Leader: To educate more adults, start with the employers

May 18, 2001

When governments think about education, they usually see it in terms of providing a workforce that can contribute to economic success. This is understandable since the economy is bound to be their first concern.

Adult Learners' Week is an essential part of this process because of the millions of people who have missed out on further and higher education or who need more. But it also reminds us that institutions have to deliver learning accessibly. No individual is going to go to college because of the need for an upskilled British workforce. This is why the week's focus on publicising success stories about the life-changing quality of adult learning is vital. Statistics published this week confirm that the rapid earnings growth of recent years has passed the poorest by. And education is the road out of low pay.

But the push of ambitious people into education will succeed only if it is matched by a pull from employers. This has so far been inconsistent. Racism, sexism and ageism are powerful disincentives to adult education. Employers who practise such discrimination reduce the quality of their own workforce as well as the skills base. Would-be adult learners are also the worst victims of the long-hours culture of many workplaces. This is most often written about as it affects highly rewarded professionals - who can pay for childcare and other services to compensate - but it is more damaging to the less well-paid.

After the election, the adult learning movement will want to lobby the new government for more money. It should do so in alliance with employers who want more highly educated staff. A campaign to alter employers' attitudes to lifelong learners would have more long-term effect than anything politicians might offer.

Adult learning also shows that not everyone wants education for its career-building potential. People who have know-ledge and understanding feel more fulfilled. The week places most emphasis on the employment effects of adult learning. But the non-vocational aspects of the enterprise are worthwhile in their own right.

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