Adult Learners’ Week rightly celebrates its award winners. But what of the future? With a spending review looming in June, David Hughes wonders what the prospects are for adults who catch the learning bug now

The National Institute of Adult Continuing Education strives for a society in which all adults have opportunities to learn throughout their lives. We know that it brings all sorts of benefits for ourselves, our families, our communities, our work as well as for the economy of the country.

Ultimately a learning society will have more people living healthy, fulfilling lives in stronger communities and as part of a more prosperous economy.

Adult Learners’ Week is a chance every year to celebrate people who have achieved amazing things. Their stories are truly inspiring: these are people who now have fulfilling careers, who are dynamic members of their communities, who have vastly improved their health.

During the week the publicity we gain and the thousands of local events nudge all sorts of people to have a go at learning, often for the first time in many years. Unsurprisingly, this is often a trigger to go on to more formal learning and on to achieving great things.

The week’s winners achieve exceptional things, often overcoming tough barriers and challenges. But thousands of others have similar stories to tell. Learning for adults is like that – it helps people transform their lives and has many wider benefits.

This year, though, it is difficult not to look ahead with trepidation and to wonder whether our winners will be the exception in the future. With a spending review due in June and with tough cuts looming, I wonder what the prospects are for adults who catch the learning bug now and want to learn over the coming years.

Many adults who return to learning need extra support to get started, latitude to try different things before they find the right route, and understanding when the messiness of life and other responsibilities causes hiccups in their progression.

Adult Learners’ Week is critical in reminding politicians about how learning works”

Many adults don’t know what they want from their learning at the outset; that is in part the beauty of it, it opens minds to new ways of thinking, to knowledge, greater self-awareness and to opportunities. My worry is that extra support and time to decide is harder to offer when funding gets tighter.

My greatest fear is that the only learning on offer for adults will become narrow, and prescriptive, that it will presume that, right at the start, they will be able to make simple, rational choices of which qualification to go for and where they want to get to from.

Learning for adults has to be more than that; it has to allow people to grow, to develop, to find out about themselves and what they are capable of – it has to help them to learn about themselves and the world around them.

When it does do that it nearly always helps them to achieve other things – to find work, get a better job, to volunteer, to help with caring and so on. Those are the wider benefits of something very personal.

For me, then, Adult Learners’ Week this year is critical in reminding politicians and their advisers about how learning works, what it achieves and what would be lost if funding cuts bite too hard. That’s why we invited previous winners to our parliamentary reception and why we have sent invitations to all of our awards ceremonies – both national and regional – to the constituency MPs of this year’s winners.

Winners’ stories make more of an impact sometimes than a raft of statistics or a myriad of research findings. In the end, I don’t really mind what influences the investment as long as it helps other people achieve what our winners have achieved.

David Hughes, chief executive, NIACE