the U3A. Its groups, all over the UK, have shown what can be achieved when some very able people decide to fill the gap left by Local Authorities. Other independent groups have developed in the same way. At the same time the Open University has come to occupy a very respected place in Higher Education, although its students often make great sacrifices to find the ever-increasing fees.

I find the increase in the number of organisations like the U3A consoles me to some extent for the loss of the ideals which I was part of 40 years ago. From my very first job as an Adult Education tutor at a Village College I was uneasy about the fact that I was organising and starting groups which should have arisen more spontaneously from the interests of the members. But something very important has been lost. The College of Liberal Arts provided tuition by highly skilled and qualified tutors, both for those who wanted to reach high standards in a range of subjects, as well as Arts and Crafts, and for those who wanted to have the opportunity to try all sorts of leisure interests in a relaxed but serious atmosphere. Many of those tutors are no longer employed and Adult Education is the poorer for their absence.

I served the Sutton College of Liberal Arts for 11 years. It has managed to survive the cuts in Adult Education and, thanks to some excellent management over the last 20 years, it remains one of the largest Independent Adult Colleges in the UK. Unfortunately pressure to justify classes has meant an increase in those which help students improve their qualifications for work, at the expense of those which offer a “Liberal” education. As a result it has changed its title to “The Sutton College of Learning for Adults”. But, the good work goes on.

How Brighton & Hove would benefit from such a college!

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