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Woodhead will help adults who help themselves

LAST MAY, during Adult Learners' Week, the Campaign for Learning set up job swaps for Learning at Work day. At one award ceremony, I mentioned I had not taken part.

Immediately, Carlisle College challenged me to swap with Hugh Waddell, who had just completed the college's doorkeeping course. We agreed to wait till 2000.

Hugh ran the National Institute for Adult Continuing Education (NIACE) for a day this week, and I will have done my duty as a bouncer at Buskers night club by the time this column appears. I know already that Hugh has the harder job, but there are similarities. In both jobs, there are times when a word early on can save trouble later.

Hugh brought a rich portfolio of skills with him. A distinguished career as a rugby-league international and coach gave him a wealth of teaching and learning strategies. He listened well, moved meetings at pace, and shaped me up gently over delays in my work that affected other people.

After an Adult Learners' Week meeting and chairing our directorate, he and I took the train to London for an all-party parliamentary group meeting for the adult and further education groups. Later, we dashed to the Royal Society of Arts just in time for the chief inspector's annual lecture.

Chris Woodhead had chosen to ask: "Is lifelong learning a utopian ideal?" It was both characteristic and astonishing as a presentation; characteristic in that he gave a raucously polemical defence of the status quo, astonishing in the skimpiness of its frame of reference and the research undertaken in preparation.

There was, of course, a lot of sense in the central contention that getting schools right is essential in creating a learning society. But that is hardly a revolutionary idea and, as Nyerere recognised, it is not enough.

Before we got there, we were told that the poor will always be with us, despite educators' best intentions. Taking Frank Coffield's discussion of a light-hearted proposal of mine in these columns two years ago, he came to the brave conclusion that compulsion was not a good idea for adult learners.

He was sceptical about the Campaign for Learning's ceebration of neurological science breakthroughs and what they might tell us about teaching and learning. Above all, he wanted to set up clear oppositions between teaching and learning, product and process. He wanted subject disciplines to be protected and all students to have clear goals.

He told us early that there was little space in the talk to address adult and continuing education - extending a tradition of benign neglect of this part of his statutory duty and kept up throughout his term of office, it seems to me.

This might not have mattered if he had grappled with the real challenges of bringing school and community together in the creation of a learning culture. But there was nothing of the powerful role of inter-generational learning and its benefits to adults and children.

There was no recognition of the scale of the task of adapting a society, where one in four learns early that education is not for them, to a world where more and more work requires the confidence to learn and skill in learning.

There was a good deal of slapstick about the right of older people to be left in peace, spared the attentions of lifelong learning zealots bearing prospectuses and a gleam in the eye. No more promotion; motivation is not curriculum. Yet there is more and more evidence that engaging in learning has a positive effect on health in older age.

The view of the chief inspector, on the cusp of wider new duties for securing a learning society, is that the state is too ready to impose solutions and infantilise the people. He clearly felt that we should concentrate on those who make it through the doors unaided. The others have made their choice. What price Kennedy? It is a bleak and narrow view, and I prefer the generosity and vision of David Blunkett's.

I am a little nervous about my night as a doorman. With luck and Hugh's help, I will learn just what to say to pre-empt trouble. Perhaps then I could transfer the skill to encourage Chris to "try a bit harder" with adult learners.

Alan Tuckett is director of the National

Institute of Adult and Continuing Education

Research Focus, 26

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