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Adult learners line up to celebrate

Comedian Mike Harding, politicians from all parties and further and higher education minister Tim Boswell will be joining in the celebrations of the fourth annual Adult Learners' Week, which begins on Monday.

Mr Harding will be regaling shoppers in Asda supermarkets with information about the Adult Learners' Helpline, funded by the Department of Employment to operate for the next two weeks. The helpline will offer impartial advice and guidance on the range of education, training and employment opportunities.

Channel 4 is showing a documentary about mentoring, Consenting Adults, on Monday at 8pm, and five three-minute films throughout the week. The BBC will also be showing short sketches and documentaries on adults who have successfully returned to learning during the week to highlight the helpline.

The National Institute of Adult Continuing Education, which organises Adult Learners' Week with funding from the European Social Fund, has persuaded the Department of Employment to send out information about the helpline with Giro cheques to people on unemployment benefit.

The idea of Adult Learners Week has spread throughout the world. Australia and the Czech Republic will be celebrating their own weeks in September. Switzerland in 1996. Jamaica, South Africa, Russia, Norway and Germany have also shown interest.

Mr Boswell will be presenting awards to some of the 60 individuals, five groups of learners and seven organisations offering new opportunities to adults.

More than 1,500 people were nominated for the awards which were judged by panels in each of the 11 independent television regions. Alan Tuckett, director of NIACE, said each nomination told a story about someone finding new confidence, skills, friends and knowledge in adult education.

A MORI survey carried out last March showed that one in 10 adults were learning through home study or classes. More than half of them were over 25. One adult in three said they were likely to take part in adult education courses in the next three years. A quarter of all adults had taken a course in the past three years and nearly half had done so since leaving full-time education.

Mr Tuckett said the findings showed a dramatic shift in education. "Provision for adult learners has to be much more flexible, student-centred and tailored to individual needs than traditional further education. Colleges are rising to the challenge."

He said that in today's economic climate it was essential for people to train and retrain. But he feared that some adult students "will fall off the edge" if the Government abandoned its commitment to education and training, enshrined in the national attainment targets. He was also concerned about the possible unintentional effects of the 1992 Further and Higher Education Act which split funding of adult education between vocational courses (to be funded by the Further and Higher Education Funding Councils), and traditional, liberal "night-school" classes (to be funded by local education authorities).

This divide has led to an increase in fees for non-vocational classes and a decline in the kind of courses which encourage those who left school unqualified to venture back into education.

"Adult education plays an important role in ensuring social cohesion, otherwise we will find ourselves living in an increasingly divided society, " Mr Tuckett said.

The Employment Department helpline for adult learners will operate on 0800 100900) from 12 noon to 9pm until May 26.

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