Berlin - An insight has finally entered the mainstream: a successful knowledge-based society needs people who are willing to update their skills throughout their lives, and it needs to ensure that they have the opportunities to do so.

'The institutions that make lifelong learning possible have often been beneath the radar of public perception. This could soon change with Berlin's first Adult Education Act, which comes into force on 1 August. The law is intended to help make more visible and strengthen the city-state's adult education institutions. Berlin is only emulating the rest of Germany: 14 out of the 16 states already have such a law on the books.

For state education minister Sandra Scheeres (SPD), the law is "an important contribution to successful lifelong learning in Berlin and will put this area of education on a new footing. I am pleased that this law is now available after much preparatory work."

Under the new legislation, the Volkshochschulen (adult education centres) in Berlin's 12 districts become a part of the legal framework, guaranteeing their existence. The same goes for the Landeszentrale für politische Bildung (State Centre for Political Education), which was almost shuttered before its recent move to the Amerikahaus. Such a closure would be unthinkable under the new law.

The Adult Education Act stipulates what courses are offered, outlines quality standards and secures funding for adult education counselling. People with choppy biographies will be advised by impartial bodies on how they can reposition themselves professionally through continuing education.

Photo: Thabo Thindi
Difficult to replicate online: human interaction.

Beyond the Volkshochschulen, many other organisations exist in the capital to provide continuing education and retraining for adults. These can now be certified by the Senat as "recognised adult education institutions" and subsequently apply for funds from a new dedicated budget. This is a smart procedure "to get an overview of the whole continuing education landscape in Berlin," says Dr Ulrich Raiser. He's in charge of adult education in the education department and a chief architect of the law. He says that through targeted funding of innovative projects - such as "education for sustainable development" - the administration can have greater influence on the type of courses on offer.

Language courses during the refugee crisis

Today, Berlin's Volkshochschulen are a far cry from their fuddy duddy reputation. Many still think they mainly offer macramé courses for older women. That cliché is a far cry from reality: 60 to 70 per cent of the classes on offer are language courses, including many for German as a foreign language, which make an enormous contribution to the integration of migrants. The courses are considered high quality and are extremely cheap compared to those offererd by private language schools. During the refugee crisis, for example, Berlin's Volkshochschulen played a vital role. Within a matter of weeks, a wide range of new courses was launched - and more than 10,000 learners were quickly provided with a German course.

Another major focus of the Volkshochschulen is literacy: an estimated 300,000 adults in Berlin are functionally illiterate, meaning people with third grade reading skills or lower, a huge disadvantage when it comes to participation in public life. At the Lernhaus, a pioneering literacy project at Volkshochschule Neukölln, people receive the support they need to boost their self-confidence and prepare for finding work. 

For Michael Weiss, director of Volkshochschule Mitte, the law is "a big step. For the first time, we are leaving the realm of 'nice to have' - continuing education is becoming a compulsory duty of the state. And hopefully that also means that the Volkshochschulen will be better able to hold their own in the battle for scarce resources."

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