Adult learners' Week comes this year at a challenging time. It is hard to encourage new participants when a million places for adults have been lost from Learning and Skills Council courses in just two years. Short courses are no longer part of the portfolio of publicly supported study. Waiting lists for lessons in English for speakers of other languages stretch beyond next year's Adult Learners' Week.
This year, we found in our annual adult participation survey that 500,000 fewer people are taking courses of any kind.
However, it is not all bad. There is evidence that many committed adult learners react to cut classes by finding self-organised solutions to carry on learning. The union learning movement goes from strength to strength, and Train to Gain - which supports employers who train staff up to level 2 (GCSE-equivalent) - may be experiencing a slow start but does seem to be helping older workers gain access to training.
One other key group can look forward to a new entitlement this year. These are the workers who support adult learning. The introduction of an entitlement to 30 hours a year of continuing professional development for full-time teachers sets a minimum benchmark. More impressive, perhaps, is the extension of that entitlement to tens of thousands of part-time teachers, who get at least six hours a year, however modest their employment.
For those struggling to complete formal teaching qualifications by 2010, this will not be enough. I spent three days in Germany, helping manage a major European Union-sponsored conference on qualifying the actors in lifelong learning. It convinced me that our debates are painfully insular.
The focus of the event was on the skills needed to support effective adult learning and teaching - by policy-makers and planners, organisers, tutors and support staff alike. And on how we might best learn from each other in constructing a European framework of support for teachers and their allies.
One group report focused on the needs of support workers. It took the form of a job advert. "Wanted: support worker. Tasks to be undertaken: hard to define. Skills needed: someone flexible, skilled in multi-tasking, likes working with people; good at process control; able to create effective learning environments; good at marketing; at ease with the media; able to undertake counselling; an experienced information broker; good at networking and good with languages. Conditions: insecure. Pay: variable.
Training: good idea."
Adult educators know that secretaries and caretakers play a critical role in supporting learning, and any institution worth its salt should develop training strategies that enrich their contributions.
We looked at advice from the Organisation for Economic Deve-lopment on what's needed for a globalising economy. It goes be-yond the conventional basic skills. You need, they say, to learn to act independently, to use tools interactively and to interact in heterogeneous groups. But to interact you need to meet - yet I was the only Briton at an event, in English, with participants from 26 countries.
Are we uniquely uninterested in other countries? Or are we so embarrassed by our weakness in languages that we stick to the familiar? I am convinced our sights are still set low and our attention span is too narrow. Changing that is exactly why we have an Adult Learners' Week - for learners, teachers and administrators alike.
Alan Tuckett is director of the National Institute for Adult Continuing Education