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A for adult literacy?

Previous programmes to address low or non-existent levels of adult literacy and numeracy have been, to say the least, perfunctory. So it is laudable to see at last a serious attempt being made, with serious money and serious intent, to tackle the issues in the round (page 4). The adult literacy team's report and the Scottish Executive's response show appropriate ambition and modesty at the same time. They recognise the scale of the problem and are determined it should be diminished, but they also have a sensible appreciation of the initial limitations.

Perhaps the most valuable observations in the report are those dealing with the quality of the learning experience which adults have a right to expect. They have to be treated as adults, it goes without saying, and we need to be more aware of how adults learn, as the report suggests. This is particularly true in the case of such a diverse group, who are also famously adept at disguising the extent of their reading, writing or numerical deficiencies. The report is right to remind us about the key challenge of encouraging those who may be satisfied with their literacy and numeracy levels to raise their sights and become dissatisfied. They need to be hooked by the excitement of it all, and a quality learning experience is therefore an essential ingredient. That is, in effect, the wider challenge for lifelong learning.

Another challenge loomed into view this week, reinforced by the bearing of another Executive gift of pound;24 million to help with the costs of childcare for further and higher education students. We have now reached the stage where the Executive's generosity in dispensing grants and loans to students is in danger of becoming a patchwork of confusion. And confusion is not likely to boost lifelong learning if it means that students are put off because they have to spend so much of their time unravelling financial packages. This week's announcements reinforced the confusion in the puzzling U-turn which will channel the literacy and numeracy cash through the local authorities instead of the FE colleges as originally planned. Meanwhile, the childcare money for HE students will be funnelled through the Students Awards Agency but the funds for FE students will be disbursed by the colleges. Then there are mature students' bursaries, lone parents' grants, dependants' grants, school meals grants - not to mention loans.

This is the kind of "cluttered landscape" which the parliamentary enterprise and lifelong learning committee was quick to criticise in its report last year on economic development. Its latest inquiry, into lifelong learning, needs to focus on this further example of clutter and confusion. Students need joined-up finance as much as joined-up government.

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