Don't neglect older learners

20 Oct 2009 The Guardian 22nd September

My dad is approaching 80. With the start of the autumn term, he is once again travelling around Suffolk and Norfolk teaching adult evening classes in subjects as varied as local history and jazz appreciation. Some of his students are many years his senior.

My father-in-law is 91. He still attends an art group and talks by visiting speakers at his retirement home. He also specialises in devising general knowledge quizzes for his fellow residents.

Neither of them, I'm glad to say, would fit anywhere near Shakespeare's description of the seventh age of man: "Second childishness and mere oblivion, sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything."

Both would, however, fit into the "fourth stage" of learning outlined by the hugely impressive report from the Inquiry into the Future of Lifelong Learning, published last week.

The inquiry proposes dividing the stages of learning into four age groups: 18-25, 25-50, 50-75, and 75+. It calculates that at present the proportion of spending on learning is tilted too heavily towards the under-25s.

It estimates the current spending ratio across these four groups is, respectively, 86:11:2.5:0.5. By 2020, it says, this should shift to: 80:15:5:1. While still leaving most money going to younger learners, this would double funding for the over-50s and over-75s.

The inquiry's premise is that "the right to learn throughout life is a human right". That alone would justify this rebalancing of resources. But it also makes a more practical case: as our society ages, by 2020 we will see the number of people under 25 fall by 9% and the numbers in the "fourth stage" rise by 28%.

Bearing in mind the evidence about the impact of learning on physical and mental health, employment and social engagement, there is a compelling case for increasing public spending on all types of adult education, including holiday Spanish or pilates, which are sometimes dismissed by government ministers as less worthy of public subsidy.

But we know these are tough times for public spending. Gordon Brown has finally used the "c" word. There will be spending cuts. Education cannot hope to escape unscathed, and some areas, such as schools, tend to get more protection than others. The Lifelong Learning inquiry could not have come out at a less propitious time.

The inquiry has been shrewd. It has not pressed for a big increase in public spending, even though its report hints at some of the broader savings education could bring by, for example, reducing the incidence of depression in the population or delaying the entry of the elderly into care. Instead it has played into Lord Mandelson's strategy of "wise" rather than "big" spending.

Ever since the Leitch report, the adult learning budget has been targeted at job-related training for recent school-leavers. That shift has gone too far. It takes no account of our ageing society and the reality that one-third of our adult lives is now likely to be spent in retirement. Nor does it recognise changing patterns of employment, with 15% of the population aged 65-69 still economically active.

As the inquiry notes, public spending on education is already distributed on the basis of "to him that hath shall be given". The young, better educated and wealthier receive the giant's share.

Of course, as we seek to escape recession, there must be investment in skills training. But it is time for a better balance. Adult education is struggling. In my area, there is a good range of classes available. But prices are not cheap: £166 for a term of Spanish lessons or £211 for a 31-week course in making soft furnishings.

When you compare the hours spent by 25- to 64-year-olds in formal learning, we are the dunces of Europe, averaging just over 100 hours a year, compared with well over twice that amount in most other countries.

With many more of us heading for long periods in retirement, increasingly living on meagre pensions, we will need something to keep us engaged, sociable and sane.

We could just sofa-surf, watching other people do things on telly, but lifelong learning would do more to keep us out of the hospital or the nursing home.

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