Good afternoon everyone. It’s a great pleasure for me to join you all today in welcoming the launch of Transforming Lives. I also want to take this opportunity to congratulate NIACE and indeed everyone involved in the Transformation Fund projects from which the report has sprung.
Of course, this project began last year under the previous government. But as many of you can confirm, I’ve been an advocate of informal adult and community learning for long enough to know that any initiative that improves our understanding of adult learners and their needs must be welcomed, irrespective of whose idea it was.
What matters most is what the project has achieved and what lessons we can learn from it as we look towards the future.
For me, you don’t need to look further than the front cover of the report to find the key to what follows.
That’s because, as I hope all of us here today know, learning is capable not just of changing lives, but of completely transforming them.
I’m not just talking about the fact that learning brings the qualifications needed to get a higher- rather than lower-paid job. It seems to me horribly reductive to express, as I know some do, the benefits of learning only in terms of lifetime earnings differentials. And it seems to me just plain wrong to measure everything that a person acquires during the learning journey only by its effect on the thickness of their pay-packet.
It makes me sad when, for example, I read about the new graduates who’ve been unable to find the sorts of jobs they’d hoped for this summer and last. And I can assure them that my colleagues and I are working hard to ensure that they can get a foot on their chosen career-ladder sooner rather than later. But at the same time I hope that those young people also recognise how their years of study and the experiences these have brought have transformed them as individuals.
Since John Henry Newman at least, I think there has been general recognition that a real university education must be about far more than just acquiring a passport to a white collar and a tie, that its value lies also in how much it does to enrich the content of students’ characters.
That same effect ought also to be evident in patently vocational forms of training. Now some people refuse to recognise that vocational training can have anything other than employment-related benefits. But I’ve certainly seen for myself as I’ve gone round the country over the summer how, for example, apprentices develop not only practical skills, but also a sense of their own achievement, of pride in what they have accomplished, and of self-worth.
That’s not just good for themselves and their employers. In the long run, it benefits all of us and the society in which we live.
So the transformational power of learning is shown both in how learning spreads opportunity and in how it spreads civilisation. But it’s also shown in the element of personal choice, personal responsibility and personal empowerment that learning entails. And that’s especially true of the less formal types of learning.
That is something of which the Transforming Lives report reminds us very forcefully.
There are three other important messages that I’d like to draw out from it.
The first is that in this area, a little money can achieve a lot, particularly if we are prepared to innovate and to trust people at the front line to organise learning in ways that suit their needs rather than conforming to some centralised model.
It’s hardly a secret that money is going to be in short supply, even in priority areas like education as the Government works to bring the public spending deficit under control. And we all know that cuts will have to be made, although details of where they will fall won’t be finalised until George Osborne and Danny Alexander publish the outcome of the Spending Review next month.
This isn’t a government that believes, like Aeschylus, that “he who learns must suffer”. But it would be idle to assume that some spending decisions won’t have an impact on education, including on informal learning.
And it follows that, unless we are prepared in future to contemplate a choice between the Scylla of learning for the few and the Charybdis of learning on the cheap - which I for one am not - we should look urgently for more creative ways to engage both learners and providers.
That implies, for one thing, making much better use of the local resources we have, engaging a wider range of partners in facilitating learning at community level, and making it easier for grass-roots initiatives to flourish. A good example of the sort of initiative I’m talking about was launched only a couple of weeks ago. The Cafe Culture campaign aims to encourage employers to offer informal learning opportunities at work to their staff. So far, it has involved some 64 companies covering almost two million workers.
The second important message from Transforming Lives that I want to highlight is that there remains enormous demand for informal learning. And I take comfort from that, because a nation that wants to learn is a nation that is going forward rather than backwards.
It’s a nation that’s already, by virtue of its people own free will, taking its future into its own hands. Sometimes the State can play a useful role in that, but most often the impetus comes from individuals.
There’s literally no limit to the range of forms this can take. From the pub landlord who provides space for the local book club to the employer who makes a room available for the lunchtime learning circle. From the housebound person whose isolation is reduced when they discover email or Facebook to the person with depression who finds relief through art or photography.
These sorts of activities and many others like them make our society a happier and healthier place, and this country a better one in which to live.
The third and final point from the report that I want to highlight follows from the first two. And it’s that the strength of informal adult and community learning stems precisely from its diversity.
Like nature itself, in Pascal’s definition, informal learning is “an infinite sphere, the centre of which is everywhere and the circumference nowhere”. Like the internet, with its profusion of interconnected yet free-standing networks, informal learning might have been designed to survive even the biggest catastrophe.
And that’s perhaps a good point on which to close, because my own long experience of informal adult and community learning has taught me above all else that it has an enviable ability not just to survive, but to adapt and grow. As if to spite those governments that have tried to kill it with neglect as well as those that have tried to kill it with regulation, it not only lives on, but thrives.
Transforming Lives reminds us of all this and of the essential role that adult and community learning must play in creating a better, more inclusive, more content, more confident and, indeed, bigger society.