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  • "Learning for Enterprise Communities"
    Valleys Initiative for Adult Education Conference

    In the European Parliament, I am a member of the Employment and Social Affairs Committee and, during the last year I have produced two opinion reports for this Committee on life long learning - one on the 1996 European Year of Life Long Learning and one on the European Union´s strategy for creating an European society based on learning. As far as the Employment and Social Affairs committee is concerned, I am now responsible for work on life long learning issues.

    Statistics show that one in 5 young people in Europe are unemployed, four out of five Europeans of working age will face a total change in employment within the next twenty years, two out of three over 55s are out of work (pre-retirement or unemployed) and 52 million people in Europe live below the poverty line.

    In the UK, 20% of the adult population is functionally illiterate - the worst record in Europe with the exception of Poland. Such a fact creates massive hidden problems for society - unemployment is five times greater for the illiterate and 60% of those in prison are illiterate.

    Identifying the problems is the easy bit, but the fact that across the UK only 250,000 of the 7 million adults who are functionally illiterate are on learning programmes of any description proves that we need to radically re-assess the way we deliver learning opportunities in practice.

    We all know that we need to take education to cpeople in their own communities to increase employment, to improve the quality of life, and to build prosperous local economies.

    The figures show that it is those most in need of educational opportunities that are the least likely to have access to such opportunities.

    Even when opportunities are available, it is the most excluded who are the least likely to take them up. There is a serious and long standing problem of attitudes towards education and learning.

    The European Parliament has consistently stressed the importance of life long learning. The Parliament sees life long learning as fundamental to :

    * meeting the challenges of economic and sociasl change and sustainable development and to enable people to react to

    * changing demands at work

    * to securing the economic and social integration of all people by providing access to education and vocational training and to achieving equal opportunities between women and men.

    The problem as far as the European Parliament is concerned is that the European Commission does not really take on board the Parliament´s definition or the importance which the European Parliament places on this issue.

    The aim of the 1996 European Year of Life long Learning was :

    "the promotion of personal development and sense of initiative of individuals, their integration into working life and society, their participation in the democratic decision-making process and their ability to adjust to economic, technological and social change"

    In the opinion which I drafted in response to the European Commission evaluation of the success of this initiative, I came to the conclusion that the programme had probably been a success. Despite the fact that the year had quite limited financial resources, the national agencies received over 2000 projects of which the Commission selected 454. The projects during the year were extremely diverse - 70% were in the form of conferences, seminars or workshops, 18% included press and media activities and a further 18% were information campaigns.

    The main problem however was the fact that the European Commission's evaluation contained little or no information on whether the objectives of the year had been achieved and what initiatives had been successful "on the ground."

    For example, there was no analysis of how the initiative had affected people in rural areas and how to overcome travelling and geographibcal problems through the use of new technology. Similarly, there was little or no reference to the crucial role played by regional and local authorities in delivering the EU´s programme.

    Evidence of how communities have overcome the obstacles which we face would have been extremely useful for the development of life long learning initiatives in the valleys and across Europe.

    One of the points raised by the European Parliament in 1995 was the importance of working with small and medium sized businesses to raise awareness of the changes which new technology have brought to industry and the sources of funding that are available for industry to adapt to the changes. The business sector was only involved in 13% of projects and yet, the reasons for this low take up along with recommendations on how the situation could be improved in future were not included in the Commission's report.

    These figures are particularly disappointing as the European Commission White Paper on the Learning Society and the creation of a "Europe of Knowledge," published in 1995, identified the need to bring the education and business sectors closer together and the combating of exclusion as two of its five key objectives. A detailed analysis by the Commission might have helped to explain why these goals were only partially achieved.

    A disappointing 13% was also the participation reported from organisations which "specialised in equal opportunities and addressing the problem of social exclusion.".

    In my conclusions, I called upon the Commission to improve the quality of future evaluation reports so that they include sufficient information about best practice, an analysis of the role of elected regional and local bodies and to give greater emphasis to extending life long learning to sections of the population which have been ignored thus far and to widely desseminate these results. I very much hope that this will mean that in future organisations such as the Valleys Initiative for Adult Education can use the Commission's analysis to help to address issues such as those which we are discussing here today.

    I have also recently drafted an opinion report for the European Parliament's Employment Committee on the EU´s progress in implementing the 1995 Commission White Paper "Teaching and Learning - Towards a Learning Society." Again I was critical of the lack of a qualitative assessment of what has been achieved especially on a Member State, regional and local level or of the action taken in relation to specific target groups such as women, elderly workers and the disabled. I also called on the Commission to facilitate partnership building at the local and regional level by :

    "systematically disseminating information on innovative projects and examples of good practice, particularly related to the involvement of target groups such as families in disadvantaged areas, the unemployed and immigrants."

    I pointed out that "population groups which are threatened by social exclusion are often not aware of the importance of Lifelong Learning and, therefore, not reached by training measures"

    (and called upon the Commission to :

    "deploy more efforts to develop a positive attitude towards learning in particular among these target groups through the promotion of mentoring schemes and outreach work to consult with and involve potential learners in the development of learning opportunities.")

    The whole ethos of life long learning has to be based on the needs of the learner - he or she should see the practical benefit of learning. It is not simply about providing the opportunities - even if the valleys were to be over run with teachers and courses, life long learning may still not be effective unless opportunities were tailored to the needs of valleys people in their communities.

    I recently met with a delegation of University vice-chancellor's from the University of Wales to discuss my work. For them, it was the quality assurance procedure which made it difficult to "mainstream" life long learning opportunities. There was consensus that take up of life long learning opportunities was lowest amongst the lower social groups with the single biggest cause remaining student financing and student debt. Again a case of the have´s and the have nots - those most in need of education and training cannot financially afford it.

    If we are serious as a society about reaping the benefits of life long learning, we must move away from a learning culture based on hitting targets and getting results and towards a properly funded system with a new measure of success.

    To conclude, I believe that the key to making life long learning initiatives more effective lies in creating partnerships. We need all kinds of agencies and groups working together to overcome the problems. As far as my work on theses issues in the European Parliament is concerned, I would strongly welcome the opportunity to work closely with groups such as the Valleys Initiative for Adult Edducation and I would welcome any feed back.

    Jill Evans MEP
    Plaid Cymru

    Photo: Jill Evans