Ian Nash, FE editor of The TES, investigated how education can help adults overcome the problems of social exclusion. His book, written with John Walsh, is published this week by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.
Sissal Frydstad refused to kowtow to politicians and bureaucrats when she and two other single mothers were told their group was too small to form a state-funded adult education class.
New welfare regulations demanded that if they wanted their benefit, they would have to study or work part-time as they trained. And that meant low-status work for the rest of their lives since they lacked the qualifications to reach the first rung of the ladder.
Overnight, they galvanised 21 other Norwegian mothers and a father in similar circumstances, marched on the welfare offices and threatened to squat. "Now can we have our class?" she asked.
Official protests over the lack of cash were brushed aside by the group. The Workers' Educational Association and local council would provide rooms and help to pay for two teachers. And everyone would muck in - teachers, volunteers and officials - furnishing and decorating the "school". A curriculum would be designed.
Not only did the group win state funding and keep their benefits, but they forced an official rethink on the rigid benefits regulations.
The tale of ordinary people in the remote Fjord town of Sortland hit the national headlines in Norway. Sissal was feted, a video was made and similar schemes flourished nationwide.
I was in Norway on secondment from The TES to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, looking at how adult learning is used to combat social exclusion, while the country's welfare reforms were being implemented last year. I spoke to many people in Ms Frydstad's situation and all were of the same view.
As she said, "if you do not like the national regulations, then get them changed". She and others touched a national nerve.
All but one of Sissal's group now have qualifications equal to GCSE or A-level. She is going to university to study medicine, and the Sortland scheme is entering its fourth year.
The OECD Centre for Educational Research and Innovation study covered six countries - Belgium, Mexico, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal and the United Kingdom.
If the study, published this week, has one message for Education Secretary David Blunkett , it is that the local community rules. Not the regions, certainly not the Learning and Skills Council for England proposed in the post-16 White Paper. Not even the local learning and skills councils.
These organisations will be judged on their ability to meet the needs of everyone in Sissal's position. And legislation must be judged on how quickly national regulations can be rewritten to suit small community groups.
That requires grass-roots pressure from individuals, colleges, community and youth groups and adult education providers. The pressure is needed now, since such provision has yet to be written into legislation.
The White Paper and concurrent proposals to combat social exclusion do give grounds for much optimism. The move towards partnerships within communities, the reining-in of unfettered competition, and the wider measures to include adult, community, youth and careers organisations are necessary steps.
Many policy-makers in the six study countries had been tempted to write-off excluded groups - drug addicts, teenage drop-outs, mothers seeking work and unemployed people from ethnic minorities - as either hopeless or too costly.
Adult education is under-developed because it is seen as marginal to compulsory schooling and tertiary education, and is an "invisible" part of other activities. Time and again the most promising lifelong learning initiatives on the margins of education and employment have suffered the chronic insecurity of under-funding.
If politicians and policy planners of the past two decades had assessed the real cost of need they would have seen that small-scale but sustained investment in local communities is often more effective than the "scatter-gun" funding of large projects.
The best projects in the six OECD countries did have limits on spending and targets, and tough evaluation was carried out. But there was a high degree of self-assessment and self-management of inspections, rather than their being nationally imposed.
Another clear conclusion from the study is that lifelong learning policies which focus primarily on jobs are castles built on sand. Those that support existing networks (unions, community groups, professional bodies) and address wider social issues are most likely to bolster employment long term.
Employment measures without sustained investment in social capital, such as health and welfare and basic education, fail to equip people for recession or sudden changes in new global markets.
Now, however, UK government policy that demands joint action from all departments of health, welfare, education, employment and culture is coming to the fore.
Tesco's joint public-private sector partnership for urban regeneration, launched this week, aims to create 500 jobs, promote healthy eating and raise self-esteem. Community-based adult learning programmes will foster commercial and social skills. Such schemes must become the norm, not the exception.
Ian Nash is 'The TES' FE Editor and co-author of the study with John Walsh, education editor for the 'Irish Independent'. 'Overcoming Exclusion through Adult Learning' is available from OECD Publications, 2 rue Andre-Pascal, 75775 Paris 16, France. www.oecd.org
When wages in the Pacific rim countries rose sharply in 1994 ,the American gas giant AMTROL relocated to Portugal, buying the family firm Alfa to form the world's largest bottled-gas cylinder manufacturer.
Seventy per cent of adults in Guimaraes - an ancient port town on the vital trade routes to America and southern Africa - worked for the company.
AMTROL poured money into community-based literacy and basic skills programmes. In what it pledged as a commitment to the local population, it provided training in management skills.
Ironically, the Balkan wars may have saved these advantages for the people of Guimaraes. The bosses of AMTROL-Alfa were thinking of relocating to Yugoslavia where labour was cheaper still.
All the industry-specific skills would be redundant in the town, were this to happen - though not the new management, self-employment and information technology training.
It is the investment in "social" rather than just "human" capital - in health, cultural developments and basic education, not simply in skills for work - that gives the town the flexibility to cope with sudden change.
A project to boost women's job prospects and change market attitudes to female employment has become a national model for social reform.
Eight out of 10 women involved in the Anna Polak school scheme find work - three-quarters in firms where they have had placements.
Women were severely under-represented in the Dutch labour markets of the 1980s. They suffered higher than average levels of discrimination and poverty, especially those in broken relationships. Problems for those with children were compounded by the collapse of traditional markets and skills associated with female workers.
Women's Vocational Centres of Training (WVCTs) were created with government, employer and trade union support and partnership.
A problem was that the old unions and traditional networks which supported women returning to work after starting families had died with the traditional crafts.
The Anna Polak school in Zaandam, one of the most far-sighted WVCTs, created networks, supported children during holidays and used consultants to negotiate deals with women's employers and tailor work and training to suit.
The networks continue supporting the women in the early years of work. As the initiative has spread, it has won international acclaim.
An original self-help scheme in Michoacan,Mexico, has regenerated an indigenous community and stemmed the exodus of young people to the United States.
People are running their own complex community services using the profits of a sophisticated forestry business enterprise. Wages throughout the community are now double the national average and illiteracy among those under 50 is all but eliminated.
In 1981, Michoacan communities were in constant dispute with outsiders trying to wrest control of the land. Deforestation projects were rife and the economy was severely impoverished.
A lobby of central government by 30 indigenous people from Nuevo San Juan resulted in 1981 in a licence to run the community-owned forests collectively.
Self-esteem was boosted by the small-scale investment in community-run education and training. Basic education focused on skills training in management, woodwork, processing and sales, backed by cultural activities including children's sport and promotion of the indigenous language.
The community created 1,400 jobs and is now self-sufficient.
The Mexican government pointed out that success needs years of small-scale commitment.
Mike Millman, the inspirational head of Priory primary school in Dudley, West Midlands, recruited parents to help with simple duties in the library and classrooms.
School inspectors had pointed to "serious short-term problems created by coming from a multi-disadvantaged background." Adult unemployment was at 23 per cent, with eight in 10 long-term jobless.
His hope was that the presence of adults would motivate and raise standards. It did more than that - parents caught the learning bug, demanding their own courses.
Open College certificates were awarded, to credit skills as classroom assistants. Other adults signed up and community education flourished, funded by cash from the local authority, Further Education Funding Council and what the adults could afford. Within three years, formerly semi-literate adults were heading for university.
Unemployment fell significantly and other social gains were accrued through new learning clubs, such as a project to write a history of the ancient priory.
A succession of awards culminated last year in the Priory being the first primary school to win a National Training Award for adult community education.