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Instil a wartime spirit to overcome the odds

I never cease to be impressed by what was achieved in the development of systematic adult education during, and not just after, the Second World War. There is no doubt that those returning to Civvy Street from the armed services were better informed and better equipped to take on training for civilian jobs than their predecessors.

Obviously many had been trained in specific skills during the war, but it was broader adult education that gave them the ability to take on the challenges of a very different world.

So it is today. Of course we need to reskill those who tragically have or are losing their jobs; of course we need Train to Gain in order to fill those vacancies that do exist, and to provide for Britain's future in what will be a tougher and more competitive world. But we also need to ensure that we help people in learning basic skills, engaging with the education system and gaining a broader understanding of the world around them.

To do this, it is necessary to meet people where they are, not where we'd like them to be. If that involves running courses that don't lead to a definable qualification or training outcome, then so be it. For, as we set out in the 1998 green paper The Learning Age, education for its own sake actually becomes education for the sake of us all.

I wrote in the foreword to this document: "As well as securing our economic future, learning has a wider contribution. It helps make ours a civilised society, develops the spiritual side of our lives and promotes active citizenship. Learning enables people to play a full part in their community. It strengthens the family, the neighbourhood and consequently the nation. It helps us fulfil our potential and opens doors to a love of music, art and literature. That is why we value learning for its own sake as well as for the equality of opportunity it brings."

I know that John Denham, Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, both understands and is deeply sympathetic to lifelong learning and the importance of engagement at every stage of our lives in the way most appropriate to the individual.

His problem is a very real one: how do you invest in helping people who are losing their jobs and need to reskill, but at the same time reverse the enormous drop in the number of adults taking up informal education over the past three years? The answer is that we need to use imagination.

With flexibility from everyone concerned, it might be possible to lay on courses at much less expense than in the past. For example, if the accommodation was made available, retired tutors might be prepared to lay on courses in languages, craft, citizenship and culture.

For those of working age, this might be just the lifeline they need to restore confidence and self-esteem, and to build the capability for taking on more formal skills training. For those in retirement, this could be a lifeline to remaining active, connected to society and involved with the world around them, through volunteering to support the development of civil society and to meet the challenge of social care for an ageing population.

The circle will take some squaring, but square it we must. That is why I have lent my name and participated vigorously in the current campaign to put adult education back up in lights where it belongs. If we are to face the difficult future together and succeed, we need not only the wartime spirit, but also the wartime vision of an active, informed and engaged citizenry.

David Blunkett, Education and Employment Secretary from May 1997 to June 2001.

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