Allow for the old invisibles;FE Focus

22nd January 1999 at 00:00
John Denham moved jobs from social security to health in the ministerial reshuffle provoked by Peter Mandelson's borrowing arrangements.

Fortunately, to judge from his impressive speech at the launch of the United Nations' Year of the Older Person in London this week, he has held on to his role as chair of the inter-ministerial committee which is overseeing the Better Government for Older People initiative. He highlighted the importance of supporting older people's choice to have as active a life as possible, and made lifelong learning one of four priorities for the year.

If John Denham was good the Age Exchange theatre company was stunning. A troupe of some 15 older people led the policy works and voluntary agency staff through a funny, sharp, and engaging review - in 10 minutes flat. Their work - on this occasion a wry look at Christmases before the war - was the product of active participation in the creation of drama, growing out of reminiscence work and oral history with other older people.

They use it to stimulate other older people to make sense of the changes they have experienced in their lives, and to lead inter-generational dialogues with children. Watching the performance reinforced one of the clearest messages of the launch - that many of our attitudes to older people are shaped by their under-representation on television in active and interpretative roles.

Age Exchange retains its base in Greenwich, south-east London, although it now works all over the country and in Europe. Pam Schweitzer, its animateur has a single-minded passion for the work and its capacity to demonstrate the energy, brio and wisdom of older people as learners. She shows here what Augusto Boal's work demonstrated so well in Peru - that theatre provides the most creative tools for stimulating dialogue to give voice to marginalised groups.

It is striking, as Sue Cara observes in this month's Adults Learning, how few of the bids for funding from the Adult and Community Learning Fund involve theatre, the arts or music. The obsessions of the 1990s have bleached out delight and creativity from too many organisers' thinking. People still struggle to make sense of poems, capture light on paper, make music etc. But, she argues, this is not seen as a curriculum fit for the excluded.

Formal systems can lead to funny priorities. When I worked in south London I was involved with a weekly crafts class. There was inevitably a large turnover of students during the year. The tutor was, I felt, brilliant - sensitive and inspiring; giving her students what might be one of life's last achievable challenges.

I thought you needed a special kind of capacity to do the work well, and asked for the post to be regraded. After a visit the fashion inspector told me the class could not be regraded because the work lacked sufficient difficulty. I think there are lessons here for the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, and for that matter the Moser Committee. We need flexibility and fitness for purpose in thinking about what constitutes quality and how you can measure it.

Too often policy is developed for the people who are visible. It is a key demand of Jim Soulsby and Sheila Carlton's timely Learning to Grow Older and Bolder that we stop ignoring older people when we think about lifelong learning. Why can't people over 54 get loans to study at university when they have decades to make use of new intellectual stimulus? Too often the arguments seem narrowly economic - the assumption is they will not be able to repay. Interestingly, their study shows that most people over 75 who are studying are doing so for work-related reasons.

Education on television fares rather better. The BBC leads the way in making a range of programmes that stretch beyond the narrowly domestic, aimed at older people, put out at lunchtimes, and backed by study material and access to Open College accreditation. Of course, far more people send off for the material than seek formal accreditation. But the offer is there, linked to courses at short-term residential colleges - creative new partnerships, driven by curriculum. Just what the doctor ordered to offset sclerosis in the education system, and to foster the kind of lively older age we ought to have the right to look forward to.

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

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