The Research Circle - Community, democracy and dialogue through adult lifelong education
In 2018, a group of adult educators, recognising the historic importance of the 1919 Ministry of
Reconstruction Adult Education Committee’s Final Report, set up the Adult Education 100 campaign.
The campaign sought to encourage a programme of activities, centred on the centenary of the 1919
Report, which would both recover and re-evaluate the twentieth-century history of adult education,
and set out a vision for life-wide adult lifelong education for the 21 st century through their report in
the face of ongoing cuts to adult and community education, across the board. This is starkly
exemplified by the number of part-time and mature students aged 17–60 in England who previously
attended Higher Education institutions, many through extra mural and continuing education routes,
having halved in a decade: from 96,575 in 2006/07 to 44,110 in 2016/17 (Department for Education,
2017, p.7). Participation rates in adult learning and education have fallen across all levels of
education and across the entire UK: with ongoing decline in government-funded part-time
educational provision, fewer opportunities are available in particular for the most disadvantaged
adults. In FE, a refocussing of budgets towards apprenticeships means that adult education relating
to basic skills, school level qualifications, vocational courses delivered by colleges and personal and
social learning (community education and learning for interest) is becoming much less prevalent in
England. Government cutbacks following the economic downturn have led to a drop in training four
times greater than in any other European country, according to the Institute for Public Policy
Research (IPPR, 18/2/17). According to Association of Colleges data analysis (May 2017), one million
adult education and training places have been lost in the 10 years from 2005–2006 to 2015–2016
with total numbers outside apprenticeships falling from 2.7 million to 1.6 million.
The Centenary Commission on Adult Education Report: Adult Education and Lifelong Learning for 21 st
Century Britain was published in pre-pandemic times. But, like its predecessor, we are now at a
critical time, as we face a series of social, political, economic, health, technological and demographic
challenges, alongside the deepening impact of austerity and a narrowing vision of education. The
report, and the more recent work of the Commission has aimed to be visionary in scope and
practical in its detail, for the good of our democracy, society, economy, and for the health and
wellbeing of our citizens. A core chapter in the Report was entitled ‘Fostering community,
democracy and dialogue through adult lifelong education’ (Centenary Commission, 2019, pp. 19 –
28). The chapter begins with the following quotation from the 1919 Report – “An uneducated
democracy cannot be other than a failure”.
On July 9th, 2020, the Commission held an event, ‘Reconstructing Society: Research Circles’, hosted
by the Co-operative College. The event focused on developing self-directed groups/study circles and
examined these issues:
What has been learned from the COVID-19 experience that is of lasting value?
How can learning take place online and still be embedded in local contexts?
What kinds of learning will be needed after the lockdown? For what purposes, and for
Of all the themes emerging from the Report, ‘Fostering community, democracy and dialogue’ caught
people’s imagination, practitioners and academics alike, and the Research Circle on this theme
began to meet from September 2020 onwards. The Circle is made up of around 10 active members,
drawn from backgrounds in adult, further and higher education, the voluntary and community
sector and trade union education. We all have a deep commitment to social purpose education and
our objective has been the sharing of experience and critical engagement, designed to explore and
generate new and existing forms of practice in the generation of hope. The group has worked on a
range of activities, including collecting resources/documents to support our Research Circle and the
creation of background papers for our three events this year.
The focus of the Research Circle has been to consider the current state of HE/FE/adult education,
and particularly education with a social purpose and emancipatory dimension. It has asked the
crucial political question - why does adult education need to be radically reshaped? We recognise,
for instance, that provision in the past has not always been as good at overcoming inequality as we
would like but we seek to look back at a century of effort, experimentation and achievement, in
building inclusive forms of adult education to engage communities and practitioners but with a focus
on criticality and reshaping.
On May 7 th , July 2 nd and September 17 th 2021, we held three online events, all predicated on
Raymond Williams’ concept of ‘Resources for a Journey of Hope’, entitled, ‘Fostering community,
democracy and dialogue through adult lifelong education: Celebrating resources of hope: a creative
exchange’. Our aim was to reach out to a wider audience and to collectively explore how we build
on inclusive forms of adult education, so often found in relationships, shared history and
community. We believe that this shared history, our memories and instances of managing previous
struggles, are all-important in countering a sense of despair and impotence, particularly in the face
of continuing cuts, political hostility and the exigencies of the Covid-19 pandemic. We sought to
meet, listen, and work together to place our exploration of adult education in its social, economic,
political, and cultural context, both historically and now, and to find ways forward for the future.
The first event, organised by the Commission’s research circle on fostering community, democracy and
dialogue, took place on Friday, 7 th May. Designed as the first in a series of three events, from May to
September, it was an opportunity to learn about existing practices, meet and think about different forms
of democratic adult education and imagine new forms of critical engagement.
50 adult educators, from across the UK, Italy, Bulgaria and Canada, joined together to listen to
presentations and discuss key questions and emerging themes in small and large groups. During, and
after, this first event participants highlighted the power of learning about existing practices and ways of
re-shaping new forms of adult lifelong education.
This focus felt all-important in 2021 in countering a sense of despair and impotence, particularly in
the face of continuing cuts, political hostility and the exigencies of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Some of the films and presentations from both years are on the RWF website, though 2022 is only
represented with one event at the moment https://www.raymondwilliamsfoundation.org.uk/events
The RWF YouTube site has the 2021 presentations, as below:
The possibilities of an education for social change were woven through each presentation. Rose
Farrar, from WEA West Yorkshire, began by showcasing an innovative collaboration with Rich Wiles,
an artist and photographer. The power of the video-photo stories of the lives of refugees, near Hull,
was a starting point for dispelling stereotypes, myths and misconceptions
Rob Peutrell and Mel Cooke discuss the voices of students and lecturers and asked how the politics
of ESOL relates to different forms of citizenship. They highlighted struggles between dis-citizenship,
and having capacities stripped away, and acts of citizenship and contesting exclusions and claiming
new rights https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oPobyVZ75dI and associated paper WP284 Cooke &
Peutrell 2021. Brokering Britain, educating citizens: Critical ESOL issues and principles. Nalita James
then asked how diverse forms of ESOL, in Leicester, related to different communities of place and
multiple senses of belonging https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i6wlD02jZAM
Further presentations extended the discussions about the scope and range of practice - and why
these matter for practice – and policy. Richard Hazledine reported on young adults, in Nottingham,
furthest from work. Their mistrust and lack of confidence, because of what has been done ‘to them’,
embodied the danger of scarring. This was a starting point for re-thinking practices -
Similarly, Elaine J Laberge joined us from the west coast of Canada and argued why the Shoestring
Initiative - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W__q24RH074 - was formed. Communities of
mentorship, advocacy, intercultural connectedness, and belonging are being created for students
with lived experiences of persistent poverty at Canadian universities.
The final presentation, by Jeremy Goss and Jayne Ireland, related the work of Raymond Williams on
social purpose in adult education to contemporary practices - and each of the other presentations.
Williams’ letter to WEA tutors, in 1961, defined his own purpose as a teacher ‘as the creation of an
educated and participatory democracy’. Jeremy and Jayne argued that the foundations for a
democratic curriculum could be developed by learning democratically, learning for democracy and
learning about democracy https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TiUYspW72E8
Three events 2022 – ‘Dialogues for Democracy: Cultures and
Ecologies in Crisis’
In 2022, we have sought to develop and broaden our focus to examine and counter the current
crises in our democracy with three events focusing on ‘Dialogues for Democracy: Cultures and
Ecologies in Crisis’. Our first event looked at Health Inequalities in Communities in May and the
second focused on Ecological/climate emergency and environmental action in June. Both events
were well-attended, still entirely online, with participants not just from the UK but from a range of
other countries, including Canada, the Netherlands and the US.
The May event - ‘Dialogues for Democracy: Cultures and Ecologies in Crisis’ - Health Inequalities in
Communities: What is the role of Community Adult Education? took place on 17 th May, 2022 from
1pm to 4pm. It was chaired by Professor Marjorie Mayo, Emeritus Professor in Community
Development at Goldsmiths, University of London and featured a keynote from Professor Sir Michael
G. Marmot, FRCP, Director of the University College London, Institute of Health Equity entitled ‘Build
Back Fairer’. Following a Q and A session, this was followed by a presentation from Professor Helen
Chatterjee, Professor of Biology, in University College London Biosciences and UCL Arts & Sciences,
entitled ‘The role of cultural, community and natural assets in addressing societal and structural
health inequalities in the UK’.
The final presentation was by Dr Ana Cruz, Professor of Education, St. Louis Community College,
Meramec, U.S.A. Social & Behavioural Sciences Dept, Teacher Education Programme; Chair of 3 rd
International Conference Paulo Freire: The Global Legacy who spoke on ‘Paulo Freire's Political-
Pedagogical Approach to Education: Questioning Inequalities Through Dialogue’. The event
concluded with a discussion session. The videos are of each of the speakers’ presentations.
The June event - Dialogues for Democracy: Adult lifelong education, ecological climate emergency
and environmental action - took place on Friday June 10th from 10 to 12. Short presentations were
given by Professor Steve Martin, University of Nottingham; Mel Lenehan, Principal and CEO, Fircroft
College, Birmingham and Ross Weddle, Chair, WEA Green Branch. This was followed by
opportunities to join discussion groups and plan action. The event aimed to debate and plan
possibilities for adult lifelong education, tackling ecological climate emergency and taking
environmental action. Again, the videos of the speakers are shown here.
The third event will take place on September 15 th , from 10 to 12. This event will also be recorded.
This event looks at universities and their relationship to participatory action and social movements.
What should the University's social and cognitive responsibilities be in the face of rising inequality
and injustice and how should research engage more directly with 'real life' problems and politics?
What is the role and function of the 'public academic' and the critical activist?
The event features short 10-minute presentations from Shirley Walters, Professor Emerita from
University of Western Cape who will talk about universities and their relationship to participatory
action and social movements and Dr Michael Hrebeniak, Convenor of the New School of the
Anthropocene - www.nsota.org - who will talk about NSOTA, configured as a new kind of school
which 'is born out of a need. The mainstream university has proven unable and unwilling to engage
with the condition of social crisis and the prospect of ecological ruin that characterise the 21st
After these presentations there will be two short conversations/dialogues - one between Linden
West, Professor Emeritus of Education at Canterbury Christ Church University, and Professor of
General and Social Pedagogy, Laura Formenti, University of Milano-Bicocca, about universities and
civic responsibilities in a crisis ridden world, and the second between Dr Sharon Clancy and Jay
Martin, filmmaker, whose film 'Red t' Blue' explores place and politics and the reasons for Mansfield,
in North Nottinghamshire, switching from Labour to Conservative. The discussion will focus on the
importance of the role universities should have at community level, in countering social/knowledge
The final part of the event will be an open discussion, plenary and action planning, led by John
Diamond, Professor Emeritus in Public Policy and Professional Practice at Edge Hill University.
Tickets for the event can be booked here.