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Too old to study once you hit 30

Recent legislation outlawed age discrimination, yet here we are with rules on spending that block educational opportunities for adults over 30. There is plenty of help for people under that age. But, after that, support is distinctly harder to find.

This may not be the intention of government policy, but it is the effect - reinforced by the FE white paper. Latest official figures show that FE numbers on courses funded by the Learning and Skills Council fell 5.3 per cent in the year to October 1, 2005. While the number of students under 19 went up 4.4 per cent, overall post-19 participation fell 9 per cent to 1.5 million. Numbers decreased in every age group over 30. Those aged 45-49 fell 16 per cent, participation among 55 to 59-year-olds fell 18.4 per cent and numbers of adults over 60 in FE dropped 23.8 per cent. This compounds a significant decline in the number over 60 in the previous year.

How does this decline help create the kind of learning society envisaged in earlier government policy statements such as The Learning Age? How, also, will this help give older people the educational opportunities they need to keep productively in work - when colleges are losing them in droves? Remember that adults must fill two-thirds of all jobs over the next decade.

Politicians tell us it is all a matter of priorities. But numbers on full level 2 (GCSE-equivalent) courses beloved of government are up by just 3.4 per cent, and those on full level 3 (A-level) by 6.8 per cent, whilst Skills for Life courses - where the need is greatest - have seen a drop of almost 6 per cent.

Measures in the recent white paper will make things worse for the over-30s.

An entitlement to free tuition up to A-level for 19-25s is, of course, a good thing. It helps late learners catch up, as the skills task force reported five years ago. But it is all part of bigger moves to concentrate available cash on the under-30s.

That will be paid for by cutting childcare and transport support for older learners. The divide, which reduced higher education opportunities for adults, is spreading to FE.

The biggest cut to adult opportunities will be in "other" FE. Much of it is at the most basic levels of need where the white paper promises some help.

But without the long-delayed credit framework, promised in successive white papers to sort out these courses, routes for adults will have closed down before the cavalry arrives to put things right.

Other good things for adults in the white paper include the return of individual learning accounts. It is not easy for governments to revisit past embarrassments, such as the security failures first time round. But they did raise motivation and encouraged otherwise reluctant adults back into education. What a pity the pilots are limited to people seeking level 3 qualifications. Why not a learning MoT for anyone over 50?

Welcome too are plans for the increased role of FE in HE, more students on governing bodies and increased cash for workforce development. The expansion of Train to Gain schemes for employers is also good news - provided the cash is extra to what is already spent by private companies and not a substitute for it. There is no doubt that many adults who missed out in initial education get their best chance to learn at work.

But, overall, measures in the white paper fall far short of what is needed.

Two "time bombs" - the ageing population and rapid technological change - demand action for social and economic development.

We all need to think how to support mass education for adults, with wider participation and greater achievement, sorting out who pays for what, when and where. Despite its strengths, the white paper does not take us far in addressing that task.

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

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