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We need a recovery of faith in our imaginations

Don't wait for the wind, seize the oars." Siwla Mills, a winner last year of a National Institute of Adult Continuing Education Outstanding Adult Learners' Award, has a graphic turn of phrase.

Her argument for taking hold of your life through participation in adult learning would not be a bad motto to hang, suitably embroidered, in the offices of every Treasury mandarin.

If it were left to me I would have it recited like a mantra three times a day, as an encouragement to officials to develop an enthusiasm for thinking outside one's box. There is, after all, something immensely depressing about the timidity of public policy planning for Britain's future prosperity.

For years, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development has argued that if industrial economies are to address the twin challenges of jobless growth, and the need to invest heavily in lifelong learning, while dealing with an ageing workforce, and an increasing population dependent on the workforce, they will need to do something about methods of accounting for investment in education and training.

The OECD view is that investment in people, like investment in capital, needs to be written off over the full period when benefits from the investment can be measured - more like the mortgage than Mrs Thatcher's beloved weekly shopping basket.

The Treasury view, meanwhile concentrates on the short-term task of balancing the books, by today's definitions. Its method of working also leads to the view that it is inefficient to invest in lifelong learning opportunities, since you can get 40 years of return in the waged and tax paying economy on an investment in a 20-year-old, and only 10 years at best if the student is 55.

Hence the adoption of rules that inhibited people over 50 from taking out student loans, when that legislation was introduced. No account is taken in this view of the costs of not making such an investment, or of the comparative quality of return.

This is not a problem limited to the economists in Government. Something of the same attitude informs employers' attitudes, if the difficulties in getting employment faced by mature graduates is anything to go by. The evidence is that mature students do better than school-leavers in getting good degrees, and that older workers change jobs less often. They offer individual employers a longer period of return on money invested in education and training.

But this does not fit the simple mathematical models or the prejudices. As a result, older workers, and older learners are much less likely to find it easy to get jobs. They bear an unreasonable share of the burden of our collective failure to redistribute paid work, or to rethink the boundaries between paid and unwaged labour, to offer everyone a chance to participate in socially useful activity.

If we are going to recreate the social peace and the sense of purpose that accompany a full employment economy where everyone has a stake in the future we shall need to imagine new and different ways of organising things.

The Australian economist, Duncan Iremonger offers one useful tool to this end. He analyses all those activities undertaken outside the wage economy, seeking an equivalence in the employment sector, to arrive at an overall sum for the work undertaken, whether or not for pay, and demonstrates that the unwaged economy is just slightly smaller than the waged.

Such a model makes it easier to see the displacement costs associated with taking up a job. They make it easier, too, to map the economic benefits of socially useful activity.

Peter Alheit, at the University of Bremen, offers a parallel view - suggesting mechanisms for all of us to spend some of our active working lives outside the job market, learning or engaging in other socially useful activity.

The late lamented (by me at least) Greater London Council licensed such social utopianism through the work of its Popular Planning programme, and we are just beginning to see signs of a recovery of faith that we can imagine our way out of our difficulties, in the inter-agency collaborations that underpin economic regeneration strategies, and City Challenge bids.

You can see it in the new movement to create learning towns and cities. I was lucky enough to be at the launch of the latest in Thetford, where on a hot Friday evening in June, 100 busy people squeezed into Breckland district council's offices, to pledge commitments to overcome the tired divides between education and training, public and private sectors, to create a broadly-based initiative to develop a learning culture together, as a strategy for the economic regeneration, and social health of the town.

There were no simple, short-term rates of return promised. But the power of metaphor was apparent. Everyone can identify with a local community, and with strategies for working together that start from where people are.

Perhaps it helped that the local MP was there, and that she doubles as Secretary of State for Education and Employment. But what was exciting was the range of people and organisations who could see the point, and the practical steps they could take to work together.

At its best adult learning offers people the chance to reflect on their own experience, confront new challenges, gain credit and opportunities for progression through our existing system, and the chance to make the world anew. We have had quite a run at improving the connections for those wanting access to chances in the world as it is. Like the Treasury, we need practice to recover the skills to make it different.

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

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