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Last Updated: Saturday, 16 December 2006, 00:42 GMT
Adults abandon further education
By Mike Baker
Education correspondent, BBC News

adult class
The number of adults taking courses has fallen
For many decades now we have become accustomed to a steady rise in the number of people staying-on in education.

More 17 and 18 year-olds now continue to learn or train than ever before, although still not as many as in many other advanced economic nations.

Although some grumble about lowering standards, we have also seen a long-term rise in the proportion of 18 and 19-year olds going to university, despite the odd blip over tuition fees.

So it comes as a real, eyebrow-raising shock when official statistics for a key area of learning show not just a drop, but indeed a dramatic fall, in numbers.

But when these new figures, showing a huge fall in the number of adults in further education were published this week, there was no outcry, and no expressions of regret from government.

Why is there no alarm in government over this decline in learning?

Indeed, the new figures seemed to attract little government attention; they were quietly released, with no accompanying news release, on the Department for Education and Skill's website.

They showed that the number of adults in FE, aged over 19, fell last year by 16.9%. That represents almost 600,000 fewer adults on courses in FE Colleges.

There was a further fall of almost 10% in the numbers on Adult and Community Learning. That is some 85,000 fewer people taking the variety of day and evening classes run by local councils.

Taken together that is a staggering total of close to 700,000 adults who are no longer on courses at sub-degree level.

That is seven Wembley stadiums worth of adult learners. It dwarfs the tiny drop in applications to university this year.

Of course, these adult learners were doing all sorts of different types of learning. Some would have been on very short courses; others would have been taking what are sometimes called, rather disparagingly, "leisure classes".

No alarm

Yet, why is there no alarm in government over this decline in learning?

The answer is that this is the direct (if not intended) outcome of a deliberate strategy to focus the adult learning budget on two priorities: 16 to 19 year-olds and economically useful qualifications at either "basic skills" level or Level 2 (the equivalent of GCSE).

mechanic
The government wants to target funds at young people

So, while the number of adults in FE has dropped dramatically, there was a 2.3% increase in the number of 16 to 19 year-olds in FE.

But should this small increase in 16 to 19 year-olds be at the expense of such a large drop in older adult learners?

And if, as some claim, we have lost thousands of short, leisure courses in order to fund longer, economically useful courses, does it matter?

In a recent speech, the Education Secretary, Alan Johnson, explained the government's argument for the new priorities in FE funding.

He began by saying he was "a huge fan of all further education, whether it is tai chi or technical engineering, plumbing or Pilates".

But he added that the principle of funding should be: the greater the national benefit, the more the state should pay; the greater the personal benefit, the more the individual should pay.

When this shift in focus began many in adult education predicted a cull of courses; but no one ever imagined that well over half a million places would go.

Closures and increased fees

A survey by the Association of Colleges found that the new funding strategy has caused both big fees increases for adult classes and outright course closures.

Several colleges reported a doubling of fees, the closure of community learning centres, and the abandonment of courses including: local history, digital photography, computer skills, flower arranging, foreign languages, crafts and English-for-speakers-of-other-languages.

adult class
Adult classes can promote social cohesion

Alan Johnson would argue that some of these courses are primarily for personal benefit, so the student should pay more.

But, is it really possible to say that some types of learning benefit the nation while others do not?

Another report produced with little fanfare from government suggests that every type of learning - even if it is not directly job-related - brings economic benefits to society, as well as huge social benefits to both individuals and society.

This report, published in October, comes from the Centre for Research on the Wider Benefits of Learning.

It concluded that the importance of learning is "wide-ranging, extending well beyond qualifications and economic success".

It found that there were measurable benefits in terms of health, behaviour, crime and tolerance.

For example, data from the USA shows that an extra year in education has a measurable impact on those reporting good health when they are older.

Beating depression

Meanwhile UK data shows that adults who have achieved at least O-level (GCSE equivalent) qualifications reduce their risks of depression by 6%.

There is even evidence to suggest that additional education reduces obesity. In Sweden, for men born between 1945-55, an additional year of education increased the chances of being a healthy weight from 60% to 72%.

Now you might think these benefits are really about how people did in school. But while the report acknowledges that school education does indeed have the greatest effect, adult learning "remains an important influence in positive outcomes in health and well-being amongst adults, whether or not they flourished at school".

Indeed it goes on to say that adult learning "may also have a role in redressing some of the existing health imbalances between different sections of the population, as there is a suggestion that the health benefits of adult learning may be greater for educationally disadvantaged people than for others".

The report concludes that the wider benefits of learning include the development of personal skills, such as the ability to communicate and socialise, and the ability to develop social networks.

These seem like pretty important skills at a time of great public concern over social cohesion.

Obesity, mental health, and community cohesion: all of these issues are high on the government's agenda.

If research commissioned by the government shows that extra education for adults brings benefits in all these areas, then it's a bit of a puzzle why ministers are not more concerned by the dramatic fall in the numbers of adults in FE and community education.




SEE ALSO
'Crisis looms' in adult education
13 Dec 06 |  Education
Adults 'lose out over jobs focus'
18 Oct 06 |  Education

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