For decades, around this time of year, millions of adults signed up for classes. People once queued overnight for heavily subscribed programmes at places such as London's City Lit. But not this year and not just because online booking obviates the need in many cases, but because it's so much harder these days to find the range and volume of courses in local centres.
You can't lose a million learners in just two years without impoverishing the programmes on offer. And the evidence is everywhere you look: there are now just half the foreign language classes of five years ago; rising fees have hit recruitment for ICT courses; and there is only one person over 60 taking courses for every two in 2004-05. With the Government's response to the Leitch review promising further "rebalancing" of budgets, things can only get worse for anyone who doesn't need literacy, numeracy or a first full-fat level 2 (five GCSEs A to C, or something vocationally specific at roughly the same level).
Meanwhile, Train to Gain the Learning and Skills Council's flagship programme is having trouble hitting targets. Not enough employers want to take the Queen's shilling, if it means offering courses the Government wants to pay for, and too few are enrolling their workers on programmes. Of those who do enrol, not enough complete qualifications, and of those that are secured, too many are, substantially, accreditation of skills already held. It is clear that whatever the merits of the programme, it does not, by itself, secure the kind of sea change in workplace learning that the Government is after.
You would think, from the boom and bust policies of the past decade, that adult learning was an optional extra welcome in a time of plenty, but to be cut back when belts need tightening. But that can't be a sensible policy when demographic change means two in three of the jobs of the next 10 years must be filled by people who are currently adults.
The current mess of over-provision in priority areas and famine elsewhere surely derives from the Government's lack of trust in learners' judgment. But people really do know what motivates them to learn.
The crude division in policy between work-based and community learning is exposed by the latest National Institute of Adult Continuing Education figures, which show a marked drop in the number of part-time workers engaged in learning. Why? Because many part-timers can only fit learning in in their own time on the very college-based courses that have disappeared over the past two years.
But the other reason for our present pickle surely comes from thinking too narrowly about the function of post-school education. It is very welcome to hear John Denham, Secretary of State for Innovation Universities and Skills, recognising the intrinsic value of learning. And to see evidence, notably from the Wider Benefits of Learning research centre, on the value of adult learning to health, civic life, community cohesion and racial tolerance. But as long as we follow the god of GDP, we will have to ignore all that.
Meanwhile, the United Nations has a more sophisticated gauge of how countries perform. The Human Development Index measures economic performance, life expectancy and literacy and the UK has been sliding down the international league tables throughout the years of the Skills Strategy. The index offers a good, if rough, measure of the value of adult learning. Perhaps if Mr Denham took it as a benchmark, we could rebalance public spending on adult learning the other way.
Alan Tuckett director,
National Institute of Adult Continuing Education,