Adult education in England and Wales has long been a postcode lottery. Opportunities to return to learning have too often depended on where you live and on the discretion of your local education authority. Some have invested in adult learning while many have cut back. Some have offered provision through colleges and community projects, others have had dedicated services. Some charge higher course fees.
"It's a patchy picture," says Alan Tuckett, director of Niace, the national organisation for adult learning. "But we don't accept that for primary schools, and we don't accept it for secondary education. "In the long run, a learning society needs to be able to offer people good opportunities - whether for family learning or to prolong your active citizenship when you're retired."
Now adult education in England is to get a boost with the transfer of adult and community-based education to the learning and skills councils. Ministers have pledged a 9 per cent increase in funding for adult education provided by local authorities, taking it up to pound;167 million in 20022003. The Government has also announced pound;16m in capital funding to improve facilities, plus pound;52m to help education authorities manage the changes in funding.
The national Learning and Skills Council will have an adult learning committee as well as a young people's committee. The new Adult Learning Inspectorate will take charge of inspection. In a letter to Bryan Sanderson, chair of the national Learning and Skills Council, David Blunkett, the Secretary of State for Education, says it is important that "all adults continue to develop their competence for the labour market and reinforce their ability to be active family members and citizens".
The changes are a first step in overcoming the lottery of provision, says Tuckett. "If you want the learning society that Blunkett describes in the preface to The Learning Age, then it can't be left to discretion or where you live," he says.
Last week, the national skills council draft corporate plan was published, causing concern to Niace. "It does not live up to promises of Blunkett's remit letter," said Tuckett. "The targets are far too narrow to measure the council's effectiveness." Promising to lobby hard for change, Tuckett declared:"The draft plan represents a sharp reverse in policy, setting us back 10 years."
So how will the funding work? From April, local learning and skills councils will manage the budgets, monitor contracts for planning provision and manage funding contracts with providers.
Local authorities have been guaranteed their existing levels of funding for two years, after which local learning and skill councils will decide which providers are funded.
Tuckett says that to create a level playing field will take time.
"So little public money has been spent on this area in the last few years," he says. There has been an imbalance in course fees charged by local education authorities and colleges; authorities often recovered the cost of courses while colleges were able to recover only 25 per cent of these costs under the existing funding.
He also cites the lack of investment in training for teaching adults. Groups such as the Workers' Educational Association see themselves as well placed to provide it. In the coming year, the association will be funded in line with the old Further Education Funding Council formula, but there is uncertainty about how it will be funded in the longer term.
As part of its Skills for Life strategy, the Government has now pledged pound;1.5bn to combat poor adult literacy and numeracy skills.
Alan Wells, director of the Basic Skills Agency, says he is encouraged by the high priority given to this issue but knows it will be a tough job to reach those most in need of help.
"There's one issue that's bigger than any other and that is how do you motivate people to want to do anything about it? Seven million people have problems with literacy and numeracy and no industrialised country in the world has ever attracted more than about 10 per cent of them.
"The key is going to be how you actually get to those people. The much-needed reforms of the system and the structure won't make much difference unless people want to learn. And if they don't, the reforms will be like swimming baths for people who don't want to swim."
The Government has suggested that voluntary and community organisations should be at the heart of the social inclusion agenda, but what role will this vast and fragmented sector play in the world of learning and skills? Phil Street, director of the Community Education Development Centre, fears such organisations could get left out under the new regime.
"A lot of people are being moved across from the TECs (training and enterprise councils) into the LSC, and the TECs did not have a good reputation in terms of the widening opportunities agenda," he says. "I don't think they understand the issues for community and voluntary organisations. There's a possibility that big players who call and shout the loudest and are more represented on the local LSCs do not come from the voluntary and community sector."
In this case, Street believes that there is a strong case for a Connexions scheme for adults.
"A lot of people bang on about the 160,000 young people who are not in learning or training," he says. "But what about the third of the population who have not been involved since they left school?"