Funding change is good news for adults

IT IS turning into a good autumn for adult learners. We have argued for a long time that many part-time students face hardship. It was welcome news, then, that the Government has found Pounds 5 million so that part-time students on benefit can be spared tuition fees. It was better news to read that, for the first time since the 1992 legislation, education authorities are to receive money through the Government's standards fund for their work with adult learners.

The amount to be allocated for the promotion of lifelong learning development plans is modest, but of great symbolic importance. It is for local authorities to do initial work to introduce, and then embed these plans "as permanent features for the future".

The aim is to set out targets for widening participation and promoting quality in adult education. The aim is also to create support links between adult education and other relevant local authority services and build on local partnerships to stimulate demand and innovative practice in providing for adult needs.

This is exactly the kind of endorsement that the National Advisory Group for Continuing Education and Lifelong Learning called for in the Fryer Report, which paved the way to the Government's Green Paper on lifelong learning, The Learning Age. It will also please officers of the Local Education Forum for the Education of Adults. They met Government officials this summer, and pressed on them that this winter was a critical time for uncertificated local authority adult services.

If the Government made no gestures to support adult services now, they said, it might be too late in 12 months' time. Town and county hall treasurers who had spared the services last year while waiting for the Green Paper would wait no longer. Whilst the Government had signalled the importance of the youth service it was silent until last week on the subject of local authority adult education. So, though amounts are small, the political message is clear. There is a statutory duty to secure adequate provision for general, liberal adult education, and now there will be plans in the public domain to back that duty.

It is a long way from the 1991 proposals to end public subsidy for such classes altogether. Now all we need is an audit for adult work to match the youth service one, a good circular to define adequacy and a renewal of confidence and courage.

The good news does not end there. Chris Smith, the Culture Secretary, issued a press release to accompany Tony Blair's speech to the Labour party conference. This made clear that Pounds 400 million of the New Opportunity Fund lottery money was to go to fight cancer, to create green spaces, and to fund local learning centres to support the University for Industry and to encourage adults back into learning. The idea is to extend the Learning Grid to community centres.

Like the community launderette, the local learning centre offers a convivial space and public access to information technology. Alan Clarke at NIACE has mapped the range of such initiatives that exist in the UK already - from electronic village halls and cyber cafes to back rooms in supermarkets.

Like the movement to create free accessible libraries at the end of the last century, the movement to wire Britain for learning is surely far-sighted and inspiring. It's striking that the inclusion of local learning centres has been made possible by the voluntary tax of the lottery.

As ever, it is the poor who teach the rich that to achieve public services worth having, it is worth forgoing the odd pound here or there, and that when we give ourselves permission we can resource the most imaginative ideas.

The use of lottery money is a lesson worth noting in the Treasury, and by the board of the University for Industry, as its members wrestle with the challenge of creating a focused, market-driven skills-building institution, which is at the same time convivial, open, and with soft enough edges to welcome new and returning learners. The history of earlier initiatives suggests that we may only get a successful version of the first if we also get the second. Last week's announcements should make a successful outcome slightly more likely.

Alan Tuckett is director of the National Association of Adult and Continuing Education

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