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Conferences look back to plan for the future

THREE CONFERENCES are to be staged in London this winter to agree a vision for the future of adult education.

FE Focus plans to run a series of columns by people who have been closely involved in the adult education debate over recent years, as well as adults who have benefited, to feed the discussions.

The conferences are being organised by the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education under the banner "FE in the 21st century what works for adults" and will look at the past, present and future of adult education.

Alan Tuckett, the director of Niace, and Paul Mackney, its associate FE director, have invited a wide range of speakers, including Tony Benn, the former Labour minister who has taken a lifelong interest in the subject, and former education secretary David Blunkett.

Mr Mackney, who is also the former joint general secretary of the University and College Union, said: "We think it is a good time for the sector to take a long hard look at itself and where it wants to be in five to eight years' time.

"We have got new ministers and they have inherited some policies which have created difficulties. Some are a result of ignoring the lessons of the past, which is why our conferences start with the theme of the past.

"As far as adults are concerned, we know funding is going to be hit this year and it is time to discuss how it can be rebuilt."

More than a million places have been lost in recent years as a result of changes in government funding priorities, which have included an emphasis on 16-19 education, vocational training and qualifications.

The first conference will look at how FE has developed since colleges became independent of local authority control in 1993.

Spending on FE has increased since then but recent years have seen tighter controls on colleges, particularly since the creation of the Learning and Skills Council in 2001. Adult education for leisure has been hit particularly hard, say college principals and others in the field, as the Government has insisted on a greater use of fees, especially for courses which do not contribute to government targets.

Niace has led the campaign for more generous funding, claiming that even leisure courses can be good for the mental health of people and that giving people an introduction to learning can lead to accredited courses being taken up. Speakers will also talk about adult education's importance for social cohesion.

The conferences will be held on November 8 and 29 and January 17.

* FE Focus is keen to provide a platform for the full range of opinions on the big adult education debate. Readers who wish to contribute letters for publication, or simply to pass on their views or ideas, should email steve.hook@tes.co.uk

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