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All we wanted for Christmas;FE Focus

JUST occasionally Christmas brings you just what you wanted, and more besides. It was a bit like that this year for Lewis, my son, when his godfather sent him an Action Man who repeats the last thing said into his communications unit, and another friend gave him a dig-your-own-dinosaur kit, so he could do archaeology like his sister.

For me, the weeks leading up to Christmas had much the same effect. Governments seldom do more for adult learners than they promise to do - but David Blunkett's team have taken the framework of issues addressed in The Learning Age, imbued them with the spirit of Helena Kennedy, and won real extra money in the comprehensive spending review. And there is a good deal more money.

However, it is firmly linked to widening participation in higher, further and community education, and to partnerships. At a National Institute of Adult Continuing Education conference in December Jane Cowell, a key adviser to the Kennedy committee, talked of being "partnershipped out".

It is a feeling that will become common, as the Government seeks to secure joined-up government at a local level, and to overcome the mad inter-institutional competitiveness of the 1990s. Taking part in partnerships, and building the trust to make them work, takes a lot of time. And partnerships work best when all the participants recognise the politics of generosity - that the more you give away, the more gets given back to you. Of course, that sits uneasily with audit culture.

If the widening participation agenda is to work then investment in community-based work is essential, and three initiatives will help.

First, the small but significant Standards Fund budget for the development of local education authority lifelong learning plans should halt the decline of LEA-adult education spending.

The second positive development is the clarification in the 1998 Education Act of the Further Education Funding Council's powers to fund leisure courses. Given the patchwork of courses currently available that was an essential precondition to opening the system to 700,000 more and different learners.

Finally, the pound;130 million available to create a Community Grid for Learning should give everyone access to local learning centres linked to the Web, and offering a combination of face-to-face and distance-based learning facilities, in libraries, church halls, and adult education centres.

This development is an important precondition for the University for Industry to be able to contribute to the widening participation agenda. A second precondition is an effective network of local guidance services. For that we await an early announcement!

Along with the Moser report, developments on individual learning accounts, the review of the training and enterprise councils, and the University for Industry corporate plan, it should make for a busy New Year.

But there remains a great deal to do, if current policies are to work for adult learners. Sixty per cent of the new places for adults are for "Kennedy" students. That is admirable, but not everyone is skilled in the outreach work needed to persuade many adults that learning really can help.

You can see this in a number of the bids to the Adult and Community Learning Fund which show little appreciation of the time that needs to be taken to create a climate of confidence, or of the negotiation of the curriculum adult educators used to talk convincingly about. Not all of them recognise the challenge in retaining new returners. But, as Helena Kennedy said at a NIACE conference, you cannot retain students you have not effectively recruited.

Veronica McGivney's powerful new study, Excluded Men, published this week, points to the scale of the challenge. The publication launches Sign Up Again, a campaign to help institutions recruit, particularly among men and older people.

Veronica's study shows that many men believe that learning is something for women to do. She points to the feminisation of the curriculum, and the need to develop strategies that address men's scepticism, and start from their current aspirations.

Institutions have something of a mountain to climb to make learning work for everyone, but the new co-operation and partnership culture also poses stiff challenges to the inspectoral tribes of post-school learning.

In Wales, the same HMI undertake inspections for LEAs, the Welsh Further Education Funding Council, and for the Training Inspectorate. Why can't we have the same rational system in England where boundary problems get in the way of supporting adult learners with coherent quality assurance services? It would be good to see improvements in the new year.

Alan Tuckett is director of the National Institute for Adult Continuing Education

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