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Adults languish in a limbo league of their own

My post this week reminded me of WH Auden's poem Limbo Culture. In it Auden describes a world in which people nearly have the courage of their convictions, they look as though they are about to make contact with each other, but never make it.

You get the same feeling about public policy on adults. As I returned from the inspiring UK launch of the European Year of Lifelong Learning in Edinburgh, my attention was drawn to the Further Education Funding Council's latest data on student numbers, which shows that 76 per cent of FE students are over 19 and defined as adults.

In the same post we at the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education were consulted by the Department for Education and Employment on School and College Performance Tables. The Government proposes to keep the tables restricted to 16 to 18-year-olds.

Now we discover that adults' achievements are of no real consequence to the state, despite ministers' glowing celebrations of lifelong learning in Edinburgh.

The paper says "many further education sector colleges provide for adults as well as for 16 to 18-year-olds". The document says "the tables are not intended to provide a complete set of performance indicators for each institution. Including data on those beyond 16 to 18 would make it more difficult to compare the attainments of the student population".

Odd, really. Surely this problem was addressed by the Confederation of British Industry when National Targets for Education and Training were first formulated. They recognised the need for a focus on the achievement of young people in the formulation of foundation targets. They also recognised how important adult learning is to the economic, health and social cohesion of the country in the adoption of lifetime targets. Those targets are broad measures but a useful indicator of our progress against nationally ambitious but internationally cautious goals.

In a country obsessed by league tables, it beggars belief that the most visible measures of college performance to be highlighted by Government should exclude three in four college students. This is to tell adult students "you may be the majority but you are, for our purposes, abnormal. Education is really for the young".

The consultation paper says that league tables have not been extended to adults because "it would not necessarily help to inform choices at 16, and additional information could make the tables less clear". But if three in four college entrants are adults, how is the publication of comparative information on the performance of colleges' l6 to 18-year-olds in a narrow range of courses going to lead to informed choice on which institution, or course, will best meet their needs?

The explanation for all this may lie in the consultation paper's title - Parent's Charter: School and College Performance Tables. Yes, parents need advice to make informed choices about education for their children, but also for themselves. The adults who need simplified league tables to advise their children are the same people who have to make choices for themselves blind.

Acronyms, overlapping credit systems, local progression routes and each new measure designed to open access complicate the picture further. We also know that people in work are most likely to ask their supervisors for advice about education and training, and that the quality and accuracy of advice they get is variable.

That guidance is a key to effective course choice is recognised in the admirable Welsh Office paper, People and Prosperity. Adult guidance was also the subject of a paper launched by Scottish Secretary Michael Forsyth at the European Year of Lifelong Learning conference. Wales and Scotland are actively considering setting up national helplines, recognising the success of the annual Adult Learners' Week ones. With luck England may follow, at least with regional lines. But as in Limbo Culture, there seems little connection between these initiatives and the thinking in the schools and college league tables document.

To be effective, public policy affecting adult learners needs skills in which the British civil service has been traditionally weak. It needs cross-department and cross-division collaborations, a willingness to think laterally and to make unusual connections. Although the merger of the Education and Employment departments has led to some helpful initiatives. There is still some way to go.

Alan Tuckett is director of the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education

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