Women and Adult Education during the 1970s

Dr Eve Worth, University of Oxford


2019 is a particularly important moment to reflect on the history of adult education in Britain. This year marks the centenary of the landmark 1919 report on Adult Education produced by the Ministry of Reconstruction. The authors of the report argued that adult education had a significant role to play in creating ‘a well ordered welfare state’ and that it ‘should not be regarded as a luxury for a few exceptional persons’. They found that adult education classes were dominated by men,  and suggested that this was not because women did not want to attend but rather that they ‘have less opportunities than men for continuing their education…owing to the unceasing round of household duties and the care of children’.

The possibilities for education as a mature student were predicated on a male life-cycle and employment patterns. The adult education system needed re-structuring (and expanding) if it was going to be  possible for more women to participate. Ultimately, this potentially transformative report was largely shelved by the government, lost in the shuffle of post-war reconstruction and economic crises. The system did not receive the influx of state funding or sustained interest that it needed and the ratio of male to female students did not fundamentally change.

My recent article on women in the 1970s argued that returning to education as an adult was a key catalyst for women’s social mobility in this decade. When I began interviewing women born around the 1940s about their lives I had not expected adult education to be such a central theme. In interview after interview I was struck by the fact women kept telling me that they had left school at 15 or 16 but had gained qualifications later in life. I felt that this was a historically significant and neglected trend that could potentially expand our conception of education and mobility in this period. Figures for further and higher education participation in the 1970s are not of very good quality and often exclude mature students. The great thing about interviewing is that it reminds you of people’s capacity to surprise and that lives have many twists and turns. By listening carefully to what women say, and moving outwards from there, our research concerns are not dictated by what’s available in the archives and we can change our understanding of the past.

University of Kent, 1970s

I pinpointed the changes made to the education system by the Labour government in the mid-to-late 1960s as providing women more opportunities to enter education. These changes were part of the second major post-war welfare state expansion. Harold Wilson’s government revived the spirit of the earlier report and made a similar connection between a well-functioning welfare state and access to adult education. The government expanded further education provision, created the polytechnics and founded the Open University. These institutions were situated in city centres, provided part-time or correspondence courses, and often had flexible entrance requirements. I found that women’s participation in the newer forms of education was rising much faster than men’s, particularly on part-time courses, in the 1970s. As the 1919 report had presaged, the structures of the adult education system needed to drastically change to make it possible for women to return to education.

Women’s lives had changed since the 1910s, but their experience was not so different that their choices were not constrained. The women I interviewed born around the 1940s often re-entered education when they were already married and had children. They told me that when they were younger they had thought they would want to permanently give up work after becoming a mother, or to work part-time in clerical or service roles once their children had started school. But this life-cycle did not stick, and many women expressed being bored, or wanting to be challenged, or simply needing a means of escape- ‘it was great not to be constantly asked “where’s my socks?”’ stated one interviewee, or as another interviewee put it- ‘just wanting something different than the life that seemed mapped out for you’. Women continued to have to negotiate their desires around the needs and routines of their family so the more flexible and accessible education system worked much better for them. The burgeoning need for workers in the growing welfare state meant that  women disproportionately studied subjects associated with the welfare professions such as nursing, social work and teaching. The newer educational institutions also themselves acted as employers and provided more routes into jobs in higher education.

What women of the post-war generation were offered was a chance to change their mind later in life, to see themselves differently, and to adapt to shifting personal and social circumstances. But rather than expanding, this possibility has instead been truncated and closed down. Since the beginning of the 2010s and the onset of austerity, funding for adult education has been decimated. In just the last two years there’s been a ‘56% reduction in part-time (and overwhelmingly mature) students in English higher education’. This is a gendered phenomenon because students in part-time education continue to be disproportionately women, still making up around 60% of part-time students in UK higher education even after their number declined from 398,520 in 2012/13 to 313,550 in 2016/17. As the figures fall fast it’s women’s educational opportunities that diminish the most. This is especially problematic in the contemporary ‘gig’ economy, where jobs for life no longer exist in the same way and many people are having to carve out multiple careers.

I think we should take this centenary year to focus on adult education as a crucial pillar of the welfare state and specifically on the ways in which expansive provision can change women’s lives.


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About the Author: Dr Eve Worth is the Jenny Wormald and Women in the Humanities Junior Research Fellow in History at St Hilda’s College, University of Oxford. She works on the history of women’s experience in Britain since 1945 and how this interacts with broader political and economic change. Her AHRC-funded doctoral thesis argued that the welfare state was so central to the lives of women born during the long 1940s that they should be considered the ‘welfare state generation’. Her article ‘Women, Education and Social Mobility in Britain during the Long 1970s’ features in her co-edited 2019 special issue of Cultural & Social History on the theme of ‘Rags to Riches? New Histories of Social Mobility in Modern Britain’.

One response to “Women and Adult Education during the 1970s

  1. This history can be presented another way. Let us not forget that employers were encouraged to employ women because they were ‘cheaper’. It is astounding that ‘sociologists’ ignore the capitalist system from whence emerges the changing pattern of society. And the ‘living wage’ was abandoned – a move welcomed by the regressive ‘feminist’ movement. Also, men’s overwhelming propensity to form strong unions was a disincentive for employers to continue to employ men.

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