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Editor's comment

Do the words "adult education" have real meaning anymore? Time was when it evoked images of university extra-mural departments, evening classes and self-improvement. Now, the words conjure harder utilitarian notions and pictures of under-achievement.

The more successfully adult education is promoted, the greater the resentments it seems to provoke. Images are polarised. Either we have taxpayers subsidising the leisured groups in their macrame classes and wine-tasting sessions, or the skills lobby is attacked for giving public cash for private training that firms should pay for themselves.

As the National Employer Training Programme rolls out this year, questions must be asked repeatedly. If companies refuse to dig into their own bank accounts for staff training, why should the state pay? Equally, shouldn't those who can afford to do so pay for their Guatemalan basket weaving lessons?

We live in a new world of new myths and misleading images, which do untold damage to both "sides" of the debate.

Instinctively, we know that vocational training should also include lessons for social justice and civic participation.

So-called leisure lessons can spur people on to other lessons with more practical career-enhancing application.

The old arguments are redundant and the language increasingly moribund.

As the report this week from the committee of inquiry into adult learning in colleges argues, we need a new language and new notions of post-school educational entitlement.

We must throw out the brain-deadening discussions around leisure learning versus vocational skills training.

The inquiry report (page 5) has far-reaching implications with evidence of key economic gains from leisure learning - for example, adult classes for the infirm can improve health and cut the state welfare bill. It shows a need for "joined-up government" with all departments digging deep into their pockets to support learning.

As Chris Hughes, the inquiry chair, says: "It is time for a new vocabulary.

We need to stop regarding the different phases of teaching and learning as independent and isolated, as being in some way in competition. The concept of adult education may be unhelpful. It carries too much baggage."

Such arguments are not isolated to that report. They pervade the Foster inquiry into FE and were prominent in discussions at the TES national learning and skills symposium last week.

As colleges face new uncertainties and arguments around the need to set fees versus state subsidies, it is time to take a radical and fresh look at the whole of "adult education" and ask: What is it really for?

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