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Adversity with a smile

As the WEA's Sheffield branch celebrates its centenary, adult education campaigners prepare for fresh battles. Alan Tuckett reports

everywhere i go, people describe the prospects for adults in further education with gloom and despondency coupled with pessimism about the near future.

Curiously, the analysis is mixed with an abundance of energy, determination and gallows humour. What do they think of the demand-led funding consultation paper? "Appalling stuff", they say. And what of the lack of coherence between the Leitch review of UK skills and the Lyons review of local government? "It is bound to end in tears" comes their reply.

This blend was, perhaps, understandable when the Workers' Educational Association celebrated its Sheffield branch centenary by asking what the future holds for adult education.

Local MP and former education secretary David Blunkett was there, still flying the flag for the organisation's ambitions. It was he, remember, who created Labour's "visionary" lifelong learning policies a decade ago. He insisted the abiding role of adult education was to create and sustain communities that were compassionate, civilised and curious.

The WEA boasts 19,000 members in 640 branches who share his view. But there was anger at the impact of cuts in funding. As one student put it: "If you take away my class, you take away my reason for getting up in the morning."

There was little expectation that things would be mended quickly, despite evidence of the benefits of adult learning. The success of union learning representatives evinces widespread respect. But it is hard to understand why the parallel work of community learning champions created by this Government is so hard to fund.

Bill Rammell, the minister, argues it is all about priorities - that the expansion of Train to Gain and the Skills for Life Strategy inevitably put pressure on other areas. And while John Hayes, the Conservative shadow minister for learning and skills, argues passionately for adult education, it is unclear whether his party is committed to maintaining the provision currently on offer.

One reason for cheer is the evidence that public debate makes a difference.

Mr Rammell's agreement to modify the Government's proposals to introduce fees for classes in English for Speakers of Other Languages came as a result of hot public debate. There has been a race impact assessment exercise, a thousand people at a Universities and Colleges Union parliamentary lobby, backed by large numbers of MPs and peers, and powerful advocacy from learners.

The changes to Esol funding are welcome, of course, but as Paul Mackney, former Natfhe general secretary, says, it is not a matter of shuffling the limited budget for adult learning, to give privileges to some learners at the expense of others. The time has come to squeeze serious money from the spending review. Maybe this prospect explains the gallows humour abroad in the land.

Alan Tuckett is director of Niace, the adult education body

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