Is education the answer to social mobility? The contribution of the National Extension College. Thursday, 13 July 2023

All political parties talk loudly about their commitment to social mobility and levelling up, but progress over the last decades has been dire and many commentators agree that that social mobility has gone into reverse and is maybe about to get worse. 

In a recent article in the Guardian, (At last, Labour is admitting the defining role of class in the UK, 7 July 2023) Polly Toynbee refers to the progress made for the lucky generation who were around during the postwar years of the 50s, 60s and 70s. 

It is worth looking back on the initiatives in that period which had a positive impact on social mobility. 

Part time adult education and especially evening classes were widely available and funded. There was a growing awareness of the need to develop new learning models which were more accessible, especially to people who had work and family commitments or who lived in remote areas or who were in long stay hospitals or prisons.

One of those initiatives was The National Extension College (NEC) created in the early 60s by two remarkable men. The social entrepreneur, Michael Young (later Lord Young of Dartington) who had written the powerful, and often misquoted, ‘The Rise of the Meritocracy’, in 1958 and Brian Jackson who had co-authored ‘Education and the Working Class’, in 1962.

They were both concerned about the unlucky generation of adults who had had their lives and education disrupted during the war and were missing the O level and A level qualifications they needed to progress their educational and professional aspirations. 

Young and Jackson wanted to do something practical and set up the NEC with a small grant in 1963 to deliver high quality courses through distance learning. In an article published in the Guardian, Michael Young wrote: “We were searching for education without institution, learning while earning, courses which people of all ages could take in their own time, at their own pace”.

The College hit the ground running; there were indeed a number of people who needed the courses and qualifications and valued the flexibility that NEC provided. 

NEC is celebrating its 60th birthday this year and is still going strong, providing courses and a lot of other support for hundreds of lifelong learners who cannot attend face-to-face classes because of family and work commitments. 

It attracts significant numbers of students who have a disability or are confined to an institution, for example prisoners. Over the last 5-10 years they have enrolled increasing numbers of younger learners, either taking a course like GCSE Astronomy or A level History of Art, which they cannot take at school, or being educated at home. 

NEC has had a much wider influence, in that it paved the way to establishing the remarkable UK Open University and The Open College of the Arts (now part of the Open University). It has provided innovative resources that have enabled schools and the further education sector to become more flexible. One of the challenges that NEC has had to find solutions for, is to bridge an education and assessment system which has been designed for students in mainstream schools and does not take into account students who are studying independently and paying their own fees. 

A good example of this is access to public exams. An independent student has to find an exam centre that will accept external candidates, this isn’t easy and the exam centre may be far from home, requiring overnight stays and travel. The centre will charge a substantial fee (which will be even higher if the student requires special access arrangements). And in addition, if the subject has practical assessment like A level Biology, Chemistry or Physics the exam arrangements are even more complicated and expensive. 

If the UK is really committed to social mobility, there should be a level playing field for all students and especially those who are not in mainstream schools. These barriers will be thrown into stark relief when the new NHS long term workforce plan is launched. Adult learners and career changers will need to be recruited in large numbers to fill the promised expansion of medical and other health-related training places, but if there is no additional support for them, they will not even get past the post. 

During the 60 years since NEC was set up, there have been a number of government funded organisations designed to widen participation in education and training on a national basis. One was The Open College, a public distance learning college set up in 1987 that only lasted for four years. A second example was the University for Industry set up in 2000 and traded as Learndirect. Learndirect had a wide regional infrastructure and lasted longer than the Open College, but was bought out by private equity in 2011 and is now in private hands. 

Despite many ups and downs, NEC is still going strong and still meeting a real need. A counter intuitive reason  for its longevity might be due to NEC being set up as a self-financing education trust and a charity. It is not in receipt of government funds. This has enabled NEC to remain focused on its students and their needs, rather than having to keep changing direction to align with the current government priorities. 

I have direct experience as a second chance learner who went on to university as a mature student in the 70s, and later as the former Chief Executive and now a Trustee of the National Extension College. 

Ros Morpeth


Read the article in The Guardian that Ros refers to here.

This feature from The Guardian archive refers to NEC’s role in the establishment of the future Open University.

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