Consistent with the 'looking back, moving forward' conference theme, in this paper we undertake a critical, research-based appraisal of the current, arguably neglected state of adult education in Australia in 2010, and proceed to paint a picture of how a different and potentially more positive future might be realised. Firstly, we emphasise situations (including states and territories) in Australia in which adult education is seen to be lacking or missing for particular groups of adults. Secondly we emphasise research evidence confirming the demonstrable value of learning for purposes other than those that are immediately vocational. We identify links between lifelong and life wide learning on one hand, and health and wellbeing on the other. Part of the paper involves international comparisons with other forms of adult learning that Australia might learn from, adapt or borrow. We make particular reference to research underpinning the recent Inquiry into the Future of Lifelong Learning by NIACE in the United Kingdom. Our first main conclusion has to do with equity. Adult and community education (ACE) in Australia is currently seen to be least available or accessible to those Australians with the most limited and most negative experiences of school education, but the most need to learn in non-vocational domains. These groups include older Australians, some men and women, people not in paid work, and rural, isolated and Indigenous people. Our second main conclusion is that, to realise adult learning's future potential, we need changes to government policies, research and practice that acknowledge and actively support the broader nature and value of learning for life across all age groups. To paraphrase research from Belgium by Sfard (2008), based around Beck's (1986) exploration of reflexive modernity, the adult education function of ACE is in dire straits, unless education is seen as being much more valuable than the sum of individual vocational competencies, and particularly unless it is also recognised, valued and supported as one of many valuable outcomes of social, lifelong and lifewide learning throughout the community.
This paper reports on research into community-based men's sheds in Australia, focusing on how regular activity in these sheds impacts on the informal learning experiences of the mainly older men who use them. It leads to an exploration and reflection on how men's learning experiences in such sheds might inform adult and vocational education in community contexts for older men in other national and cultural contexts. Shed-based activity in community settings is found to provide a critically important, positive and therapeutic, male-positive context that satisfies a wide range of needs not currently available to older men in more formal education settings or in typical adult learning providers. Men's sheds in community contexts provide an important and voluntary social and community outlet for older retired men, particularly for workin- class men who are less likely than other men and particularly women to participate in adult and community education. The research identifies the likely fruitfulness of more closely examining the role of informal learning in enhancing wellbeing through voluntary participation in community settings in other cultural and national contexts.