Two or more years ago, as eagerly awaited course brochures failed to materialise or appeared in such shrunken form that they were almost literally shadows of their former selves, educators shook their heads and said: “We told you so.” Whole Continuing Education departments, such as that at the University of Leeds, closed. Up and down the land, people fumed: “Where’s the upholstery class gone?” or “Entry level Spanish is how much?!” Now, hidden in the Christmas news, the figures are out and corroborated on the NIACE website: approximately 1.4 million adult learners have been lost to publicly supported education. The forecast was that about 200,000 would be lost and that was deemed politically acceptable at the time the decision was made to cut the funding to the evening classes that so many used as a means of socialising, catching up on subjects missed or not available during formal youth education, giving back to the community and even testing their formal learning skills in a safe environment before signing up for a more intensive programme of study.
Suddenly, the emphasis was on gaining ‘qualifications’. I and many others have written elsewhere about the lunacy of expecting middle-aged people to leap with joy at the thought of writing an assessed, time-restricted essay on, for example, an art appreciation course. How, as a nation, are we to understand the importance of our great national museums and art galleries and support their funding if people who want to know more about them can not find friendly local introductory courses? The situation for practical subjects is hardly any better. Before, if you wanted to build your own garden arch, you could pop along to an evening class and persuade the teacher that that was a really good subject for discussion. Now, you follow a set syllabus and arches are most unlikely to figure in a ten-week introduction but a national qualification most certainly will. Some course members will want a qualification and should have access to the test but others really do not need it: why does a fully-employed engineer need an NVQ in brick-laying when the point of doing the course is partly to fix the garden archway and partly to meet people and be part of village life?
Where have the 1.4 million learners gone? Some, no-one knows how many, have gone to village halls and house groups to pursue their interests without the interference of ‘bureaucracy’. Others have undoubtedly gone online and found interest groups or distance-learning courses. Others have just plain given up.
No-one doubts that the young need skills, nor that immigrants should be encouraged to learn English to help social cohesion (see this BBC Rethink article) as was announced today. However, depriving adults of easy access to social environments where learning can be fun will simply increase the individualism in society and create a greater divide between those who can afford to enjoy learning and those for whom learning is to remain, literally, a closed book. If schools can not equip the young to be fit for the workplace or university, it is the schools that need fixing: the answer is not to demolish adult education. If immigrants need to be taught English (and many do) then that should be costed and paid for at the point of entry, not after the event. UK society needs to develop if the UK is not to slip further in the world economic rankings and if standards of living for everyone are to be maintained or improved. Society can not develop if it is required to develop at the pace of the slowest or wait for the latest arrival to catch up. All adults need access to a wide and stimulating variety of courses in subjects as diverse as archery, Mandarin, folk-guitar and entomology. That, of course, means we also need to use these recent statistics and lobby for a more social approach to educational opportunities for all members of society, not just those who are easy to track in a database of learning progression.