New book celebrates Alan Tuckett’s writing on lifelong learning


Ian Nash, who recently edited a book about Alan Tuckett’s columns in the Times Education Supplement, sees age-old arguments about the need for a lifelong learning entitlement resurfacing.

It says so much about the Coalition Government’s education policies when a Department for Business, Innovation and Skills official leading the launch of a new vocational education research centre could stand up and say: “BIS has no interest in anyone over 24-plus.”
And it comes to something when BIS prioritises research into people who are in another department’s remit (14-18) to the exclusion of people who are clearly part of their own. In fairness, the speaker assumed the question about age was asking “how low will you go?” rather than how high. But that does not excuse the apparent failure both to understand why we need to reach millions of post-24 adults and, equally to the point, how to reach them.

None of this would surprise Alan Tuckett, former Director of Niace, the national organisation for adult learning, whose writings for the TES, written over more than 15 years, were published as a book this month. He has seen governments of all colours marginalising adult learning in its broadest sense for decades – a neglect that has done repeated damage to the national economy – despite the overwhelming weight of evidence that adult education leads to greater savings in health, welfare and numerous other costs.

I was his commissioning editor for most of those years and therefore have taken the opportunity to compile, edit and narrate those columns for the book, Seriously Useless Learning – an expression Tuckett coined when reminding government ministers that spending on such learning (all learning) is an investment, not a cost. In a recent interview, he reminded me of what “the evidence” told him: “When politicians are forced to decide whether to spend on schools or adult learning, on skills or ‘other’ learning,” he said, “then you can be sure they have the wrong policies.”

One could argue that there is no need for new BIS-commissioned research since there are mountains of the discarded or disregarded stuff in the archives, if only civil servants and politicians bothered to read it. The signposts are there in Tuckett’s writings and the BIS Commons Select Committee would do well to scour them. After all, the cross-party group made excoriating remarks about the Government’s failure to focus sufficient resources on the fight against adult innumeracy and illiteracy. A recent OECD report had suggested a sharp decline in standards and consequent dropping-off of a whole array of measures, such as family learning. As a result, intergenerational disadvantage was once again becoming entrenched in the poorest reaches of society.

The BIS committee made a number of recommendations in its report, including the urgent call for a high-profile campaign to tackle the problems and a more “joined-up approach” from Government to respond more strategically to the need for rapid improvement. Central to the proposed reforms is the very real need for improved funding arrangements, better assessments and resources to support the literacy and numeracy needs of unemployed people. There is a strong sense of déjà vu here for Tuckett, since these are three of the core demands he repeatedly made – always with the evidence to support such calls for action.

There is more besides; at the time the committee was reporting, the row over intergenerational disadvantage resulting from poverty was resurfacing with the latest Office for National Statistics (ONS) report suggesting the cycle of poverty and lack of achievement passed down from parents to children in Britain are far worse than previously thought.

Children whose fathers failed at school and later in life were at least seven times less likely themselves to achieve compared with those from more successful families, the ONS pointed out. The clear indication throughout evidence is that politicians forcing through austerity measures had the evidence but were unwilling to acknowledge this.

Again, Tuckett’s evidence pre-dates the ONS report – by 20 years. And this time around many social welfare charities have been hammering on about the problems of under-investment. For example, while the Joseph Rowntree Foundation points to evidence that children and parents from poorer backgrounds develop lower expectations, leading to under-achievement and failed ambitions.

The message may be getting home to other politicians as we saw adult education chiefs making an impassioned plea over the summer for every adult to be given the chance to participate in the UK’s increasingly digital society, regardless of their age, stage or background. Niace put its case to the House of Lords Select Committee Inquiry into the Digital Competitiveness of the UK. Too many people were being excluded, with four groups at highest risk – people with disabilities, the unemployed, people in low wage jobs in mid-life and older people.

What makes the state of affairs in the UK all the more depressing is that successive governments had the means and initial policies to tackle head-on issues around adult learning, only to throw them away. Indeed, the evidence amassed by Labour prior to the 1997 General Election landslide under Tony Blair – that would lead to the most visionary of White Papers, The Learning Age – emboldened the party enough to promise adult learning entitlements for all over 50. For Tuckett, this looked as if his long-fought battle was over.
In the event, it never happened. Six years after the initial implementation of expansionist lifelong learning policies, initiated by David Blunkett, Education Secretary and architect of The Learning Age, utilitarianism and the start of a Treasury-driven obsession with the narrowest of agendas to improve skills for work wiped out 1m adult learning opportunities in less than two years. Successive measures by Labour and the Coalition Governments proved ineffective or inept and, no matter what was done, the moans from industry about the parlous state of UK skills just kept on coming – and still do.

Tuckett charted the vicissitudes of adult and lifelong learning more than anyone else over the years as adult education columnist for the TES, not through arid restating of policy issues in which education writers so easily become trapped but in the detailing of firm evidence which he conveyed through the telling of funny, heart-warming and often angry stories, contrasting remarkable successes of those who return to learn later in life with the pity of those who get excluded.

His arguments were never glib gainsay but an assertion based on acute observation as well as the mass of research. The notion of seriously useless learning was also an expression at the heart of the former president of the EU Jacques Delors’ 1998 International Commission on Education for the 21st Century. And as Tuckett remarked in his interview with me: “He set out clearly the case for sustained lifelong learning throughout the Union,” and for a time was not without influence.

The arguments went beyond the narrow “utilitarian” agenda of New Labour and the Coalition, Tuckett stresses. “One of lessons in the recent PIAAC international study from the OECD is a finding that the key skill leading to improved productivity in work is learning something you are passionate about. It is not the industry training that matters so much as the increased motivation through any learning – we know that learning leaks.” Again, this echoes the research at the time of Delors.

What is most joyous and informative about Tuckett’s writing is that it constantly returns to the idea that “it is the learning we love the most that will motivate us to return to learn again and again. We need a holistic approach; to single out one form of learning above all others for particular attention is folly”, he insists. In saying this, he is careful not to proselytise or to make special pleading for those forms of learning that down the years have been called everything from extra-mural, to leisure, to “other” learning.
“Learning in the workplace should be an entitlement for all.” Here he points to the successes of companies such as Ford, who have their own university and allow workers time out for non-work-related learning, and to the TUC’s Unionlearn – one of the Labour Government’s notable successes – that has helped develop similar learning programmes across the country.

“A lot of money has been spent on adult learning but it has too often been at the exclusion of community and other learning. Vocational and skill training is important but too often there is no focus on well-being, confidence and other measures to sustain the quality of life outside work.”

In his writing, Tuckett repeatedly points to the folly of “silo” thinking, the lack of joined-up government and the failure to see benefits despite the evidence. “Labour is proposing to merge health and welfare policies but this won’t work without education in the pot as well,” he says – again drawing on evidence. For example, a Niace project in a West Country care home encouraged care workers to “prescribe” learning instead of pills for the elderly and infirm. It led to their having longer, more active and interesting lives – cutting care costs by £100,000 a year in the process. But without central government support and assistance with some resources such ideas do not spread easily.

“After such promise under Labour in the 1990s, from 2003 you can see (and the book charts this) steady withdrawal of funding from FE and adult learning. Throughout the period of the column we saw the rise in dominance of Treasury thinking over Education Department thinking and the rise of dead weight initiatives such as Train to Gain, where the state paid employers millions for training they were previously funding themselves.

“It’s not just the Treasury market fashion that held sway but withdrawal of funding for post-25s, at the same time that we were spending billions on bombing Iraq. Instead of guns into ploughshares we saw ploughshares into guns.”

Seriously Useless Learning gives credit where due to ministers. “John Denham, Secretary for Innovation, Universities and Business, had a very good understanding of it but was playing with threepences, trying to get people to do things for themselves instead of seeing a role for the public purse.” Another minister, Ivan Lewis, secured £300m ring-fenced adult community learning money in the noughties that survived the transition to the austerity-cutting Coalition Government.

From the start of the final term to the dying days in office, relations between adult educators and the Labour Government would be fraught, with cuts to English for Speakers of Other Languages and increasing utilitarianism. Yet, throughout, Tuckett is always quick to point with optimism to new developments such as new measures to improve access to informal learning despite the lack of state cash. And with the arrival of the Coalition, he gave the benefit of the doubt wherever possible, though that was quickly to wear thin, particularly when John Hayes, the first FE and skills minister, who Tuckett reckoned really understood further and adult education, moved on.

As the book reveals, two things sustains Tuckett: the inspiration that comes from those who discover the joy of lifelong learning and his firm belief in the evidence. “For example, the Skills for Life survey of 2003 shows adults with the strongest learning habits and highest level of accomplishment are those who went to school in the Plowden years. The learner-centred philosophy so decried now by policy makers is one we will have to return to if we are to succeed with lifelong learning – and we will.”

Whether any of this influences the work of the new BIS vocational education research centre is anyone’s guess.

Seriously Useless Learning: The collected TES writings of Alan Tuckett with introduction and narrative by Ian Nash, Niace ISBN 978-1-8620187-7-8; £14.95 from; call 0970 600 2400 or email

This article is an expanded version of pieces written for The TES and Education Journal

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