Rules of engagement
The first Adult Learners' Week was held in 1992. It began at a time of struggle, when adults had to assert that they could be the best judges of what was worth studying, and that they had a right to claim modest investment from government to back them in their choices. This year, too, the week arrives when adult learning opportunities are at risk for too many people. As a result, once again it will generate intense debate.
Adult Learners' Week in 1992 was the culmination of a long winter of active and successful lobbying by adult students to make sure that adults had a right to expect courses for personal and community development as well as those leading to qualifications. It was born of an alliance between broadcasters committed to the broad education of the population, funders, practitioners and, above all, learners.
The week was featured on all the television channels, on radio, in the press, and public, telling the extraordinary stories of how adults used learning to transform their lives, and describing how the winners of awards had used their learning to have an impact on their families, workplaces and communities. It touched a nerve.
Learners' experiences, stories told in very different ways, revealed common themes. Adult learning has a core curriculum - the building of confidence and curiosity - but it covers all sorts of subjects and takes all sorts of forms. And it became clear, too, that you can't tell the purpose of the student from the title of the course. People find modest art classes therapeutic when recovering from mental health problems. Older people use classes to keep alert, to develop new skills, and to contribute to maintaining the fabric of our shared civic life. Workers solve problems at the workbench or in the office through learning together. Young adults, failed by schooling, recover an appetite for learning and catch the confidence to take a second chance. Women returning to work use courses as a way to put a toe back in the water and explore their options; people with learning difficulties use classes to support and enhance independent living.
The variety of learners' experiences and the stories they tell have had their impact on policy. You can see it in the budget, however modest, for personal and community development funding, and in the recognition that skills in literacy, language and numeracy are the right of every adult. You see it in the robust questioning of ministers' priorities when MPs on the Commons education select committee ask about the impact of the current white paper on adults' opportunities.
Perhaps the greatest impact of the week, overall, has been on learner engagement. The major support the week enjoys from the European Social Fund is for promoting learning to encourage people to get skills to improve their employment chances. The Adult Learners' Week award winners Scott Cator (pictured right), Peter Fewell (page 9) and Julie Cayman (page 11), all supported by ESF, illustrate the effectiveness of that strategy. The Department for Education and Skills, its ministers and officials support the week each year, too, to promote participation.
There has been substantial growth in participation over the 15 years, fuelled in part by current learners acting as ambassadors encouraging others to take part. Recognition that people like you take part successfully is often a first step to giving yourself permission to take up learning again.
But there have to be classes to join so adults can take the second step and can turn intention into participation. And for too many adults, that second step is no longer available. The changes in funding of further education in the last couple of years have already had a major impact, with a drop of almost one in four people over 60 participating this year alone, and further narrowing of the range on offer in the pipeline for next year.
The plan to pay attention to "foundation level" learning is welcome, and should offer relief - at least for learners wanting a pre-planned progression route towards qualifications for employability - level 2 in the jargon. But the plan seems to be to ask sector skills councils which courses below level 2 they recognise as stepping stones towards a qualification. That is part of the answer. However, it ignores the key lesson of 15 years of Adult Learners' Week -that learners' journeys take myriad forms. Surely we need, too, real learner centred planning, and funding for courses that help key groups to take the first steps back into learning. Some groups, which are not well represented at present - like older workers, people on incapacity benefit, women from ethnic minorities, ex-offenders, and recent migrants - are vital to the economy, because they are bound to be a major source of the labour to fill the jobs of the next decade.
Others will look to learning for reasons not connected directly with the labour market at all, including the army of volunteers who keep our civil society going. Voluntary action takes many forms - from the role grandparents play in family learning; to the people who keep faith communities vibrant; from local councillors to visitors in hospices; from local historians to match day stewards, and coaches for sports teams. It includes, too, of course the army of volunteers making the University of the Third Age such a success. All these groups have learning needs - so it is welcome that the current white paper promises a fresh look at how best to combine the range of initiatives and local resources available to support adult learning to flourish. But fresh thinking is not to be matched by a fresh financial strategy.
So 15 years in, facing cutbacks in further education funding for adults over thirty, and the chance to shape the agenda for learning for personal and community development there is ample opportunity to make this year's Adult Learners' Week an occasion for lobbying again. How much provision can you expect within reach of where you live? How much can you be expected to pay, and how much should we expect employers to pay? Everyone recognises the state can't pay for everything - but how much should we spend on adult learning - and within that how much on learning at work, for work, or in the community? These are questions for all of us. Adult Learners' Week provides an ideal framework to address them, and, as ever examples aplenty of the return on investment and impact on people's lives.
Alan Tuckett is director of Niacewww.niace.org.ukwww.esf.gov.uk
Before discovering literacy lessons, Scott Cator, above, admits to being suicidal and a violent alcoholic.
Now, several years on, Scott, from Great Yarmouth, has been named the 2006 Adult Learners Week European Social Fund eastern award winner. Scott, 35, progressed through literacy and numeracy to first aid and food hygiene courses, and is now studying GCSE maths - and hoping to take a foundation course in counselling. And he's even finding time to help set up a user involvement group for Norfolk Community Alcohol Service.
"Without adult education I wouldn't be where I am today," he says. "In the past I wouldn't do anything involving paperwork because it scared me and I didn't want to look stupid, but I'm not afraid of it any more."