The hidden benefit of studying as we progress through life is it makes us healthier and more self-reliant. Nic Barnard reports on why it's never too late to start
Radio 5 Live listeners were invited late last year to share their thoughts with the nation on Level 2. A mum in her thirties told how she'd gone back to college to get the qualifications she'd failed to pass at school. A government minister outlined targets and drives and proclaimed his party's commitment to adult learning. The presenter asked if we were a nation of dunces. But the rest of the world just wondered: "What's Level 2?"
It is, of course, GCSE level in the academic scale of things. But it seemed to speak volumes that a debate about adult learning was framed in such an academic and target-oriented fashion.
In a knowledge economy in which employers continue to speak of skills shortages, professors complain that their students can't add, and the age of the portfolio career has (supposedly) arrived, skills and qualifications are important.
But could it be that politicians are missing a trick? The suggestion from some quarters is that adult learning has benefits that go well beyond a leg up the career ladder. What's more, many less formal types of adult education could not only be an important route towards ministerial targets, but could even be an essential prerequisite.
Alan Tuckett, director of Niace, the adult education body, throws a new phrase into the mix: lifewide learning. He envisages a future in which adult learning relates not just to work and employability but to the family, hobbies and the full breadth of people's lives.
"Learning doesn't make a distinction between work and lifewide interests because they inform one another," he says. "From the Government's perspective, one of the best defences of our standard of living is to have learning-rich workplaces. That's a key part of lifelong learning - but it's not the only part."
He cites Ford. The motor manufacturer began to offer courses for staff in anything, as long as it was not work-related. Absenteeism and staff turnover reduced.
The benefits of adult learning are increasingly well documented. The Institute of Education at London University has published reports showing how even informal leisure courses can have an impact on people's health, attitudes and social engagement. Studying life changes among 33 to 42-year-olds, they found that those who had undertaken courses were 16 per cent more likely to give up smoking and 20 per cent more likely to take more exercise. The women were more likely to go for cervical screening.
People who took up study also became more interested and engaged in civic society and - politicians, take note - became more interested and less cynical about politics.
"That isn't to say they're less critical," says Dr Leon Feinstein, director of the Centre for the Wider Benefits of Learning (part of the Institute) which carried out the study. "They're more critical and reflective, but they also understand process better."
Many of the results applied regardless of whether the course was academic, vocational, accredited or not. In fact, when it came to health benefits - cutting rates of smoking or drinking - leisure courses had a greater impact than work-related study.
Other studies have found that older people taking courses live longer and stay more healthy and independent. As people live longer, and society becomes more fragmented, these wider benefits will become increasingly important. But the challenge remains: how to bring people into learning.
Niace research has found that 90 per cent of adults recognise the benefits of continued education, but as many as 33 percent say it is simply not for them. What may be needed are low-level courses that appeal to people's interests and may not even be perceived as learning. Family learning - in which parents take courses ostensibly to help support their children - is a classic example. It whets their appetites, raises their aspirations and shows them paths they could follow.
But it can take two or three years of working on storybook or local history projects before they embark on a formal qualification.
Dr Veronica McGivney, Niace's principal research officer, says: "It involves an awful lot of outreach work, and that's slow, time-consuming and expensive, and there are very few funding streams that allow for that, although it's the most important part of the process in widening participation.
"The policy agenda has shrunk back to skills and employability," she says.
But Alan Tuckett holds fast to a vision in which learning opportunities are woven throughout our lives, from the grand governmental strategies such as the University for Industry down to the "modest, locally designed and local organised activities" now being squeezed out; a place where people are given the time and opportunity to pursue their careers or just their natural curiosities.
It would involve more investment from business, the state, and from individuals, he says. And broadcasters would have a part to play. He would like to see the BBC, with its mission to "entertain, educate and inform", spending more than 1 per cent of its budget on education.
But once the ball is rolling, it will snowball, he says.
"Whatever the purpose, if it's as natural as eating and drinking, you don't have to spend so much in persuading people to join in. Learning is like a powerful drug. The pleasure is intoxicating for the person doing it but it also leaks out to other members of the family and community.
"The richer we get, the less we feel we have permission to do things that don't seem to have an immediate utilitarian value. But I'm sure that fun has a place in the learning mix.
"We should never lose sight of that."