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Recruits conscripted for the active age;FE Focus;Comment;Opinion

The Campaign for Learning survey launched as a contribution to Adult Learners' Week makes encouraging reading. It confirms that more than a third of the population do not see themselves as active learners. But there are signs that more people now recognise that they are learning informally, and more are prepared actively to consider learning in the future than comparable studies have shown over the past decade. These findings are consistent with the National Adult Learners' Survey which was published with the Government's Green Paper in February.

It is good, too, that more people think it is reasonable to ask employers to support learning which does not have an immediate application at work; even better that more now believe that employers would support such learning.

It is also, frankly, something of a relief. There is, of course, no easy link to be made between public promotional campaigns and short-term changes in public expectations, and whatever promotional activity goes on, there is little measurable change if extra stimulus goes hand-in-hand with cuts. Still, with television companies backing widespread local activities for the seventh year in Adult Learners' Week it is good to know that more people want more learning. Given the Government's confidence that the University for Industry can help to mobilise learners, and market learning to small and medium-sized enterprises, it is important to identify evidence that promotion does make a difference over time.

I remember the BBC taking a poll on attitudes to adult learning before and after the Second Chance campaign, run during the first Adult Learners' Week in 1992. The campaign was highly successful, reaching 95 per cent of the population; 50,000 people rang the helpline, and a staggering percentage went on to classes. Nevertheless, the second poll suggested slightly fewer people wanted to learn than before the poll began. Comfortingly, the drop was within the margin of statistical error. But it made us wary of expecting change to come too quickly.

I was reminded of this when I read the results of the Sunderland University for Industry pilot, when people were phoned at random from the Wearside phone book. Apparently, 22 per cent agreed to join immediately. Perhaps the millennium will see us all queueing into the night to get the internet connection necessary to join classes round the corner.

Like many National Institute for Adult Continuing Education members I am convinced that the Government's approach to learning at work is too permissive. I was impressed with the proposals developed by Jim Sutherland and his colleagues on the Fryer Committee working group on workplace learning. They argued for a code of practice, modelled on the introduction of health and safety to the workplace since the 1970s. They believed, too, that employers should get one last chance to make voluntary provision, but that the Government should review arrangements after three years.

The Fryer finance and funding group argued for a similar review period for local authorities as they move towards plans to secure adequate provision. "Adequate" hardly seems to capture the leap in aspiration and achievement needed to create a society able to cope confidently with the pace of change we are invited to expect in Valerie Bayliss's Redefining Work, launched this month by the Royal Society of Arts.

How will we cope with a continuing level of change, where despite the good news, Britain is being left further behind each year? I find to my surprise that I have been thinking about compulsory adult learning ever since a friend suggested to me that I sounded as though I would not be contented until everyone was forced to sign up for a course.

At work, when we introduce the latest version of Windows, or add a sophisticated programme, I am forced to learn new systems or settle for losing the use of the computer for everyday tasks. There is a broad agreement that if the organisation needs people to learn things, it can reasonably ask people to do so in paid time. However it is far more effective to let people decide what they want to learn themselves. In the information industries continuing learning is a necessary precondition to keeping a job, and your capacity to keep on learning may affect the job security of others. Learning is becoming compulsory.

And if it is true for people in some sectors of industry, why not for people who might want to rejoin the labour force later? And for people who add value to society outside the waged labour market? You could not of course insist on everyone learning unless there were more opportunities and money to support it, and a system more sensitive to recognise achievements. But that leads back to what is known as the three sleeping giants of The Learning Age - individual learning accounts, a credit framework, and the University for Industry. I think the lesson of the MORI survey may be that many people are beginning to believe that learning is now a lifelong commitment, if not a life sentence. And Adult Learners' Week shows, I think, that it can be a lot of fun.

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

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