Festival of Learning is needed now as much as ever

Adult Learners’ Week is built upon two simple propositions – first, that celebrating adult learners in all their diversity will encourage others to join in. And second, politicians and decision makers will better recognise that adult learning has a positive contribution to make across the range of social policy through the stories of outstanding adult learners. It was also designed as a major national and local celebration of activity far from the public.

At its heart of the Week are the stories of learners like Fred Moore who was celebrated in 2001. As the oldest learner in the country, at the age of 108, he studied art and French at his residential home in New Milton Hampshire, who with twenty other centurions who had come to a ministerial reception in London. A taxi driver I spoke to after the reception commented: ‘He’s twice as old as me, but with twice the gumption. I’d better take up learning myself!’

Castleford Women’s Centre, who were group award winners in 1993, illustrated that together we often learn more than we learn on our own.  The Centre was created by miners’ wives after the end of the miners’ strike in the 1980s, arguing that now it was time for them to grow. Anyone who visited the centre could see the warmth, creativity and vibrancy of effective learning communities.

Adult learning often plays an important role in helping people re-engage after a period of mental or physical ill health – offering a safe space to rebuild confidence, and re-find the energy to transform their lives.

No one illustrates that better than Lesley Reece, the 2016  regional winner – who after four years of agoraphobia – was persuaded to join a jewelry class by her daughter. She enjoyed the class, and within two years had taken twenty classes, ranging from arts and crafts to English and Maths: as well as taking up volunteering for Inspire Women in Oldham.

English and Maths often presents challenges to adults. Scott Quinnell, the distinguished international rugby player, thought as his career came to an end that he had to sort out his literacy skills. Like many others, having overcome the barrier to getting started, and with new skills learned, he became a wonderful advocate, going into factories and workplaces to encourage others to join in.  In the same way, we celebrated ex-prisoners who learned to read in prison, went back after release to help offenders in the belief that reading gives you better options once you leave.

The cross-border Irish women’s studies group that met at the heart of the Troubles to find common understandings; the Salford fish and chip shop that spawned a learning centre next door and fostered the regeneration of its area; the pub offering a pint, a prospectus and a computer class; the Bengali Women’s Support group; the Highfield Rangers Football Club that explored its history as an African Caribbean football club in a white league – all offer illustrations of the ways adults can work together to learn their way out of their difficulties.

Yet for all this creativity, there is a continuing need to remind decision makers that the modest investment adult learning commands pays back over and over. There is a need to re-engage adults who were put off learning at school, at home or at work, so that they can discover that people like themselves do change their lives through learning.

In the end, they can then say as 1993’s Welsh winner Siwla Mills put it: ‘Don’t wait for the wind. Seize the oars.’

No question then. Festival of Learning is needed now as much as ever.