A FEW YEARS ago Donna Mulholland walked out of an abusive marriage with two small children, no qualifications, and very low self-esteem.
But when the 38-year-old addressed a recent adult learners' forum, she looked every inch the successful accountant she has since become. An access course from her local FE college was the passport to an honours degree course at Southampton University and salvation.
It was an inspirational tale, but nothing out of the ordinary for the forum, brought together by the national organisation for adult and continuing education, NIACE. Most delegates had been there and done that. In the main these were people with no qualifications, who had family commitments, were carers of sick or elderly relatives - people denied a place on the starting block.
They were also people who had been made redundant or taken early retirement but who still had the energy and determination to want to train for a new career or who wanted to develop a new interest. All were coming back to education from mid-life onwards to try their hand again.
Success stories such as Donna''s encourage adults to go back to education. But behind the heart-warming tales, adult learners encounter setback after setback. For all the Government's zeal for lifelong learning, the experience of the vast majority of the conference delegates demonstrates the dice are loaded against adult learners. Many of the people present had battled with bureaucracy, had grants withheld or denied on the grounds of age, had come up against hassled college staff who were unsympathetic and unsupportive.
Alan Tuckett, director of NIACE, believes the White Paper Learning to Succeed is a sign that things are about to change He says: "The White Paper is an opportunity to engage the learners themselves in a focused policy agenda. Policy-makers need to listen to the voice of learners when shaping policy."
Colleges and institutions have a lot to learn from the experiences of people such as Donna. The key issue is consultation, and the Adult Learners' Forum will have plenty of practical advice for government when it reports later this year. Its specific concerns are guidance and support for students, money matters, quality of provision, and teaching and curriculum.
Mike Carnaby, chair of the Adult Learners' Forum, wants to set up local forums to engage in dialogue with colleges. He says: "The momentum will only be kept going if people listen to us. If we achieve our objectives it will be an incentive to other learners to follow in our footsteps."
The conference heard about the ugly and the bad as well as the good. Hazel Rumball, of Peterborough, queued for an hour to enroll for part-time study, only to be told the course number she had been given was wrong. Redirected to another desk, she had to queue for another 45 minutes only to be told the course was full. She had the bottle to object, pointing out the college had an obligation to meet demand. She says: "If I hadn't had something about me, that would have been the end of my adult learning then and there."
But some colleges get it right. Deborah Deakin, a 32-year-old single mother from Leeds, accompanied her daughter on her first day at Park Lane College and just walked into the building on impulse. "I said to the receptionist ''I think I'm supposed to be coming too'. She took me to see the careers counsellor and before I knew it doors were flying open - doors I never even knew existed. And they've never stopped opening."
With impaired hearing and dyslexia, Deborah Deakin went unnoticed by teachers and duly failed to pass any exams. Now she is seizing her second chance. "They put me in a self-help group called Willow Carers: we're being taught by the social services and Barnado's how to care for people with special needs. I've passed my access course and I'm starting a degree in social sciences next week. My daughter's behind me all the way."