Still a poor show for enrichment

16th May 2008 at 01:00
Next week's focus on adult learners shows there is a long way to go to create a culture of lifelong education

Next week's focus on adult learners shows there is a long way to go to create a culture of lifelong education

In the wake of the recent local election results, ministers have promised to pay more attention to what people think.

It is to John Denham's credit that he has already created the perfect opportunity for this through the consultation on informal learning. As Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, he understands that there is a good deal to be listened to and acted on.

On the plus side, there is the prospect of closer co-operation and planning between the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and Mr Denham's own, as libraries report an expansion of reading groups, and museums and galleries explore how to enrich the learning experience of their adult users.

A number of voluntary organisations are encouraged by the paper, hoping that being noticed may be a precursor to being funded. Self-organised groups such as the University of the Third Age report steady expansion, and there is evidence that developments in online social networking offer new forms for co-operatively managed learning on the web. It is a major strength of the paper to re-assert the connection between publicly funded provision and the riches of less formal learning on offer outside structured education.

There is, of course, another side to take into account. First, however welcome it is, the consultation comes at a time when almost 1.5 million adult enrolments on Learning and Skills Council courses have been lost in just two years, and the plans are for more losses over the next three.

Meanwhile, disabled students who have been displaced from the classes that have been cut can only be catered for under the safeguarded budgets for adult education for personal development. And, since that work is more expensive, overall numbers in that area are falling.

Adult Learners' Week provides reminders aplenty of what those learning opportunities mean to people's lives. They include Paul Lee, who left school with one O-level, worked in the building trade until he did his back in, took an Access to Higher Education course in history, and is now off to Cambridge. Then there is Momotaz Begum, who took a culture and textiles class that led to paid work in the rag trade. There's Anthony Benfield, who used his time in a maximum security prison to study through the Open University, and to develop a database for translating hieroglyphics now used by museums and universities all over the world.

Quite apart from the exceptional stories captured in Adult Learners' Week, people all over the country tell us how their lives have been enriched and stimulated by classes in art, tai chi or industrial archaeology. They care about being taught by skilled teachers - and can't understand why the modest support their courses have attracted has been withdrawn at the very time education budgets overall have expanded. They remind us that quality of life has a claim on the public purse, and that "when people feel valued, the common good is fed" - to quote John Hayes, the Tory further education spokesman.

In response, the Government argues that every spare penny must be committed to improving the employability of the adult workforce.

It has been successful so far with the Skills for Life strategy. Apprenticeships, too, are a success. But government money is increasingly focused on Train to Gain, which provides work-based skills.

While increasing numbers of people are undertaking state-subsidised workplace training, there are lingering worries about whether public money is replacing costs that employers were previously meeting themselves.

Overall, we have a mixed picture in which fees are going up for individual adult students, employers are increasing their investment in training, and the state continues to provide more funding. Despite this, the overall participation rates, which cover public and private learning, are significantly down this year. The proportion of employers who say they are providing training, or have recently done so, has fallen from 42 per cent to 38 per cent.

Most worrying is that the numbers are down most sharply over two years for full-time and part-time employees, for social class C2 and for adults between the ages of 25 and 34. These are, of course, exactly the groups targeted by the Train to Gain programme.

As government expands provision for a minority in these groups and employers report an increase in spending on training for others, a larger number are losing opportunities, whether because of a changing balance of employer-funded training or because these groups are big users of the open-class programme lost in colleges and adult education.

It seems that improved opportunities for some are being bought at the expense of widening opportunities for others and government policies are not resulting in the expansion of learning opportunities that the country needs.

Learning for work does matter, but so too does quality of life. The informal learning consultation offers Mr Denham and his colleagues, having listened, the chance to re-examine the balance of public investment across adult provision as a whole, to reverse the decline in participation, and encourage the culture of adult learning to which we all aspire.

Alan Tuckett, Director of the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education.

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