The most significant Scottish Office review of community education for 25 years could lead to the demise of the term. As forecast, the inquiry is to be headed by Douglas Osler, senior chief inspector.
Councils pump around Pounds 100 million into community education services but their future has been undermined by repeated cuts and council reorganisation, which saw some services dismantled.
The "cradle to the grave" service envisaged by the seminal report of Sir Kenneth Alexander in 1975 is no longer seen as appropriate. But whereas Professor Alexander took five years to write his report, Mr Osler is expected to have five weeks to produce interim findings.
The senior chief is expected to set a new framework within the Government's lifelong learning strategy and the initiatives on social exclusion. His committee is likely to overlap with the current Convention of Scottish Local Authorities investigation of community education, due to report in the summer. This is led by Brian Oldrey, education convener in Renfrewshire, and a series of meetings are being held around the country.
Shelagh Rae, president of the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland and director in Renfrewshire, welcomed the inquiry. "The difficulty for local authorities is that the legislation is very unclear. It talks about duties and powers but is unspecific. It is time for a review, not to dictate to authorities how to do it but to make clear what the expectations are."
The last Scottish Office circular two years ago had failed to detail the core service councils were expected to provide, although it talked about adult education, youth work and community development. Mrs Rae said since then community education and leisure services had merged in many councils. Recent research had also highlighted the failings of youth work in areas of deprivation.
"Community education has been the victim of budget cuts because there is no baseline," she said.
Alan Blackie, director of education in East Lothian and a member of the Scottish Community Education Council, said a review would be helpful in establishing the place of community education in the new authorities. Mr Blackie said: "I wonder if the phrase community education is one that is still useful in the nineties and when we go forward into the new millennium."
The Scottish Office inquiry follows a five-year review of the community education council. One of the recommendations was to launch an investigation, similar to the Alexander report 23 years ago.
Charlie McConnell, the council's chief executive, said: "We are extremely pleased to see this initiative and very much hope it does have a profound influence on the lifelong learning White Paper. We are keen to see a considerable strengthening of the statutory base."
Since regions merged with districts, patterns of provision have varied widely. Glasgow, the most severely hit by cuts, has hived off adult education to further education colleges and other agencies, while Dundee scrapped its community education department and placed it within neighbourhood resources and development.