Britain has been accorded some unaccustomed accolades from Brussel's bureaucrats, despite the current Euro-sceptic climate. Even more surprising was the subject: adult education in this European Year of Lifelong Learning.
Tom O'Dwyer, director-general for education, training and youth at the European Commission, said: "In view of the element of negative publicity that often surrounds the UK's relations with the EU, I would like to pay public tribute to the excellent co-operation we have enjoyed with the UK authorities in carrying out the year, and to the quality of the projects submitted from this country."
Dr O'Dwyer was speaking at an Engineering Employers' Federation conference last week on the theme of partnership for lifelong learning in the workplace.
Jimmy Jamar, the European Commission co-ordinator for the European Year of Lifelong Learning, later praised the UK for its enthusiastic response, and the National Institute for Adult Continuing Education for its leadership in the field, at the institute's 75th anniversary conference. "I feel at home with NIACE," he confessed.
Quite right, too, as the institute's pioneering Adult Learners' Week was surely an inspiration for the European Year, although the official impetus was a white paper by Jacques Delor.
Dr O'Dwyer said the commission did not want to limit the European year to the economic or utilitarian aspects of education and training. "More particularly, we rejected the notion that lifelong learning should be defined solely in terms of reference to continuing vocational training. One of the most evident results of the year is that this message has been getting through," he said.
Each of the main political parties, the Trades Union Congress and the Confederation of British Industry have produced policy papers on lifelong learning this year and the last Budget paved the way for traditional liberal adult education to come back into the fold.
The EC funded the year's campaign with 8. 5 million ecu (#163;6 million) shared among all 18 member states, which generated some 550 projects and thousands of events. In Britain, 90 projects gained grants out of 1,300 bids. James Paice, Education and Employment Minister, highlighted some at the NIACE conference.
The Shropshire village of Newcastle-on-Clun had switched its village hall on to the superhighway last summer with on-line links to colleges bringing education and training live to the community. Airedale and Wharfedale College and Tetley's Breweries took teaching to the people by holding "taster" classes in local pubs.
NIACE members were delighted with the success of the year, although Alan Tuckett, the institute's director, sounded a cautionary note. The year showed that the same skills and enthusiasm for learning are needed for personal fulfilment, community development and economic prosperity, he said. "All we need now is coherent public policy and resources to turn rhetoric into practice."
He might be lucky, as the EC has already taken this on board. Last month, the Council of Education Ministers adopted a set of conclusions on a strategy for lifelong learning. Dr O'Dwyer said this initiative was reinforced at last Friday's closing meeting of the European year, held in Dublin.
Issues for the 18 states to examine include local community development through education, pathways between general and vocational education, accreditation and access, and the role of new technologies.