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Society needs learning for learning's sake

Adult education in local authorities is a hardy plant. Whatever cold winds blow, it reappears, cheap and cheerful - mutating to meet changing circumstances. Chronically under-funded, often in a crisis, but always there.

How much is on offer, the range of the offer, its style, and the organisational framework through which it is delivered depends on where you live. Unlike the arrangements for primary schools or secondary education, local authority adult education is not protected by mandatory rules on minimum standards or minimum volume of provision.

Because of this, there have been headlines every year of my working life announcing the collapse of courses in one or another authority, as LEAs faced with the need for emergency cuts sliced their adult education budgets. I began to suspect that these headlines failed to tell the whole story when, some 10 years after Hampshire was reported as closing its whole programme, it happened again.

During the 1970s and 1980s you lost money in spectacular dawn raids, but regained it quietly - a little here, a little there - and there was little motivation for organisers to draw attention to these gains, for fear that a hawk-eyed councillor might come and take it away again.

However, 15 years of Government pressure on local government finance has taken its toll. At the beginning of the 1990s a different phenomenon emerged. Cuts like those in Barnsley, which excised all public funding for what we now call "non-schedule 2 provision", that is non-vocational courses not paid for by the Further Education Funding Council. Those cuts have not been followed by recovery.

More councillors talk about the service as a discretionary provision, when the statutory duty laid on LEAs to secure adequate provision for further education for adults is clearly expressed.

Specialist officers and inspectors have been lost in the wholesale early retirements that accompanied the Act, replaced all too often by people with six or seven portfolios to juggle, each requiring nurture, care and attention. Training for part-time tutors remains vulnerable, though with the development of Open College Networks, accrediting community-based provision, more can be demanded of many tutors.

None of this has happened as the result of malevolence of local authority members or chief officers. Funding pressures have been exacerbated in education departments committed to preserving public service by devolving the maximum to schools.

Other services calling on these funds have suffered doubly through the threat of opting out. The result has been that local authority spending on museums, which local authorities have no duty to support, has soared while statutory services like adult education have too often felt the pinch.

Nevertheless, the flexibility of adult services helped them over the immediate changes that flowed from the Act. Most have become effective external agencies providing an expanding range of adult part-time study funded by the FEFCs.

Many courses have been transformed into credit-bearing ones, with the unintended consequence that many older adults feel there is no longer anywhere for them to go.

Economic development departments often see the importance of agencies which foster a learning culture in areas ripe for economic regeneration; health and social services agencies often see the merits of supporting learning in care in the community strategies; housing departments involve adult educators supporting tenants groups to develop skills to make their case in local structures for the management of housing.

European funding, through initiatives such as Socrates - which promotes student and teacher exchanges between member countries - plays its part, and changing funding regimes create new partners as schools and sixth-form colleges join FE colleges in developing responses to adult demand and funding council rewards.

Crab-like services creep back from the brink of collapse. Many prosper. Yet their very flexibility and willingness to adapt may create a problem in itself. It is important to remember that half a million people signed petitions in 1991 to defend the provision of liberal education - the kind of seriously useless learning (by which I mean serious and without immediate utilitarian purpose) so powerfully defended by Churchill in 1953 when his Minister of Education thought idly about cutting it.

The rational case to make now in local government is that adult learning is central to the economic prosperity and democratic health of local communities - to stress the relationship between general education and the progression routes that lead people on to systematic study that can be measured for the National Targets for Education and Training.

But there is a case, too, for arguing that a civilised society should be willing to fund any kind of learning adults are prepared to undertake. A learning society communicates a love of curiosity, play, imagination and resourcefulness everywhere.

Skills picked up in a boat-building class, or in studying the poetry of Emily Dickinson seep back into family life, the workplace and conversations in the pub. They stoke our capacity for enthusiasm. Ford and its unions know this well, as do other companies funding employee development schemes.

It is as arguing for free, richly-stocked public libraries. It is a case local government has a long tradition of supporting, and we must not shy away from reminding authorities that it is a necessity rather than a luxury in any civilised community.

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

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