Adult learners deserve all our support

13th April 2001 at 01:00
FOR 10 years now people have been telling me that Adult Learners' Week is a good thing. They go on to say there is just one thing wrong - the date.

When we ask for advice on when it would be better, it emerges that May is the least bad date for most people. Although many say September would be helpful, most are too busy enrolling to organise celebration events, and anyway many of last year's students are no longer about. And the whole point of Adult Learners' Week is to celebrate their achievements in all their diversity as a stimulus to others to join in.

The main argument for May is that it is the only month when we can secure coverage on all the terrestrial television channels - squeezed in before Wimbledon gobbles up the air time on the BBC, and test matches do the same on Channel 4. But in 1997 another advantage was that it fell just over a fortnight into the life of the new Government and provided David Blunkett with a platform to make his first public policy speech as Secretary of State.

He announced the Government's intention to make lifelong learning and widening participation for excluded communities a key policy priority. The Learning and Skills Act, the creation of the LSC, and major new investment are all testament to that aim.

I thought Adult Learners' Week was similarly well-timed this year, before the foot-and-mouth crisis and the abandonment of May 3 as election day. If the general election is called for June 7, the Week will fall during the period when Parliament is prorogued, and ministers will be unable to take part, unless new cross-party arrangements can be put in place.

Does this matter? Well over the last decade the Week has provided a clear slot in the diary for politicians to meet inspiring adult learners, and also to make policy speeches. We have tried to make sure these are on emerging policy priorities to accelerate initiativesbenefiting adult learners. This year's conference is on promoting and stimulating demand.

The LSC has a statutory duty to promote learning, and the University for Industry has a clear remit for promotion too. How far this is a marketing task and how far promotion is an integral part of the curriculum of adult learning will be keenly debated. Bartle Bogle and Heggarty's famous family literacy adverts for the BBC shocked adult literacy specialists by using storylines that moved outside the gentle supportiveness of most earlier campaigns. But it was a spectacular success.

On the other hand, the normal market segmentation studies all too often condemn those most excluded from learning to last place in the queue for attention. It may be efficient to concentrate on the cohort of potential learners who are easiest to recruit, but it won't do much for the learning divide.

Another feature of Adult Learners' Week is the encouragement every unemployed person receives with their girocheque to ring learndirect (0800 100 900), the free telephone advice service run by UFI.

It is highly effective. For the fortnight in May there is a major surge in enquiries, and a third of those people take up courses.

I hope that during the life of the next government we can see a parallel initiative to encourage people to ring the helpline in the pension book and the family allowance book. The LSC initiative to support bite-sized courses this summer, funding two-hour courses targeting groups new to structured learning, should also make a difference.

Providers should think outside of the normal curriculum limits and make fresh connections. Then there may well be a measurable impact on the national participation target for adults - which I hope the LSC will re-adopt in its corporate plan.

Alan Tuckett is director of the NationalInstitute of Adult Continuing Education

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