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Need to balance opportunity with economic need

Sancho Panza's observation that the world is split into two families - the haves and have nots - appears as true of education as it is of wealth.

This week's Niace survey of adult participation (page 1) underlines the point with some revealing statistics, not least that current or recent participation in education by society's poorest has fallen to a 10 year low - 24 per cent, compared with 53 per cent of the wealthiest.

The fact that the poorest are half as likely to continue learning as the richest can only widen economic divisions in society, with all the attendant problems.

Since its election in 1997, Labour has supported and funded growth in adult or lifelong learning. The steady fall in the numbers of adult learners slowed. But the Government's reallocation of money to help employees gain level 2 and 3 qualifications, with the best of intentions and to considerable effect, has invoked the law of unintended consequences.

Targeting workers with few or no qualifications makes absolute sense since an educated workforce ought to be more productive than one that isn't, even if the productivity statistics do not always support this contention.

The trouble is that targeting workers has been at the expense of diversity across the lifelong learning sector. And with the decline of diversity have gone the learners - a staggering 1.5 million of them in the past three years.

Educating adults is a delicate balance. It is not compulsory, so its health depends on a diversity of opportunity. If we overemphasise the educational "cash crops" - skills measured by a narrow band of qualifications - then something must give.

Computing for beginners or life drawing classes may not contribute in an immediate or obvious way to the GDP, but they are the re-entry points to education for millions who were turned off learning at school and provide vital stepping stones to level 2 and 3 qualifications and beyond.

From promising beginnings, the Government now appears to have adopted a Gradgrind approach to adult learning to the detriment of opportunity and Labour's ambitions for a learning society.

To be fair, the Government had to act on skills in the absence of the level of investment from industry that might have been hoped for. A greater input from employers would, in time, free up funding for more diverse provision.

Time, however, may not be on our side. It is particularly worrying that the decline in adult learners occurred during the credit-fuelled boom times.

Quite how a full-blown recession impacts on adult participation rates, particularly among society's neediest, remains to be seen. But it looks unlikely to be a stimulus.

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