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A new dark age for adult learners?

For 10 years now I have approved of the broad direction of public policy affecting adults. How then can it have come to this - that the Learning and Skills Council writes round to principals to say one in 10 adult learners can expect to see their learning opportunities disappear this autumn?

The nadir for adult learners came with the 1991 White Paper when, but for the intervention of the Women's Institutes, the Government would have made learning for personal development illegal, except between consenting adults in areas of extreme disadvantage, and only then if social services met the bill.

Since then, things have got better. Slowly, the rampant utilitarianism of the time gave way to a recognition that adults' learning journeys are richer and more complex than the planners predict.

That is a message reinforced each year during adult learners' week. As the Conservative minister, Tim Boswell, remarked, "It stands to reason that people don't step back into learning ready straight away to take an NVQ3.

They take their time, building confidence through modest steps, but, once the bug takes, there is no stopping them."

The pace quickened after 1997. David Blunkett told us it took time to turn round an oil tanker, but set about the system with brio. Since then, it sometimes seems, there has been almost an initiative a week to get people involved in learning. The Government adopted a participation target to keep a focus on non-participants. The Learning and Skills Council was set up taking in uncertificated adult education as well as the training and enterprise councils and further education. The result was, for adults, an increase in participation of half a million adults, many from the least privileged groups. The Skills for Life strategy in particular has assisted almost two-and-a-half million people in its first four years. The two Skills Strategy White Papers, too, have set an agenda for the country to invest successfully in people at work with few skills.

What then is wrong? Much more public investment is in place. Yet much of this is at risk this year and next because success in one arena of public policy is bought at the expense of reductions in work with adults. So we face the prospect of a quarter of a million learners lost this autumn, and all the gains since 1997 disappearing next year if the 20067 budget remains unchanged. Then in 2007 changes to the European Social Fund put opportunities for a further 300,000 adults at risk. This is not just a short term wobble, while colleges and learners adjust to a higher fee economy for those who can pay.

There is a real risk that the overall goal of policy in securing a learning society will be missed. One reason is that we have a funding and legislative regime where success in increasing volumes in one area is bought at the expense of another. It is not right for every full-time 17-year-old persuaded to stay on to be bought with the opportunities of 10 adults. After so much creative work, so much effort, it can't be right that you can do holiday French or GCSE French, but the steps in between are disappearing, or priced out of reach. Even in the protected areas, like basic skills, cuts threaten opportunities - since so much provision is at the lowest levels, and providers act on what they think the Learning and Skills Council wants, and on what some local LSCs interpret national guidance to mean.

An example lies in the advice that 80 percent of the work should focus on courses related to the national standards framework. Too many providers and some local LSCs interpret that as meaning only courses leading just to the national tests. Yet, as John Bynner's important research for the National Research and Development Centre for Literacy and Numeracy shows, the link between poor literacy and numeracy, poverty, and the impact on their children's chances is strongest for people with skills below entry level 2 (GCSEequivalent). Funding and targets surely need to be focused on their learning first. Of course the Skills Strategy is important - and employers need to bear their substantial share of its costs. Higher education matters, too, and needs investment. But not at the expense of the chance for adults to change their lives on their own terms. The time has come, now, to secure a new settlement for adult learning across the piece, and to give it time to flourish.

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