Kate Malone/Kay Smith

A movement known by a variety of names throughout the world was actually born in Britain: in Switzerland it is a "Lernfestival", in Germany a "Lernfest", and in South Africa it goes under the original British name of Adult Learners Week (ALW). Fatima Pandy reported on the South African experience in issue No. 50. It is of interest to go back to the beginnings. – The two authors wrote this paper as staff members of the National Institute for Adult Continuing Education in England and Wales at a time when Hungarian colleagues were interested in the idea and the experiences gained in order to draw lessons for such a proposal in their own country. NIACE is still responsible for coordinating ALW, which plays an increasingly important role both in Britain and, through the European Association for Adult Education, in a growing number of European countries.

Kate Malone/Kay Smith

Live and Learn – A Review of Adult Learners Week

There is a widespread problem in the UK and throughout Europe: large numbers of adults, particularly in socially excluded groups, neither have nor seek education and training opportunities. They learn as young people that education and training are for others.

In seeking to extend learning opportunities to adults who are currently under-represented, providers must inevitably look at how demand can be stimulated. Radio and television have a major impact on most people’s lives – shaping the agenda of public debate, informing our roles as active citizens, stimulating curiosity, and occasionally teaching. Television is free at the point of use for many people, reaches adults in their own homes, and is more pervasive than any other education and training medium. The media have the ability to arouse curiosity, and to give people the confidence and the motivation to find out more, and to participate in learning activities.

Since 1992, Adult Learners Week has been used in the UK to arouse interest and widen participation by bringing together various strands: the media, educational providers, guidance workers and policy-makers. Adult Learners Week in the UK was adapted from a model developed without strong media links and telephone guidance in the United States. Its purpose is simple and straightforward – to celebrate existing adult learners in all their diversity in order to encourage others to participate.

For the last six years, NIACE has had a stream of international visitors sharing in the celebration of Adult Learners Week, and the initiative has now spread to Australia, the Czech Republic, South Africa, Switzerland, Belgian Flanders, Jamaica, Slovenia, Germany, Norway and Finland. This expansion has in part been supported by funding from the European Union’s Socrates Programme.

Key elements of the Adult Learners Week experience in the UK, which are reflected elsewhere, are:

  • media involvement
  • advice and guidance for potential learners
  • awards to celebrate learning achievements
  • local partnerships
  • political lobbying
  • funding
  • evaluation

Media Involvement

A distinctive feature of the Week in the UK has been the willingness of all four terrestrial television channels, cable and satellite television channels, BBC and commercial radio stations to collaborate in supporting a national guidance helpline and thousands of locally organised events.

During the 1998 Adult Learners Week, the BBC mounted one of its biggest social action campaigns, "Computers Don’t Bite", which provided a link between TV and a practical activity, and was aimed at giving absolute beginners some basic IT skills. Over 210,000 people called a national telephone helpline, and 94,000 people attended "taster" sessions, delivered locally in libraries, supermarkets, pubs and colleges by 4,000 providers.

The scope of media support for Adult Learners Week events in other countries has varied. Radio and television have provided generous coverage in South Africa and Australia, for example, whilst in Flanders, advertisements on television have been commissioned and paid for by the organisers.

The experience in the UK is that collaboration is easier with broadcasters which have a statutory obligation to promote learning. Education has been a core activity of the BBC ever since its charter, written in 1926, specifically referred to the dissemination of "information, education and entertainment". However, there is no statutory obligation on the main commercial TV channels in the UK (3 and 5) to provide educational programming. Nonetheless, the intrinsic interest of learners’ stories and creative Adult Learners Week events has been enough to secure coverage on virtually all commercial channels. A government estimate in 1994 suggested that broadcast coverage of Adult Learners Week would have cost £14 million to buy.

In Switzerland, the organisers found that newspapers and magazines were the most effective means of raising awareness. The recent Swiss Lernfestival generated around 1,700 newspaper and magazine articles.

Advice and Guidance

In the UK, a central feature of the Week has been the promotion of a national telephone helpline to deliver impartial advice and guidance about learning opportunities. At first, this free service was only available during the Week, but the number of calls demonstrated the need for a permanent helpline service to be established. In January 1998, the first permanent information helpline on learning opportunities was launched under the name "Learning Direct". As indicated above, it took nearly a quarter of a million calls during the 1998 Adult Learners Week.

From 1994, everyone claiming unemployment benefit has, in the two weeks leading up to Adult Learners Week, received a flyer containing details of the national helpline with their payment cheque, as an encouragement to ring the line. Research has shown the impact to have been dramatic. The flyer has become one of the largest single sources of calls; it has also had a strong impact on the profile of callers, the majority of callers being registered unemployed.

In 1998, a follow-up survey immediately after Adult Learners Week found that 38% of callers had since enquired about or applied for courses, and that 16% had actually enrolled in a course, while more than 75% said that the Adult Learners Week campaign had made them seriously consider the benefits of further education.

The freephone helpline element of the UK campaign has not been transferred widely to other initiatives, largely because of the huge commitment of providing the infrastructure to support it. In 1998, a free helpline was launched for the South African Adult Learners Week and promoted through radio, television and a poster campaign. However, when a freephone helpline was tried in Flanders, calls were answered automatically. The take-up was low and it was felt that the automated service had deterred callers.


One adult describes what learning has given him as "the confidence that there is life left after redundancy, even when approaching 50" (Edgar, individual award winner 1998).

"We have developed interpersonal skills by working with children, with adults with learning difficulties and as a team. We have learnt to listen to each other, value each other’s experience and respect each other’s opinions" (Totally Maracas, group award winner 1998).

A key aim of the UK Week since its inception in 1992 has been celebration, and one way of highlighting this has been through awards. These awards celebrate the achievements of those individuals, groups of learners and organisations involved in adult learning. The experiences of the award winners, which show the benefits of learning and the wide range of learning opportunities available, are highlighted through the press and the broadcast media in order to encourage others to develop the habit of learning. However, although each person is unique, the stories told by many of the award winners demonstrate adults’ common experience of having to overcome difficulties in finding the time or money to study, and other barriers to learning. But they also show that once people start learning, it can become compulsive.

In those states in Australia which have celebrated learners’ achievements with awards, the outcomes have been similarly positive. In Slovenia, for the first time in that country’s adult education history, fifteen individuals, groups and organisations were given awards in 1998 for outstanding achievements in exercising and promoting the concept of lifelong learning, and the awards ceremony was attended by senior representatives of the Government. The awards in South Africa focused not only on the adult learners but also on the achievements of the adult educators.

Local Partnerships

It is a strength of Adult Learners Week that its goals are varied and that it is owned by a great range of agencies. It is the permissive and inclusive structure of the Week that attracts sponsors, who offer support ranging from national posters to local events.

The success of the Adult Learners Week initiatives demonstrates that through creative collaboration, organisers can step outside their normal frame of reference in order to reach under-represented groups. Innovative outreach strategies involving the media are crucial to overcoming the prior experiences of failure among such groups.

A key feature of the UK Week is that NIACE organises as little as possible from the centre, but concentrates on widespread and early distribution of publicity material, and on the creation of a permissive and inclusive framework, within which organisations can set their own priorities. In many cases, the partnerships developed through planning Adult Learners Week activities have been instrumental in developing strategic lifelong learning forums.

The result is a huge amount of creative local activity, drawing in a range of learning providers, employers and trade unions, and leading to the organisation of events in public places and community settings, but outside formal institutions wherever possible.

This level of activity has been mirrored in all the Adult Learners Week initiatives world-wide. The 1998 Adult Learners Week in Slovenia stimulated over 1,750 events. In Switzerland, over 2,000 activities took place in all regions, with between 160,000 and 200,000 participants.

Political Lobbying

Improving opportunities for adult learners depends on capturing and sustaining interest in adults’ needs among the policy-making community – national and local politicians, administrators and institutional managers. This is a vital dimension of the role which Adult Learners Week plays in widening participation. The Week provides strong evidence to suggest that informal gatherings can in some contexts be a more effective tool of political persuasion than head-on confrontation.

In the UK, politicians are involved in the Week on both a national and a local level. Ministers launch conferences, events and research, and provide some funding. During the 1999 Week, Members of Parliament (MPs) were challenged to learn something new. They responded by trying a rich variety of activities: windsurfing, French, computing, Russian, pottery, bricklaying, dancing, spin bowling, sailing, horse riding, car maintenance....

Key politicians, policy-makers and education and training providers gather each year at a reception in the House of Commons during the Week. The event is hosted by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Adult Education on behalf of NIACE.

In other countries, politicians also play a key part in activities. In South Africa, national events involve Ministers and Government representatives; in Slovenia, the 1998 Week was launched by the President in the presence of the Minister of Education; in Australia, the Week has previously been launched in Parliament House by the Minister for Schools, Vocational Education and Training.


Most of the UK’s activities for the Week are funded by the European Social Fund, with other funds being received from government departments, major employers and employers’ organisations, foundations and trusts, and other European programmes. The financing takes different forms and includes contracts for work awarded under specific projects, donations in cash and kind, staff time, etc.

In other countries, financing is arranged differently. South Africa, for example, started off with no funding for the campaign, but sufficient money was eventually raised by temporary AETASA staff and an independent consultant.


Evaluation of a motivational strategy is exceedingly difficult. In the UK it includes the establishment of performance indicators before the Week in order to measure its success; in-depth evaluation of the key elements of the Week, such as award schemes, the telephone helpline and the involvement of national organisations; examination of press cuttings; and evaluation of local activities. Australia also undertakes an in-depth analysis of all elements of the campaign in order to set objectives for the next year.

Future Developments

It is increasingly widely accepted that motivation of new learners, and promotion of opportunities, are as much curriculum issues as student induction or course progression. Yet promotional initiatives are fragmented. Adult Learners Week successfully uses marketing techniques for educational purposes, but every evaluation makes the case for such initiatives at other times of the year. In the UK, NIACE has launched "Sign Up Now" and "Sign Up Again" campaigns for September and January, to complement Adult Learners Week, currently held in May in the UK.

In the run-up to the UNESCO International Conference on Adult Education (CONFINTEA) in Hamburg in July 1997, the UNESCO Institute for Education encouraged NIACE to support the idea that Adult Learners Week could become a UN event. The UK had rejoined UNESCO shortly after the present Labour Government took office, and Kim Howells, an Education Minister, agreed to promote the idea in his keynote presentation to CONFINTEA. After a great deal of lobbying, the proposal was adopted by the conference, and in the post-conference implementation meeting in Elsinore, Denmark, it was agreed that an international week would need to be built upon the success of International Literacy Day in September.

Subsequently, a regional seminar was held on Robben Island during South Africa’s Adult Learners Week, with participants from eight African countries, Jamaica and India, and from NIACE. UNESCO is at present formulating a strategy to launch the UN Week of Adult Learning in the year 2000.

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