Bringing it all together for adult education

It was European Year of Lifelong Learning in 1996. What came of it - after its grand United Kingdom launch in Scotland? Quite a lot actually. The year was characterised by a truly remarkable flowering of activity across the adult education spectrum. But can we discern a pattern in the patchwork? And what now?

The first influence is a sharper and more European focus to adult learning: a recognition of the themes of the year, and the part they play both in national prosperity and quality of life. The second is a growing momentum towards co-operation and partnership between community education, colleges and local enterprise companies. This mirrors developments within the Scottish Office itself, bringing closer together its education and training functions.

The year has been a catalyst for another significant trend, the move of community-based adult learning and basic skills education into the mainstream. The "ghetto" feel that stigmatised ABE in the eighties has well and truly gone. National targets show the outreach workers to be the front-line troops, in from the cold and part of the partnership.

A common theme was the centrality of guidance, motivation and support for lifelong learning. National targets (Scottish version) were broadened to reflect the need for lifelong opportunities for all as well as vocational opportunities: a subtle and important extension of emphasis. The Royal Society of Arts's Campaign for Learning with its five-year programme is now setting its own Scottish targets and bedding down. New projects such as Mature Scot and Prospects begin to address the learning needs of third-agers.

Higher Still (aka Opportunity for All) will offer huge potential for the mature learner or would-be upskiller, and will be of great significance to industry and the health of the Scottish business birthrate. Already the clientele for existing Highers equals numerically rather more adults (college students plus mature students in schools) than school pupils.

Higher Still has unfolding implications for school education which remain to be addressed. Future formal or informal adult education will start at 16 and be delivered in a variety of ways and in a diversity of settings. Lifelong learning for all will begin where compulsory education ends.

Other national initiatives flourished. The work of Aegis, the Adult Education Guidance Initiative Scotland, is being carried forward into a far-reaching national guidance strategy. Work on national databases is already well advanced. Another collaborative project, Local Initiatives for Adults in Scottish Education, played its part in 1996. Research has shown that 80 per cent of Scots have no contact with education after their compulsory experience: a record somewhat less impressive than south of the border. The project, a lively outreach venture, intends to change that. With an eye on the national targets it aims to bring non-traditional students into the learning fold.

To make sense of the rich tapestry of activity of Scotland's European Year, to maintain momentum and take a policy overview of progress, the new Scottish Adult Education Forum has opened for business. In the forum's sights will be the overall picture of developments in community-based adult learning and outreach and basic education - the essential underpinnings for the creation of a learning society. It plans to have a range of working subgroups following particular policy initiatives. An early decision was to submit views to the Dearing committee on the need for parity of financial treatment for all students, whether adult, mature, access and part-time, or full-time school-leavers.

Students need financial help for different purposes at different life points. Whether it's money for maintenance costs at university, or for family costs for the low waged learner in middle life, or for childcare costs for the single learning parent, the principle of parity of treatment should be squarely addressed by the national inquiry whatever mechanisms for student funding may be recommended by Dearing.

Other interests include the need for early mapping of the extent of basic skills deficiencies in Scotland, another area where Scotland lags. A major topic may be the overview of the extension of practical measures to encourage local and regional collaboration and networking in Scottish adult education and the breaking down of barriers on the supply side. Watch this space.

Astrid Ritchie is chairman of the Scottish Adult Education Forum. The secretariat for the Scottish Adult Education Forum is at Rosebery House, Haymarket Terrace, Edinburgh.

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