Has the Learning Revolution brought lasting change?

15th January 2010 at 00:00
Last year's white paper aimed to boost informal adult education by offering start-up funds. Joseph Lee considers its legacy

The government's Learning Revolution gave itself a year to create a new culture of grassroots adult learning. Now, with just a few months left to run, it is up for debate as to whether the pound;30 million project can create a lasting new order, or whether the revolutionary zeal will fade.

Having cut the funding for 1.5 million places in adult education classrooms, the government faced criticism that it was not supporting `informal' learning which encouraged adults back into education and ultimately gave them the confidence to improve their qualifications.

The result was the Learning Revolution white paper last March, which offered small start-up funds to community projects in the hope that they would become self-sustaining.

But unions questioned whether a do-it-yourself solution with little funding for trained teachers could make a difference, while academics doubted whether the most deprived communities would be able to organise themselves.

Now, pound;20 million of the Learning Revolution's budget - a "transformation fund" distributed by the adult education body Niace - has supported more than 300 projects with grants ranging from more than pound;100,000 to just a few thousand pounds.

They range from an "urban knitting" project and a drumming group for inpatients with severe mental-health problems, to putting unused land to work in teaching people how to garden.

Large organisations are involved, with the homelessness charity St Mungo's setting up educational schemes in its shelters and the Workers' Educational Association recruiting "learning revolutionaries" across the country to encourage new educational opportunities.

While the funding on offer is just a tiny fraction of the money colleges were used to for adult education, some, such as Guildford College, have also enthusiastically joined the Learning Revolution.

Peter Lavender, acting chief executive of Niace, said: "It's almost as if the secretary of state, John Denham, was reacting to the strong drive for skills in his own department and wanted to balance it out.

"It's one of the most creative ideas that the department has come up with and has somehow touched a nerve in relation to things people may have wanted to do before, but were for some reason prevented."

He said one of the most important criteria in evaluating bids was how far the projects would create a lasting `legacy'. With the grants due to run out in March, this legacy is crucial to ensure that this revolution does not fade away.

Nottingham Castle Museum and Art Gallery won pound;97,500 for a project to restore a vintage Brough Superior car, a product of the city's industrial heritage.

About 70 volunteers have been learning about car restoration from local firm Ristes Motors, as well as documenting the project on video, writing progress reports for the city newspaper and preparing exhibition materials for the museum.

Rachael Evans, audience engagement officer at the museum, said: "It's not so much about the car as about the participants as ambassadors for the museum and our adult education programme," she said.

One of the models for the Learning Revolution was the University of the Third Age (U3A), which offers some support for the idea that community- based initiatives with the bare minimum of start-up cash can create lasting change.

Founded 28 years ago with just pound;9,000, it now boasts 230,000 members. Much of that growth has come in recent years, with numbers increasing by 10 per cent annually. U3A estimates that by 2015 it might have half a million members.

Each U3A group is independent, though supported by a central trust, and chooses its own programme of study. It has no government funding, relying on small fees from members.

Ian Searle, chairman of U3A, said: "It's grown organically. As it grows, as it expands, the whole notion is it has a bigger profile and you make more contacts. It really has been word of mouth and it's grown exponentially lately."

But its growth has been painstakingly slow over many years. Mr Searle said its recent surge has been driven by the scrapping of many college courses or the introduction of high fees and the fact that the baby-boom generation is now hitting retirement age.

He also acknowledged that U3A's recruitment by word of mouth tends to mean that members are often already highly educated.

Mr Lavender said the Learning Revolution had the potential to create lasting change, but it could not become a substitute for the huge contraction in classroom-based adult education.

He said: "I don't think the government can row back from that. Tightening budgets mean priorities have been sharpened, and adults are the losers."

But he said the scale of funding was not the whole story in trying to make an impact on adult education. "It's about changing the conditioning that `education isn't for the likes of us', which is deeply ingrained in the culture."

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