This is my first major speech in that role that I’m making and it is particularly appropriate that I should deliver it to this particular audience.
For few organisations more fully embody the values I hold dear than NIACE.
And no one has been a wiser, more inspiring, more generous mentor and critical friend than Alan Tuckett.
He and I share the same simple but profound belief that learning is a vital part of all our lives.
As Alan says, we now have a new Government and a fresh chance to reassess the principles that underpin public policy, a fresh chance to bring new hope
As the great American poet Ezra Pound wrote “a man’s hope measures his civilisation”.
And adult education – make no mistake – brings hope and the promise of a better society founded on social mobility, social justice and social cohesion.
It both enriches the lives of individuals and the communities of which they are a part
Adult learning is not a luxury, it is an essential component of our education system – a point well made by the new Prime Minister in the published interview which you recently had with him, and I know you have been reading and enjoying.
Unless everyone – rich or poor, young or old – is offered the chance to learn and to carry on learning though their lives then these ideals that will not be realised. They are ideals that should be part and parcel of all education, all life experience.
The cause of education as a mainspring of our civilisation itself, for which visionaries like John Ruskin, William Morris and John Henry Newman fought a century and a half ago – that battle has yet to be won.
And, of course, Alan has been around long enough to know that, under the last administration, when the beadle of central government doled out the gruel of public funding, adult learning was often at the back of the queue.
Now we have a new government of a type not seen in this country for decades.
It’s a government, moreover, that has inherited a public funding crisis that will take stern and decisive action to solve.
Lets have no illusions these are battles to fight in the most challenging of conditions.
I know that past experiences and current crises will lead some among you to worry that the future for adult learning will be bleak.
That once more you are being led down the Yellow Brick Road.
I say plainly that adult learning is a cause which I have upheld throughout my whole career in Parliament that I hold close to my heart, for which I argued passionately in opposition.
And with equal passion will champion in government.
I know that some of you may have been concerned that adult education is not mentioned in the coalition agreement, I understand that.
But please bear in mind that the document clarifies areas of potential difference between my party and the Liberal Democrats, rather than those on which we agree.
I want to offer a further assurance that in the conversations I’ve had so far with our new Secretary of State, Vince Cable, arguing the case for adult learning, as I am certainly prepared to do, I have found a kindred spirit.
The new Secretary of State recognises, as I do, that lifelong learning brings immense benefits.
As I say, there are tough battles ahead as we tackle the deficit, as we must. And the Chancellor has made clear that waste and inefficiency will not be tolerated.
If we want to build a bigger society as the Prime Minister has missioned us to, then we must recognise the value of community learning to civil society.
In all its forms, learning is a powerful glue that can bind us together as families, as friends, as communities.
Back in 1943 Rab Butler’s White Paper on Educational Reconstruction stressed the contribution that education can make to democratic citizenship; a time when the role of adult learning in community life was valued, we should be just as ambitious for our own age.
Recognising, once again, that engagement learning leads to greater self-esteem, better health and greater community engagement.
And, as NIACE research has demonstrated, far from being the parody of exclusively recreational courses mischievously painted by former Ministers, community learning involves many people actively pursuing studies either directly related to their working lives or which may lead to further training and subsequent employment.
And when parents are engaged in learning, then their children are more likely to value education and take more interest in school.
But the true value of adult learning goes far beyond these purely utilitarian objectives.
Over the past five years, through the many visits, meetings and encounters I had in every part of this country, I have seen the difference that learning can make, the joy that art or music-making can bring into the lives of the most severely challenged and disabled people, how the activities of the University of the 3rd Age helps people to learn again.
How institutions like Birkbeck College and the Open University have opened doors to a world of learning that many believed would be forever closed
That’s why taking learning to all adults – not just the 43 per cent of them that NIACE’s latest survey shows currently participate – implies a profound redistribution of power in our society.
All adults deserve these chances of tasting, touching, feeling the sublime.
It implies driving society forward from the bottom up, not instruction or compulsion from the top down.
And, especially in Adult Learners’ Week, it’s right to state clearly that not all learning needs to lead to qualifications.
For people whose first experience of education was not positive, it’s more important to be encouraged by an inspiring teacher, or to be engaged, maybe for the first time ever, in the acquisition of knowledge and skills – to again, instil a thirst for learning and a hunger for more.
The transformation that’s required to build a truly inclusive society is not only economic, it’s social, too.
As John Ruskin said “The highest reward for a person’s toil is not what they get for it, but what they become by it”.
It’s that process of becoming that all learning supports.
And that’s why I see learning not as something that can be carved up into useful and less useful pieces, but as a continuum.
Unless every part is healthy, the whole can only be diminished.
That’s why we have made it clear that we appreciate adult and community learning.
I began by quoting one great poet, let me end by quoting another.
W.B Yeats wrote that “Education is not the filling of the pail but the lighting of a fire”
A fire that can burn warm hearts, ignite passions – even at this challenging time, the flame of learning must burn bright.