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A year in the limelight for learning;Comment;Opinion

The message confused me when it referred to the Ylll; I had thought I could handle Roman numerals, like M and D and V, but couldn't remember a Y in there at all. So admitting defeat, I asked for clarification. "It's all a matter of lowercase, I meant to type YLLL, the Year of LifeLong Learning, " replied my colleague.

And here we are in 1996, and it's the YLLL we've all been waiting for.

No sooner has January started than the doubts creep in. I'm one of the biggest supporters of LLL, yet am always wary of these years dedicated to a particular purpose. The Chinese have it nicely mapped out as Monkeys and Pigs take their turn with the other animals in strict rotation. Everyone knows where they stand, and the Ox and the Rat can rest before preparing themselves for their next performance. The European method may be more full of surprise, but it also begs more questions. Who decides which year it will be, and why don't I get a chance to nominate a cause? Is it like the Olympics, where an event is planned out, and the cities (or in this case years) hunt for funding and then make a bid? Can you imagine it, the auctioneer with his gavel, peering over the desktop and mumbling, "And the Year of Abolishing Poverty goes to the 365 days in the battered old hat at the back of the hall. Your name?" "The Third Millennium".

But back to LLL. I wonder what it really means for education and for learners. Most people I speak with about LLL, express visions of access for those who left school some while back. They yearn for decent adult returner provision, for resources to fund learning for the unemployed, those with disabilities, traveling folk, remote communities and all the others who suffer what we now call "social exclusion". And it's all about adults. Much as I'm committed to adult learning, I cannot accept that adult and lifelong are the same thing. One possibility is that lifelong learning could mean the provision of learning throughout life. This would encompass the early years of childhood, the years of compulsory education as well as all the rest of one's life that gets bundled together under that heading of "Adult".

Conversely, we could be talking attitude here, rather than provision. 1996 could be a year to highlight the value of learning throughout one's life, as and when it is appropriate, rather than squashing it all into a few years starting with learning how to do up your laces and ending with learning how to vote. I thoroughly approve of, and, at the same time, have cynical political misgivings about, this approach. On the one hand, it's helpful to know you can return to education and learning as and when you choose. To update, to learn for enjoyment, to overcome barriers met in adolescence or to learn with a mature outlook are joys in themselves. More and more people wish to complete courses they dropped out of years ago or start new ones, and they should be encouraged and enabled to do so.

The downside is a miserable one, but needs to be stated. Any government that felt opportunities for lifelong learning were available, whether privately funded or otherwise, may be tempted to further reduce the resources available for compulsory education. Students, they may argue, could solve their problemspick up another creditcomplete the course later on as mature students, with all the financial and social hardship that currently that brings.

It's worth keeping the cynical thoughts to hand, although they shouldn't be allowed to dominate what could be an incredible opportunity. For once, education and learning will have the limelight; we can proffer our ideas for improvement safely under the aegis of the year, and hope to find assistance and resources to bring them to fruition. And, with one voice, we should be saying that a year of LifeLong Learning is not only a bizarre concept, an oxymoron, it's also nowhere near enough. Admittedly that year will involve 366 days instead of the usual 365, but we should be using them to ensure that everyone becomes entitled to a life of LifeLong Learning.

A Happy New YLLL to you all.

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