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Tearing down barriers

Since lifelong learning is constantly being praised for its benefits to health and longevity, isn't it time for more joined-up services? reports Nic Barnard

Adults are untidy, says Alan Tuckett. "They learn in lots of different places." The director of Niace, the adult education body, is talking about the need for lifelong learning to move into new areas to engage our natural curiosity, our need to keep up with a changing world and economy, and to reach those people yet to benefit from it.

Diversity could plausibly be called the hallmark of the lifelong learning of the future, or at least an ideal future: a multiplicity of settings, providers, opportunities and learners that enable a contribution to all spheres of life from career and employment to health and happiness.

It might be characterised by the spread of learning to community centres, health centres, sitting rooms, and sports fields, as people take more control of their own learning, and at the same time try to fit it around busy lives. It is also likely to involve non-professionals as educators.

But if the future is diverse and complex, formal and informal, and lies beyond the classroom, how will it be organised? There is no single answer.

For Mr Tuckett, every local situation will require a different solution, although he broadly supports small, community-based institutions.

Certainly, links would need to be established between education providers and health and mental health services, neighbourhood regeneration programmes, community groups and more, perhaps with local authorities as brokers or co-ordinators. But every web of services will be different.

The corollary of this growing diversity might be the breakdown of the traditional barriers between schools, colleges and universities. The boundaries between previously self-contained, even monolithic institutions are already starting to blur. The past few years have seen primary schools collaborate with secondaries, secondariess send 14-year-olds on vocational courses to FE colleges, FE offering higher national diplomas (HNDs) and other sub-degree qualifications as part of the drive to give half the population some form of higher education.

As more schools open late into the evening and through the holidays to offer courses and facilities to the community, the trend looks set to continue. Hannah Lownsbrough, researcher at the think tank Demos, believes the blurring of roles and more collaboration are likely - and overdue.

"It's appropriate that the barriers should come down," she says, "because they have to an extent been artificial in the past."

The biggest impediment, she suggests, is public opinion about what these bodies do. The spread of more informal learning will also affect the role of traditional providers. Ms Lownsbrough envisages more peer learning, where adults teach and support one another.

In a devolved, diffuse system, support from traditional education will still be crucial. For example, in family learning, Alan Tuckett says: "You need access to the expertise so it isn't merely run for the kids but for the adults as well."

But not everyone is convinced the barriers are really poised to come down.

Julian Gravatt, director of funding and development at the Association of Colleges, says collaboration is desirable and there are plenty of examples of good practice around the country, but "for every example you find of increasing co-operation, you can find an example of co-operation breaking down", he says. Collaborations between schools and colleges, often funded on short-term grants, can founder as soon as the cash dries up.

And with the market playing an increasing role in education, he says, any attempt by universities and colleges to strike up partnerships may even fall foul of fair trading legislation. "Collaboration is great and can achieve a lot, but we need to be realistic about the things that make it difficult," Mr Gravatt says.

As for breaking down the barriers between sectors such as health and education, despite some successful pilots and the well-documented benefits to health and longevity of lifelong learning, it looks even more problematic, for all the talk of joined-up services.

"There are examples of good practice in health action zones and community regeneration schemes and so on, but different sectors work to their own agendas," Mr Gravatt says. "If provision exists, there's going to be less of it in future, unless the other side, the NHS, is prepared to put in money, and that's pretty unlikely."

Peter Robinson, a senior economist at another think tank, the Institute for Public Policy Research, is even more blunt. "It would mean health budgets being diverted to learning," he says. "The chances of that are slimmer than a manned space flight reaching Mars this year."

In the end, perhaps, questions of structure are less important than questions of funding. And that is a whole other issue.

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