Interview with Sir Alan Tuckett, Professor of Education in the Education Observatory, University of Wolverhampton and Honorary Fellow UNESCO’s Institute of Lifelong Learning.
How would you say the world today compares to that in the beginnings of your educational career?
I began full time at the Friends centre in Brighton in 1973, a month before the Arab Israeli war (we had lectures in the Centre, including by Glubb Pasha, who led the Jordanian forces when Israel invaded Palestine in 1948) – and the resultant oil shock. It brought the expansion of the long 1960s to an abrupt end. The 70s brought unemployment, trade union activism, and for us the first national adult literacy campaign, which we helped start. Now almost two decades of reduction of adult learning opportunities coupled with a mean, narrow and Gradgrind curriculum ( the result of neo-liberal policies) leave a huge job of reconstruction (in adult learning as well as more broadly) to be done if we are to learn our way out of our difficulties as a society. We talk more about diversity and difference, but under-represented groups are almost as badly dealt with now as then.
How has learning changed you in your adult life?
I learned from the Quakers early in adult life that winning an argument 15-14 was less effective than seeking the maximum available level of consensus.
If you had to pick an individual, who has inspired you most and why?
Raymond Williams’ clarity about the relationship between adult learning power (and for that matter place) has had a continuing effect on my thinking. But Mike Newman, Myles Horton, Maria Khan – Freire, Boal, Nyerere- have influenced different aspects of my work.
Besides funding, what do you think are the immediate challenges to the provision of adult learning?
The main challenge is for adult educators to find and take the time to listen and respond to communities – identifying together how learning can support people’s communal and individual challenges. And then to make provision. Funding it is of course important – but revitalising the offer and reconnecting with the full range of communities is the key task.
What is the most important thing that needs to be done to improve provision of lifelong education?
Governments should adopt the 80-20 rule when setting targets and allocating funds. Tell people what national priorities are for 80% of the money, but trust providers to use the 20% in the best interest of learners, innovating, trying things out – productivity would soar.
How do we get politicians to fund adult and lifelong learning properly?
Making a fuss, backing it with authoritative evidence, and prefiguring better policies by doing it anyway.
What advice would you give someone who wants to make a change to our education systems?
Make good allies; recognise that politicians and civil servants need complementary, but different advocacy tactics. Combine vision with practicality; be patient, with short term compromises and long term instransigence. Make allies with the press, be trustworthy, and responsive. Above all make it learners’ voices that shape the arguments.
If you could go back and do something differently in your career, what would it be?
In 1991, in the middle of a successful campaign to save adult education – mounted jointly by NIACE (the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education) – where I worked, the Women’s Institutes, and the local government associations, I attended a press conference inside the Department for Education and Science, given by Ken Clarke, the Secretary of State, and then gave one of my own rebutting his arguments, inside the DES. Outside would have been one thing – inside infuriated the Department. It took a while to be rehabilitated. It would have been better to do it on the street!
What is your proudest working accomplishment?
Gosh. The way the 1992 FHE Act was implemented showed the 91 campaign improved things for adults, which was great. Starting regular annual adult participation research was good. Helping with other International Council for Adult Education colleagues get ‘lifelong learning’ included in the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal for Education was brilliant. But starting Adult Learners’ week, seeing it adopted by UNESCO and the EU and spread to 55 countries, celebrating adult learners in all their diversity and inspiring others to join in is the overall best: serious and fun.
How hopeful are you for the future of adult learning?
Adult learning is like ground elder. You can cut it and cut it, but it will always spring back in the cracks, in new forms.
I have heard you are very well connected with infamous characters, so please tell us a story or memory about some of them.
In the 1980s I was president of the utopian International League for Social Commitment in Adult Education, created by American liberals and European radicals. We had no money but somehow held 11 international conferences over 10 years – working with the Sandanistas in Nicaragua and with the Palestine Liberation Organisation in Tunis stand out. I met Arafat in Tunis at our event, and subsequently co-organised a women’s literacy workshop once the PLO returned to form the Palestinian National Authority. Allen Ginsberg, Yevtushenko, and Ivan Illich came to the Friends Centre to read and speak. Ginsberg slept in my bed in the cottage attached to the centre, but happily not with me.
Adult learning and education makes a difference to people’s lives, nourishes dignity, generates confidence, and releases creativity. It has to be a key component of a society worth living in.
Alan joined the University of Wolverhampton in 2015 as Professor of Education and has made a huge contribution to the university, notably through development of the Wolverhampton Learning Region and the Education Observatory. From January 2021 he will be Emeritus Professor of Education in the Education Observatory.
Sir Alan will be speaking at our Literacy at the Crossroads? event on 9th December 2020. You can also view an interview with Alan about The State of Adult Learning, with our Director, Professor Michael Jopling.
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