Interview with Alan Tuckett

At its VIIth World Assembly that took place in Malmö, Sweden, 14 – 17 June 2011, Alan Tuckett was elected President of the International Council for Adult Education (ICAE). Previously, Alan had directed the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education, the leading non-governmental organisation for Adult Learning in England and Wales. He took over the presidency from Paul Bélanger.

Investing in Adult Learning Saves Money Elsewhere

As of June 2011, you are president of one of the world’s most prestigious international associations for education, the International Council for Adult Education (ICAE). Tell us a little about yourself. How did you find your way into the field of education, and in particular Adult Education?

Alan Tuckett: As a child I lived in different parts of the world, as my father was in the air force. I studied American literature, and began teaching adults part-time, was lucky to get a full time job organizing Adult Education in a voluntary organisation in Brighton, where we helped start the adult literacy campaign in Britain. Early in my career I realized advocacy was a key part of an adult educator’s brief, and that motivation is a key part of the curriculum. I was principal of a large and innovative adult education institute in London in the 1980s, and then moved in 1988 to run the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education in England and Wales, NIACE. We saw our role there as a critical friend of governments, promoting adult learning for all the groups failed by the school system, or otherwise excluded. We asked “Who isn’t there and what can be done about it.” I retired from NIACE in 2011.

AED:ICAE deals with issues of education and Lifelong Learning all over the globe. Do you find that as educators we basically face the same tasks and challenges everywhere, or are there differences that influence priority setting, differences that require different approaches?

Alan Tuckett: Freire was surely right that education either serves to domesticate people or to liberate them. The tasks for educators all over the world, working in very difficult circumstances, seem to me to be similar – as Raymond Williams put it: to understand change, to adapt to changed circumstances, but above all to shape change. Supporting people in asserting their voice, in gaining a sense of agency. It is challenging and exhilarating work.

AED:How would you describe changes in ICAE’s mission over the years. What is the overarching purpose today of a global association for Adult Education?

Alan Tuckett: ICAE was founded following the third UNESCO world conference on Adult Education – to ensure that when governments met to shape transnational policies affecting adult learners, their decisions would be informed and influenced by practitioners; to ensure, too, that there was a vehicle for national and regional organisations to share good practice, and to offer solidarity to each other. For a period, it worked to unlock funding from development budgets in industrial countries (but especially in Scandinavia and Canada) for use by Adult Education associations in the South. For the last decade we have worked as a global advocate; as a vehicle to support emerging leaders to develop skills for that advocacy work; as a place where networks of practitioners can meet and strengthen practice, and as a partner with UNESCO in supporting the global movement.

AED:How a national or regional association works is comparatively clear. At least in a region such as Europe where political structures are well defined in the form of the Council of Europe, the European Parliament or the European Commission, it is easy for national and regional associations to find common goals and partners interested in critical dialogue. How does this work on a global level? Who does ICAE represent? Who are ICAE’s key partners? Who and where are the policy makers that ICAE addresses?

Alan Tuckett: I don’t really understand the distinction. You might just as well say that an association made sense for individual Länder in Germany, but what was the point of a federal association like DVV! The argument for global networks is that ideas don’t respect boundaries – we learn about ways of engaging groups of learners from activists in the Philippines; about participatory research from developments in India and Canada. Look at Pascal and the“Learning Cities” movement. And then look at the kinship and migration patterns of the populations of all our countries, look at the growth of inter-regional dialogue in the workings of the web, and you can see that we really share one world. At its best – and you could say that for much of the 8th World Conference in Malmö we were at our best, ICAE provides a framework for us all to learn from each other.

But as successive global conferences have made clear – we also have a shared challenge in creating a more socially just world – and ICAE provides links with a range of other social movements through which people learn to make another, better world possible.

AED:What are the challenges that ICAE faces in building collaborative partnerships and making itself heard?

Alan Tuckett: ICAE was effective and successful in securing a place on the agenda of a number of the large UN conferences of the 1990s, but with the adoption of the Millennium Development Goals (MDG), and the pre-eminence of World Bank influence on the Fast Track Initiative in many countries, it is hard for Adult Education to secure visibility in the budgets or priorities of UN member states. Several international development funders, too, have focused on universal primary education to the exclusion of other goals of the “Education for All” (EFA) campaign. Yet we know that even primary education is more effective when adults learn at the same time. In this respect the key role that DVV, and German foreign aid policy, plays in sustaining national and regional bodies is of vital importance.

It is our job to try to reverse that tendency, and to ensure that in the discussions on the global targets that might follow EFA and the MDGs in 2015 the role of adult learning as an effective catalyst for the achievement of a range of economic, social and health priorities is recognised and valued.

Inside the network, we have to keep the dialogue going between those members for whom Adult Education ordinarily takes the form of structured learning programmes with teachers, in institutions, and those for whom popular education is an integral part of social movements. Each has rich traditions in engaging and inspiring people.

AED:ICAE used to be known as a global movement that was motivated by a mixture of vision and mission and engaged in a wide range of topical networks. It was not in direct opposition to governments, but certainly kept a critical distance. Now the large international campaigns and conferences seem to capture the major part of ICAE’s attention and action. What has brought about this change?

Alan Tuckett: One change of course derives from finance. We used to have a peace network funded by Finnish aid. Canadian and Swedish funding sustained environment networks among others, and Norwegian agencies supported women’s education. Norway still does, and the Swiss Development Co-operation supports the international academies for Lifelong Learning advocacy. In Malmö we focused on the follow-up to CONFINTEA VI, the MDGs, EFA and how best to promote adult learning; on the riches of the folkbildning traditions of Nordic popular education; on women’s education; on decent learning for decent work; and of course we also worked on education for sustainable development in a climate changing world. For many in the South climate change is not a subject of scientific debate but a lived challenge.

Global conferences like Rio+20 give a specific focus to one major strand of our work, and we have benefited from the experience and leadership of our Gender Education Office in developing strategies to influence such events, just as the energy of the World Social Forums has had an impact on our work. But we are active in fostering dialogue between members on each of our priorities, and fostering interregional dialogue. Of course we could do more – not least in complementing the South-South dialogues and North-South dialogues, with improved co-operation and dialogue for members in the industrialized countries, too.

AED:Today, everyone is talking about Lifelong Learning. On the one hand, adult educators welcome this emphasis as it shifts public attention away from an all too often exclusive focus on the formal education sectors. On the other hand they are concerned that by subsuming Adult Education under the all-encompassing category of “Lifelong Learning”, the sector may lose its distinctive profile and identity. How does ICAE view this dilemma? Do you see the International Council for Adult Education moving in the direction of an International Council for Lifelong Learning?

Alan Tuckett: If only everyone WAS talking about Lifelong Learning. Arne Carlsen, the director of UNESCO’s Institute for Lifelong Learning, made an interesting point recently. He suggested that for twenty years Europeans talked and wrote about Lifelong Learning, but it is in the countries of Asia that we now see Lifelong Learning legislation. I have always seen the Lifelong Learning perspective as a key frame within which to defend and improve opportunities for adult learning. It is easier to see how inter-generational learning works to benefit adults and children alike from a Lifelong Learning perspective, and much easier to assert the wider benefits of learning, so brilliantly articulated at CONFINTEA V in that context. But I don’t see the need for an ICAE diminishing at all – rather the reverse.

AED:Why has Adult Education not been specifically designated in global education campaigns as a priority sector with its own set of objectives that need to be formally recognized as politically binding for all governments?

Alan Tuckett: Well, as a movement we have not been successful in making the case effectively enough, have we? But with the growth of interest in well-being and happiness alongside Gross Domestic Product as measures of successful countries, hope springs eternal!

AED:What are the fields of particular emphasis for ICAE in the coming years?

Alan Tuckett: I mentioned them above. First, we have a focus on the CONFINTEA VI follow up, the MDGs, EFA and what happens post 2015 to create and build on a world where literacy is a right; where women and girls get the same chances as men and boys; and where the role of education in overcoming poor health, poverty and democratic deficits is firmly established. That will involve talking to the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund as well as to agencies that may more readily accept our arguments. Second, building on and sustaining our work on gender equality, to strengthen our work on the role of education in countering discrimination of all sorts, including continuing work on migration. Third to strengthen our links with organisations and networks focusing on learning and work (formal and informal). Fourth to share the experience of our different learning traditions, and to strengthen services to members and networls. Fifth to make a real difference by developing and strengthening educational strategies for sustainability in a climate changing world. Finally, we will continue to secure opportunities for emerging adult educators from all over the world to meet, learn together and share strategies through our ICAE Academy of Lifelong Learning Advocacy programme (IALLA) where we train emerging leaders in adult learning and social movement activists to acquire the skills to advocate for and support adult learning for active citizenship.

AED:What are your views on the fact that public policies tend to reduce the function of Adult Education to the enhancement of employability? Isn’t Adult Education valuable in its own right?

Alan Tuckett: Yes of course, and the dominance of neo-liberal economics, and the rise of the accountant in public policy has been unhelpful for all kinds of initiatives grounded in securing social as opposed to narrowly economic development. But at the same time we need to embrace adult learning for all kinds, and to reflect that in our discourse and dialogues.

AED:Are there indicators other than improved levels of employment or increased income that can serve to demonstrate the positive impact of adult learning. Is it possible to measurably corroborate any such impacts, or are they rather a matter of conjecture?

Alan Tuckett: There is a wealth of work on the wider benefits of learning and how to measure them – emerging from the OECD, but also at the Institute of Education in London. Then there is the work inspired by Amartya Sen on capabilities; the Sarkozy Commission in France; Wilkinson and Picket’s book, The Spirit Level – all point the way. And we need to workshop together on how to develop tools for citizen’s watch activities drawing on these fine ideas. And, as well, the report of the inquiry into the future of Lifelong Learning NIACE in the UK commissioned – Learning through Life by Tom Schuller and David Watson, has powerful evidence of how to capture all the investment made across government in learning by adults.

AED:All over the world, Adult Education has to struggle for recognition as a priority in more effectively document its achievements and its benefits for learners and society as a whole. What concrete progress if any has been made, in your estimation, in the successful measurement of informally acquired competencies?

Alan Tuckett: In a way my answer to the previous question covers some of the ground. But the specifics of capturing informal learning are interesting, and a good deal of work is going on – for example I think UNESCO is about to publish on the issue, and there is a lot of interest in Europe, and wherever people cross educational borders. There is much more to do though – establishing a currency for recognizing achievement is an important first step, and then securing equal esteem for different ways of learning is just as challenging.

AED:Are public subsidies for general Adult Education still justified in times of financial constraints, or should participation be left to the initiative and responsibility of learners?

Alan Tuckett: Of course. Investing in adult learning saves money elsewhere – it improves mental well-being, keeps you independent longer, increases civic participation, improves racial tolerance – whatever the subject and whatever your previous level of education. And all that is apart from the love of learning and the subject that good Adult Education fosters.

AED:The next Global Monitoring Report will address the acquisition of life skills. Is ICAE involved in its production? If so, how? Will the report take the achievements of Adult Education and non-formal and informal learning into account?

Alan Tuckett: I am sure we should ideally be, but we have to focus our modest budgets to best effect. We are currently only at an early stage of work with adult learning in relation to work, and our existing work with UNESCO on CONFINTEA follow up, work with Paris on EFA, and the work leading to Rio all use time and energy. However; we are always on the lookout for good volunteers.

AED:Over the years, ICAE and DVV International have cooperated in many different efforts. How do you see the future of this partnership?

Alan Tuckett: Well, it is a critically important partnership for us. Our shared conferences have often been agenda setting – I’m thinking of the one on migration before the Belém Conference, for example. And there is no shortage of issues to be addressed. There is the challenge of securing effective democratic citizenship, responding to the initiatives arising from the Arab Spring; responding to the educational needs of people living much longer; and the agenda post 2015. But there is also a value in sharing strategy more widely. And having the chance to put over some of ICAE’s thinking through the pages of Adult Education and Development is one practical illustration of that sharing.

Closing the Books or Keeping them Open?







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