Older learners pay a high price of Train to Gain

Where have all the learners gone? Adult student numbers fell by 735,000 last year, and we can expect worse this year.

It mirrors the squeeze on adult education budgets to pay for a rise in the number of young people. But it scarcely reflects the recent sharp shift of priorities, away from courses which gave individuals freedom of choice and towards learning that meets the needs of employers.

We can expect losses of a million adult learners or more in less than three years.

Many of the losers are older people. Yet we know that learning stimulates good health and active citizenship, quite apart from any role it plays in helping people rethink their later working lives.

There is evidence that the cuts are not only in art, languages, crafts and liberal studies, but in short courses that lead to the progression the Government is keen to see. Taken together, the cuts in courses in colleges and community centres represent a massive shift of policy.

This is highlighted in the Learning and Skills Council's latest consultation paper on demand-led funding. It shows how government funding for vocational programmes will be channelled through an expanding Train to Gain programme and learner accounts. Learners will get support only if they study what the Government wants them to learn.

There will be minimal protection for spending on personal and community development learning and new foundation learning courses. For anything else, adults can expect to pay full fees.

It is astonishing how little fuss this shift of policy has provoked.

Colleges are busy enough addressing other priorities, and politicians'

postbags are hardly groaning with complaints.

There is, as yet, only patchy evidence of employers using Train to Gain to offer workers substantial additional skills, (rather than assessing existing ones). And we have yet to see figures on the programme's value for money.

Despite this, there has been little sustained appraisal of just how employer demand - and willingness to pay for training - will be driven up.

In fact, the evidence of the debate on funding English for speakers of other languages suggests that many employers remain deeply resistant to paying for anything other than job specific training.

The last time I saw a million or so people was during the great demonstration against going to war in Iraq. It was a formidable sight and they made a formidable noise.

The lost learners are not visible in the same way. They have gone quietly, releasing resources for the grand experiment on which the system is embarking.

Will it work? No one can be sure, since there is little evidence to draw on, despite government enthusiasm for evidence-based policy. But we must hope it will, since we do know that the new policies have been bought at a high price, in lost opportunities for willing learners and in diminished choice for older people in particular.

Alan Tuckett

director of the National Institute for Adult Continuing Education

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