FE's flexibility offers society a vital safety net

11th September 2009 at 01:00

With the "broken generation" now hurtling like some runaway demographic juggernaught towards further education's territory, the Inquiry into the Future for Lifelong Learning (page 1) is nicely timed.

One of the few things, barring perhaps a win on the Lottery or finding God (and the odds are stacked against both), that stands between them and the statistically ordained lives of poverty, ill health and dysfunctionality that await them, is the educational safety net provided by adult learning.

We have known for centuries that education is the most potent propellant for social and economic progress and change - what else could explain its rationing for so long. And yet, we seem to prefer spending time and money dealing with the social consequences of ignorance and alienation rather than investing sufficiently in a powerful preventative like education.

We live in perpetual hope that the bill for health, social services and criminal justice will one day fall, perhaps as people spontaneously "pull themselves together", without having had to spend too much money up front on education, especially the sort taught outside schools and universities. Of course, it is the day that will never come.

As Tom Schuller, the inquiry's director, says, there is no simplistic link between adult education funding and a better society requiring fewer expensive fixes to its prison, social care and health services. Education is no panacea. But beneficial effects such as increasing employment opportunities and economic status, improving health, nurturing citizenship and its ability - through the educated parent - to perpetuate a love of learning across generations are all well documented.

Of course, money is tight right now so, even if the will was there, there will be no dramatic increase in spending on adult learning overnight. But if we are serious about reducing the social and economic burden of crime, avoiding preventable pandemics and tackling social dysfunctionality then we must strive for Mr Schuller's "more intelligent" analysis of the cost benefits of education.

The further and adult education system is uniquely flexible in its ability to plug educational gaps, turn lives around, train people for real jobs and deliver everything from basic skills to higher education to teenagers and pensioners alike. That endless adaptability is perfectly suited to a fast-paced and economically volatile world. Government must harness that strength and use it.

Alan Thomson, FE Focus Editor. E: alan.thomson@tsleducation.com.

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