Lifelong learning suffers a setback

May 10, 2002

Britain has taken "two steps forward and one step back" in its journey towards creating a learning society, adult learning chiefs said this week.

Launching its tenth Adult Learners Week, Niace, the national organisation for adult learning, said the proportion of people recently in learning fell back this year against an upward trend over the past seven years.

Out of 5,000 people surveyed, 42 per cent said they had recently been in learning compared with 46 per cent last year and 40 per cent in the mid-1990s.

Niace said shifts in the labour market and too much emphasis on formal qualifications in government targets were partly to blame for the learning dip.

More people are being employed in a growing number of smaller firms that provide little or no support for training.

Niace would like to see the government introduce legislation that would require all employers to sign a training code, and give all employees a "learning entitlement". It has joined a campaign to be launched by MPs and unions next week to introduce paid educational leave for all workers.

Alan Tuckett, director of Niace, said: "The overall trend in learning is in the right direction, but at times of rapid change both professional people and firms do not have the time for learning.

"It is also true for many poor people and particularly those with more than one responsibility in their lives that if they don't get the chance to train at work then they cannot find the time to learn at all."

Niace is also concerned about government education targets that point institutions and learners towards "big chunks of learning" and gaining formal qualifications. This was responsible for a 40 per cent drop in learning among older people in the 1990s, it says.

The Learning and Skills Council's new "bite-sized" courses are more likely to widen participation than the government's further and higher education targets for 18 to 30-year-olds, Niace said.

"We are worried that the government's 18-30 targets could effectively 'bleach out' institutions' efforts to recruit older learners," Mr Tuckett said.


Tony Ramsey always considered himself self-educated following a poor school experience that left him with just three CSEs.

But after years of helping young people back into learning as an infor-mation resource worker in Leicester, he started to think that perhaps he should follow his own advice.

The 42-year-old Rastafarian took an access course in social studies at Vaughan College, Leicester University's centre for lifelong learning, and went on to gain a BA humanities degree through five years of part-time study.

Now he is a lecturer on the college's certificate in African and Asian studies course, as well as continuing in his job as an agency worker.

Mr Ramsey feels that studying for his degree has changed some of his perspectives on life.

He said: "Rastafarianism is about understanding life and your relationship with the land and others, as well as God. I was trying to understand the divisions in society and what created these divisions which were seen as natural."

He feels that many adults today are too concerned about what learning can do for their career rather than for personal development.

"I think sometimes adult learners concentrate too much on the vocational side and forget about learning for themselves. Learning is an empowering experience and there is much more to it than just getting a job," he said.

A debilitating rare illness that left her with shaky hands from the age of 13 has not deterred Linda Asher from pursuing her dream of becoming an art student.

At the age of 58 she has become the first person to receive a Diploma of Higher Education from the Open College of the Arts.

When she left school with six O levels she did not feel she would be able to follow her headmaster's advice and apply for art college.

"Although I can take medication to control my condition, I would not sit exams because they would bring back such terrible memories," she said.

But after bringing up two sons and a career in banking and book-keeping, she discovered that the OCA - set up in 1986 to offer distance-learning arts courses to the public - could give her the kind of flexible study-at-home arrangements she was looking for.

She said: "The OCA diploma is the fulfilment of a life's dream. My father was a keen artist, using a room in our house as a studio. I was born, so to speak, with a pencil in my hand, and I have always wanted to become an artist."

Now she is planning to study for another two years to gain a degree with the OCA.

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