Adult education fights for its life

Tutors and students are worried that a government consultation may be a fig-leaf for cuts, says Neil Merrick

During the next few weeks, staff and students at London's largest adult education college are being asked to undertake a little extra work and write a letter to Gordon Brown – for the sake of people who wish to study there in the future.

Peter Davies, principal of City Lit, is concerned that the Government's desire to promote what it terms "informal adult learning" may herald the decline of traditional classes and leave many learners to study alone with little more than the support of the internet.

A consultation paper published in January by the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills appears to focus heavily on the use of IT as a study aid and says little about the role of qualified teachers. Davies sees this as a potential erosion of quality. "The risk for us is that people will say there is so much going on through the internet that it's no longer necessary to fund more expensive adult education classes," he says.

More than 24,000 students enrol on part-time courses at City Lit each year. Like other adult colleges, it has been forced to raise fees as support from Learning and Skills Council has been reduced.

According to Davies, it is vital that students respond to the government paper - Informal Adult Learning: Shaping the Way Ahead – as ministers are more likely to take notice of comments from learners. "A lot of older learners consider coming to City Lit part of their life. They're concerned that they won't be able to do it in future," he says.

During the past 20 years, Nigel Pollitt has studied everything from jazz and creative writing to neuro-linguistic programming at City Lit. He agrees that the Government is placing too much emphasis on Google, Wikipedia and even the Discovery channel while overlooking the merits of classroom teaching.

A newspaper subeditor, Pollitt says it is impossible to say whether adults enrol on courses as a hobby or to expand their professional interests. But he is keen for students to make their voices heard before consultations close in mid June. "The main thing about being in a class is that you have professional tutors who check whether you understand things," he says. "You get interaction all the time."

Other organisations welcome the Government's belated recognition of adult learning that is not directly related to vocational skills, while warning that teaching must not become marginalised. Later this month, the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education will run its annual adult learners' week where people are encouraged to participate in bite-size classes as a step towards longer courses. According to Niace, the number of adults taking LSC-funded courses has fallen by 1.4 million during the past two years.

Sue Meyer, Niace's director of policy, is urging the Government not to ignore "the key role of competent and inspiring teachers". Self-help groups, highlighted in the consultation paper, are more likely to be used by well-off adults who have already received a good education. "They won't meet the needs of people in disadvantaged areas if the learning infrastructure isn't there," she says.

Dan Taubman, senior national official at the University and College Union, says self-learning should not be compared with attending classes led by a qualified teacher. "It's a starting point rather than the complete thing," he says.

The UCU stresses that any expansion of informal adult learning must not be used as a fig-leaf for cutting classes. "It's a mark of a civilised country that anybody should be able to involve themselves in adult education," says Taubman.

The Government argues that spending on adult learning will rise by £600m to £4.8bn during the next three years. A budget of £210m is set aside to support courses that are not linked to vocational training, although this has not been increased since 2005.

The Workers' Educational Association, the largest provider of adult courses in the voluntary sector, wants greater clarity over what the Government means by informal learning and says IT should be blended into structured learning, not used in isolation. "Some adults will be more able to meet their learning needs through such media," says WEA general secretary Richard Bolsin. "All of us benefit from structured support involving teaching and face-to-face experiences with fellow students."

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