Don't let them disappear
Who is not there?' It's the question research into adult education must always ask in any fair society. Policymakers and practitioners alike should be striving to give everyone the opportunity of enriching their lives through education. That is what the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education (Niace) has been about for 20 years.
Getting everyone involved is not easy, because we all come to adult education with baggage: our experience of compulsory education.
There is a persistent learning divide in the United Kingdom between the educationally excluded and the educationally involved. Those who had a good experience at school get opportunities for development at work, and continue to study in their own time.
As for the rest, as Helena Kennedy has said: "If at first you don't succeeed, you don't succeed."
Annual Niace surveys show that the gap between the two halves has been deepened by a digital divide. Those who don't succeed in formal education are rarely skilled in information technology, and so fall further behind.
The future follows the past. Of those studying now, eight in ten expect to study again, but scarcely one in ten of those who have done no learning since leaving school expects to join them.
But there is nothing inevitable about the learning divide. Niace research shows how institutions can embrace the excluded. Access to good childcare has long been a barrier for many women with children. But studies by Niace and the basic skills agency show that adults who use pre-schools as a springboard for their own development, as well as that of their children, benefit from peer encouragement and acquire confidence in their ability to learn.
Likewise with the digital divide. Our research shows that the buying of hardware and provision of initial training must be followed by courses that revise and update.
As society gets older, it's well worth overcoming the barrier between age and education. Older learners can benefit directly from training and also spread the benefit to other generations, as the Niace research programme Older and Bolder proves. Parallel programmes examine how to widen participation through family learning, offering guidelines to practitioners.
Niace research also supports adults with learning difficulties, looking at gender, race, self-esteem and the use of GPs' surgeries as a site for educational guidance.
Consumers and providers alike have their blind spots. Niace's work in the field of language, literacy and numeracy focuses on how best to give learners autonomy and how institutions can be made to see how they unconsciously exclude certain groups.
And then there are the policymakers, but even here there is hope. Nowhere is that clearer than in Niace's work with adults with qualifications gained overseas, finally being followed up now, 15 years after its initial work was found too inconvenient to be published or supported by the government of the day. Then there is work on neighbourhood renewal, learning communities, effective outreach strategies, credit, the recognition of achievement, and work on retention, progression, and curriculum development. Taken together they present a simple message - if we want strategies that work to widen participation we have to match the rhetoric of a learner-centred system with the practice. Only then will we get a satisfactory answer to that small question: who is not there?
For more on the projects mentioned here, go to www.niace.org.uk