It's good to be back, but careful navigation is required

1st August 1997 at 01:00
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation embodies a powerful aspiration that we should reach out, beyond the limitations of the nation state, to share experience and expertise so that people all over the world can live lives with dignity and stimulus. It was founded in the belief that we gain more from co-operation than competition - hardly a fashionable nostrum in recent years. Unsurprising, then, that the UK withdrew from membership during the white heat of the Thatcher-Reagan years.

Acting with speed, the new Government rejoined UNESCO on July 1. Adult educators were blessed by the timing, since the fifth UNESCO conference on adult learning was planned for July 14-18 in Hamburg, and Kim Howells, minister for lifelong learning, was invited to give a keynote address at the opening of "Adult Learning - A Key for the 21st Century" to mark the return.

His speech made a passionate case for the importance of adult learning in the creation of a democratic society: "Adult learning matters. It changes lives. For many in our diverse society a sound education at school and continuing adult learning is the key to employment and leads to economic prosperity. And more than this, adult learning also fuels creativity, imagination, active citizenship. Yet far too many people believe that adult learning is not for them, that there is little or no prospect of joining in.

"There should be nothing inevitable about this. That is why we in the UK place such a high emphasis on adult learning opportunities as well as excellent initial education. That is why we are determined to tackle disadvantage and exclusion to help people achieve their potential - with high-quality information and advice and a wide range of learning opportunities. We recognise that while we play the lead role, government on its own cannot achieve a learning society."

He highlighted the importance of partnership with providers, broadcasters and non-governmental organisations in promoting learning, extolled the virtues of Adult Learners' Weeks in the UK, South Africa, Slovenia, Australia, Jamaica and elsewhere, and proposed that the development of a United Nations Week of Adult Learning be adopted as a decision of the conference. Four days later, at the very last session of the conference, the proposal was adopted with applause - a marvellous success, even if it does mean masses of additional work for the existing organisers of such weeks.

Below the surface calm of the conference this successful outcome was achieved through careful navigation through choppy waters. Whatever the ideals enshrined in UNESCO, the daily practice of working with the organisation involves circumnavigation of entrenched interests. The Hamburg UNESCO Institute of Education is responsive and flexible, and led an 18-month-long preparation for the conference, holding regional events all over the world and drafting committees to work towards a forward-looking agenda for adult learning for the first such global event for more than a decade. In the new manner of things, the draft declaration, the agenda for the future and details of key themes were posted on the Internet for all to see and comment upon. Yet in the last weeks before the conference, these texts were "cleaned up" in Paris - with the loss of the bulk of the developmental dynamic. Why, one wonders, would bureaucrats make life difficult for themselves at the onset of such a major event? It guaranteed that the most active and informed of the 2,000 participants arrived ready for revolution.

This was the first such event where government and non-governmental organisations met, and there was an immediate risk that the NGOs would publish a separate dissenting declaration. What followed was, in effect, two conferences. One - looking at the changing impact of economic and technological change on lives North and South - explored how best to help UNESCO shift from too heavy a focus on literacy programmes to include a wider learning agenda. The other provided a backdrop for amateur politics, with drafting committees finding agreed texts had mysteriously changed overnight, and with national delegations, UNESCO staff and NGOs meeting and briefing late into the night. The extraordinary thing was that it all came right in the end - a progressive declaration unanimously adopted and broad amity at the concluding street party. It is good to be back, but fine ideals can only be secured when the interests of learners are backed by sustained hard work and steely determination.

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

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