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Bonkers Brit regime needs to be changed

GREECE is a beautiful country, especially in Spring. Some say the combination of light, olive groves, twinkling blue seas, and oodles of ouzo tempt people away from learning.

Whatever the reason, adult participation in Greece is modest and principally in vocational education.

It was something of a surprise, then, when the first European Union conference on adult education was hosted under the Greek Presidency in 1994.

Similar conferences followed across Europe as policy-makers and practitioners sought to understand what they could learn from each other, and to hammer out common policy frameworks. In part, they were responding to the challenge of the 1993 Delors European white paper, Growth, Competitiveness, Employment, which argued that lifelong learning policies needed to focus on social inclusion as well as economic modernisation, and to treat education and training as one system.

The impetus to develop coherent policies was boosted during the European Year of Lifelong Learning in 1996, leading to the adoption by all countries of a commitment to developing lifelong learning.

Now, once again, Greece holds the presidency of the EU, and again has broken new ground in convening this weekend a meeting of those in charge of adult education in member states - to review progress in developing lifelong learning.

This is bad timing for the UK representative, since the policy review of the funding of adult learning and the skills strategy will not be unveiled until next month. On higher education the Government can say more, but its recent White paper neglected to say much about adults over 30 in higher education.

But the smoke should have cleared in time for the UK's contribution to the second of this year's international reviews of adult learning policy. This one, called by Unesco, takes place in Bangkok in September. The 167 member states signed up to an agenda for action at the 5th World Assembly on Adult Learning in Hamburg in 1997, and will be invited to report on progress. To complement their accounts, the International Council for the Education of Adults has prepared a 20-country report on progress towards commitments, areas including workplace training in adult literacy and the education of women and older people.

Progress will not be as good as was hoped: UNESCO recognises the six years since 1997 have been difficult ones for adult learning worldwide.

However, the UK will be able to report some areas of progress. In expansion of investment, in workplace training, in institutional reform, in the Skills for Life strategy there is much to celebrate.

At the Hamburg meeting, Kim Howells, fresh into his post as minister for lifelong learning, proposed a UNESCO international adult learners' week.

Six years later ,more than 40 countries are running it and sharing best practice with each other. That too, is cause for celebration.

But the meeting ought to be an uncomfortable reminder that the job is not yet done. For older people especially, the policy isn't working well. Tory MP Boris Johnson illustrated this graphically in an hilarious but perfectly serious Commons adjournment debate on All Fools Day.

Boris told the story of Andrea, a keep-fit tutor in Wallingford, Oxford, with a class of 50 women, aged 40-80, who has given up teaching. She had been defeated by the 300 forms needed for just one class:

"I spoke earlier of the forms that Andrea had to fill in when assessing the progress of women who are often aged 80 or over in achieving fitness. She said that the forms were rather depressing. The Minister is beaming, but it is sometimes difficult to put a positive gloss on attempts to improve the fitness of women aged 80 or over, or to say that their general stamina and co-ordination are improving, even with the ministrations of Andrea in Wallingford.

"She said that she found it taxing and dispiriting to fill in forms intended to record the progress of her charges, when some of them had, quite frankly, made no progress. In a word, the process was completely and utterly pointless, and it was driving her bonkers."

Behind the levity, Boris makes a serious case for a more appropriate audit and quality assurance regime, and for trusting learners' judgments in courses that make modest calls on the public purse.

No other European country is as obsessed with audit as we are. There is more trust and better-quality courses. It might be useful for our representatives in Athens and Bangkok to ask international colleagues how they manage with a lighter touch approach, and to emulate the best practices they find.

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