The challenges and tasks facing adult education are becoming neither fewer nor easier. Whenever political, social and cultural problems need to be resolved, there are pleas for help. This is true both in the priority area of combating poverty, which will not succeed through economic achievements alone (can it succeed without education and training?), in intercultural dialogue, which demands knowledge of the Other and the Alien (who is to provide this, and how?), and in the field of education itself, as the results of PISA show (not in this case the leaning tower in Italy but the Programme for International Student Assessment), when it is suddenly realized that adult education can to an increasing extent compensate for pupils’ shortcomings (alongside improved school education). But when adult education itself calls for help because the arrangements for delivering it are becoming more difficult, state subsidies are falling rather than rising, professional and institutional advances are being put into reverse rather than built on, and legislation and funding are adequate only in exceptional cases, then it is not so easy to find willing ears, effective assistance and supportive allies.
Major international conferences often provide the framework for measuring what has been achieved – following each of them, an assessment is made after a gap of some five or six years: Copenhagen (the social summit), Beijing (the conference on women), Rio (the environment), and so on. For those of us working in literacy and adult education, these milestones are CONFINTEA (the international conference held every 12 years, most recently in 1997 in Hamburg) and Dakar, the World Education Forum held in 2000, which set new targets under the banner of Education for All. We are now preparing to examine what has been achieved at next autumn’s UNESCO General Conference, three years after Dakar and six years after Hamburg, half way through the actions proposed in the Hamburg Declaration and the Agenda for the Future. We shall be recalling key demands and commitments such as: “we commit ourselves to promoting the culture of learning through the ‘one hour per day for learning’ movement and the development of the United Nations Week of Adult Learning”. The second of these has in fact been implemented with some success, festivals of learning of various types being held in almost 50 countries in 2002.
The Dakar Framework for Action sets six major goals, including: “(iii) ensuring that the learning needs of all young people and adults are met through equitable access to appropriate learning and life skills programmes; (iv) achieving a 50 percent improvement in levels of adult literacy by 2015, especially for women, and equitable access to basic and continuing education for all adults”. It is pleasing that a wide variety of initiatives, action plans and even “fast track countries” can indeed be identified, and it is fair to say that these are promising because they combine national political will with resources and are backed by international support. But it is shocking that too many countries are half-hearted in their attempts to do their bit to tackle what is, admittedly, the huge challenge of halving the number of illiterates (currently 900 million). And it is disappointing that it is already clear that the holistic view and the spirit of Dakar are increasingly being narrowed down to school education for children, even though the importance of this should not be understated in regretting the neglect of adults.
The majority of the articles collected in this issue are concerned with the reality of adult education in the form of basic education, literacy, environmental education, vocational continuing education, cultural orientation, health education, etc. They are thus reports of “shop floor” efforts to attain major adult education targets of improving living conditions – with or without the sanction or recommendations of international forums. They also contain oblique calls for more support, so that such examples of good practice can be applied more widely. If we keep on knocking, the door will one day be opened.
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