If we can't dance, we don't want your revolution

JUST before Adult Learners' Week this year a group of adult educators from across the globe met in Leicester. They were there to help the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation prepare advice for countries considering starting a festival of adult learning.

The results will be published on September 8 at the launch of the first International Adult Learners' Week.

We all agreed there was no template - except, as Joe Samuels from South Africa suggested, there should be celebration, eating, drinking and music. Certainly the week here includes many parties. But it also highlights a number of lessons worth transporting to quieter policy forums.

The first related to the contrast between the exuberance learners bring to the week and the rather utilitarian focus of much policy debate.

As a distinguished civil servant said to me recently, merging the departments of education and employment five years ago has improved links between education and the labour market. But, he went on, it has left people feeling uneasy about supporting learning that enriches quality of life, without obvious economic benefits

Policy-makers could do well to remember the dictum of anarchist and feminist Emma Goldman: "If I can't dance, I don't want to join your revolution."

This would be well understood by the minister for lifelong learning, Malcolm Wicks, who has led the Government's recent recognition of the second lesson: the importance of learning later in life. Unfortunately, other senior figures are less understanding. Earlier this year, in a contentious and at times facile annual lecture Chris Woodhead berated moves to improve educational opportunity for older adults, suggesting they had earned the right to be left in peace.

Behind his remarks was a bleak view of what learning can do to enrich life, let alone your health. Yet research by Fiona Aldridge and Peter Lavender (Learning and Health, National Institute of Adult Continuing Education) shows nine in ten learners se positive effects on physical and mental well-being.

I don't suppose the minister had Mr Woodhead in mind when he organised a reception for England's oldest learners. Fred Moore, the oldest learner, is now 107, born in the 19th century and stilllearning in the 21st. The enthusiasm he and his colleagues shared for learning was palpable.

Later, my taxi driver asked me what Fred was studying. "Art," I said. "Shouldn't someone tell him he probably won't make it as Picasso now?" said the taxi driver, before adding: "Still, he sounds as if he has more sense of purpose than many people half his age."

The third lesson I drew arose from the publication of several inspection reports on the work of education authorities with schools in their areas. It was a sharp reminder of the way the new Learning and Skills Bill focuses on the young, not just through entitlements but also through inspection arrangements.

Listening to the delicacy of the chief inspector's judgments on the BBC's Today programme, I was struck again by the need for "area" inspections of services for adults, as well as 16 to 19-year-olds.

For a decade we have seen league tables of the achievements of just 20 per cent of students in further education. Colleges' great successes in serving adults have been less visible. If we cannot convert the Government to the need to provide area inspections for adults in the Bill, we may have to organise our own convivially, from below.

Tessa Blackstone provided the fourth issue, in her speech to the National Adult Learners' Forum conference. She challenged us to create a "Listening to Learners" quality standard like Investors in People, as a benchmark of institutions' commitment to giving learners a proper voice in shaping provision. This is a timely challenge. Hopefully local learning partnerships will get the support they need to make effective consultation of learners a reality.

Alan Tuckett is the director of the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education

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