'Adult learners need a climbing frame, not a ladder'

Adult education has been decimated but, with a little collaboration, it could be revived, says Alan Skinner

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Adults are untidy learners.

Our lives are complicated and we may need to learn something new at any stage, for multifarious reasons. At any life stage, a situation may be encountered that could be solved by engaging in learning. It follows that adults need a comprehensive curriculum, coherently presented.

Such a curriculum would present the learning process not as a ladder to climb, but as a climbing frame to be explored. Adults’ learning journeys should be able to switch direction, as circumstances change. Life pulls people in many directions due to personal circumstances, such as family, friends and interests, or external pressures, such as one’s work and social situation.

A comprehensive adult learning offer could help people cope with these twists and turns, as and when required. From making up for lost opportunities in younger life to making great strides in one’s career; coping with redundancy; keeping up with children’s schooling; or taking a new direction in later life after retirement or bereavement – the list is endless.

Pick ’n’ mix adult offering falls short

A clear indication of such diverse motivations is described by adult learners themselves in this video, which now sadly stands as an epitaph to a closed adult college.

Since 2003, the number of adults learning nationally has declined by 3 million. Additionally, the number of “mature students" at university has fallen by 50 per cent.

The latest available Office for National Statistics data shows an alarming decline in participation post-34, falling more rapidly over age 65. All fees for post-school learning have risen alarmingly while the breadth and flexibility of offer has shrunk as a result of austerity measures.

The pick ’n’ mix programme now offered in many parts of the country falls well short of what adults – and society in general – deserve and need in the 21st century. Opportunities depend on where you live and are anything but “spread uniformly and systematically over the whole community”, as was envisaged by the Ministry of Reconstruction 100 years ago.

Uncoordinated provision

This postcode lottery of opportunities is simply not good enough. Substantial curricula are still provided by adult colleges such as City Lit in London or surviving LEA adult colleges elsewhere, such as Thurrock and Southend in Essex. But many other communities have an ad hoc, uncoordinated choice from disparate providers, such as was apparent 50 years ago, with no coherent curriculum and few, if any, definable progression routes. Financial cutbacks are responsible for much of this.

Yet, adult and community learning providers are the hidden gems of the adult education system, with 88 per cent rated good or outstanding by Ofsted – up from 83 per cent last year. So how can they be made to shine through the gloom and be seen as part of the whole post-school education and training offer? Surely cooperation and collaboration is the only answer.

Lifelong learning is far too important to be left to market forces. Quite apart from their wasteful nature, competitive practices serve to confuse potential participants. Even if they can afford the investment of time and money, how do people make choices about their learning journey? We need to help them, firstly, to identify the various points on the lifelong-learning climbing frame, assess their relationship to each other – and then provide a clear map people can use to guide them.

'Any town can do it'

This can be addressed, even in the face of continuing austerity, with just a little collaboration.

I know this can work – because it has before, so it can do again. In the wake of the publication of Learning Works: Widening participation in further education, in 1997 Colchester’s adult college, university, sixth-form college, polytechnic, the Open University and borough council came together to form the Colchester Learning Shop Co. With a small staff, informed and supported by the institutions’ specialists, the shop offered information, advice and guidance focused on the people who came through the door – not on filling vacant places in specific courses. It flourished until the closure of the lynchpin adult college and increasing pressure on partners’ budgets destroyed the collegiate ethos.

Any town can do it. All it needs is one agency – be it the local education authority, council or one of the educational institutions – to come forward to coordinate a coherent offer for local people. Even if a physical learning shop is out of the question (although heaven knows there are many such premises vacant), at least an area prospectus, or a website with all links in place (such as we have with the “Colchester Learning Town” site) could be put together for a reasonable outlay in time and funds. Our local charity runs this on a shoestring budget.

With Colchester’s high street adult college sold for a luxury hotel and the former learning shop premises now a bar/restaurant, there is an urgent need to acknowledge that lifelong learning is an investment in, rather than a cost, to society – before a different kind of market force destroys the post-school curriculum across the whole country.

In this centenary year of the inspirational 1919 report, we should be coming together not only to arrest the decline of adult education, but to reconstruct it. To paraphrase a well-known saying: learning is for life, not just for children.

Alan Skinner was principal of the Adult Community College, Colchester, from 1983 to 2005, and is a former chairman of the Colchester Learning Shop Company. He is currently secretary of the Learning Never Stops charity

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