In the dark, long after the children have gone home and the gates are locked, schools become hives of activity.

Like a covert network, adults converge on empty classrooms to extend themselves in all sorts of ways. When the kids roll in the next day, there's no trace of what's taken place.

They were at it at Mt Roskill Grammar and hundreds of other secondary schools this cold Wednesday night: learning Thai cuisine, dressmaking, car maintenance, touch typing, English as a second language, Mandarin Chinese and the art of texting.

The Government spin is that the rest of us are victims of some rort: "Taxpayers should not be funding hobby and recreational courses like twilight golf, radio singalong, pet homeopathy, Moroccan cooking and concrete mosaics," says Education Minister Anne Tolley.

Even night school co-ordinators concede that many courses are more social in nature than stepping stones to a job or a pay rise.

And so the Budget announcement slashing funding for school-based night classes by 80 per cent - from $16 million to $3.2 million - failed initially to spark community revolt. "All sectors of the economy are affected by the economic situation and tertiary education is no exception," Tolley told the adult and community education sector group, ACE Aotearoa.

Night school may have seemed a soft target for a saving (however small) but the growing outcry suggests it is more deeply revered in our communities than the Government suspected. Labour has launched a petition to reinstate adult education funding and its education spokeswoman Maryan Street is railing about the shabby treatment of people wanting to "improve their skills, get back into formal education and improve their affordability."

That's the thing about night school. It caters for the spectrum of interests from the self-indulgence of children's party planning and Spanish classes to vocational courses such as accounting and touch typing. Even at mosaics, jewellery and floral art classes, the career-minded mingle with the purists.

But night school is about other things as well, says Mt Roskill's adult education co-ordinator Sue Blainey. "We see Indians, Pacific Islanders, Maori, European and Middle Eastern all coming together who might otherwise never talk to each other."

In the sewing room, Margrit Hack has taught dressmaking for 30 years. "Quite a few who come along are thinking of a job in this area. We get students coming in from fabric shops who want to learn to use the machines and those who want to work from home. People are really upset that they are cutting it for such a small amount really."

Next door at floral art, professional florist Margaret Bass has been taking classes since they began in the early-1970s. "My ladies come to learn but they also come to socialise.

"We do get some who intend to become professional florists and people who work in a shop and want to further their abilities."

Across the courtyard at car maintenance, blokes standing around an engine block include 16-year-old Jack Anderson, an Auckland Grammar student who's thinking of becoming a mechanic. "It's helping me to understand quite a lot about how everything works," he says.

Blainey owes her job to night school. She was out of the workforce for several years raising children. When she set out to resume paid work, technology had moved on. "I had never even touched a mouse."

She enrolled in a word processing course at her local school. "Without night school I would not have been able to apply for this job.

Sewing classes attract new migrants intending to become machinists; English as a second language classes help those struggling to get a job. Night school groupies hop from Japanese to finger food to welding or repeat the same course in search of perfection. For some, it is their only social contact.

"I can understand the Government saying no to cooking classes but then you see people coming together in class as a community, developing friendships by sharing a meal and discussing each country's culture - the benefits are so much wider," says Blainey.

Glenfield College principal Ted Benton says community groups will miss the funding schools are required to distribute for programmes such as macrame for the elderly. "For these people it's the highlight of their week. It's not the macrame they look forward to, it's the social contact - it must save a small fortune on the health budget.

"Whether it's belly dancing or yoga or Thai cooking these courses enable people to get out of the house and do something in the community.

"These things keep communities together and keep people active. If they had to charge market rates they would close down."

At Aorere College in Papatoetoe, co-ordinator Pam Peters says the cuts will have a big impact on those who have struggled at school or spent time out of the workforce. "Many people struggle to improve their literacy and foundation skills and night school is an opportunity to regain confidence.

"The line between what may be hobbies and valuable learning is really very fine."

Peters says about 3000 South Aucklanders a year pass through classes at Aorere and she has noticed an increase in unemployed enrollees this year. "If you take away the thread the community unravels."

She cites cooking classes for men who have never cooked before which lead to healthier lifestyles for them and their families.

Which is nice but, according to Tolley, in straitened times the country can't afford such added value. As bean counters scoured the books for state sector savings before the Budget, Moroccan cooking classes must have reeked of extravagance.

But the decision runs counter to concepts long-enshrined in education policy - such as lifelong learning so people can fully participate in economic and social life and increasing participation by under-represented groups.

Adult education is part of the 2007-2012 tertiary education strategy which talks of "the need to address the disparities that exist for populations such as Maori; Pasifika peoples; people with disabilities; migrants and refugees; students from lower socio-economic backgrounds; and people needing to upskill in order to re-enter the workforce."

However the strategy also mentions the need to place more emphasis on learning that contributes to national and local economic and social goals.

A Pricewaterhousecoopers' study for ACE Aotearoa estimated the adult education sector's economic impact at between $4.8 and $6.3 billion. This equates to a return on investment of $16-$22 for each dollar of Government funding, says the 2007 report.

"A key economic benefit is increased income for adult users because of subsequent involvement in paid or higher-paid employment. Benefits were also realised through savings in welfare benefits, crime and health, value added through enhanced community participation and increased taxes."

It noted many participants were from lower socio-economic circumstances so there is "a greater marginal return in improving the outcomes for these adult learners."

In class, there is resentment that the night school budget has been slashed by $12.8 million a year while the "privileged few" in private schools get a $35 million funding boost over four years.

ACE estimates many course fees would at least triple under a full user-pays regime. Typical seven-week courses which now cost $40 to $60 may cost $150 to $200 - beyond the reach of many current attendees. Fees will need to cover not just tutor and administrator wages but school costs including power, cleaning, caretakers' wages and classroom rentals.

Night school enthusiasts tend to argue that almost any course has broader than self-interest benefits. Pilates and aerobics, for example, help those who can't afford a gym membership to ward off obesity, saving the health budget. Ditto the potential of flower arranging to stave off depression or, in rural areas, enrolment in you-name-it to beat isolation.

"For people stuck at home all day, exercise classes are good for physical and mental health," says Blainey.

Maryke Fordyce, president of the Community Learning Association which represents school co-ordinators and tutors, says even cooking classes have a numeracy component. "You have to know how to measure, how to add up ingredients for a recipe."

Courses offered are based on a community needs analysis. If people don't roll up, they are dropped. "We've done surveys to death on what communities want and that's what we provide," says Fordyce, "so go figure."

But given the infinite array of classes, there's undoubtedly an argument for some criteria tightening, after a Rodney Hide-like exercise to define core funding and reset priorities.

Fordyce says given time to get its house in order the sector could have identified savings. "We were prepared to do our bit but we weren't even asked." Instead the Government has narrowed the field to just literacy and numeracy courses and foundation education skills which, according to ministry figures, just 2600 people attended in schools last year.

Fordyce is concerned that other community agencies already provide literacy and numeracy courses.

And Labour's Maryan Street claims courses which may seem to be exploiting the public trough - such as the fabled Moroccan cooking class - may already be unsubsidised, depending on their cost.

Of course, it's possible the market will prevail and courses in music appreciation, belly dancing, dog obedience and reflexology will survive. But it's equally arguable that customer service skills, web design basics, heavy vehicle theory and building self-esteem will not.


Budget cuts for adult education in schools take effect next year with "only a small number" of schools expected to receive funding, restricted to literacy and numeracy courses and foundation education skills.

The following year, funding for polytechnic, university and wananga adult classes will be reduced by 50 per cent, from $17.7 million to $8.8 million.

The cuts may be a small portion of tertiary education savings, totalling $650 million over four years, but they risk alienating a swathe of voters.

Just how many is a minor mystery. A report for ACE Aotearoa estimated 409,000 people attended classes in 2006 at schools, universities, technical institutes and wananga. The Education Ministry estimates 250,000 took part in classes in 2007, about 162,000 in schools.

More than 200 schools offer courses. The Government subsidy means fees for a typical six to seven-week course are around $40 to $60 - though prices vary according to the community's ability to pay. It seems the $16 million went an awfully long way.

Schools are bulk-funded and are required to distribute 9.5 per cent of their funding to community providers.

Courses offered must reflect the five national priorities of adult education set under the previous Government. They are:

* Strengthen social cohesion.

* Strengthen communities by meeting community learning needs.

* Raise foundation skills such as spoken English and Maori, literacy and numeracy.

* Encourage lifelong learning.

* Target learners whose initial learning was unsuccessful.