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It's good to talk about learning

Susan Young meets a man with a mission to improve his water-skiing and other people's prospects. Bob Hoskins smiles into the camera at the end of the BT advert. "Remember - it's good to learn," he says.

This is not so unlikely if Sir Christopher Ball, chairman of the new Campaign for Learning, has his way. His talk with BT about occasionally running an amended version of the "It's good to talk" campaign is just one of several ambitious ideas to get the nation interested in improving skills.

A postage stamp celebrating the campaign is on the cards and there is a strong likelihood that Sainsbury's customers will be able to pick up a Personal Action Learning Plan at the checkout.

The intention is to reach ordinary adults, bringing home the message that learning does not have to be done in institutions but can encompass everyday skills, and is something for which individuals must take responsibility.

"This means boosting people's desire to learn, making people aware of existing opportunities to learn and proposing new ones," says the campaign booklet from the RSA, the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce.

Sir Christopher and his partners hope to build on the results of a recent MORI poll in which 70 per cent of adults agreed that learning could lead to a better quality of life - 63 per cent of the same sample admitted they would not be doing anything about it immediately.

Sir Christopher and his colleagues believe the way ahead is to make ordinary people realise that something as simple as being a better parent is about learning.

The campaign, which runs until 2000, has identified four groups: Improvers, who want to better themselves; Strivers, who have aspirations but are probably not doing enough to realise them; Drifters, unhappy with their lot but not doing anything to change the situation: and Strugglers, for whom opportunities are not obvious, cost is perceived as a barrier, and who have many disadvantages.

According to the MORI poll commissioned by the campaign, the adult population is divided pretty evenly into the four categories: Sir Christopher hopes to have 40 or 50 per cent Improvers in five years.

Sir Christopher believes the campaign's surveys are the first time demand has been monitored.

"One of the things our survey showed is that the great problem for adult learners is time. Money was a much less significant problem. So the challenge for colleges and universities should be 'How can we provide people's learning at a minimum cost of time? Do we have to spend three years full-time doing a degree?'" he asked.

To start with, 5,000 Personal Action Learning Plans have been printed for distribution, and major companies such as Unilever, BT, BA, Tate and Lyle and Sainsbury's are part of an alliance providing support and finance - currently Pounds 300,000 a year.

Other partners include the Government, the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education, the Open University, and the Training and Enterprise Councils' National Council.

Advertising and other mainstream marketing techniques will be harnessed to the campaign, and it is also hoped to set up a National Learning Helpline by the end of the century.

Other projects include creating a support booklet to help small businesses encourage employees to learn and an annual MORI poll to monitor progress.

An example of the projects the campaign seeks to encourage comes from Flora McDonald primary school in Littlehampton, West Sussex.

Since January it has set up a series of workshops on new skills as part of a project on safety in the sun, much of which pupils can only attend if an adult relative comes along too.

Judy Grevett, the school's acting head, said: "We are quite a deprived area and a lot of parents were not themselves successful in school and were worried about coming in. Encouraging them to do so has perhaps encouraged them to start thinking about their learning again, and we've done workshops on things like batik which neither they nor the children have done before and so can learn together."

Meanwhile, Sir Christopher - who classifies himself as a Drifter - is still working on his own plan. "I have been trying to learn Japanese, with no great success. Word processing, of course - anybody of my age needs to learn that, and I am getting there. And I wanted to learn how to waterski."

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