Adult Education Committee (1919) Voluntary organizations and adult education

Chapter VII of the famous 1919 Report on adult education.

[page 112] 202. It will not, we think, be denied that adult non-vocational education has owed its main inspiration and the success it has attained to voluntary organisations of various kinds, and particularly those established for educational purposes. Whilst we frankly recognise the part which evening continuation schools have played in the past, it is – clear that little demand is made upon Local Education Authorities by adults for classes in humane subjects. It is irrefutable, however, that the demand exists. The activities of the Universities and voluntary bodies bear eloquent witness to the reality of this demand. It must be concluded, therefore, as we have suggested in a previous chapter, that local authorities have not adopted a suitable method of approach owing to the growth of traditions arising [page 113] out of the character of their chief kinds of work, which lie in other directions. The experience of voluntary bodies has shown the necessity for the recognition of the peculiar needs of adults and for methods of education and methods of organisation and administration appropriate to the satisfaction of these needs. The experience of local education authorities has been amongst young people with their own range of interests and their own needs, and technical students with limited interests of a special kind. This experience, so far from throwing light upon the problems and methods of humane education in the case of students of mature years, has undoubtedly led to profound misapprehensions. Non-vocational studies have developed in recent years largely because attention has been concentrated upon the formulation of methods in harmony with adult needs. The scope and content of the facilities provided by voluntary organisations and by the Universities acting in conjunction with them, and the methods of conducting and managing adult classes, are based upon considerations which either do not apply at all or apply with less force in the case of other forms of education.

203. The question of methods has already been dealt with at length in an earlier chapter of this Report. It has been pointed out that in non-vocational education the social purpose generally predominates and that freedom of choice of subject and freedom of discussion are indispensable. Most of the subjects of political, social or industrial interest are highly controversial; the very fact that there are conflicts of view upon the problems of social life and organisation, so far from being a justification for the exclusion of controversial questions, is a strong reason for study and the fullest discussion. In the consideration of such problems and the principles involved, the students bring to the class a varied and valuable experience of life, and in consequence the method of education is largely that of a frank exchange of views and mutual criticism rather than that based upon the relation usually existing between teacher and taught. The voluntary organisations engaged in educational work have striven to provide an atmosphere in which a social spirit and co-operation in the search of truth can flourish.

204. The development of adult education, however, has not been due only to the method of conducting classes; it is also attributable to the method of organisation. The influence of voluntary bodies will continue to be needed in order to counteract the sterilising effects inherent in organised education and to safeguard the freedom of both students and teachers; but effective voluntary associations are also vital to the continuance and progressive development of adult education. Neither universities nor local authorities can do much more than make provision for education; it is not their function and they are not equipped to focus demands and to organise potential students. Unless this work is done with some thoroughness, the educational facilities which are available will not attract those who might take advantage of them, nor will they meet the needs of students. If humane education is to become as extensive as we would wish, the voluntary educational agencies must play an important part. Indeed, we would go so far as to say that, broadly speaking, the advance of adult education can proceed only as quickly as these agencies can stimulate, focus and organise the demand for it; and that, in the last resort, the volume of educational activity is determined, but by the capacity of the Universities and Education Authorities to provide facilities, but by the ability of organising bodies to give shape and substance to the demand.

205. In a modern community voluntary organisation must always occupy a prominent place. The free association of individuals is a normal [page 114] process in civilized society, and one which arises from the inevitable inadequacy of state and municipal organisation. It is not primarily a result of defective public organisation; it grows out of the existence of human needs which the State and municipality cannot satisfy. Voluntary organisations, whatever their purpose, are fundamentally similar in their nature, in that they unite for a defined end people with a common interest. There is, therefore, in a voluntary body a definite point of view, a common outlook, and a common purpose which give it a corporate spirit of its own. This corporate spirit is, perhaps, the most valuable basis for group study. It is to be found in trade unions, adult schools, co-operative societies and other bodies. Voluntary organisations, consequently, form the best nucleus for adult classes. There may, of course, be a tendency to narrowness of outlook in groups of people brought together for a specific purpose, but the disadvantages may be overcome by breadth of teaching and by a leaven of other students. It is interesting to observe that voluntary organisations of all kinds are feeling the need for some systematic study of the problems in which their members are interested; and it is significant that these bodies have provided the majority of students in adult non-vocational classes. Whilst in the future a considerable number of unattached individuals will enrol in classes to study humanistic subjects, we are of the opinion that the real centre of educational development will be found within the various voluntary associations. Members of these bodies are potential students; they are easier to approach, because they are grouped together, than individuals outside the orbit of organised activities; they possess a social interest which is known and which will ordinarily provide a starting point for educational work. The existence of voluntary bodies, therefore, simplifies enormously the task of stimulating and focussing intellectual interests.

206. There is a number of voluntary agencies whose purpose is primarily educational. Some have created their own public, as, for example, the adult schools. Others have devoted themselves primarily to work amongst other organisations, though they have at the same time created a membership of their own, as, for example, the Workers’ Educational Association and the Labour College (with the Plebs League). A body such as the Workers’ Educational Association possesses experience of educational administration; it has, moreover, a knowledge of the methods and constitution of voluntary organisations such as universities and local authorities cannot be expected to possess. It is largely composed of voluntary associations, to whose needs it is, therefore, responsive. On the other hand, its contact with suitable teachers, and its connection with Local Education Authorities and Universities give it an advantage which voluntary organisations in general are without. Educational agencies of a voluntary kind perform an essential service in stimulating, organising and assisting educational efforts both amongst individuals and associations. The method of the university or Local Education Authority is usually to make an announcement as to educational facilities, which may or may not be widely published. This necessarily perfunctory procedure is not likely to touch more than the fringe of the public which might take advantage of, such facilities. In the majority of people the desire for education is latent and requires to be aroused. To bring a group of students into existence is work which voluntary educational agencies are admirably fitted to perform. It is work of a missionary character, requiring special knowledge and a special organisation. These bodies open up new sources from which students may be drawn; they prepare the ground; they stimulate the demand for education; they [page 115] ascertain the needs of students and bring together those with similar interests and tastes; they arrange for the type or class which in the circumstances is most suitable. They consult the students on all matters connected with the organisation and conduct of the class. They infuse into it a corporate spirit. The students organised by voluntary agencies conduct the internal affairs of the class and become responsible for its success. In this way freedom and responsibility are combined. Moreover, voluntary educational movements are able to bring groups of students in the same and even in different towns into touch with each other by means of common discussions, week-end lecture schools, and social functions. Students by these means become associated with others enjoying the same interests and come to realise that they are identified with a wider movement than membership of a class would otherwise appear to involve.

207. Voluntary agencies, then, are of value in the organisation of educational work. But they do much more. They provide facilities for students. Whilst the more systematic and continuous study of a high standard is usually provided in conjunction with universities and Local Education Authorities, there is a large field of less ambitious work carried on under the auspices of voluntary bodies. This will inevitably increase. It would appear that the Board of Education desires to make the Local Education Authority the vehicle for the payment of State grants, except in the case of university tutorial classes. The tendency will probably then be for voluntary agencies to concentrate rather on the organisation of classes than on their provision; except, however, that they will con-continue to arrange and conduct classes for which no public financial aid is required. But classes conforming to requirements rendering them eligible for grant are by no means the only form of sound educational work. Study circles, discussion classes, conferences, courses of lectures, and activities of a less systematic character are in varying degrees and in different ways valuable means of education. They may be carried on in adult schools, working men’s clubs, or trade union branches; they are, in fact, facilities taken to the students in places where they are accustomed to assemble. This work stands in a different category from the more highly organised facilities offered by Local Authorities or arranged by Universities, and can best be developed under voluntary auspices.

208. The difficulty is not that voluntary agencies have usurped the functions of Education Authorities, but that at the present time voluntary effort is inadequate to perform the work which it alone can effectively undertake. The development of the educational interests of voluntary associations, and more particularly the expansion of voluntary bodies of an educational character, is one of the greatest needs of our time. In many towns and most rural areas the volume of non.vocational education carried on is negligible, not so much because the official educational machinery is averse from making provision as because of the absence of organised voluntary effort in the cause of education. The extension of the franchise and the gradual enlargement of women’s interests have opened up a new field of opportunity which must be prepared and sown and harvested. We would draw special attention to the need for considering the younger men and women. After boys and girls leave the elementary school, organised influences play, in most cases, a relatively minor part in their lives. A fraction pass through evening continuation schools or pursue courses of technical study; lads’ and girls’ clubs touch a small proportion; but, on the other hand, the hold of religious organisations admittedly weakens. The voluntary educational movements have made their strongest [page 116] appeal to the people of more mature years. The Education Acts of 1918 bring the youth of Great Britain under supervision to the age of sixteen and ultimately eighteen. Even if the continuation school system were developed until it became, in effect, a universal system of secondary education, we should still be faced by the gap between the age of 18 and manhood and womanhood. The needs of young adults should, we think, be closely studied. Advanced study following upon the work of the continuation classes will meet the needs of some; an introduction to the philosophical, economic and political studies which are so prominent a feature of adult education may appeal to the more precocious; and opportunities in both directions should be made available. For a larger number it appears to us that music, folk dances, and literature and the drama, on the one hand, and creative handwork, on the other, will provide appropriate opportunities for self-expression. To these we would add games and physical pursuits. These interests lend themselves to treatment by the voluntary association. Freedom is the essence of them and over-regulation would destroy their vitality and value. We have suggested that the non-vocational institutes, which we conceive as being mainly concerned with young adults, should make liberal provision on these lines, in co-operation with voluntary bodies. Hitherto voluntary associations have not given any special consideration to this class of student, but we feel that they have before them large opportunities of pioneering work such as they have performed in the past in the case of older students.

209. Our general view is that the extension of publicly provided education will not destroy the value of voluntary educational effort, nor will it supersede the need for it. One of the greatest evils which can befall education is a rigid uniformity. It inevitably devitalises education of every kind; but it would cause adult non-vocational education either to perish or to seek new channels outside the influence of the uniform system. In the sphere of adult education, where so much yet remains to be discovered, and where, owing to the age and experience of the students, direction from above plays a smaller and initiative from below a much greater part than is the case in other forms of education, voluntary association and effort are essential. The voluntary organisation stands as a link between those whose duty it is to provide education und those who desire education. It takes the knowledge of available facilities to potential students and interprets the educational needs of students to bodies providing education. It advises educational institutions as to the kind of facilities which it is desirable they should offer, and it endeavours to mobilise groups of students to take advantage of them. As more adequate provision is made for non-vocational studies, and as the appetite for knowledge grows amongst adults, the voluntary organisation will find itself, not with a narrowed area of activity, but with a wider field of service before it. Voluntary agencies must, therefore, be regarded as an integral part of the fabric of national education, in order to give spontaneity and variety to the work and to keep organised educational facilities responsive to the ever-widening needs of the human mind and spirit.

British Ministry of Reconstruction, Adult Education Committee (1919) Final Report (Chaired by Arthur L. Smith and commonly known as ‘The 1919 Report’) Cmnd 321 (1919), London: HMSO.

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First placed in the archives October 2000

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