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All generations have the right to learn

HOW far should the Government go to support the creation of a lifelong learning culture in Britain?

The Kennedy report was clear. Learning Works argued that there should be public support for everyone to level 3 (A-level). At that level, demonstrable benefits to individuals from further investment in learning kick in.

Below that level, we have workers inadequately skilled for the vast bulk of the new technology-rich jobs on which economic prosperity rests.

The second report of the Skills Task Force came to the same conclusion in respect of 19 to 24-year-olds, but the third report settled for level 2 for other adults, albeit with level 3 as an aspiration.

Neither argument has yet won the day with the Department for Education and Employment or the Treasury.

The first technical report on funding, January's contribution to the stream of Government consultations on the Learning and Skills Bill and related policy, recognises the need for an entitlement for 16 to 19-year-olds.

If the Skills Task Force has persuaded the Government on 19 to 24-year-olds, it seems we shall have to wait until later in the year to find out, as the Chancellor's spending review works its way through the system. In this, as in much else in the detail of the policy, the aim seems to be to create a two tier system, in which overwhelming priority is given to the needs of labour market entrants.

There can be no argument against a policy that seeks to make sure that all young people access the confidence, skill and choice learning offers.

It must be one of the cornerstones of an effective lifelong-learning culture. But a focus on labour market entrants will not be enough for the economy.

And as Local Solutions, the Skills Policy Action Report on learning for neighbourhood renewal, shows, social exclusion will only be overcome through the patient involvement of all ages in local communities.

The Government recognises this in many of the supply-side measures in the Bill and accompanying policy paper. The bringing together of adult learning in the workplace, in the college sector and in community settings will lead to less haphazard and fragmentary gains. That the Employment Service signed up to the funding document holds out the prospect that the New Deal will soon be joined up with the wider DFEE policy.

The increased resources committed to further education makes possible a reinfored priority for 16 to 19-year-olds without adults needing to lose out.

And the decision to make bursaries available for mature students in higher education shows a willingness to shift policy that has negative consequences.

And yet the loose drafting of clause 3 of the Bill tells a wider story. This is the clause that says adults are entitled to "reasonable"' provision. It then explains that "reasonable" means provision of a quantity and quality that the council can reasonably be expected to make in the light of its resources.

The clause ends up suggesting that, while standards for young people are inviolable, they don't much matter for adults.

A case of never mind the quality feel the width.

The same approach informs the Government's proposals over inspection, where the Adult Learning Inspectorate risks looking like a second string operation. It would take just a small tweak to the Bill for Office of Standards in Education to lead joint inspections in sixth-form and tertiary colleges, and for the Adult Inspectorate to lead in general further education.

Though the change would be small, it would have the powerful effect of showing that it is possible to have a policy that emphasises young people's needs without sacrificing the aspirations of adults.

The importance of entitlement for 16 to 19-year-olds is the recognition it gives that there can be no going back on the resources needed to include every young person in the learning society.

The Skills Task Force does a useful job in making clear that the same pressures are there for the next age cohort, and that they will need a similar commitment. The case for older adults is more complex. We do need to sort out fees.

The Government certainly needs to think through what to do next in those sectors of the economy where the latest incitement to employers to train voluntarily fails again to secure learning opportunities for workers.

But it is, I think, essential that the same symbolic commitment is given to the creation of a society in which old and young have a right to learn.

An adult entitlement might need a different balance of expectations about who pays.

It might not be achievable all at once. But it is as necessary to making the policy work as the welcome supply-side measures in the Bill.

Alan Tuckett is director of the National Institute of Adult and Continuing Education.

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