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Inspired by brief encounter with a silver learner...

Just before Christmas I went to Barcelona to the pan-European preparatory conference for the United Nations education organisation fifth world conference on adult learning, to be held in Hamburg in June.

It was an extraordinary event - held in an imposing five-star hotel at the northern edge of the city, which had a minor equatorial forest in the reception hall, see-through lifts and lots of pictures of the posh people who had slept there.

All such events call for high order listening skills and a sense of the ridiculous. This one, hosted by the Catalan government, had the title, "Aprendre es la clau de la vida" - learning is the key to life - and we were all given a brightly-coloured key in a box as a memento.

The opening session highlighted the cultural differences at play in European events, when Michel Rocard, the former French prime minister gave a keynote address on human rights and learning, talking for an hour and a half without once mentioning adult learning. It was good on gossip, and for a slow, sinuous reflection on the relationship between individual rights and the state.

The Catalan president, Jordi Pujol gently teased him in a succinct and powerful 10-minute response which had the merit of recognising the political importance of an informed people, confident as learners and critical citizens.

As we left the hall, inevitably late for lunch since the keynote was planned for half an hour, I spoke to my friend. Paolo Federighi, the president of the European Association for the Education of Adults. "That was excellent," he said. "Yes," I agreed, referring to the Pujol speech. "No, no, Rocard," he replied. I was struck by the north-south divide. For me, Rocard had the content of a sharp 15 minutes, diminished by long-windedness, and hopeless insensitivity to audience. For Paolo by contrast he had set the appropriate frame for a meeting.

After this we went to groups. Each of the "experts" asked to prepare sessions had been told that they had 45 minutes to discover, in my case with relief, that we were required to limit ourselves to 10 minutes. My group was looking at the impact of new technologies and the media on learning opportunities over the next decade.

There were impressive presentations from the Open University of Catalonia, from the International Literacy Institute in the USA (part of pan-Europe for the purposes of UNESCO), from the Netherlands and Germany. I had been asked to make the case for a world day for adult learning, drawing on the experience of adult learners' weeks, and to complement International Literacy Day and the international women's days.

The debate was creative and intense across language barriers and the different cultural expectations of what should happen in what order. We agreed that for those people excluded from access to learning opportunities it was often technologies just behind the action that could be used most effectively, and that too much enthusiasm for the pursuit of the new could disguise this. Alas, little of this survived in the report of our discussions.

Rapporteurs and chairs are powerful folk. This was brought home vividly when a meeting of women at the conference reported their regret that no more than one in three of the delegates was a woman, that only one in five of the speakers was a woman, and calling for equal representation and voices at future events. The conference rapporteur-general replied, "Since I do not agree with the sentiments of the proposal I do not intend to include it in the report. "

You did not need to work in the favelas of Sao Paolo to understand Freire's observation about how a culture of silence can be produced. After a healthy discussion of our collective desire for a report that was inclusive we emerged, a little punch-drunk, to receive the draft declaration of the event, worked up in smoke-filled rooms by colleagues working late into the night to capture the nuances of what we might be about to say. There was an opportunity to comment on it by 9 the following morning, but we were to be collected and banqueted all evening, and had 20 minutes to get dressed up.

Curiously, and despite a yawning gap between process and product, the declaration was not bad, and the case for the dispossessed was reinforced in ringing tones by Federico Mayor, the Secretary General of UNESCO. When the conference ended we dashed into Barcelona for some Christmas shopping. Within two minutes of getting out of a taxi my wallet had been nimbly picked in the crowded market in front of the cathedral.

When I went to report it to the specialist police station for tourists at the edge of the Ramblas, there was a long queue, with a lot of distressed people. The police officer who dealt with me came rushing out of his office on reading my form. "You work in adult education?" he asked. "I am an adult student. I started at 43, and I am now doing my PhD on the development of urban settlements in Barcelona. I go to schools and say, I was like you, but learning can transform your life.

"I tell the young recruits here - get qualified, it makes life richer. I left school early, with no skills. In those days there were few chances for us. But now, I have no time for holidays, I spend all my time writing. I'm struggling to learn how to use my new computer, and there is so much to do. Everywhere you look there is a history. Take this station. It is on the site of an old monastery."

He flicked on a switch to illuminate a courtyard behind us. "Those were the cloisters ..." Half an hour later, I left smiling and inspired. My partner said: "Every cloud has a silver learner." I thought the passion of adult learners better captured by Sergeant Gerard Capdevila than by our conference.

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

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