Time to fight for our lifelong ideals

22nd July 2005 at 01:00
A cursory glance suggests that the imminent cuts in adult education amount to a denial of lifelong learning. The reality is more complex: a broad loss for adults and their communities, together with a very partial view of lifelong learning.

Those who attend local education authority adult education courses may be those who have missed out on education previously. They may be studying for quite basic qualifications. Much work in this area is supposedly protected, although recent comments in The TES suggest the provision of basic adult education will be patchy, even though it is, rightly, regarded as useful.

Much LEA adult education has been marked by the absence of an obvious end-product. Yet, even though the outcomes may not have been readily identified, there were obvious benefits.

Courses to develop intellectual skills in such fields as literature or local history may have provided students with their first chance for critical study. Most LEA adult education courses allowed students to explore a particular hobby or develop a new interest. These courses have often been treated as part-time fripperies, but may have provided the basis for a life change that resulted in new forms of employment.

The need for this when the nature of work is changing - and it seems that working life is set to increase beyond 65 - should be clear. But these courses will be the first to be sacrificed or have their fees drastically increased.

Adult education has often been about process as much as product. Students have taken courses for social reasons. This may apply particularly to those who have retired, who look forward to the social engagement the classroom provides. More recently, though intuitively unsurprising, it has been discovered that those who continue to engage in adult education are likely to gain health benefits from the activity.

In addition to social and health benefits, which are largely personal, are benefits for the community. There is wider engagement across generations, for example, fostered by the fact that much LEA adult education takes place in schools.

These broader and desirable goals are threatened by the cuts. Although some courses will survive, this will be at the expense of others or due to massive increases in fees that, even before the price hike, are not cheap.

Broad personal and community goals, with the opportunity to engage in informal adult education - which may well have resulted in a lifetime's engagement - are to be replaced by a truncated version of lifelong learning.

This new version of lifelong learning stresses the education of 16 to 18-year-olds. It is desirable that this age group develop the habits of lifelong learning. However, they are well catered for and are likely either to possess the habits - based on very recent schooling - or not to want to acquire them at this stage in their life.

Moreover, these young people are unlikely to engage in the process with the joy of traditional adult learners. But this is not the intention. The 16 to 18-year-olds are simply to acquire the idea that lifelong learning is necessary (not necessarily enjoyable), and its purposes limited to securing their employability. This utilitarian focus is geared towards securing economic goals.

As such, it differs markedly in its aim from adult education - although the irony is that more traditional courses may have resulted in life and employment changes.

The idea that lifelong learning is merely for economic reward flies in the face of adult education's tradition, denies its potential and offers a limited vision. Few 16 to 19-year-old students who go through this process, either now or in the future, will be voluntary lifelong learners.

Adult education has always been as valuable as it is vulnerable. At this critical time, all who recognise the second chances and opportunities it offers to less advantaged groups in society must support LEA adult learning. Educators must together defend its diverse merits.

Graham Fowler is a further education researcher, writer and consultant

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