Grey matters for future success

18th March 2005 at 00:00
The UK economy will soon depend on older people for its survival, but training is in short supply. Nic Barnard reports

It was pretty clear that when Sir Mike Tomlinson delivered his 14-19 review, the Government didn't like the answers he gave. Perhaps they'd asked the wrong question.

Over the next decade, enough young people will come through our education system to fill only one third of vacancies in the UK economy. The rest will have to be filled by women currently at home, by migrants, but mostly by older people staying on or returning to the workplace. Yet the Government seems to have no strategy for the massive retraining programmes that will be needed to adapt these older workers to the jobs of the future.

That is the central argument of a new book, Demography and Older Learners, published by NIACE, the National Institute for Adult Continuing Education.

NIACE has long advocated the beneficial effects of adult learning for older individuals: better health and longer, more active lives. But now the association's director Alan Tuckett argues it is becoming crucial to the economic well-being of the nation.

"When you look at public policy, this issue is almost invisible," he says.

"We're spending more and more money on young people, but between 2006 and 2010 there's a real squeeze on funding for adults."

Mr Tuckett notes that with the children of the 1980s baby boom now arriving in college - before a demographic downturn that will last at least a decade - the FE sector is obliged to meet the costs of training and educating them. But with FE budgets tight from 2006 onwards, that leaves less cash for adult education at exactly the time we need it. Some older learners who seek out their own opportunities have uplifting stories to tell, although - as case studies (opposite) suggest - there are still problems translating training into employment. One difficulty is that older workers are the hardest generation for adult education to reach.

"The vast majority of people left school at the earliest opportunity to work with their hands. They grew up with the idea that you go to work and hang up your brain," Mr Tuckett says, "so we have people who think that education and training are not for them."

The shrinking value of pensions means some people will have no choice but to carry on working. But the changing economy means many will have to refresh their skills or retrain completely.

But training is geared towards younger people with courses that take no account of the life experience older learners have amassed. NIACE research fellow Judith Summers says experience of the many popular IT courses aimed at "silver surfers" shows that older people prefer short, focused training courses which fill a gap or help them do new things. "They don't want to spend ages learning things they know already. They particularly don't want full-time whole-year qualifications like NVQs which take them back over familiar ground with no evidence that they lead to employment."

Targets such as the Skills for Life qualifications are similarly unattractive, Summers says. Many older learners need help with literacy and numeracy but are unimpressed with certificates for their own sake.

"People want to focus on their needs, not some external framework. They may not want to be labelled as doing a basic skills course, but they may want to do things linked to other aspects of their lives. They don't, on the whole, attach so much importance to standard qualifications."

Other challenges, such as the divides seen throughout education between rich and poor, ethnic groups, urban and rural, are at their greatest among older learners. Mr Tuckett notes that take-up of adult education is much higher among those who succeeded first time round. The notions, too, of portfolio careers, or of taking a range of part-time jobs after stepping down from one's main career to ease into retirement, are much more common among the well-off.

But funding to tackle some of these issues does not exist, and Summers points to particular problems with reaching black and ethnic-minority communities. Where projects are successful, such as a scheme for the Hindu community in Warrington, it is thanks to investment from the local authority, not the Learning and Skills Council.

There are financial issues for learners, too. Although many older adults on benefits receive concessions on course fees, many others just above the benefits line cannot afford to learn.

The Government offers some hope of progress through its Skills White Paper, due later this month. A Department for Education and Skills spokesperson said the forthcoming paper would "take forward (the) agenda for supporting older workers, including through its new adult apprenticeship scheme".

The DfES points to its Skills Strategy, which, it says, supports wider learning as well as closing the skills gap, and to initiatives such as learndirect, which last year provided nearly a million places in literacy and numeracy, ICT and business and management.

It also points to pound;207 million spent by the Learning and Skills Council on non-accredited courses such as family and neighbourhood learning; the LSC's "bitesize" campaign to encourage adults back into learning; the adult learning grants for those at work; and the free courses for adults yet to gain their first level 2, GCSE equivalent, qualification.

"This delivers the Skills Strategy commitment to the provision of a range of informal learning opportunities," the DfES spokesperson said. Mr Tuckett welcomes all this, and says he is hopeful of the White Paper, but adds: "The issue is scale. In a rapidly aging society, can you provide for older people in the margins of other priorities?"

Time perhaps to set a new agenda: not 14 to 19 but 40 to 90.

Demography and Older Learners: Approaches to a New Policy Challenge (ISBN 1 86201 240 7, pound;10.95) is published by NIACE. publicationsDDemography.htm

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