How lifelong learning could save the NHS

13th March 2015 at 00:00
Education for older learners has proven health benefits. In this time of austerity, a small funding boost would reap huge benefits

As well as the negative impact of endless organisational changes, the crisis in the NHS can largely be traced to three forces. The first is down to advances in medical science and ever greater understanding of how to prolong independent and healthy life. The second arises from technological innovation: medical staff have access to increasingly sophisticated machinery and pharmaceuticals, all of which are expensive. The third results from our ageing population - as baby boomers and their parents live longer, they must rely on a shrinking working-age population to meet their rising health-care needs.

All this is debated daily in the media. Less frequently discussed is the bizarre imbalance in provision of publicly funded services for older people. Pensions, television licences and bus passes have been protected from the effects of austerity - after all, pensioners are disproportionately likely to vote. However, spending on educational opportunities for older people has suffered dramatic falls, along with the rest of FE, even though the most narrow-minded of bean counters should recognise that modest sums spent on learning opportunities for older people would save money and help out the hard-pressed NHS.

Consider the evidence: Tansley House Care Home near Matlock found that introducing learning activities and chair-based exercises for residents resulted in improved sleeping patterns, a significant reduction in daytime medication and a 75 per cent fall in the use of incontinence pads. Their experience - backed up by Leicester's Learning for the Fourth Age scheme, which provides learning opportunities for people in care homes - was that residents felt their quality of life was improved and their excitement awakened by discovering new interests, or revisiting old ones.

The 2008 study Mental Capital and Well-Being found that anyone wanting to maintain good mental health, but particularly older people, needed to do five things a day: connect with others; be active; foster curiosity; be generous; and above all continue to learn.

In its evidence to adult education body Niace's 2009 Inquiry into the Future for Lifelong Learning, the Alzheimer's Society said that visible effects of the onset of dementia were delayed in people who kept learning - with the result that active learners had prolonged independent and social interaction. Evidence from the Centre for Research on the Wider Benefits of Learning, a joint initiative by London's Institute of Education and Birkbeck, also showed measurable health benefits from engaging in learning.

Why, then, is the government reducing the already tiny sums spent on education for older people when this funding reduces the fiscal pressures on health and care budgets, and significantly enhances quality of life? One reason is the difficulty in getting cross-ministerial agreements. The Department of Health recognises the benefit but feels the cost should be borne by the education budget. However, the funding for post-19 learning is a fragment of the overall Department for Business, Innovation and Skills budget. To be fair to BIS, it has held on to the "safeguard" of pound;210 million for community-based learning, albeit without inflation-proofing. But that sum has to cover family and intergenerational learning, as well as outreach work and a myriad other demands.

It does not help, either, that the Labour Force Survey stops at age 64, despite the fact that the pattern of later working lives is changing rapidly. Although it's easy to believe the government is most easily persuaded by evidence confirming existing policy intentions, it is clear that areas of social policy with no robust data get little attention.

Phases of life

Niace's 2009 Learning Through Life strategy makes a powerful argument for collecting data and focusing policy on four phases of life after compulsory education: up to 25, where transitions to the labour market are increasingly complex; 25-50, the overcrowded years of work, family and social demands; 50-75, where the bulk of responsibility for maintaining civil society lies; and 75-plus, when life becomes increasingly home-based and age-related infirmities are more prevalent.

Each phase has its own curriculum demands and challenges. It's not surprising that the priority given to vocational study among younger groups is replaced by a demand for philosophy, history, languages and the arts among older learners seeking to make sense of the wider meaning of life.

There have been periods of publicly funded support for older learning - notably by the Inner London Education Authority where, until its closure in 1990, more than 35 per cent of pensioners took classes each year from across the social range. The ILEA found that people needed active encouragement to take their first class but no persuasion at all to come back.

Another highlight came when the Learning and Skills Council was established in the early 2000s and pensioners flocked to three-hour taster programmes. They made good use, too, of the much-vilified Individual Learning Accounts. These last two measures were killed off by their own success, and we have returned to a world where the failure to supply opportunities suppresses demand (and the NHS pays the price).

Thank goodness, then, for the University of the Third Age (U3A) and other voluntary initiatives. U3A is an enormously successful self-help movement, geared towards those who are at the end of their paid working lives. But it is inevitably more successful at engaging the educationally confident and those who had extended opportunities for education early in life. The movement, too, focuses on the earlier years of retirement.

We must give all adults the chance to learn throughout their lives, including those whose schooldays evoke bad memories. Their needs require modest public investment. And the chancellor George Osborne will save more than he spends - every pound on older people's learning will save two or three on health costs. You know it makes sense.

Alan Tuckett is professor of education at the University of Wolverhampton and president of the International Council for Adult Education


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