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Narrow vision of adult learning

Helping adults return to learning has been a policy apparently shared by the Government, opposition parties, funding councils and providers. But it seems that this learning is only valued if it can be measured and accredited.

A study of adult education in the capital since the abolition of the Inner London Education Authority gives some clues as to the impact of these policies.

Adult learning has been affected not only by the shift of responsibility to London boroughs, but by the attrition of Government rate capping and the creation of the Further Education Funding Council, which took control of FE and much adult education from local education authorities.

The research results are depressing.

Local authority funding for adult education has been cut by three-quarters since 1990 and the FEFC has only made up between a half and two-thirds of the shortfall.

Adult learning has also been constantly reorganised. Not only has the structure of adult education changed since 1990, but in most cases there have been several intermediary stages.

Cuts and job losses have occurred with a ferocity that would leave most of the private sector (if we are to believe the management gurus) gasping with envy. Services have been unified and de-unified, contracted out and business unitised.

At the same time, the basis of the adult learning curriculum has been reshaped. Six years ago, most adult education in inner London had only an indirect link with academic and vocational qualifications or basic skills. By 1994 an estimated three-fifths of the equivalent provision fell in to the FEFC's Schedule 2 categories (courses that draw Government cash).

The effect of the structural and curriculum changes on staff has been clear. It has left them exhausted, confused and demoralised.

The effects on learners are more complicated. There are more chances to gain basic skills or a qualification than ever before. But the opportunities to learn anything else are limited for people who cannot afford to pay for their course.

The other possible area of growth, as adult education services try to meet higher income targets, is running cash-generating courses. The fee income target for just two boroughs, Wandsworth and Westminster, in 1996 is half that for all 12 inner London boroughs in 1990, even after allowing for inflation.

While access to "useful" education has been assisted by the FEFC's decision to compensate providers for fee remission for claimants, access to other education has become more and more limited. The affluent can have the education they want; the poor can have the education that is thought to be good for them.

These arrangements rest upon a narrow understanding of the education that is beneficial to the learner and to society. It narrows the vision of education to instrumentalism: education can only be justified as infrastructure investment.

This is a view of adult learning that goes wider than Government policy. It pervades the statements of such advocates of adult learning as the Labour party Commission on Social Justice and the European Commission's Cresson Report on Teaching and Learning.

The best of ILEA's work was more generous in spirit. It recognised that not all socially useful learning could be divided into FEFC-style tariff units; that there was a social and community aspect to the benefits of learning; and that the purpose of learning was cultural as well as economic.

Classes on keep fit and women's health at an under-fives centre were not only justified as activities in their own right, but they implied that the care and future education of children would be improved by enabling mothers to be optimistic about themselves as learners.

Social and cultural studies at a Pakistani Women's Centre represented a belief that the celebration of cultural diversity enriched all communities and combated the threats of social exclusion.

These and similar courses run under ILEA were designed with community groups. Relationships with these groups are increasingly part of marketing exercises to encourage non-users to join established programmes of college courses: programmes at best designed for, but never with, the groups they are intended to serve.

The contribution that non-vocation adult education can make to the self-esteem of communities is not recognised in the calculations of the FEFC. The contribution that individual acts of learning can make to the social fabric in which people live disappears into the crevices of tariff units.

The attention that the FEFC funding methodology has focused on, the advice given to learners and the recognition of clear learning goals and outcomes has raised the quality of all adult education. The new instrumentalism it displays - the assertion that the only way in which learning can be valued and celebrated is by accrediting it - diminishes it. In particular, it provides an apologia for eroding the funding of adult education outside Schedule 2.

Myriad ways of learning enrich society. A little learning is a lost opportunity.

Mike Cushman is a freelance education consultant and former head of Lambeth Adult Education.

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