Adults pay the price of yet more changes

8th September 2006 at 01:00
Enough is enough. The endless re-engineering of the post-school landscape is being bought at too high a price by adults - with a million places likely to be lost by next summer, compared with 2004.

It is not that investment in skills for work is unimportant. It is. But it is only one part of the picture. We risk irreparably damaging one area of the infrastructure of a civilised society, and we shall live to regret it.

Time was that September, like January, was a time for new resolutions - not of the "drink less, think more" variety, which are too often forgotten in a fortnight. September resolutions for millions of adults were shaped in part by the courses on offer at local institutions: improve your Spanish, find out more about Genghis Khan, learn how to get more from your computer, your camera, your relationships. The list of subjects is endless.

The range of things people want to learn about is impressive. There is powerful evidence that learning is good for your health in general, and for mental health in particular, and that there are incidental benefits from learning of all sorts.

So why are we cutting so much of it? Each September, Niace co-ordinates a campaign to encourage people to sign up now to adult courses of all types.

This year, though, the task is much harder. One consequence of funding changes, and providers' response to them, is that there are far fewer courses than there were.

Take languages. At my local centre, there are half the number of different foreign languages being taught than there were five years ago, and half the number of classes in each language. How can that be squared with the drive for competitiveness in international markets?

It would be nice to think that language learning, and other adult opportunities, will be better protected once the foundation learning tier proposed in the further education White Paper is in place. The Government's idea is to map pathways to progression below Level 2 (GCSE-equivalent), and the Learning and Skills Council intends to target funding on courses that contribute to progression, once the tier is in place.

There are obvious benefits in the idea - not least because it will clear up the relationship between Skills for Life qualifications and other progressions to Level 2 and GCSE equivalent study. It will also, of course, enable sector skills councils to identify preparatory courses needed to progress to Level 2 and beyond in industry specific qualifications. But if the system is to offer access to employability to people currently a long way from the labour market, it will need to be responsive to how they want to engage with learning, to build confidence and esteem.

Top-downward planning, where the funders can predict and map student progression, needs to be complemented with space for learning and progression routes chosen by learners themselves. If we get that kind of foundation learning tier, languages and much of the rest of the adult learning curriculum should be safe.

But will we? Not in my view if the current consultation document from the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority is a harbinger of what is to come.

The paper is written to address the needs of 14 to 19-year-olds.

Adults' needs are shoe-horned round the edges. And there is a real risk that, unless the primary purpose of making clear how government can support progression routes that work for adults is recovered, we shall see even more adults denied a place in a class next year and in those that follow.

How will that help the Government's passion for fostering well-being in Britain, for improving work-life balance, for improving, too, the quality of our community life? Education can contribute to those policy goals, as it does to the skills strategy. But will we let it?

Alan Tucket is directorof Niace, the adult education body

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