Adult Learners’ Week is both a national celebration and a living showcase of how adult learning changes lives, says Nick Stuart

There is nothing like the power of anecdote to bring alive a policy discussion and give colour to the drab array of statistics that usually substitute for debate. Adult Learners’ Week reminds those who make policy what lifelong learning means to individuals. It demonstrates how learning brings a new richness to people’s lives; gives new confidence to many for whom  learning, let alone qualification, represents an often unimaginable ordeal; and encourages many to re-engage with their communities.

As a director-general, first for lifetime learning under the Conservatives and then for lifelong learning with the arrival of David Blunkett as Education Secretary, I was a regular attendee at Adult Learners’ Week. It gave me inspiration and context, and determined where I would put my efforts when I retired from Whitehall. In 2001, I joined the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education (NIACE). In numerous ways, NIACE has inspired and pioneered work that has influenced the Department for Education’s thinking.

Over the past two decades, at different times, it has managed innovative community learning programmes funded centrally. These programmes have inspired local initiatives all over the country. They have had their origin primarily, in the work locally that animates Adult Learners’ Week and shows how central adult learning is to local cohesion and community development.

This week needs to look forward in anticipation of new initiatives as well as back on the year’s achievements”

In 1997 and immediately thereafter, policy attention turned to the national disgrace of an adult literacy rate that left almost 20 per cent of the nation with a reading age of 11.  Following Sir Claus Moser’s report, A Fresh Start – improving literacy and numeracy, the Government established a major programme to improve adult literacy. In today’s more austere times, that work continues.

Sir Claus’s analysis was influenced by the work and thinking of the Basic Skills Agency and of NIACE, and underpinned the decision-making and policy development that followed both on adult literacy and numeracy. Recent reports from NIACE carry that thinking forward and have fed into and influenced current government action. Every year, Adult Learners’ Week reinforces the case for adult literacy programmes and demonstrates indelibly what can be achieved.

The week acts as a catalyst to bring policy, action and real outcomes together; both to promote what works outstandingly well on the ground and to stimulate new ideas and thinking. It is not, however, simply a one-off week of celebration but rather the culmination of a huge amount of activity, locally and nationally. It needs to look forward in anticipation of new initiatives as well as back on the year’s achievements.

I am chairing a review of how Adult Learners’ Week is working. It is already clear that this imaginative festival, widely copied around the world, continues to have enormous vitality and appeal. But after 20 years, it is worth examining what it achieves, which of its many activities works best, and how to enhance its impact so that it beams down even more directly on illuminating and stimulating policy development.

Nick Stuart, president, NIACE