Owen Jones's new book Chavs has been my bus-to-work read for the last week or so. It's a great read, really well-written and engaging. It's jam-packed full of striking examples of the pernicious way in which class operates in our society, and rubbishes the audacious claim that 'we are all middle class now'.
There was one particular story in Owen's book that struck a chord with me as I sat on the bus the other day. In the chapter 'A Rigged Society' he argues that the education system and professional industries in this country continue to be overwhelmingly rigged in favour of the middle and upper class. In this chapter he tells the story of a friend Liam Cranley. Liam came from a working class background and describes his experience growing up in this environment, where going to university 'wasn't even within the realms of imagination.' Liam left school with one GCSE and worked for 6 years as a printer in a factory, but, at age 23, frustrated with his repetitive, unstimulating job, he walked out. He decided he wanted to return to education and managed to do so in the form of an Access course for mature students. This then enabled him to go to university and study History and Philosophy. He now works for an NGO.
Owen uses Liam's story to illustrate how difficult it is for people from his background to break into our higher education system and points out, while impressive, that this is an exceptional case. But I was also struck, in this story, by the power and importance of adult education. I teach adult ESOL for a large further education college in north London and have worked in adult education in various forms for over 7 years now. It's a bit of a cliché to talk about the 'second chances' that adult education offers people, but, in Liam's case as well as in countless others, it's true. The access course was free for Liam and he got a small bursary from the college. But he admits that it wasn't easy and despite the lack of fees and the bursary, it was still a struggle financially.
It's an infuriating fact that, thanks to the government's new further and adult education funding policies, it's going to become more and more difficult for working class people to access education as adults in the future. One of the key things outlined in these policies is the change in eligibility for free adult courses. As of this September, to qualify for a free college course ( Numeracy and Literacy excepted for the moment) you must be on 'active benefits' - Jobseekers' Allowance or Employment Support Allowance (work-related group). This disqualifies huge swathes of people dependent on other benefits from getting free courses (including low-paid workers on tax credits, asylum seekers, women dependent on their husbands' income and those on income support due to, for example, bringing up children). This is going to disproportionately affect my area, ESOL – in my college alone up to 70% of our ESOL students are on these other 'inactive benefits' – and the Action for ESOL campaign has been leading a powerful campaign against these cuts. Coupled with a cut in funding this could have a potentially devastating effect on the future of ESOL provision.
It gets worse, though – as of 2013 anybody over the age of 24 wishing to do their first Level 3 or higher qualification (this includes A Levels and Access courses, which you currently do not have to pay for) will no longer be fully-funded by the government and will have to take out a loan to do so. Effectively, anyone 25 or above who decides that they want to go to college and get the qualifications that, for whatever reasons, they didn't get earlier on in their life, will have to pay for them. A stark message from the government there.
There has rightly been huge protests about funding cuts in higher education, about increased tuition fees, and about how these things will further deter people from poorer backgrounds from going to university. Further and adult education never gets that much coverage, but for many people it is their way in to higher education and these cuts will have a devastating effect on the sector . State-funded adult education is a great thing. For me, it expresses a fantastic optimism, faith and hope in people. It's the idea that you never have to stop learning or progressing or wanting to find out about things. It allows for the possibility that people change, that people might get fed up and decide to do something different, go back and do what they never had a chance to do when they were younger. It has helped hundreds of thousands of people go back and get the qualifications that they never managed to get at school. But the government is attacking these ideals.
Every day I see people who have decided later on in their lives to return to education. The reasons that people do this are many and various. They might have very strong career goals in mind or want to go to university. Some people want to improve their skills in, say, using computers, some just want to learn something new for the hell of it. Some people do it to get out of the house, talking to people and engaging their brains in something. In ESOL, there are often very strong functional reasons – they want to go to the doctors without an interpreter, talk to their children's teachers, help their children with their homework, to find work. Even this list, I'm sure, is incredibly reductive of the range of complicated reasons that people decide to go back to education as adults.
I want to live in a society in which people are enabled to do all of these things: a society which in turn benefits from this. But as a result of these new funding changes, hundreds of thousands of adult students will find it more and more difficult, some impossible, to continue their studies at college. We must not allow this to happen – adult education is important and we must fight to protect it.