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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 17, Number 2, October 2004

Adult education is the safety net

by Lynda Toews

K–12 teachers have been laid off, and schools have closed all over B.C., but you have probably heard little about what is happening in adult education (AE) programs around B.C. With the exception of Vancouver Island North, most adult education programs have been untouched by the cuts.

Like Hilda Hufflepuff, legendary Hogwarts educator, adult education teachers in B.C. used to "teach all the rest." Unlike Hufflepuff, who presumably admitted only those in their 11th years, AE teachers were willing to teach individuals of any age past 16, although the under-19 students were in the minority. Underage students were supposed to have been out of school for at least a year before entering an adult program.

Increasingly, "adult" students are younger, and older students are finding it harder and harder to complete their high school education.

School districts receive significantly more money for under-19 students than they do for those over 19. In addition, adult programs tend to be run more cheaply than traditional K–12, so it is in the district’s interest to fill the adult education spaces with younger students. The district gets more money on a per-student basis and spends less than it would to educate that student in a regular program.

Unless they are working, being supported by someone, or independently wealthy, over-19 students cannot afford to attend, certainly not on a full-time basis. Those who have part-time work and fewer family responsibilities manage to attend some classes part-time, but adults on social assistance or EI are prohibited from attending classes during the day, even if the work they normally do is evening shift work.

Even the classes that cater to adult immigrants have seen a shift. Wealthy immigrants have usually made up the majority in many ESL classes, but now they are practically the only students who come. Refugees or immigrants from less wealthy backgrounds no longer join them in those classes.

There used to be programs to encourage people on UI [EI] or welfare, to upgrade, or complete their high school diploma. No longer.

There are a few exceptions to the rule, but mostly unemployed adults on income assistance are directed to short-term, life skills, job skills, or pre-employment programs, and sometimes they are given job placements in low-skill, low-wage jobs.

Why should teachers care? Because adult basic education and upgrading programs are the safety net of the education system. Without adult basic education and upgrading programs, students who now fall through the cracks will disappear into the abyss.

Lynda Toews is second vice-president of the Surrey Teachers’ Association.

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