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Blog post Part of special issue: Transformational Further Education: Empowering People & Communities

The transformative nature of adult working-class education and its relevance today

Martyn Walker

The historical theme of adult working class education in relation to contemporary post school sector, now referred to as the Lifelong Learning Sector, has to some extent been overlooked. Since the late 1970s government decisions with regard to university teacher training curricula, I would argue interference, has meant that the four key core education academic subjects that underpinned the training of teachers in all sectors – sociology, psychology, philosophy and history – have long since disappeared. As a result, there has been a decline in the presence of educational history not just in teacher training, but also in other education programmes such as undergraduate and higher degree core modules.

…the post-school sector generally … is often neglected or ignored by many politicians and policy makers

Historians have generally tended to ignore the subject of educational history as being more relevant for teacher educators. For example, the Great Exhibition of 1851 appears in a wide range of publications and history text books as part of the subject of Victorian history but overlooks the impact the Exhibition had in persuading the Society of Arts to offer scientific and commercial examinations available to the working classes through the institute movements in offering elementary, vocational education and training of adults in support of industrialisation. By the end of the nineteenth century, the Technical Instructions Act resulted in beginnings of government legislation that would eventually result in the establishment of technical schools and colleges, providing a firm foundation on which further education was able to support to the needs of industry and commerce thereafter. Perhaps this is synonymous with the post-school sector generally, which is often neglected or ignored by many politicians and policy makers, few of whom attended colleges of further education prior to attending university.

So why is the history of adult education so important for the twenty-first century? The answer is that without understanding of the past how can we really understand the present? Interestingly, several further and higher education institutions have in recent years gone back to their origins and often provide a historical outline on their webpages and awards ceremony booklets. It gives institutions heritage and identifies with applicants and existing students that there college or university has a heritage they can be proud of. With the establishment relatively recently of the History of Education Significant Interest Group within BERA, contributing for the first time at the Leeds Conference, I sense a real resurgence in researching educational history across all sectors. My recently published book The Development of the Mechanics’ Institute Movement in Britain and Beyond: Supporting further education for the adult working classes (Routledge) hopefully goes some way in identifying the transformative nature of adult working-class education and its relevance today.