Good afternoon everyone.
I want to start by thanking Alan Tuckett both for his kind words of introduction and for the many other things he has done since he arrived at NIACE in 1988.
As I’m sure you all know, Adult Learners Week 2011 will be Alan’s last as Chief Executive.
And I think that today, as we celebrate the 20th Adult Learners Week in NIACE’s 90th anniversary year, it’s a good time for me to acknowledge publicly the scale of Alan’s contribution to adult learning.
His example continues to inspire and challenge all of us who believe, like Henry Ford, that “Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at twenty or eighty”. And long may it continue to do so.
I know that Alan recalls clearly, as will some of you, just how bleak the prospects for adult learning looked back in 1991, when the first Adult Learners Week was held.
Funding changes were in the offing and it seemed unlikely that they would be for the better.
When policy-makers spoke about it at all, the term of art for informal learning was often “flower-arranging classes”.
And even where qualifications-bearing courses were concerned, people sought to distinguish between those which were economically useful and those which were economically useless.
Altogether, further education lagged far behind a higher education sector gearing up for its huge post-1992 expansion.
Contrast that picture with the position today.
Of course, not everything is perfect, but twenty years on, our movement is in a position of genuine strength.
For example, the changes that I have been able to announce in the last year alone give a proven, professional further education sector an unprecedented level of control over its own affairs and the incentive to engage more closely than ever before with local people, employers and community groups.
Moreover, the social, economic and cultural importance of adult learning and the part that those who provide it play in ensuring our national wellbeing have been lauded by virtually everyone in Government, from the Prime Minister down.
Of course, some people will sniff that Governments show what they really care about with money rather than words. But even if so, they cannot have failed to notice that in the tightest Budget of modern times, funding for informal learning has been protected by George Osborne and funding for Apprenticeships substantially increased.
But perhaps best of all, the insidious old idea that further education can be regarded as a less good version of higher education has been consigned to the dustbin of history, where it belongs.
As you will already be aware, it is the turn of the UK to host the prestigious international WorldSkills competition this year. I feel honoured and proud to be the Skills Minister overseeing this event for the UK and very much hope that you will join me in participating in the event in October. The WorldSkills London 2011 event will help us enormously in our shared task of raising the prestige of vocational skills and sharing expertise with 52 visiting countries.
In the run up to WorldSkills London 2011, a year-long programme of competitions and events has been organised to encourage people across the UK and internationally to ‘have a go’ at a skill that shapes our world- there are some “have a go” opportunities here today. This has already created a remarkable level of energy with a many schools, colleges and employers engaged across the UK as we enter the five month countdown to the event. And I know that NIACE is playing its part in promoting the value of adult and community learning through a range of activities connected to WorldSkills London 2011.
NIACE’s work and the annual showcase of Adult Learners Week have helped to teach Britain that no learning is wasted and that no form of knowledge or skill can be considered a luxury.
They have shown that the most important question is not whether one sort of learning is intrinsically more valuable than another, but whether the learning that a person is offered takes them closer to who they want to become, whether that person is more self-aware, more dexterous, more rounded, or simply better-paid.
Just as ambitions vary from one learner to another, so, too, do the ways in which they learn best, because learning is for everyone.
Winston Churchill once said “I am always ready to learn although I do not always like being taught”.
In that, his view was not unlike that of many of the people coming out of our schools system today, especially those who find themselves labelled as “NEETs”.
We must give them the opportunity to find out that there is more than one way to make learning their route towards a happier, more secure future.
For example, everyone knows that formal learning enables people to develop skills and achieve qualifications that get them employment. But, as hundreds of thousands of youngsters are finding out for themselves, that doesn’t necessarily mean sitting in a classroom. It could just as easily mean learning on the job by doing an Apprenticeship.
And other kinds of learning are important too. The kind of learning that happens through community volunteering, personal projects, reading groups, the University of the Third Age, or informal adult learning.
Learning like this inspires people today as it did in the heyday of bodies like the Workers’ Educational Association, when NIACE was first founded.
It has taken those who used to talk disparagingly about flower-arranging a surprisingly long time to realise that learning for its own sake develops the personal skills and self-esteem that can help people onto first step on the ladder towards structured learning and sustainable employment.
And learning that starts informally often leads to other things - friends, a new leisure interest, getting involved in community action, a hobby that becomes a successful small business or a volunteering experience that turns into a job opportunity. Learning opens doors - into people’s inner selves as well as to the outside world.
While I’m on that subject, some of you will know that we are reviewing our approach to informal adult learning to ensure that we are making the most of its potential.
This summer, we will launch a formal consultation on proposals emerging from the review process. And I’d like to ask all of you to encourage all your networks and contacts to contribute. The outcomes of the review will be published in late autumn 2011, to enable implementation to begin in August 2012.
The things I have been talking about so far are only the backdrop to why I am here today.
I’m absolutely delighted to have been invited to give awards to people engaged in two fields that I’m particularly passionate about: craft skills and community activism.
Let me say a little more about each:
I am especially excited to be awarding the Learning through Craft Award. The celebration of craft skills is of great social and cultural importance and we don’t yet do it enough in this country.
The more we recognise the skills of master-craftsmen and -women, the more people will admire their achievements, look up to them and in due course emulate them.
That’s why my Department is working with a wide range of bodies, including NIACE, to develop an exciting action plan that will help to reinvigorate demand for craft skills and raise their prestige.
Lydia Wall, the recipient of the Learning through Craft Award, is certainly someone to admire. She has shown enormous tenacity to overcome barriers, including homelessness that would have daunted most of us to start her own millinery business.
Another group of people that I personally admire greatly are the Community Learning Champions. They promote and support learning wherever they go - among friends, relatives, neighbours or the people they meet at the school gates and in local shops.
To be absolutely frank, I didn’t know much about them until I went to their conference a few months ago. They are a grassroots movement whose effect for the better on people’s lives is out of all proportion to their visibility, and their achievements certainly deserve to be much more widely known.
At their conference, I heard inspirational stories from learning champions and saw for myself just how they’re turning round their own lives and the lives of people around them.
Now you can hear their stories too.
In a moment we’ll look at a short film about this year’s Community Learning Champions award-winners. They have had a major impact by reaching out to disadvantaged communities in Norwich, using their own experience to inspire and support others.
For many of these champions, the remarkable achievement is that they have gone on to actually take part in informal learning, often for the first time since leaving school.
Theirs, and all the awards presented today, show what can be achieved with determination and the right kind of help and support at the right time. They reflect the fact that learning, in all its guises, enables people to achieve their dreams, change their own lives and support others to make the most of themselves.
So I hope you’ll join me now in applauding all our award-winners.