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Targeted learning for life's survivors

Why is it so hard to get a sustained focus on the variety and complexity of older people's learning needs? Daisy Bohm was a widely-read, well-educated survivor of the traumas of the mid-20th century, and an active student in her seventies at the Friends Centre in Brighton, when I went there to work in 1973.

The centre, which celebrates its 60th anniversary this year, is part of a diminishing band of independent centres, run by its students. Such centres are precious reminders that in the absence of state action, people can and do organise provision for themselves - and then properly look to the state for some support.

Like many others, Daisy used adult classes to keep abreast of the way the world was changing, and for feeding new curiosities. After I had worked at the centre for a year or two, Daisy took me aside to ask me to label courses in the prospectus, to make clear whether they were lecture courses, where the tutor might be expected to do most of the talking, or the kind of interactive seminars where students were expected to play an active part.

When I asked her why, she made clear that she, and several of her friends, already knew what they thought themselves, and wanted authoritative expositions on the Arab-Israeli conflict or the flowers of the Sussex downland. It was a well-argued, assertive case for learning that suited one group of older learners.

By contrast, the largest group in the centre was a self-programming senior citizens group on Tuesday afternoons where different members among the 150 regular participants took turns to lead sessions. There was a period of formal presentation, followed by questions, then tea. Over tea groups of four to six pensioners took the subject of the week's talk as a springboard for reflection, reminiscence and challenge.

There was never a shortage of speakers, and despite the scale, new people were successfully included in the group's work. Neither Daisy's approach, nor that of the senior citizens group easily generated evidence of individual learning outcomes - but both demonstrated how effective learner-sensitive curriculum design can be.

When I moved to London in the 1980s, I was struck by three other examples of provision for older learners. Each focused, not on the third age of active and mobile younger retired people, but on people in residential settings in the later periods of their lives. The first, depressingly, was most common. Like many other London institutes, ours ran a programme in old people's homes, where the smell on crossing the threshold seemed all too often to be a noxious mix of ammonia and urine.

Characteristically, we would offer just one or two keep fit classes a week.

It was the kind of work defended brilliantly by Boris Johnson two or three years ago in the House of Commons. Important enough, but very limited in the range of the offer.

Nightingale Lane centre for retired Jewish people provided a stark contrast. There, learners from 70 to 100 and more took part in the widest range of activities from woodcarving to yoga, politics and poetry. It was and is an inspiring example of the kind of fourth age learning offer we might wish for ourselves and our parents. But the trend is for less work like that to attract public funding. Our crafts class in a hospice was inspiring, too. Learner retention was an issue - many students lived just a few weeks, but the impact was palpable. I tried to persuade our local authority to upgrade the tutor, but was refused, because "the work was insufficiently challenging".

There is, in my view, no more important job in education than supporting learners in managing the later years of their lives. There was a welcome renaissance of such work after 1997 - with a million more learners on Learning and Skills Council courses (particularly on short bite-size programmes). but the trend has reversed - with a 7 per cent drop this year and the current cuts will bear heavily on older learners. Yet their needs get little policy focus. they deserve better - and so, sooner or later, will we ourselves.

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

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