WORKING in the voluntary sector often felt like being the child at one end of a seesaw - as the partner with the weight, money, and time to attend meetings (the adult) bounced about at the other end, trying to be equal - but there were the occasional spills, and it was seldom the senior partner who fell off.
It is tempting to see the policy arena as a whole like that. For adult learners The Learning Age, the last comprehensive spending review and the Learning and Skills Council remit letter were all highs. The narrowness of the remit of the skills review, and the exclusion of adults over 30 from the higher education target were both lows.
But where are we now? Seeking the Views of Learners, the LSC's learner-satisfaction survey, is a definite high, and one of the first clear demonstrations of the gains to be had from the creation of a sector for further education, work-based training and community-based provision for adults.
More than 90 per cent of the learners interviewed expressed satisfaction with education and training, and learners in local education authority adult education expressed the highest levels of satisfaction of all.
In a week when another survey suggested that half the children at school are bored, the finding that almost nine in 10 of the post-school participants who had left school with negative attitudes to learning felt that taking part in college, adult education centre or workplace training had changed their minds about learning. Overall, older people feel more positively about the education and training on offer than 16 to 18-year-olds.
I used to have a colleague who revelled in the HE statistics which showed that the percentage of good graduates (defined in the research as holders of 2:1 or 1st class degrees) rose with every extra year in the age at graduation. The percentage of 22-year-old finalists securing good degrees is better (or rather was better since the research is a decade old) than the 21-year-olds; 27-year-olds did better than 26-year-olds, and so on, up to the age of 41, when the results drifted down gently, resting at the same level as those finalists in their mid 20s. But no one did as badly as the cohort that went straight from school to university. My colleague suggested that this showed that education is wasted on the young - and the satisfaction survey suggests that many young learners agree.
On the down side, another survey published in the last week reminds us that a major cohort of school-leavers remain convinced that the system has little to offer them. Adult learning and Social Division - a Persistent Pattern, the full report of the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education 2002 participation survey, maps the continuing strength of the learning divide. The links between current social class, family background and early education are as powerful as ever. But it throws up new connections, too, as John Field, professor of lifelong learning at Stirling University, highlighted at the launch. The survey findings show a strong link between sociability and learning. If you like to go to the pub, join societies, visit the cinema, or take part in faith activities, you are also likely to be an active learner. People whose leisure is spent quietly indoors are much less attracted to learning.
ELWa, the Welsh funding council, funded a booster sample to create a Welsh cohort large enough for further analysis. The findings were of considerable interest to the Welsh Assembly committee beginning work on the school of the future. I was privileged to be part of a NIACE Dysgu Cymru delegation giving evidence to the committee on the role schools can play in fostering lifelong learning. I was impressed by the quality of the debate and the energy to make a difference that characterised the work of the Assembly, and by Wales's inspiring education minister, Jane Davidson. I came away convinced again that schooling is a key site for creating a culture of lifelong learning. To that end, they can only benefit from being open to the enthusiasm for learning that adults bring. As Judith Summers' new policy discussion paper for NIACE says, Schools are for Adults Too! - and, judging by the surveys, they should be.
Alan Tuckett is director of NIACE