'Keep on learning' should be the mantra of every adult

Alan Tuckett

Christmas has come early for adult learners. While there has been anxiety about the impact of the Budget on colleges and local authorities, the launch of the Learning Line - a national helpline for learners - is cause for celebration.

A number of organisations have for years argued for the service, as James Paice, the education and employment minister, said when launching the helpline at the Institute of Careers Guidance conference.

In the four years since Adult Learners' Week was launched, 160,000 people have used a helpline during the one week of the year it has been offered. Forty per cent of enquirers have taken up courses.

Where helplines link with broadcasters, the response turns on its head the depressing experience of so much provision for adults - that you recruit only those who enjoyed education and training first time round. Most of the 350,000 who responded to the BBC's advertisements for Family Literacy last year had no kind of formal post-school learning experience.

This Morning, the national independent television magazine programme which slips its learning strand in as invisibly as it can, found that more than half of those enquiring about second-chance courses for women had left school early with no qualifications, and had not studied since.

While the helpline is good news, the money available to run it is tight. About Pounds 4 million is needed to get a service under way in England, but this is not enough to fund all the creative links between national and local services that could make the Learning Line an engine for a learning society.

It is also worrying, if not surprising, that the money available for building networks of local services is tightly constrained. The Government recognises that the funding for the nationwide guidance network will take several years to implement. Yet opportunities for adults are bedevilled by differences in the volume, coherence and quality of services in different parts of the country.

The problem of making more effective both a national system of guidance and the Learning Line, however, is easier than having to set them up in the first place.

I had expected the European Year of Lifelong Learning to be losing momentum by now, not least because no new Eurodosh has been identified for lifelong learning activities arising out of the year. Yet both at home and abroad things are moving along briskly. In addition to the Learning Line and the Job Seekers' Allowance pilots, the Government announced in the Budget its intention to extend vocational tax relief to cover all courses funded by Employee Development Schemes - a first recognition that learning for its own sake can have a vocational outcome.

It cannot be long before the Government accepts that if any form of adult learning is vocational when an employer pays for it, how much more worthy of tax relief is the same investment when made from individuals' own income.

It would then be just a small step to define "adequacy" to help the Further Education Funding Councils for England and Wales and the local education authorities to recognise the extent of their responsibility to adults.

As Graham Lane, chairman of the Association of Metropolitan Authorities, said to the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education conference to mark the end of the European Year, local education authorities must now recognise they are more than school boards.

The international momentum to make lifelong learning more central to social policy planning is being fuelled by a number of sources. The Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development has published an authoritative paper, Lifelong Learning for All, drafted by Albert Tuijman, with a stark lesson for Treasury mandarins concerned solely with short-term returns on investment: "There is evidence that various forms of education and training yield economic returns that more than offset their initial cost I The evidence is thinnest with respect to rates of return on education and training most 'at risk', and who are targets for high priority attention. However, these are precisely the persons for whom the social benefits of lifelong learning may be substantial and, conversely, for whom the social costs of not participating in lifelong learning may be steepest."

The same message was picked up by Federico Mayor, Secretary General of the United Nations Educational, Social and Cultural Organisation. Launching a new UNESCO Advisory Task Force on Learning Without Frontiers, he argued that learning for everyone means everyone, difficult or inconvenient as that might be. The task force, like OECD in its recent work, is inevitably exploring whether the new technologies can provide high quality access for mass participation at lower unit costs. It is also, however, investigating what the experience of the excluded can tell us about existing investment.

These issues are key challenges facing the University for Industry, too - a point addressed with some elegance by Josh Hillman in his recent paper for the Institute for Public Policy Research.

If the IPPR position is adopted, the UFI looks as if it will, by creating effective mechanisms to collaborate with local providers, overcome the key problem shared by the series of failed attempts to create a version of open further education.

Adults can gain huge benefits if the shift from gung-ho institutional competition to creative collaboration can be sustained.

Of course, the change cannot be attributed to an under-funded European Year, but it has helped.

For that reason, and because I believe that parties are effective sites for political struggle, NIACE is proposing that the EU states and non-governmental organisations combine to persuade next year's fifth UNESCO Adult Learning conference that a UN International Day for Lifelong Learning each year would be a useful tool towards contesting exclusion and promoting the joy of learning.

Alan Tuckett is chief executive of the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education.

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