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New priority is given to lifelong learning

For the first time in its six-year existence, Adult Learning Week has been given a birthday present.

Not only has lifelong learning assumed a new importance through its inclusion in the Queen's Speech and current legislative programme, but the new government now has an under-secretary of state for lifelong learning in the shape of Dr Kim Howells.

Baroness Blackstone, minister of state for education and employment, said: "Lifelong learning will have a high priority, just as high as improvement in school standards. We need to change the culture of the country to make people believe they have the potential to learn. . . this must be tapped, released, harnessed. You or I could go into the street and find 50 people who had left school as soon as they could and have since regretted it. They are the ones we need to help."

Lady Blackstone is no newcomer to the field: she has just resigned as Master of Birkbeck College, London, an institution devoted to part time, mature students.

She applauded adult learners' week, which begins on Monday, "as we need to keep up the publicity of the value and benefits of what the Americans call 'going back to school' ".

But the new minister will have to break down the barriers facing adults who want to return to learn - the 16-hour rule, for example, which restricts studying time for those on benefits. She would also need to abolish the artificial divide in funding between liberal non-vocational courses and those leading to qualifications which are enshrined in the 1992 Further and Higher Education Act.

Alan Tuckett, director of the National Institute for Adult Continuing Education, wants the Government to recognise that much learning is unplanned and serendipitous. Lady Blackstone agreed.

"Once we get people back into learning, one thing leads to another." But it was too early to say what her department planned to do, she added.

This year's Adult Learners' week, organised by NIACE, will focus on learning at work and information technology.

But it will start with nationwide line dancing on Saturday to get into the Guinness Book of Records as the biggest learning event ever, and to show people that learning can be fun and healthy.

Kate Malone and Kay Smith, who co-ordinate the week, said they were overwhelmed this year by the nominations for individual and group awards for outstanding learners which will be presented by Trevor McDonald, the broadcaster, on Monday.

Among the winners are Abdilkadir Ali and Anne Hodgeson.

Mr Ali, 41, is a refugee from Somalia and never went to school. But he studied hard enough to take an access course at Kingsway College, London, which he hopes will get him a university place to read political science.

Mrs Hodgeson, 52, from Penrith, Cumbria, left school at 15 and started work in a residential home when her four children grew up. The job fired her enthusiasm to learn. She now has a City and Guilds carers certificate and an NVQ level 3.

These are the lucky ones. A Gallup survey commissioned by NIACE showed that four out of five people who have done no learning since leaving school said they were unlikely to do any in the future.

Ms Smith said:"Too many people are given the message that if at first you don't succeed-then you don't succeed. We need to challenge this, to change attitudes and see learning as something you do at every stage in your life. "

A national freephone helpline will be open from May 19 to 25, 10am to 10pm for free, confidential advice and guidance on courses and opportunities for adult learners: 0800 100 900.

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