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19th May 2006 at 01:00
From Africa to the Ukraine, Martin Whittaker reports on the global rise and influence of Adult Learners' Week

In the 15 years since the first Adult Learners' Week was launched in the UK, its influence has spread around the world. Today, the event is celebrated in one form or another in some 50 nations.

Countries from Albania to the Ukraine now hold their own adult learning festivals at different times of the year on a broad range of themes. And a single annual International Adult Learners' Week was launched by Unesco six years ago as a transnational campaign to promote literacy and lifelong learning for all.

Alan Tuckett, director of the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education (Niace), says the promotion of adult learning has become a global phenomenon: "Few ideas in education cross international borders easily, but celebrating existing learners as a way of encouraging others to join in works everywhere. Globalisation has its impact - all over the world people recognise that lifelong learning really matters. Adult Learners' Week is a good vehicle for reminding everyone of that."

Awareness about adult learning has spread in developing countries in the past decade, particularly linked to the issue of adult literacy. A lack of education is a recognised contributor to chronic poverty in many developing countries. The World Education Forum in Dakar in 2000 set out six Education For All goals, including achieving a 50 per cent improvement in levels of adult literacy by 2015.

According to a recent Global Monitoring report, literacy suffers severe neglect in national and international policy, keeping hundreds of millions of adults on the sidelines of society. The report says there are 771 million adults worldwide without minimal literacy skills. It says that while the challenge is predominantly in developing regions, even in highly developed countries significant numbers of young people and adults have weak literacy skills.

Literacy has become a common theme of adult learning events in developing countries, particularly in Africa. In Swaziland, Adult Learners' Week has promoted literacy as a way towards confronting the growth of HIV and Aids.

Campaigns have included education about the disease, how to care for people with HIV and full-blown Aids, and how to live with it, raising awareness through speeches, poems, drama and music.

And Mali holds an annual literacy week, which has organised competitions to encourage writers in villages to express themselves in stories and poems.

In South Africa, Adult Learners' Week has gone from strength to strength since its inception a decade ago. Poor literacy is a major issue there - one in six adult South Africans cannot read or write, while a further one in three lack the literacy and numeracy skills to function effectively in society.

A global perspective on adult education also helps nations compare provision, policies and participation rates. A report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) published last year compared 17 different countries' approaches to improving access to and participation in adult learning. It found that Denmark, Finland and Sweden rank highest in participation rates, followed by the UK and Switzerland.

Hungary, Portugal and Poland have the lowest participation rates among OECD countries.

European countries are increasingly sharing lessons on common issues, such as how education and training can help migrant workers and asylum seekers to integrate, and how economies can benefit from their skills.

There is also a common assumption that Britain and the rest of Europe has everything to teach the Third World. But Jan Eldred, senior development officer with Niace, says we have much to learn from developing countries, such as how we treat the elderly. "There is huge concern and respect for older people in African society," she said.

"They wouldn't dream of putting older people into homes, but rather they learn, listen and value them. It seems to me that we need to look at our colleagues in other countries to reflect back on what we are doing."

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