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Reproduced from 1974 Conference Proceedings, pp

Reproduced from 1974 Conference Proceedings, pp. 1-5 ã SCUTREA 1997


Research into rural adult education

W. E. Styler, University of Hull

Research into Rural Adult Education is a more complicated subject than might appear to be the case at first sight. The word ‘rural’ is hard to define exactly and is often used with a qualifying adjective, e.g. ‘wholly’, ‘purely’, ‘largely’, ‘semi’ and ‘partly’. ‘Adult Education’ is a term which is not used in the name of this organisation: ‘the education of adults’ was deliberately adopted instead, and this means that in so far as agricultural education is provided for adults it should be taken into account.

The position is further complicated by the fact that the research interests of a number of our members relate not only to the United Kingdom but also to many countries in the developing world. We all know that while the United Kingdom, with only three per cent of its occupied population engaged in agriculture, is one of the least rural countries most parts of the developing world are predominantly rural. If the fact that Britain is a technologically advanced country is taken into account as well we see that research here offers little, if any, guidance in studying the education of adults in the rural areas of developing countries.

‘Adult Education’ (or the education of adults) means people and the adjective ‘Rural’ before it means people of a particular kind. The question ‘what kind of people’ is easier to answer in developing countries than in Britain. In the developing countries it means farmers or peasants, in Britain it usually means people who live in the country, since farm workers are too few and scattered to form a satisfactory basis for any substantial programme of adult education. As long ago as 1932 F. G. Thomas described an adult education audience in a Devon village as ‘shopkeepers, retired and elderly couples and young agricultural workers, odd jobbers, and motor mechanics, architects and farmers’1

During the period since the last war there has been what the Redcliffe-Maud Royal Commission Report called a ‘blurring’ of the distinction between town and country in Britain. A combination of circumstances has produced this characteristic: increased mobility as a result of car ownership, a movement of people from the towns into the villages, a steady decline in the number of farm workers, changes in educational provision which have either reduced the significance of or removed altogether the village school, and the spread of television viewing. As numerous students of the countryside have observed, these changes have weakened the distinctive cultural characteristics of rural communities so that they are now only residual. From the point of view of adult education the question arises whether much survives that is noticeably rural to investigate? Much research in adult education ignores the differences between town and country. An example is the National Institute Report on Adequacy of Provision: it surveyed four counties and three county boroughs but found no reason to distinguish between country dwellers and town dwellers. The views of a large number of students are given but hardly any of them have identifiable rural occupations - a ‘retired farmer’s wife’ and a blacksmith may be found but no more.

Adequacy of Provision also throws doubt on a well known theory about the countryside - that its inhabitants are deprived as compared with those who live in towns. In a recent publication of the University of Hull2 it is argued that rural people suffer economic, cultural and educational disadvantages compared with urban people. Adequacy of Provision, however, says that Dorset, ‘essentially a farming county’, was selected by reference to the highest group of indices of the proportion of people having had education above the compulsory minimum age and in employment in the professions and management. The largely rural counties also had nearly four times as many households with cars as the county boroughs but only two and a half times their population. Another example is School and Community by J. A. Nettleton and D. J. Moore, an account of the work of adult centres in Cumberland. It contains little that draws attention to the fact that most of Cumberland is ‘rural’ and nothing to suggest that this presents special problems. ‘Adults’ are referred to as if they represent all adults rather than those who live against the background of the Cumbrian lakes and fells. In both these publications rural areas have no special significance.

The question raised by these two publications is whether there is any remaining justification for treating rural areas as having their own special problems Some rural communities, particularly in Scotland but to a lesser extent in England and Wales, are in remote areas. most of the remote areas of Scotland, however, are very attractive to tourists and this provides a good deal of employment. Roads in the mountain areas are few in number if long in miles and a good deal of activity along them is in the provision of services for holiday motorists. One of the most novel and interesting efforts in rural adult education about which I have recently learnt, in fact, consists of a programme of visits, demonstrations, lectures, exhibitions, entertainments and film shows provided for visitors by the Wester Ross Tourist Organisation.

Rural adult education, however, is usually taken to mean adult education in small communities, either villages or small country towns. Nowadays these communities present special problems because they are small and perhaps more or less isolated, rather than because the inhabitants are engaged in rural occupations or exhibit distinctive cultural characteristics. As the Russell Report recognises the problems are of organisation: ‘special problems attend the provision of a comprehensive service of adult education in rural areas...’. It was the special problems of this kind that caused Henry Morris to propose the establishment of Village Colleges - the concentration of adult education services in particular villages to serve a wide area. It may be noted that-his policy of building special institutions to which people are expected to travel from surrounding villages is really part of the process of urbanisation.

Agricultural education enters the picture mainly because of the functions of the county agricultural colleges. Their work is not confined to the education of their young full-time students but includes as well various important extra-mural activities. Each of them is expected to service the rural community to which it belongs with provision to meet the educational and training needs of farmers, farm workers and countrywomen. The College farm is used for demonstration of techniques of production and the results are made available for discussion with the producers. Most counties are served by a Rural Home Economics Department, often based at the Agricultural College, which provides women with day, evening and weekend courses. Lectures, talks and practical demonstrations are given throughout the County to which each College belongs. Retraining courses and practical evening classes are provided for farm workers. One College known to me has a member of staff specially appointed as an Extra-mural Organiser: its extra-mural work is now more broadly conceived and has recently included courses on ‘Agriculture and the Common Market’ for farmers, and on ‘British Agriculture’ for the new residents in nearby villages. The growth of interest in conservation is also leading to the provision of courses in environmental problems. In a general way the College is interested in active participation in adult education and in establishing relations with the local University, Evening Institutes and the WEA.

Before an attempt is made to state the types of research into rural adult education needed at present, perhaps it would be useful to look at that which has been undertaken so far. This is not a difficult task because the amount is so limited. There are many reports of organisations and articles by those who have engaged in rural adult education, which could provide useful material for the researcher but are not research themselves. Mostly articles are solely description, but sometimes they attempt the evaluation of a project. This is the case in W. J. Baker’s ‘A residential tutorial class for rural workers’ (Highway, Vol. 45, October 1953), Gilbert Cope’s ‘Science for farmers and farm workers’ (Further Education, Vol. 3, No. 2, 1949) and Alistair Fraser’s ‘Biology for adults in rural areas’ (Scottish Adult Education, No. 46, 1966).

Some reports may also be regarded as the product of the kind of research which consists of the assembling of information: examples are the Board of Education Adult Education Committee's The Development of Adult Education in Rural Areas (1922), the WEA’s A Brief Account of the Rural Work undertaken by the Workers’ Educational Association (1923), and a Sub-Committee of the Inter-departmental Committee of the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries and the Board of Education’s The Practical Education of Women for Rural Life (1928).

Probably the only genuine effort at a research project between the wars is described in The New Learning - An Experiment with Educational Films in the County of Devon by F. G. Thomas (WEA, 1932). It runs to 72 pages but the methods used were those of common-sense rather than science.

The dates of these publications are significant. The twenties and thirties was the period when interest in rural areas was at its highest. Since the second world war interest has been much less noticeable; the fact that in general research in adult education the distinction between rural and urban is forgotten has already been demonstrated. Recent years, however, have produced one piece of research at a much higher level: this is Educational Television for Farmers, by Jeremy Howell (University of Readings Agricultural Extension Centre, 1968). It is a detailed study of the educational impact of a BBC. series on ‘Dairy Farming Today’ given in 1966. Its limitation lies in the fact that it is a study of the contribution of educational broadcasting to informal adult education: the fact that the broadcasts were directed to farmers is of secondary significance. But Mr. Howell’s study is the only British one I know comparable to those which are frequently issued in North America. The University of British Columbia, for example, has in recent years issued research reports by members of its Adult Education Department not only on such topics as the Influence of Education and Age on Participation in Rural Adult Education3 and Community Structure and Participation in Adult Education4 but also on The Adoption and Rejection of Innovations by Strawberry Growers5 and Personal Contacts and the Adoption of Innovations6. We may also note that one of the papers presented to the National Seminar on Adult Education Research in Toronto in 1969, by R.L. Bruce, was ‘A Study of Research Utilisation Processes in British Agriculture’, ‘a first step in developing a model or set of models for describing processes by which agricultural research findings are put into practice’7. It would be surprising if such a topic appeared on the agenda of a British adult education conference, even that of SCUTREA. In North America the study of adult learning processes in all their aspects is a field for the researcher: obviously we ought to move towards this situation in Britain.

While there is little output of published research on rural adult education in Britain aspects of it are frequently dealt with by students in dissertations and theses. From the 1972 list we may note such topics as ‘Community Initiative in a small market town in East Anglia’, ‘The Impact of the Cambridgeshire Village Colleges on the local Community’, ‘The Village College and Community College with special reference to adult education in Rutland’, ‘Survey of adult education in Argyll’, and ‘The Community Arts Centre, with special reference to Stainsby, Derbyshire’. The quantity of local studies of this kind suggests that there is a need for more research at a staff level into adult education in rural communities, and also that material from these dissertations and theses should be finding its way into more general writings on adult education. In this connection it should be noted that John Lowe, in Adult Education in England and Wales, had to depend largely on a 1950 publication, Further Education and the Countryman8 as the basis of his treatment of adult education in rural areas. There is a need for a comprehensive examination of the considerable account of information to be found in theses and dissertations.

Four main needs in the development in research into rural adult education in Britain seem to be indicated by this paper. One is that mentioned above and does not need elaboration, that the scope of research should be widened to cover all aspects of the learning process. The second is that there is a great need at present for studies which deal with change in the countryside, the fall in population in some areas and its growth in others, the growth of commuter villages, the decrease in the number of agricultural workers and the changes in their work, and the new relationships between urban and rural which are implied by local government re-organisation. Possibilities in the field of adult education should be examined against this background of rural change. the third is that the function of educational institutions specially related to rural areas, Agricultural Colleges, Village Colleges, Residential Colleges and perhaps some Colleges of Education (since a number of them are now trying to discover if they have an adult education function) should be examined. Fourthly there are the practical problems related to expansion which are referred to by the Russell Report in its treatment of rural areas.

Finally the question of research into adult education in rural areas in developing countries needs to be put on the agenda of discussion, since - as said earlier - it is an important interest of some of the University departments which are members of SCUTREA. The 1972 list of dissertations and theses included such topics as ‘The contribution of trained young farmers to rural development in Southern Africa’, ‘Adult Education in the development of African rural areas in Rhodesia’, ‘Approach to a strategy of integrated rural development with special reference to Ghana’, ‘Community Education in rural development in Tanzania’ and ‘The social and educational changes brought about in one South Indian Village by the Sarvodaya Movement’. Obviously these titles suggest a field of discussion so extensive that it cannot be dealt with at the end of this paper. One of the problems connected with research into adult education in developing countries is the opportunities open to the staff of Departments to undertake projects. This area of work seems important enough to suggest that it should be a special item at a future conference.



  1. F. G. Thomas, 1932, The New Learning - An Experiment with Educational Films in the County of Devon, Workers Educational Association
  2. Rural Education,1973, Institute of Education, University of Hull
  3. Goard, Dean S. and Dickinson, Gary The influence of education and age on participation in rural adult education, Faculty of Education, University of British Columbia, 1968
  4. Dickinson, Gary and Verner, Coolie Community structure and participation in adult education, Faculty of Education, University of British Columbia, 1969
  5. Alleyne, E.Patrick and Verner, Coolie The Adoption and Rejection of Innovations by Strawberry Growers, Department of Agricultural Economics, University of British Columbia, 1969
  6. Alleyne, E.Patrick and Verner, Coolie, Personal Contacts and the Adoption of Innovations, Department of Agricultural Economics, University of British Columbia, 1969
  7. Abstracts of papers presented to the national seminar on adult education 1969, ERIC Clearinghouse on Adult Education, Syracuse
  8. Published by the Yorkshire Council for Further Education, 1950

This document was added to the Education-line database on 28 June 2002