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A serious discussion has started about adult education. No-one looking at the membership of the new Adult Education Commission can fail to be impressed. The questions set out in the accompanying guide are measured, extensive and, broadly-speaking, inclusive. There may be a substantial issue concerning wider public involvement but that can be addressed later. One step at a time. And having made a small attempt at bottom-up public engagement through last year’s Active Minds – Still Learning campaign I’d be the first to counsel caution about what such an approach can achieve on its own. But for social and educational gerontologists the Commission’s composition and objectives may still come as a bit of a shock. The interests of older people – or, more provocatively, old people – are not explicitly represented. True, Joan Bakewell, the most prominent of last decade’s Older People’s Champions, is at the head of the list of patrons. True, the ninth of the consultation questions addresses Demography and Ageing and asks ‘how should Adult Education support older women and men, and also ensure their wisdom becomes an asset to communities of all kinds?’ And, for many observers and commentators, including regular visitors to this site, that will be enough (always supposing they don’t, like me, find the word ‘wisdom’ a blow to the ribs.) Age is, they will say, just a number. Age-markers are arbitrary or historical. Well done to the government for abandoning the systematic collection of education data for people over 65. Thank goodness they never really started on the higher age-bands. Let a thousand elderflowers bloom.

And indeed something like that may have been happening. A colleague reports that when the Crouch End & District U3A held a launch event last year the queue to get in stretched down the street. Having joined herself she has since been unable to register for the groups she wanted because they were over-subscribed. And yet the Crouch End U3A shares a catchment with the Barnet, Islington, Hampstead Garden Suburb, Haringey, North London and (huge) U3A in London branches. Palmers Green and Southgate is nearby, Mill Hill not too far off. It seems the U3A cannot expand fast enough in north London. The Islington branch alone has well over 600 members and currently lists 70 ‘groups’ – ‘there are no entry qualifications, no exams and no prizes; just the satisfaction of keeping mind and body active, and connecting with local people who want to do the same. At heart Islington U3A is voluntary, self-help and enjoyable.’ The blurb on the Hackney U3A site leans a little to the left and refers to the University of the Third Age as ‘an educational self-help co-operative for people no longer in full-time employment who believe that learning is for life. It’s a university in the original sense of a group of people committed to learning.’ Last year’s report from the Third Age Trust (‘Learning not Lonely’) is accessible, well-documented and self-confident.

Yet the Third Age Trust is not represented on the Adult Education Commission. Nor is the Association for Education and Ageing (where I’m a member of the executive). Indeed, I’ve so far only come across one colleague who had any inkling that such a body was being constructed. The people involved will no doubt be perfectly competent to deal with questions pertaining to later life as the Commission goes forward – many of the institutions represented have highly creditable track records in the field. Nor should gerontologists associate themselves solely with the question of age. Speaking at a recent political education workshop, Sharon Clancy, for example, one of the commissioners and chair of the Raymond Williams Foundation, challenged the automatic endorsement of social mobility so often identified as the purpose of further education. But it might be sensible, even at this stage, to wonder if our absence doesn’t indicate a deeper structural problem. If adult education always had a primary focus on people of ‘working’ age educational gerontology largely concentrated on the period after ‘retirement’ and the years approaching it. For many years the National Institute for Adult and Continuing Association (NIACE – now much transformed as the Learning and Work Institute) made efforts to bridge that division and maintain many of the key relationships. It sustained an emphasis on older learners even as central government started to look the other way. Others have followed the government: in recent years the big old age charities have had little to say about education. They have concentrated their efforts on loneliness and well-being, where activity and participation tend to be the watchwords and learning finds itself aligned with ‘prevention’. October’s Frank Glendenning Annual Memorial Lecture by Paul McGarry of Age-Friendly Greater Manchester was illuminating and vividly illustrated but configured public policy largely as delivering education by stealth.

Last year in partnership with the Association for Education and Ageing and the Ransackers Association the BSG set up its Special Interest Group (SIG) for Educational Gerontology. We made a modest start by holding two general meetings, hosting a public event in Manchester before the annual conference and a symposium within the conference itself. Attendance so far has been low – there is evidently a long way to go in engaging scholars and practitioners alike. And to date most older learners involved have been members of a U3A! It is perhaps time to confront the fact that, whatever the claims of agelessness and its energetic lobbyists, we face an operational gulf within the education sector for which no-one is adequately prepared. Organisationally, the fields of work and retirement – whatever is happening to the real-world boundaries between them – have sheered apart again (a trend perhaps exacerbated by the emerging policy focus on lifelong retraining). Meanwhile, better-off older people (in very significant numbers) have voted with their feet and developed a learning-inflected social movement on their own. Indeed, gerontologists and adult educators may need to consider whether supporting U3A branches to get off the ground in disadvantaged areas and among poorer communities might not be the most ethically-appropriate way forward. My view, as I’ve recently set out elsewhere, is that we must still pursue selective investment in a workable model of public provision that offers teaching and qualifications.

The good news is therefore that the SIG has been set up at the right time. The challenge now is to get it to function and speak across a wide range of divides whether of identity and social inequality or of organisational direction and purpose. Last summer in Manchester, Chris Phillipson set out a prescient series of questions in which he identified learning and education as a ‘space’ for reimagining ageing. Let’s hope his co-authored reports for Universities UK (with Jim Ogg) and the Government Office for Science (with Martin Hyde) are on the Commission members’ reading-lists. More generally, social gerontologists might consider how it is we appear to have been left so far behind.

The Special Interest Group for Educational Gerontology will meet between 11.30am and 3.30pm on March 12th 2019. Room CAV.EDWB1.07 in the Edwardson building at the Campus for Ageing and Vitality, Newcastle University, Westgate Road, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE4 6BE. The morning session will consider ‘Universities of the Third Age: impact, paradoxes and problems’ and in the afternoon, when BSG President-Elect Tom Scharf joins us for a round-table, we’ll focus on ‘Gerontology, life-long learning and educational policy’. Full details will be posted shortly on the SIG pages of the BSG website. All welcome but contact John Miles on 07817 424356 or at johnmiles68@yahoo.co.uk to let us know if you plan to attend and will have any dietary requirements – lunch will be free.