A worthy celebration;Opinion

23rd May 1997 at 01:00
Last week, adult education was mourning the death of the great Brazilian educator Paulo Freire. But this week it has something to celebrate with all the trumpets, drums and party hats it can muster: the sixth annual Adult Learners Week.

Adult education may still have scant legal protection. It is invariably starved of cash, and is too often regarded as a worthy, rather than an exciting, sector of the world of education. But there are some inspiring success stories - such as the project that has introduced Yorkshire steelworkers to Spanish and making stained glass (see TES2, page 3) - and there is some realistic hope of better times to come.

David Blunkett will introduce a reforming White Paper on lifelong learning in the autumn, and his Minister of State, Baroness Blackstone, is talking enthusiastically - if rather vaguely - about a high-tech University for Industry and individual learning accounts (see page 10). It is, of course, wise to be sceptical about politicians' promises, but cynicism should be temporarily stifled because both Mr Blunkett and Lady Blackstone have shown real commitment to adult education. Mr Blunkett appreciates its potential to transform individuals' lives, having begun his climb to the top at night-school. Lady Blackstone was until last month Master of Birkbeck College, one of the national standard-bearers for adult education.

But no one should expect a rapid influx of cash, even though Helena Kennedy's report for the Further Education Funding Council is understood to advocate a transfer of funding from the universities to adult education.

Extra money is needed, but certain policy changes would be even more welcome. At the very least, the Government should abolish the 16-hour rule that restricts the weekly study time of the unemployed. It should also ensure that the growing number of part-time, freelance and fixed-term contract workers are not denied the learning opportunities available to full-timers. And it should tell the television companies that they must reschedule some of the dead-of-night adult-education programmes that are currently seen only by insomniacs and those who can operate the timer on a video recorder. Television can work educational miracles, as it proved 20 years ago with the success of the very first adult literacy series, On the Move; but its colossal power is too infrequently harnessed.

There is, of course, a danger that the Government will attempt to subjugate adult education to what the National Commission on Education described as "the exigencies of economic productivity". But Blunkett et al also seem to acknowledge that there are returns on educational investment that are harder to measure in pounds and pence. As the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development has recently reminded its member nations, adult education has many important social benefits.

The fact that Yugoslavia was recognised as the world centre of andragogy (the art and science of helping adults to learn) shortly before it plunged into the abyss indicates that adult education is no cure-all for society's ills. Nevertheless, it is probably the best restorative that we have at present. David Blunkett should prescribe a deep draught for Britain and ensure that it is taken by as many people as possible.

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