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Investment in adolescents

Summer sun must be bad for the brain. One day I'm at the Edward Hopper exhibition - all sweat and elbows, making my way through the throng to pay obeisance to these masterpieces of American anomie.

The next I'm sitting in the garden, drinking cold Sauvignon Blanc, playing the pictures back in my mind. And then - Eureka!

I realise that the three sad people in Nighthawks keeping the bartender from his bed have just failed to enrol for Spanish 3 at the Brasshouse in Birmingham.

That bloke sitting in a singlet, looking out of the window over a bleak industrial landscape was hoping to do an urban archaeology MA part-time in the evening at Birkbeck. But they have changed the night and he can't change his shift pattern.

The couple staring bleakly at the trees from the stoop of their house in the middle of the wood, can't agree whether he should take up orienteering, or she ornithology - nor who should stay at home to look after grandma.

The woman in her underwear, crouched over a text in an under-furnished room was luckier - though since we can't see her face we have to imagine her smile.

She found a place on a Russian course, but is finding it hard to keep up with the homework, a full-time job, and regular visits in the evening from Willie Loman.

Adult education provokes strong passions - whether you get on to a course or whether you don't. You see this in the correspondence MPs report from the steady drip of adjournment debates that highlight the contribution to quality of life that the modest public investment in a yoga class secures.

No one has captured this passion better than Boris Johnson, the colourful editor of the Spectator and not quite convincing Tory MP. In a Parliamentary debate he told the graphic story of the struggles of Alice, an 80-year-old student in a keep-fit class, who, try as she might, found that she was unable to demonstrate that she could do things better after a winter of inspired teaching and learning. The process of ageing thwarted her hopes to fulfil the learning contract laboriously written out at the beginning of the course.

Slowly, Johnson's gentle ridiculing of audit culture has created the conditions for lighter touch assurance processes in adult education. And not before time.

Back to the art galleries. This time, the Munch Museet in Oslo, just three days before its two most famous paintings were nicked at gunpoint.

"The Scream" brought the Hopper show to mind again. But this time there was no quietness in the despair. It reminded me how often people dealing with major trauma put their toes in the water of re-engagement with society through joining a class.

Perfect, really, in offering a low-risk chance to meet new people. And, despite the policy-maker's concern with drop-out rates, it is not too much of a disaster if you can't bring yourself to attend a meeting or two.

I was in Norway to contribute to the International Council for Adult Education's three-week summer school for younger leaders in adult education. ICAE recognises the global challenge in giving experience and skills to younger educators, seeking to secure effective succession planning.

The participants spent time looking at the impact of globalisation and the role of international agencies. And then they looked at practical strategies for making the case for adult learning.

It is a case to be made across the world - not least since the World Bank narrowed its educational support in many countries to measures which secure universal primary education.

The result of this in many countries of the South is that adult opportunities are shrivelling. Yet, all the research shows that learning takes root best where adults and children both have the chance to take part.

The Tomlinson agenda for 14-19s is welcome, and overdue, and will undoubtedly galvanise major new Government investment in adolescents. That investment cannot be at the expense of opportunities for adults. But in my gloomier moments I think back to Munch's "The Scream", and wonder if sense and proportion will prevail.

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

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