Engagement is still a key word

21st May 2004 at 01:00
Community life in Cumbria was devastated by the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in 2001. Farming families were quarantined and faced the end of their way of life.

The Pentalk Network, winner of this year's New Learning Opportunities Award in Adult Learners' Week, was first founded to boost communication among farming families, issuing free computers for six months and training in web skills, finance and wider communication skills. Perhaps its finest achievement was to give hope and agency to a community in crisis.

The network lives on, with more than 1,700 learners on 1,220 farms. Half are men, and three in five are over 40. Farmers now act as Pentalk ambassadors, mentoring new participants. This is citizenship and community-building in action, and there is not enough of it about.

A major purpose of education is to secure engaged citizens, able to take part in democracy, secure justice, exercise freedom - and to encourage debate on the issues of the day. As the cultural critic Raymond Williams put it, people turn to learning at a time of social upheaval for three reasons - to understand change, to adapt to it, and to shape it.

It is worth reflecting on how the war in Iraq has stimulated reflection about democratic freedom, minority rights and the war's impact on inter-community relations in Britain. There is much discussion in shops and pubs, fuelled by horrific photography showing torture of Iraqi detainees by Western troops. But look at the taster courses and special events in Adult Learners' Week and there is little to suggest that issues of such moral weight absorb us.

Funding systems have put the squeeze on learning providers, forcing them to address narrow issues of skills and qualifications. Liberal adult education of the kind celebrated by Raymond Williams just about survives, but is unable to show significant revenue for cash-hungry institutions, and with its confidence battered after more than a decade of utilitarian policy-making.

The responsibility for this frailty lies partly with adult education's organisers. Fewer of them are ready to push back the boundaries to include courses of study that are contentious.

The Workers' Educational Association has a proud record of democratic adult education. But last week, it was criticised in its latest inspection report. Despite encouraging judgments about Middlesbrough, Derbyshire and Doncaster, inspectors take a dim view of adult community learning overall.

Using tools honed in the inspection of larger institutions, they report large-scale weaknesses in adult community learning's leadership, management and quality assurance. By contrast, teaching and learning in adult services is judged much better, a message confirmed by surveys which show that students in adult education report the highest satisfaction rates of all.

Of course there are weaknesses, and inspectors from the Adult Learning Inspectorate are held in high regard in the sector. But how can poor leadership, management and quality assurance support the good teaching and learning which students have confidence in? Surely something must be going right.

In the case of the WEA, what are the consequences of taking seriously the educational and organisational challenges of putting learners at the centre of organising?

I worry that the inspectorate's tools of judgment need refinement for adult education if we are not to be driven to abandon much of the neighbourhood provision so valued by learners. But my larger concern is that funding constraints, area review processes and inspections are producing a risk-averse profession. One price of that is shrinking opportunities for adult education to engage with the big issues of the day.

Yet hundreds of thousands of people are still engaged with the challenge of creating a sustainable future in which more enlightened environmental policies might go hand in hand with freedom from want for the peoples of the world. Across the globe, the movement to find alternatives to the dominant forms of globalisation attracts millions of people's energy as they search for better ways for us all to co-exist. A healthy adult education system ignores their concerns at its peril.

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

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