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It's not just the economy, stupid

The Eighties and Nineties were grim decades for adult and community education as the spirit of the free market economy undermined some of its core principles. The idea of reaching out to people unused to structured learning to attract them into it was knocked on the head as providers were told simply to drum up as many 'customers' as they could.

Money drained away as local authorities raided budgets intended for adult learning for use elsewhere. Organisations were 'downsized'. Structures were flattened, and so were people.

The Learning and Skills Council is now trying to rebuild adult and community learning from this mangled wreckage, and has finally set out its proposals for funding non-accredited provision. These attempt to answer two fundamental questions: what should adult learning be for? And how can we get it to achieve the aims we set for it equitably, given a limited budget?

The LSC's stated priority is to get people into 'first steps'

education which is likely to lead on to a level 2 qualification is a priority. The trouble is many learners are not interested in climbing the ladders of knowledge that the Government would like them to. They're more interested tacking their problems in ways that make sense to them and which, in the longer-term, will benefit their families and their communities.

Setting up the expectation that providers will corral more and more people towards level 2 employability qualifications is simply a recipe for angst.

We need a wider range of definitions of progression and achievement.

Diplomatically, the LSC has proclaimed that the interests of those who are learning for "personal and community development" must be also 'safeguarded'. Unfortunately, learning for personal development suffers from an image problem dating from the era of market-driven populism, when course titles basically reflected the content of women's magazines in the local newsagent's.

As a result, the public perception of adult education remains that expressed by James Nesbitt in his Yellow Pages advert about the yoga class:

"A bunch of women going 'Mmmm'. How hard can it be?" One suspects that the LSC shares this perception, despite its careful rhetoric.

Of course, learners do benefit hugely from courses in yoga, line dancing, aromatherapy, and cooking with chocolate - and not always in the ways anticipated. But, says the LSC, if that's what people want, they will have to pay for it.

Would their ruling have been quite as harsh, one wonders, if they had taken a more radical approach and considered modernising the curriculum?

Is it right, for example, that in our rapidly changing society with its growing cultural and religious tensions, massive changes in our socio-economic structures, and developments in medical science, adults should have few opportunities to get to grips with disciplines such as economics, law, ethics, science, and politics?

And why do we go on teaching French and Spanish as European rather than world languages? What if we made the connection between the languages and world music? Who might we attract then?

And what if we made better use of the internet to develop virtual learning communities? Where might this take our learners?

Of course, it's easier to go on teaching what we have been teaching because that's what we're resourced to do. Courses that deal with new domains of knowledge require investment. But if we had a good idea of what a contemporary curriculum could or should look like, the case for funding it might be more compelling, and the case for peripheralising it and hiking fees less so.

Lastly, there's the question of community development which, puzzlingly, the paper rules 'out of scope'. But effective community education grows out of the process of community development. It's time it was made clear how much the government is prepared to invest in this crucial process. And it's also time that there was some discernible articulation between the funds paid out for this purpose via the LSC and other government departments.

Janet Swinney is a writer and educational consultant specialising in adult and community education

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