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The new face of adult learning is emerging

At first sight, last year was kind to adult learners. For a start the new team of ministers in the skills area arrived with a genuine passion for adult further education. John Hayes quoted Yeats, asserting that "education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire", and called for a new aesthetic in revaluing practical learning. And if words sometimes come cheap, actions followed.

Community-based adult learning survived the July budget and the comprehensive spending review with no reductions in overall investment. So did the Unionlearn budget. The wider field of further education saw smaller than expected reductions in funding for 19-plus education, too - once the closure of the employer-based Train to Gain programme was taken into account.

Then, in higher education (HE), following the Browne review, the Government extended access to loans to students taking just 25 per cent of a full-time course. Since we, along with many others, have spent 20 years arguing for equal treatment for part-time students - overwhelmingly adults - this could be seen as a red-letter day. So too could the extension of loans to FE students - though part-timers will wait to be included in that sector. Taken together, these measures look like the first building block in years towards the creation of the tertiary system of comprehensive post-school education this country needs.

All good stuff. And yet there can be no doubt that there will be a great deal for adult educators to scrutinise in 2011 to make sure that headline wins don't roll out as localised losses for their students. The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills' battles with the Treasury on behalf of adult learning were bought at a price. Apparently the Treasury wants more rigorous and formal audits of adult learning, and a review of how budgets are committed, to ensure it meets the needs of marginalised groups, contributes to the Big Society and secures curriculum breadth.

While the improvement in access to loans is welcome, there are real risks of reductions in part-time HE as public funding for arts, social science and humanities teaching in the sector disappears. Progression will be difficult since Access courses will be wholly funded through loans - and the scale of debt incurred in progressing to HE could be a real disincentive to older participants. Teacher training in HE loses all public subsidy, just as retiring baby boomers in the FE workforce leave gaps. Can they be filled with new teachers funding their own training with loans? I doubt it.

The Skills Investment Strategy argued that basic skills would be fully funded, but the funding rate for literacy has fallen by 33 per cent and public support for English for speakers of other languages has fallen by 50 per cent over two years. While new technologies can surely be exploited to enrich teaching, and to secure more for less for many learners, current policy and funding have had little impact on the 500,000 adults with the greatest literacy needs. For them, we surely need more, not fewer, resources. The Niace independent literacy inquiry, chaired by Lord Boswell, will look at this along with other developments in the 10 years since the Moser report.

For people on benefits, the strategy focuses support on people seeking work, which will exclude most lone parents with pre-school children. Given the importance of parents as educators, this must be a policy to reverse.

Despite the dramatic drop in the size of the age-cohorts available for labour market entry each year during this decade, and the resulting need to keep older learners at work for longer, budgets have shifted away from the post-25s to 19-25s. And the closure of Train to Gain weakens mechanisms for reaching workers in their 40s and 50s.

Adult educators have their work cut out to secure enough opportunities for learners who missed out earlier, to protect equality and diversity in the sector. But how much easier it would be with a fully fledged, stable and coherent lifelong learning strategy that values the role learning can play across the life cycle.

Alan Tuckett is director of adult learning organisation Niace.

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