Hype misses out the oldies

May 15, 1998

Adults Leaners' Week starts tomorrow amid doubts about the government's lifelong learning project.

THE SEVENTH national Adult Learners' Week starts tomorrow, but the mood is markedly more downbeat than a year ago.

Alan Tuckett, a government adviser on lifelong learning, and director of the National Institute of Adult and Continuing Education, said: "The needs of older people are almost totally ignored in the government green paper, The Learning Age. This policy gap really matters."

Last year, fresh from the Labour election landslide, education secretary David Blunkett chose adult learners' week for his first public address. He announced the creation of the national advisory group for continuing education and lifelong learning, with Mr Tuckett and Northern College principal Bob Fryer at the helm.

Manifesto promises of a University for Industry, a New Deal for the longer term unemployed, individual learning accounts, a national learning helpline, mention of lifelong learning in the Queen's speech, a promise of a white paper and the forthcoming publication of the Dearing and Kennedy reports all raised hopes. Alongside the appointment of a lifelong learning minister, Kim Howells, it combined to confer status on the previously disenfranchised lifelong-learning lobbyists.

But the mood of euphoric anticipation has been replaced by talk of "policy gaps".

Allan Rogers, Labour MP for Rhondda and chairman of the Parliamentary All-Party Group for Adult Education, fears that all the government has offered so far is gimmicks. "The rhetoric is positive and I believe that there is a genuine desire to make the lifelong learning process work," he said. "But so far policy is thin."

Mr Rogers believes that the University for Industry is unnecessary. "I've seen colleges and universities develop links with industry, and I'd much rather see resources going into those existing structures than spending it on the UFI," he said. "Pounds 15 million of public funding is a hell of a lot when you think that direct spending on adult education is so much on the periphery."

He has similar doubts about the plans to give one million people an individual learning account, each with Pounds 150 worth of learning credit. "The principle of people carrying around x amount of educational credit is difficult if the message is 'once the credit is dispensed with - hard luck'. The bottom line is always adequate resources. Pounds 150 each per annum is not an awful lot," he said.

The problem with gimmicks is that they cost money that could be spent elsewhere. "We've been round this track before," said Mr Rogers. "When Shirley Williams in the last Labour government set up an advisory committee on adult and continuing education. We go through the process periodically. But it is no good talking about lifelong learning unless you make resources available throughout people's lives."

The forthcoming government comprehensive spending review "will reveal all", he said.

NIACE's Alan Tuckett, agrees that regardless of all the rhetoric, there remains an "outstanding agenda". The government's failure to "stop punishing part-time students for learning" and remove funding inequities between part-time and full-time students was a bitter disappointment.

The institute wants the government to prioritise making the duty of local education authorities to deliver adequate adult education.

"What will the government say about family learning?" he asked. "What about older people when there is no attention being paid to the demographics of an ageing society? The 16-hour rule is still a barrier to the unemployed."

But Mr Tuckett is resolutely upbeat. He is confident that the learners' week, during which the government is hosting a European lifelong learning conference that is "one of the biggest events during its whole European presidency", represents the ideal opportunity for lobbying.

"Some of the harder questions have to be teased out, but the green paper points to a genuinely different tone of voice from the previous government," he said. "The last year has given us a real reason to argue with the Treasury. I feel gung-ho."

Leader, feature pages 11, 17

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