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Cash must match the fine words

Alan Tuckett reviews the long-awaited Tomlinson report on special needs in FE.

The Tomlinson report on special needs, commissioned by the Further Education Funding Council, presents huge challenges for everyone. Mine this week has been how to find time to read enough of it to register the nuances of its case for inclusive learning.

It is exemplary in practising what it preaches. Not only is there an audio and a computer version of the report, but a manageable account of the key recommendations, and a human and humane overview by Professor John Tomlinson, the chairman, are published separately. Still it is a real problem to find time to read and think about its conclusions before the whirligig of public policy discussion moves on.

For me, the difficulty has been compounded this week by the publication of Maeve Binchy's novel, Evening Class, which I bought, and then could not put down, after reading a piece in the Independent on Sunday which suggested that the main message of the novel was that people only go to evening classes to compensate for miseries in their lives, and to make new relationships.

The article irritated me. Anyone who has worked with adult learners knows the dedication and struggle people put into the business of learning, and the unhelpfulness of reach-me-down stereotypes about adult education. The article, but not the book, draws on an old tradition which it trivialises.

The early 1980s hit by Hall and Oates, Adult Education, assumes people will automatically recognise that its subject is sex, and how we learn from experience. I remember, too, Danny Baker visiting Clapham-Battersea institute when I worked there for an item on The Six O'Clock Show. Every class he visited lent itself to an easy quip - chair caning, "I bet you need a bit of discipline to do well at this"; "life drawing" - "difficult to concentrate, isn't it?" A number of the people he met had stories that fitted his thesis that people came to meet others on neutral territory - though he suggested it was, more narrowly, for the sex.

My colleagues at the time were horrified - it diminished the seriousness of the work, and the rigour and seriousness students and tutors brought to it, and for that matter, at a time of cuts this was hardly the best case for scarce public funding. Yet it made entertaining enough television, and did capture something of what was going on, for at least some students, at the margins - though the focus on sex got in the way of the more complex responses learners offered.

We are, of course, always trying to remind tidy-minded policy-makers that you cannot tell the purpose of the students from the title of the course. The great weakness of the 1992 legislation was the artificial split between a curriculum Government believed to be geared towards the national interest - leading to academic and vocational qualifications - and leisure-based studies, to be organised at a local level.

A great deal of time and effort has subsequently gone in to showing that for many people the first step back to vocational study is participation in an informal uncertificated course. As Tim Boswell recognised when he was the minister responsible, it stands to reason that few people come back to education after negative experiences the first time round with a clear view that they need a national vocational qualification level 3.

It is a strength of community-based adult education that its flexibility and informality does make it accessible to people without positive previous experience of education, and it is able to meet diverse demands. For people recovering from mental health problems, for example, opportunities to rebuild relationships with others often presents the hardest hurdle, and a serious learning challenge. That need complements, but does not discount, the declared goals of the courses taken. As Binchy demonstrates in her book, classes can form intense communities of interest, in which mutuality and solidarity flourish, and support the diversity of purpose. Of course, this is just as true of schedule 2 as of non-schedule 2 courses.

Yet the view of adult learning fostered by the novel is a narrow one. It all rests on a Mother Teresa-like tutor, whose passion for Italian, and dispassionate supportiveness for her students leads them to learn the language and incidentally transform their lives. This magical intervention includes people with learning difficulties. Olive, the 25-year-old sister of one of the protagonists, who has "the mind of an eight-year-old" stays at home as proud as punch of his achievements, and represents a lifelong responsibility he will need to take on from his parents as they age.

Tomlinson offers more - noting how much has happened since the 60s, when people with learning difficulties were still classified ineducable. The report nevertheless makes a powerful case for a system built on, and responsive to the needs of individual learners, in which people with learning difficulties andor disabilities can participate fully in post-compulsory education, with all the same complexity of purpose that characterises adult participation overall.

With or without the aid of magic, tutors, organisers and institutional managers can do much to create the partnerships and the learning environment needed to realise the vision in the report. But, at least on first reading, the report poses challenges to the current funding system that may be beyond it.

To widen and extend participation cannot always be done cheaply, and with so many institutions anxious about their finances, and further "efficiency" savings to come, it will be hard for many institutions to redirect spending priorities without support from the FEFC through adaptations to the funding mechanism. It will be interesting to see if the will is there to see such changes through.

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

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