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Editorial - Focus funds on a handful of the education-poor

Rationing is the problem of our times. Or rather, it is the problem of every time, but sometimes we are allowed temporarily to forget it. It is also the problem presented by the international comparisons which show that Britain has some of the largest numbers of adult learners, doing the least amount of learning (page 1).

Last week, discussing what to do in college capital funding, I wondered if it was better to put more wood behind our arrows and concentrate money on fewer, high-impact projects. There must have been some problem with the deliveries of FE Focus to Whitehall, because just days later, business, innovation and skills secretary Vince Cable announced how his extra #163;50 million for new college buildings would be spent on no less than 149 separate colleges, with most just receiving a couple of hundred thousand pounds.

Well, that failure of persuasion can be topped. This week, let's try to argue that fewer people should participate in adult education.

This is not intended as an echo of the pundits who like to imagine our universities are overrun with third-rate students on an inevitable trajectory to putting the BA into barista. But if, as the OECD figures suggest, so much of our adult learning is too brief to significantly change lives, then less might mean better.

Under the Wonka Bar theory of learning, there are significant drawbacks to this. Contact with the adult education system can in some people unlock a long-hidden enthusiasm for learning. Reducing the number of contacts lowers the chances of that Golden Ticket. But in an environment where increasing investment from either Government, employers or individuals looks like a remote possibility, it might be better to focus on a few sure things rather than hoping we get lucky.

The figures for the hours spent in learning may look worse for the inclusion of a host of short health and safety courses. Chances are these are not firing anyone up to be more skilled, so perhaps they are not genuinely educational. But exclude those and the gap between participation by the university-educated and everyone else only widens.

If getting more wood behind the arrows is the aim, then who better to take inspiration from than rationing expert Robin Hood? And if someone must have their hours of learning taken away, it should be those who are already rich in education and cash.

Since former FE minister Bill Rammell's war on flower arranging and recreational Spanish already laid waste to the middle-class engagement with publicly-funded adult education, this may mean encouraging employers to spend more wisely.

How much value are they getting from sending white-collar staff on interminable management seminars, and how much more could they get from giving staff with little educational attainment life-changing opportunities? Our adult education institutions need to make that case.

What is hard to assess is how far the balance of quality and quantity needs to shift. How much education does a person need for it to make a difference? Professor Alison Wolf, who was yesterday commissioned by the Government to review 14 to 19 vocational education (TES, page 4), has previously criticised Skills for Life courses for being too brief at just 30 hours.

On the other hand, no adult education programme will match the 200 hours a term that schoolchildren receive, and some of them still pass through it unencumbered by improvements in knowledge or skills.

But a little more focus on finding an optimal amount of learning to make a difference to someone's performance at work or their confidence with words or numbers, and a little less on the big numbers passing through the system, may be a more rational way of doing things.

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