Does 'lifelong' now mean 16-19?

10th June 2005 at 01:00
Adult education may disappear by 2006 over a wide stretch of the country, because every 16 to 18-year-old full-time student - and numbers are growing - costs the same on average as 10 adult part-timers.

A serious problem of a similar kind is also facing many colleges that serve rural communities. One had to close 15 franchised adult and community centres and its own outreach provision.

Fears of such cuts, among other concerns, led to the launch of the national committee of inquiry into adult learning in colleges. As 80 per cent of students in colleges are adult - and FE is by far the biggest provider of courses to these adults - we at the National Institute for Adult Continuing Education, which commissioned the inquiry, had real concerns.

Chris Hughes, former head of the Learning and Skills Development Agency, agreed to chair it and we started work in January. We found things much worse than we had expected, and they will get worse still.

During the recent Adult Learners' Week, we received a nice letter from Tony Blair. He said promoting lifelong learning has been one of his priorities.

He said: "The key messages - that learning is good for your health, your self-esteem and your employability, whatever your age, stage or previous education - are backed by solid evidence." It may be good for your health, but learning is not going to be quite so good for your wallet in future - and there's going to be rather less of it about.

Despite increases in FE funding, the Government's own priorities mean less support for so-called "other" provision. The temporary bulge in the number of 16 to 19- year-olds (which will pass by 2009) and the commitments to adult basic skills and level 2 (GCSE grade-A equivalent) training not only swallow up any funding rises, but in many cases also mean cuts in other services.

The "other" learning taking the hit is the "other" that is not in the National Qualifications Framework, as well as some of the "other" which is not a priority. (Confused? So will many learners be.) No account is taken of the fact that the framework doesn't work and there is no satisfactory definition of "other" learning. So the machetes axe vibrant growth as well as the withered vines.

There is good news. The Learning and Skills Council is apparently developing more sophisticated definitions of "other". The bad news is that most of that learning is likely to be gone before local LSC officers understand it.

A key question for our committee concerns the future role of general FE colleges. Are they strategic players in their areas or merely providers, with LSC officers deciding the nature of the provision?

And is proper account being taken of demographic change? There are expected to be 2.1 million more jobs by 2010. This will require 13.5 million new workers, as 11 million retire. Only a third of these new workers will be school leavers. Are we not as a nation taking a huge risk by staking all on the level 2 entitlement and National Employer Training Programme? Is there adequate protection for the early learning steps that so many adults need to take before they can conceivably take advantage of the Government's offer? And why does that offer have to be a full level 2 award? Are we serious about a credit-based system? Are we serious about widening participation? About lifelong learning?

We are told we should have seen all this coming because it was in the small print of the 2002 skills white paper. That's not good enough.

There will be major casualties in adult learning as a result of 20056 funding allocations. The adult learning curriculum will be cut and its infrastructure may be permanently impaired.

There isn't enough money, and bumping up fees will not help. The real killer is the sixth-form commitment, and the premium funding school sixth forms attract. Abandon this inequitable and absurd policy and there will be money to do more vital things.

Two more quotes from ministers. Phil Hope: "Nobody will be excluded from any course because they can't afford to pay for it." And Tony again: "Right across Europe there is a determination by governments, including our own, to embed lifelong learning." Well, up to a point, Prime Minister.

Colin Flint is director for further education at the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education, and co-ordinator of the Niace inquiry

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