Plumbing versus basket-weaving

Ian Nash

When the Government switched funding away from lifelong learning in favour of adult skills training, there was an outcry from those who thought schemes that got underachievers back into education and training would be lost.

Ministers agreed that up to a million places on so-called leisure courses would go because of a cut in subsidies. But putting tens of thousands of unemployed and unskilled people back into work would be worth it, they argued.

Ministers spoke disparagingly of the "waste". Ruth Kelly, then Education Secretary, angered Townswomen's Guilds when she asked why the taxpayer should subsidise pottery and basket-weaving. Her successor Alan Johnson stole the headlines with talk of "more plumbing, less Pilates" and "subsidised precision engineering, not over-subsidised flower-arranging".

Critics warned of great losses. Nigel Hook, director of the Institute of Professional Sport, said that in the 1980s Sport for All was run by every local authority to help people keep fit. Age Concern said courses, often dismissed as "soft", helped to extend working lives, expand horizons and guard against loss of independence.

Last year, Niace, the national organisation for adult education, published Eight in ten, the report of an independent inquiry into the state of adult learning. It confirmed many fears. Colleges said full costs were driving away so many middle-class people that economies of scale were lost, and with it the flexibility of subsidies. Others disagreed and said they had managed the transition to higher fees.

The report called for new thinking as further deterioration has been reported over the summer. Chris Hughes, chairman of the Learning and Skills Network, said: "The traditional defence of the role of adult learning is failing to protect it, and passionate advocacy of the wider benefits of lifelong learning is falling on deaf ears."

Eight in ten called for provision to be organised around three themes: access to employment, workforce development, and creating and sustaining cultural development. It argued that there was a statutory basis for funding, rather than leaving all "non-skills" training to the marketplace as merely a "private" good.

A series of seminars on the public value of adult learning was launched jointly by Niace and the LSN, to run until February 2007. Speakers include Leon Feinstein and Ursula Howard from London university's Institute of Education; John Stone, director of LSN; Tom Schuller from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development; Nick Pearce, director of the Institute for Public Policy Research; and John Brennan, chief executive of the Association of Colleges.

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Ian Nash

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