But Alan Davidge, head of science and general education at Stockport College, sees it differently. Ideally, he believes, education should have several points of access and various routes of progress. "It's more of a climbing frame than a ladder," he argues. "You don't always have to go upwards. You can go outwards and broaden your knowledge."
The Cheshire town's college and council are now combining to give adult returners a leg up and get them back on course. PASS (Parents as Stockport Students) is a model of post-incorporation co-operation. The scheme began when the council allowed Mr Davidge to approach 100 junior school headteachers. The response was encouraging - around half of them agreed to distribute college publicity to parents via their children and several schools offered classrooms for use as outreach centres.
Traditionally, we have had very strong links with industry and secondary schools, but the primary sector has been left out," said Mr Davidge. "We have been conscious for many years that a lot of parents want to catch up on their education and they come to us when their kids are at primary school and they have a little bit more time. So we thought we ought to do something more pro-active. Now we are linking with a part of the community that colleges do not always have dealings with.
"We find that mature students are far more motivated. For a lot of them it is a last chance and so very few drop out. But overall, we have got to convince employers that mature graduates are even better than 22-year-olds. You learn a lot bringing up kids and you can't get that kind of knowledge out of a book."
Ed Blundell, deputy chief education officer at Stockport Metropolitan Borough Council and the council partner in the project, agrees: "The system didn't work for a lot of people. They see education as something that's very difficult and academic and not for them. There are all kinds of additional barriers, but these can be overcome by providing childcare and making it local. People need an alternative opportunity."
The New Directions group, which meets for two hours a week at Adswood primary school, is providing that opportunity.
Joanne Loftus and her sister Paula live on the estate, which is one of the town's most disadvantaged areas, and have two small children who go to the school.
"I always thought that I would feel out of place," says Joanne. "But the course has built up my confidence. I wish I had done more at school - I spent a lot of the time playing truant - but now I am determined to do well.
"If our kids see us coming home and doing homework then they think it's a good thing. I know I have got the ability. But I'm not doing it to get lots of exams, I am doing it for myself. You can never learn enough."
Paula agrees. "When people see the likes of me and Joanne doing the course they think 'we can do that!' But I bet 95 per cent of people in Adswood would not dream of doing something like this. I am much more confident than I was at 16 and I hope to go on to do the access course. One of the best things about it is the childcare - without that we wouldn't be able to do the course.
The hope is that New Directions will provide a stepping stone onto the college's access course, which already boasts an impressive record of achievement. Of last year's 83 mature students, all but one were offered places in higher education.
Candidates ranged from a retired 67-year-old woman who went on to a combined studies course at Manchester Metropolitan University, a chatline operator now studying film and drama, a roofer turned law student and another who has given up hairdressing for a history degree.
Jacqui Murphy is one of this year's intake. Before she started on the course she was working in a cafe and bringing up her 10-year-old daughter, Sara. Now she is doing American and European studies and her ambition is to work in a museum. "I get a lot of people saying 'you'll be going to university - I wish I could do that!' But if I can do it, so can they. My daughter wants to be a lawyer. We go to the library and work together - she's really proud of me."