Adult education and lifelong learning: Some thoughts from the top-deck of the bus


Travelling to work on the bus recently, I saw an advert for an adult learning centre, which read: Change your life through learning. That message resonated with me for several reasons. Firstly, as a student I recognise the benefits of lifelong learning, as well as understanding at first hand the challenges of studying part-time. Secondly, in my day job I support students, many of whom are from widening participation backgrounds, on pre-entry programmes to higher education. Like many other students, they balance, often precariously, the demands of academic study with work, family, and a myriad of other commitments. In supporting these students, I see at first hand how learning transforms lives, not just the learners’ lives, but their families and their communities.

Last week I asked the students who am I currently supporting their reasons for returning to education, and what impact they thought this would have on their families and their communities. In terms of individual benefits, some said that progressing to a degree would enhance their employment prospects. Many more spoke about how education would help them turn their life around and overcome multiple disadvantages.  They were also clear about the impact on their family. Whilst they recognised that their studies may place an additional burden on their family, they also saw it as an opportunity to inspire and be a role model. Encouraging others in the family to follow in their footsteps resonated with many. This also extended to the impact on their communities, where giving back and contributing to the community were considered important. Despite the multiple disadvantages that many of these learners’ face, they were more vocal about the benefits that would accrue to their families and their communities. However, with reduced public funding, and prioritising qualifications to meet the needs of the labour market, it seems that the opportunities for adults to engage in learning are diminishing (Tuckett, 2017).

The rise and decline of adult education is well documented in the literature (Tuckett, 2017), as are the challenges of teaching and learning in adult education in austere times (James & Boren, 2019). The rise began following the First World War with the Ministry of Reconstruction’s Adult Education Committee report to Parliament in 1919. It declared that adult education was not a luxury for a select few but ‘a permanent national necessity, an inseparable aspect of citizenship, and therefore should be both universal and lifelong’ (Ministry of Reconstruction, 1919: 5). After the Second World War adult education continued to develop and flourish through local education authorities, as well as university extra-mural departments. However, the instrumental turn in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s marked the start of the decline. Adult education was seen, at least from a policy perspective, as serving the needs of the economy. This continued into the 1990’s with the view that education can only be valued if is assessed and leads to a qualification. The consequence of this is that post-compulsory education – adult education – is viewed as a leisure activity and one that must be paid for.

Colleagues who work in the sector appreciate how learning can transform lives, particularly for learners from widening participation backgrounds. It not only contributes to economic capital, but also social capital. Adult education which is rooted in local communities also contributes to community capital. It provides a site for engagement, for people to talk and discuss issues in a thoughtful and reflective way. My limited experience of adult education is that the extent and breadth of provision has declined and diminished, but that it is disproportionately enjoyed by the well-heeled and well-educated. In the centenary report on adult education the Bank of England’s chief economist said: “the education system of tomorrow needs to span the generational spectrum—young to old—and the skills spectrum—cognitive to vocational to interpersonal.” (The Centenary Commission on Adult Education (2019:2). With an election on the horizon, this may provide a further opportunity to raise the profile of adult education and move it up the political agenda. Adult learning like the bus, should be accessible and affordable with concessionary fees for disadvantaged groups. Learning journeys can be long, short, purposeful, or just for pleasure. But the most important thing about learning, is that like the top deck, it provides another perspective.

Anthony Hudson is an Academic Tutor at the University of East London and a doctoral student at the University of Nottingham. He is also studying Spanish online, mainly on the Docklands Light Railway and the top deck of the 119 bus.


James, N., & Boeren, E. (2019). ‘Adult Education in Austere Times: An Introduction’. In E. Boeren & N. James (Eds.), Being an Adult Learner in Austere Times: Exploring the Contexts of Higher, Further and Community Education (pp. 1-19). Springer International Publishing.

Ministry of Reconstruction Adult Education Committee, (1919). Final Report. Cmd 321. London: HMSO.

The Centenary Commission on Adult Education (2019). “A Permanent National Necessity…”. School of Education, University of Nottingham.

Tuckett, A. (2017). The rise and fall of life-wide learning for adults in England. International Journal of Lifelong Education, 36(1-2), 230-249.

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