In their conclusion to ‘The social policy of old age: Moving into the 21st century’, published twenty years ago, Mim Bernard and Judith Phillips called for the addition of three new domains for social policy alongside those focused on income, health and care. An integrated social policy of ageing would need to be educationally minded, technologically minded and spatially minded. While the latter two objectives have proliferated within gerontology and had an impact within the wider policy arena this cannot be said of the first. But if it goes without saying that we do not have an integrated policy on ageing in the UK it still comes as a surprise, with such major adjustments needed in response to an ageing population, that there is no serious state investment in later life learning.

Education for ageing, and for older people, appears on virtually no-one’s agenda. Diffused through the numerous tributaries implied through the preferred term learning it survives largely through its proxies – encouragement for activity, cultural participation and digital inclusion. These developments are not insignificant of course. Where the outlines of Labour’s attempts at public service reconfiguration have been selectively maintained – through the age-friendly city movement, in the Lottery-funded ‘centres  for ageing better’ and in some of the work of the devolved governments – they may even be quite  extensive. Some local authorities have kept up free access to basic skills. But under neo-liberal conditions, where consumption and competition are the over-riding objectives, education as a broad-based goal has been sidelined. Only lifelong workplace training gets much of a look in. Market-led accounts of inclusion and voluntary forms of exchange predominate. So once you have a ‘learning city’ why worry about the provision of classrooms? If, as adults, we are all learning from each other why train teachers? And if learning continues throughout life who needs education, with its overtones of dominance and being done to? Information is supposedly everywhere and once made rigorously accessible there will be no need for its interpretation by scholars and experts. Artificial intelligence will take care of that.

The BSG’s Special Interest Group on Educational Gerontology has been established to support members who want to engage, as scholars, researchers, teachers and learners with this troubling situation.  Government spending on adult skills fell by 40% under the Coalition government – it’s been calculated that over a million learning opportunities were lost between 2010 and 2015. But the situation is complex and contradictory. Many compensatory initiatives have also been undertaken – particularly in the field of arts and culture. The universities of the third age, working to an evidently durable model of mutual support, continue to expand. But three issues at least should be of ongoing concern: the lack of an investment strategy to counter inequality and exclusion, the loss of teaching skills, spaces and support structures, and the willful lack of interest in promoting deliberative debate across our ageing population. (It’s been good to see that East Midlands Workers Educational Association have a new course on offer with Chris Ring and to hear about their collaborations with the Social Pedagogy Professional Association and Leicester Ageing Together.)

As a start, the SIG will offer a reference point for researchers to engage with a wider range of professional and public bodies than has been possible for the Association for Education and Ageing. We’re holding a public event with Chris Phillipson at 4pm today as part of the Manchester Festival of Ageing and a symposium within the BSG conference on Friday. Simple goals might involve persuading future conference hosts to encourage a learning and education stream.  More ambitiously, BSG members are invited to help shape an emerging campaign – Active Minds – Still Learning. Whatever your interest or concern in relation to education we intend to promote dialogue and debate. An educationally-minded social policy of ageing still looks like a good idea.