Education, Adult


Education, Adult, any organized and sustained learning programme designed for and appropriate to the needs of adults. Usually, adults need to fit in study alongside other domestic and work responsibilities; they bring a diversity of experience to their studies, and they study voluntarily. “Adult education” is an inclusive term covering all types of education and training activities for adults—formal and informal, whether offered by schools, colleges, universities, voluntary organizations, industry, or public service bodies.


Adult education takes different forms in different places at different times, reflecting the different social functions given to adult learning, and the different groups with access to opportunities. In ancient Greece, Athenian society was organized to enable a small class of people to pursue learning as the central location of their adult lives. However, adult learning was not then seen to be universally useful. In Denmark, adult education was central to the regeneration of a poor agrarian economy, inspired in the 19th century by the Danish poet and educator N. F. S. Grundtvig, and built on the development of and support for active and participative democracy. That commitment to popular participation and social justice remains central to adult education in the Nordic countries. In Britain, “adult education” has often been taken to mean part-time studies that do not lead to certification; in the United States, it is seen as a generic, all-inclusive term. However, in more than half the world, it is synonymous with adult literacy, with programmes of reading and writing for people with no initial schooling.


For much of the English-speaking world, the forms of adult education developed during and after colonialism draw on British experience. Widespread adult education developed in Britain along with industrialization and the growth of the demand for popular democracy, yet its roots stretch back in religious education to the beginnings of organized Christianity in the British Isles and, in secular education, to the Renaissance. King Alfred, in the 9th century, was a passionate and committed adult learner for the benefit of himself and others, establishing educational institutions to spread learning among the population; however, books were scarce before the invention of the printing press, and popular knowledge was mainly shared through the pulpit and the troubadour.

The Renaissance acted as a fillip to secular as well as religious inquiry, and public lectures on scientific subjects, attracting large attendances, are recorded in London from the 16th and 17th centuries, but more widely from 1700. During the period leading up to the English Civil War, thousands of pamphlets on how the world should be organized the stimulated debate. Later, coffee clubs, newspapers, and libraries all fostered a learning culture; and a wide range of bodies, including the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge, the Welsh circulating schools, and dissenting schools, all contributed to spreading literacy.

Nevertheless, it was, in Britain, the Industrial Revolution and the growing concentration of population in towns that extended the opportunity for ordinary working people to gain instruction “in the principles of the Arts they practise, and in the various branches of science and useful Knowledge”. The Mechanics’ Institutes were founded on these principles. They started in Glasgow and London in 1823 and spread rapidly across Britain and to Australia. Like many later initiatives, the Institutes attracted radical manifestos and reformist practice in the debate about what constituted really useful knowledge. The Christian Socialist Working Men’s College was founded in 1854; Quaker-influenced adult schools followed later in the century, and, with the rise of the new unionism, the Workers’ Educational Association (WEA) was established in 1903. Parallel initiatives to bring education to workers prompted the rise of university extramural provision, and from 1919, following a key policy report, local government provided mass adult education opportunities for people to gain qualifications through “night school” or to keep fit, extend their creativity, and stretch tight budgets through a crafts and domestic skills curriculum. From the 1920s, community schools, based on the Cambridge Village Colleges, involved adults and children in complementary studies on single sites. Together, the WEA, the universities, and local authorities offered a rich and varied menu of education for self-improvement. However, they also marked a clear separation of learning for pleasure from vocational education.

World War II offered the largest-scale general education programme mounted by employers when the army’s Bureau of Current Affairs offered compulsory adult education for soldiers to discuss the shape of the post-war world.

After World War II there was a marked shift from practical to leisure-based learning. Increasing affluence led to a demand for languages and lifestyle courses, and rapid expansion of provision overall, but adult education failed to attract those people who had benefited least from initial education. A series of measures addressed this issue from the 1970s. In 1975 a major campaign was launched to teach literacy and numeracy to the six million adults in Britain with basic skills needs. English programmes for speakers of other languages settling in Britain, programmes targeting people with disabilities, and women’s studies initiatives followed as providers targeted excluded groups. Access courses, which developed in the 1980s, offer adults one-year courses preparing them for entry to university. However, adult education in Britain, and in many other industrialized countries, remains more effective at reaching the affluent and those with extended initial education.

A Broadcasting

Just as the growth of libraries had a major impact on adult learning in the 19th century, broadcasting had a comparable impact in the 20th century. It brought people access to information and the stimulus to learn, free at the point of use in their own homes. The literacy campaign was launched on prime-time television. The Open University, which opened to students in 1971, exploited this power, with a broadcasting-led distance education degree programme, delivered in modules, with high-quality print materials, supported by face-to-face tutorials, and an exclusively adult, part-time student population.

B Industrial and Technological Change

By the 1980s millions of adults were participating in formal or informal opportunities for learning, yet adult education was almost invisible to policy-makers. In public debate, education was interpreted as schools and universities, and training was concentrated on new, young entrants to the labour market. However, changes in the structure of the economies of industrial states have made lifelong learning more central to social policy. Demographic, technological, and industrial change, the emergence of information economies, and of global markets combine to make lifelong learning vital to international competitiveness. This has led to a demand for credit-bearing courses, for opportunities to have recognized the learning that adults have previously achieved. It has led to the need for qualifications that are transferable, and to the need for modes of study flexible enough to be fitted round the other pressures on adults’ lives (see also Education, Vocational).

Because industries now have a shorter life, and because there is a high level of international mobility, there are pressures for qualifications to be harmonized. In Australia, with 40 percent of professional workers coming from abroad, the new national qualifications system has been built around the National Office for Overseas Skills Recognition. In South Africa, the new South African Adult Basic Education and Training strategy is based on a qualifications system, with a clear competence statement for every standard. Similar measures are part of the policy frame of the European Union, too.

Adults now make up the majority of participants in post-compulsory education in Britain and the United States. Their participation is increasingly in qualifications-bearing and work-related study. The prospects are that they will demand and get increasingly adult-friendly structures in which to study. In Britain, though, an increased commitment to vocational opportunities for adults has been bought at a price, with weakened public commitment to courses offering to learn for its own sake.


In Australia, as in Canada, Scandinavia, and much of Europe, these forces are also evident, but there is a robust and continuing commitment to programmes that support the personal development of individuals and the democratic development of communities. In Australia, this commitment is recognized in the formal identification of adult education as a fourth sector in the education system, complementing primary, secondary, and tertiary education. As in Britain, a provision in Australia is widely different in different states, with highly developed courses offered in Victoria and New South Wales. As in Britain, there is a recognition of the need to invest in adult learning for economic prosperity. However, as the influential report of the Senate Standing Committee on Employment, Education, and Training, “Come in Cinderella”, recognized in 1991: “The adult and community education sector has demonstrated its capacity to respond to the needs and circumstances of millions of Australians, to provide educational opportunity where it has been previously denied and to create pathways out of powerlessness.”

In the new economies the old distinctions between vocational and leisure-based learning blur, and in information-rich societies there is a powerful case for investment in any kind of learning people can be persuaded to undertake.

A Literacy

In most countries, however, the struggle for literacy continues to dominate provision. The content of literacy programmes depends on context. Those programmes sponsored by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization or the World Bank have often focused on national economic priorities. Functional literacy programmes are designed to help people to become literate in order to support health, agricultural, and industrial development. By contrast, programmes inspired by Latin American popular education movements, and in particular by the Brazilian popular educator Paolo Freire, focus on power relations, reading the world, as well as reading words. As one of his students in Recife, Brazil, explained: “I want to learn to read and write to stop being the shadow of other people.” In the Soviet Union, Lenin argued that “literacy is not a political problem, but the fundament without which there can be no politics”. In Tanzania, Cuba, Ethiopia, and Nicaragua literacy programmes have been made central to overall government policy. In China and India, millions have learned through mass campaigns. Yet illiteracy remains a major problem in many parts of the world, particularly for women and for the rural poor.

B Prospects

Adult education for many will continue to involve the struggle for skills in reading, and access to wider learning opportunities. In the industrial world, new technologies hold the prospect of offering individuals and communities access to unrivaled stores of knowledge, and the growth of information industries suggests the risk that access to those sources may privilege those who can afford to pay. Whatever the structures, the common histories of adult learners suggest they will find new forms to satisfy their curiosities in new circumstances of the new millennium.

Teenage girl (13-14) reading book on sofa

Contributed By:
Alan Tuckett

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