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Too important to be left to the DfES

Politics is about establishing priorities, and targets have been this Government's mechanism for making sure we don't forget them. In some areas this has worked well. There is far more literacy, language and numeracy teaching, and of higher quality, than I, for one, thought possible a decade ago.

The level 2 (GCSE-equivalent) target, which focuses on the needs of people without qualifications and mobility in the labour market, was welcome, too.

Welcome, that is, until it became clear that there is not enough money to pay for it - whether that money comes from the state, from employers, or from individuals.

As a result of cash shortages, free tuition is only open to people able to take the equivalent of five GCSEs in a year or two at most. Yet most adults study in the spaces left after work and family demands are met. When the Skills Strategy was going through, everyone assumed it would support level 2 and all the studies leading to it. Not much point having a ladder for skills where the rungs begin just out of reach over your head.

It is perfectly reasonable for governments to make clear where priorities lie - which is why we face a shift in public funding from that great soup of courses called "other". Such courses don't fit into the increasingly arthritic National Qualifications Framework, which include most of the stepping stones learners take towards substantial qualifications. But how much is it reasonable to transfer without having negative effects that are wholly unintended?

In the absence of increased employer investment (and current policies risk securing less, not more, from employers), a tight public spending round, and buoyant demand among young people, something has to give. Over the next three years, it seems certain that it will be adults who will miss out on learning.

The arithmetic is simple. Each full-time 16 or 17-year-old staying in the system displaces 10 adults. Each full level 2 enrolment displaces another four. The Learning and Skills Council calculates up to one in 10 places will disappear this year.

And next year will be worse. Perhaps another 400,000 adult places will be lost then. Now that the Spending Review has been put back for a year, a further 400,000 could go in 2007-8. And 2007 brings to an end the current round of European Social Fund programmes. Currently, 284,000 adults study on ESF-supported courses, but Britain's share of ESF will shrink dramatically in the next round as the needs of the poorest regions in an enlarged European Union are addressed.

So, taken all in all, something like a million and a half adults are at risk of losing their places - and fee rises won't save more than a modest proportion of them.

This is a picture, as Chris Hughes, chair of the national inquiry into adult education, suggests, where adult learning outside level 2 and Skills for Life is not just a lower priority. It risks being no priority at all.

Some of the courses that will be casualties are survival English for speakers of other languages, sign language, and absolute beginners'

literacy and numeracy work - as well as art, language, history and many of the courses where people meet to reflect on the meaning and purpose of life.

Even if the entire budget used for "other" FE were spent on the level 2 entitlement, there would still be a major shortfall.

Yet the evidence for the value of adult learning to society continues to pile up. The National Mental Health Strategy recognises the role adult learning plays in maintaining health. The Home Office's citizenship strategy is built on a citizenship test backed by learning for adults.

Neighbourhood renewal programmes recognise the importance of learning in regeneration. The Financial Services Authority acknowledges the importance of financial education for young and old alike. In the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, learning for pleasure and personal enrichment is seen as a public good.

Yet in adult learning you almost feel the need to apologise for enjoying what you learn.

In local authority adult education, we used to believe that adult learning suffered acutely from being on the margins of the education budget. As a result, the service got little attention from politicians, since major budgets need major oversight.

We argued then that adult learners would be better served by being run from the chief executive's department, since learning benefits communities in areas beyond education.

So, since it is hard to establish a secure platform in the Department for Education and Skills for the adult learning that a civilised society and successful economy needs, the same logic should be in central government.

But where would adult learning go? Would we be better off being run directly from Number 10 or Number 11? We are not the only people wondering that, though, are we?

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

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