When stealing ideas is the most sincere flattery

13th October 1995 at 01:00
It will be a smart policeman who can arrest the spread of ideas. So says the 1928 Plebs League slogan which sits above my desk on a Northern College postcard. It is a reminder of the resilience of popular will, and of the value of learning from each other.

Japanese quality circles are built on the recognition that organisations can release energy and creativity where people are encouraged to share ideas, and to build on each other's work. Mind you, the same behaviour got Gerald Pooley and I into difficulties in school exams in geography in Launceston in the 1960s.

I learned then, and have spent thirty years unlearning, that the education system is interested in discriminating between individuals, and that co-operative learning has no place in the league table of life.

It is a view deeply embedded in the system. As far as I can remember, the definition of originality in literary criticism, at least for those in pursuit of doctorates, came from elegantly disagreeing with everyone who had ever previously written about your chosen author or topic.

It was not until the adult literacy campaign of the 1970s that I learned at first hand that powerful writing could be generated as a result of collaborative efforts - in writing, editing, argument - and that there is nothing wrong in asking other people for help.

It is the central mode of working of the members of the Federation of Worker Writers and Community Publishers, which has over 20 years extended the range of working class writers in print, and produced a wide range of work focusing on life histories.

I was reminded of this with the publication of two collections of essays - Literacy, Language and Community Publishing, edited by Jane Mace (Cleveland: Multilingual Matters), and Engaging with Difference, Mary Stuart and Al Thomson's collection on effective strategies for making adult education provision for groups under-represented in education (National Institute of Adult and Continuing Education,1995).

The value of theft (or borrowing good ideas) as a planning strategy is well illustrated by the evolution of Adult Learners' Week. I heard of it first when Judy Kolokowski, then Executive Director of the American Association of Adult and Continuing Education described the week co-ordinated in the United States, by the association.

It was built around a menu of local activities, which organisations could sign up to and had a national focus in a congressional breakfast on Capitol Hill, at which outstanding adult learners were given prizes. Judy Kolokowski explained that it was essential to ensure that the winners reflected the rainbow coalition of contemporary America - a lifer, a business executive, a nonagenarian, and a literacy student were among the winners.

Quite independently, adult education expert Martin Yarnitt approached NIACE with a proposal that we should run a national event, involving the media, to celebrate the achievements of existing adult learners, and motivate others to participate. We asked him to go to see the US Week and to come back and suggest how it might work here.

At the time, community education on ITV was under threat with the 1991 Broadcasting Act, and we were keen to show the close co-operation between that work and local provision. However, we were also sure that the traditions of adult learning in the UK would not allow competitions that singled out individuals for prizes - until the broadcasters told us that such prizes were exactly the media friendly material that could get the Week on the air.

Faced with principle or opportunity we adopted prizes and the media coverage that has made the Week a success, only adding group learners' awards and learning organisation awards to the regionally based individual offer.

The freephone helpline at the heart of the Week's activities was made possible because the BBC committed major resources to its Second Chance initiative during the Week; and in subsequent years we have persuaded the Department of Social Security to include an encouragement to phone the helpline in every unemployed claimant's cheque. However, it is the extraordinary web of collaborators who run 5,000 local events that make the Week exhilarating to be part of.

The success of the Week has attracted international attention from as far away as Mexico, and Romania. For some time Botswana has run a similar event focusing on adult literacy in June, but this September Adult Learners' Weeks were held for the first time in Australia and in the Czech Republic.

In a number of ways, the Australian event built on that in Britain. Eminent Australians made the case for adult learning on television. Hazel Hawke, wife of the former Prime Minister, was particularly effective in describing a return to study at 40 - when she took three exams, passing two and failing one, at the start of a voracious journey into lifelong learning.

By contrast the first week in the Czech Republic was focused on bringing together providers across the full range of education and training for adults - including the Open University's Prague subsidiary - in a range of regional and national seminars.

The week was established after two Czech television documentaries on the British week were shown, and was funded substantially by the National Training Forum. There will be weeks in Switzerland, South Africa and Flemish-speaking Belgium in 1996, all advised by NIACE.

There is likely to be a European Union funded project to spread the idea in the EU. A parallel initiative involves NIACE working with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation on promoting the idea of an international Lifelong Learners' Day, perhaps on May 8, for 1997.

Meanwhile, alas, the US week is no longer held. Across the world there is a common phenomenon. Far too many people believe education and training have nothing to offer them.

Anything that helps to combat that attitude, and gives people the courage to have a go is likely to be popular. But I think the spread of Adult Learners' Week illustrates well that theft is, in education at least, a sincere form of flattery.

Alan Tuckett is director of the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education

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