How we forgot adult lessons

14th April 2000 at 01:00
MALCOLM McLaren dropped out of the race to be mayor of London when Ken Livingstone decided to stand as an independent. I was sorry to see him go.

This was partly because of his distinctive contribution to our culture, but mainly because his manifesto was fresh and surprising. One key demand was for the restoration of adult education services in the capital.

It is 10 years this month since the Inner London Education Authority was closed down. I have a photo of Neil Fletcher, the ILEA's last leader, leading the remnants of the final party from the building.

I was proud to be among them - because the ILEA had developed an adult learning service unparalleled in the UK, and much of Europe. Its policies were successfully tackling social exclusion.

The story of the authority's end is not just one more of the periodic spasms of institutional upheaval in local government. It marked the end of the most serious experiment we have yet seen in securing mass participation in lifelong learning.

You can argue about whether primary and secondary schools have done better or worse with the loss of the city-wide authority - but no one can suggest that adult learners have benefited.

Adult education was "the jewel in the crown" of the ILEA's work. Indeed, I wrote a pamphlet with that title to mark the passing of the service.

With 5 per cent of the country's population, the authority's service recruited 15 per cent of the country's students, and spent more than a quarter of the money committed to adult education.

And that was just the dedicated adult education institutes. Colleges offered more opportunities, as did the polytechnics, which helped pioneer university access courses.

A lot of money was spent - but the ILEA recruited hard-to-reach students and gave them successful learning experiences. In 1987, 47 per cent of adult students nationally had post A-level qualifications; but only 22 per cent of the ILEA's learners.

The ILEA recruited more black people,unemployed people, people with disabilities and, above all, more pensioners. Retired people could study any number of classes for a pound a week, and with the cheap fares policy they ranged the city - shoe-repairing in south Lewisham, studying carnival arts in Notting Hill, or learning one of 57 languages on offer.

The contrast today is stark. Of the 12 buildings that made up the core of Clapham-Battersea Institute when I was principal, none is now used for adult learning. Some were knocked down, others sold off. The pottery at Latchmere is now apparently a posh flat for a minor royal.

So where are the 12,000 to 15,000 learners who used the places? Some, of course, will have migrated to the new palaces of certificated learning. But statistics suggest that the bulk of older students quietly went away. All in all then, I thought Malcolm McLaren had a good point.

Cities worth living in have ways of weaving community and learning that catches your interest, that works, and builds social capital.

Of course, the damage done to learning in London has been paralleled in many other places.

A decade on we need to recover the volume, range and richness, and above all the skills in outreach work to open doors to excluded groups. That is the key message of the social exclusion unit report on skills.

Too few who work in institutions share the understanding many voluntary bodies have about how to relate to hard-to-reach communities. We need to help the voluntary sector develop those skills and support them in growing diversity. Otherwise we will end up serving mainly those we already know how to help.

The one key lesson I learned in the ILEA was that trusting learners to shape programmes reaps rich rewards. That trust, allied to policies promoting social justice can make a mighty difference.

Alan Tuckett is the director of the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education

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