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Please send answers on a postcard to adult training woes

What a purple patch for adult learners! An outstanding Adult Learners' Week was topped off with the Open University team's record win on University Challenge. Their achievement said it all. The defeated team felt outgunned and outlived: "They were at least twice our age: older and wiser. We didn't stand a chance."

Well perhaps it did not quite say it all. Lucy Russell, chief executive of The Big Issue was eloquent at a recent Further Education Development Agency seminar about the role learning can play in the lives of people living on or near the streets - the confidence that quite small achievements can give to someone whose life is often chaotic, and the challenges posed for colleges used to timetabling by haphazard attendance.

She described the importance of a small Arts Council Adult Learners' Week grant, which enabled the paper to run workshops for vendors and others on Tai Chi, radio drama, African drumming and percussion, screen painting, and a workshop with a drama group. The production and the sale of the paper itself is of course fertile territory for learning. She reminded us that 15 per cent of homeless people have degrees, and more than half have worked-based qualifications. The challenge to an ever onwards and upwards funding methodology, posed by someone struggling for self-esteem and recovering structure in their lives for some of the time is a real one.

Lin Li, too, had a vivid story. She was a European Social Fund prize-winner from Brighton, a refugee in Britain for six years, who has learned English and managed a family, held down a job washing dishes, gained qualifications and a job in an accountancy firm. Her message for education was sharp. "It is all very well when you are on a course, but people like me need after-sales services from colleges and courses - the chance to top up as we go along. "

Many places offer just support, but do students like Lin Li get clear enough messages that you can go back for more, outside the formal structures, when they leave?

The research commissioned by EdExcel (reported in The TES on May 23), which looked at the quality of guidance and advice on offer in workplaces, confirms that there is little positive advice on what the education and training systems can offer, even among committed employers. Perhaps that is because too many employers have the experience reported in another research study which suggested that the worst performing 10 per cent of firms spent more than average on training, but did not know what to spend it on, or how to use the skills learned by workers.

A persistent lesson of workplace studies, confirmed again by EdExcel and the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education is that the best practice is found in places committed to, and achieving Investors in People. And without doubt, the long-awaited Learning Line will help.

The prize that pleased me most in Adult Learners' Week was one awarded to the University of North London's project to assess and accredit educational qualifications gained overseas by refugees. NIACE's research five years ago demonstrated the huge waste of taken of talented refugees, and others who gained qualifications outside the magic circle of the European Union or the (mainly) white Commonwealth.

It still rankles that the full report of that work, commissioned by what was then the Employment Department, is the only piece of work we have ever been refused the right to publish. Overseas qualifications are not just a matter for formal education - there remains a great deal to do in the professions. Not a bad challenge for the European Year Against Racism, or for the autumn White Paper which Education and Employment Secretary David Blunkett has promised. A new advisory committee is to be established, chaired by Bob Fryer of Northern College. To help it to shape ideas on what to do - at little or no extra cost - to benefit adult learners, NIACE will hold consultative meetings this summer.

In addition I would welcome proposals on one side of A4 on problems needing to be cracked, and how to crack them. I promise to share them with the committee and with The TES. I can be reached on e-mail by fax on 0116 2854514 or by post at NIACE, 21 De Montfort Street, Leicester, LE1 7GE.

Clearly one critical issue that needs examination is a definition of adequacy, so that access to good quality learning experiences becomes less of a lottery depending on where you live. For local authorities the challenge will be how to identify and guarantee minimum levels of service whilst preserving local flexibility and a democratic voice in adult learning. But how does the debate relate to plans to extend Schedule 2 and with it the Further Education Funding Council's remit? And where do individual learning accounts fit in? Doubtless, the Kennedy and Dearing committees will provide a great deal of stimulus, too. And a year on, there is a great deal to do to make the kind of inclusive education system John Tomlinson's committee wrote so powerfully about.

Alan Tuckett is director of the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education

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