In the rush for economically useful skills has the Government forgotten about the joys of adult learning for its own sake? Martin Whittaker reports
LEARNING nourishes the soul or, at least, it did five years ago. Back then, the Government's blueprint for lifelong education, The Learning Age, clearly acknowledged there was more to study than what was economically useful:"Learning stimulates enquiring minds and nourishes our souls," it said. "Learning helps create and sustain our culture."
But now some fear that the great tradition of learning for its own sake could be trampled in the stampede for skills.
Proposed changes to the funding of adult learning aim to focus public funds on the lower skilled. They target adults without level 2 (GCSE-equivalent) qualifications, and adults under 30 without level 3 (A-level), and those wishing to gain level 3 in an area of skill shortage. A Learning and Skills Council consultation document recognises that the low-skilled may need extra financial help with transport or childcare.
Learners not in the target groups should pay, the LSC says. It suggests a national minimum course fee. As a condition of funding, all providers should collect a fee from "relevant learners and employers". It says this would ensure consistency in fees.
The National Institute of Adult Continuing Education (Niace) welcomes the focus on the low-skilled. But it says the funding proposals concentrate too much on skills and neglect learning for personal development, cultural aims or community participation.
It wants the Government to set aside 3 per cent of resources in each local LSC area to preserve learning that isn't work-related and doesn't require progression. Niace warns that raising fees for large numbers of learners will be difficult, and could put learners off - particularly older people.
In fact they are already being put off, it seems. Niace's latest survey of adult participation found that numbers have already fallen back to the levels of the mid-1990s. "One of the critical issues in the funding strategy is what happens to traditional adult education," says Sue Cara, Niace's director of programmes and policy.
"If the belief is that every kind of learning the LSC funds has to be applied to the skills agenda, what happens to learning that improves peoples' health, learning for older people, learning for enjoyment?"
Reform of funding and the need for consistency in the way adult learning is provided and charged for is long overdue. Currently people across England take part in learning in different ways and pay very different fees.
Nearly half of LEAs deliver adult learning directly, 23 per cent do through contracts and service agreements and 26 per cent through a combination of these, according to a Niace survey.
Government statistics on adult education show some local education areas, including Sheffield, Haringey and Portsmouth have an enrolment rate (as a proportion of the population) of under 1 per cent; others such as Sutton, South Tyneside and Islington are 6 per cent and over.
And the payment of fees is a lottery. For example in Guildford a 10-week sculpture evening class provided by Surrey County Council costs pound;117.50, or pound;77.75 if you're on benefits. In Gateshead similar arts and craft courses are free to all, as is nearly all of the LEA's adult education. A number of other education authorities have no-fees policies.
Another major issue for the Government is how to create demand for learning among lower-skilled groups, says Sue Cara. "The nightmare is that the people who can pay won't be there, and the people who should be there won't be - because they're not interested in coming."