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Catching the delayed adult learning train;Commentary;FE Focus

Interrupted journeys jangle the nerves. I am helping with the planning for the European Lifelong Learning conference to be mounted as part of the UK presidency of the European Union.

The conference, organised by the Department for Education and Employment, will launch Adult Learners' Week, and takes place in Manchester on May 17-19. An inevitable part of the preparations for such events are meetings to square the objectives of all the partners.

Perhaps I should say I am supposed to be helping. The plan was for me to meet my colleague Mike Evans on the Eurostar concourse at Waterloo, in time for a 2.20pm train, to review progress on the journey, have an evening meeting with a colleague in the European Commission, followed by meetings the next morning.

I caught the noon train from Leicester, after calculating that it would leave me just enough time to cross London. In a taxi heading for Waterloo, I realised I had left my passport behind, and that no one was at home. I went on to the station, where I discovered they no longer have one-year over-the-counter passports, and that despite the Schengen agreement relaxing internal European Union border controls, or rather because the UK has not signed up to it, I would be unable to travel without any passport. By this time Mike had gone through to sit in Eurostar's palatial lounges, leaving my ticket at the entrance.

After an international incident, he was accompanied back through the doors to hear that I would neither be able to brief him on the journey, nor join him for the meeting. I arranged to see him late in Brussels. As luck would have it, the train at St Pancras was delayed. I got to Leicester at 4.16pm, took a taxi to the house, ran in, got the passport, back in the taxi, and arrived at the station, just, for the 4.30 to London.

One consolation of so many train journeys is that it does wonders for a backlog in mail. I arrived in London at 5.50pm, too late for the 6.23 but with ample time for the 7.23 train. In search of fitness, I walked to Waterloo, checked in and had a coffee in the Eurostar lounge, left my ticket on the table, and a nice attendant brought it back for me. The station was eerily quiet. I presented my ticket and was told to go up the Travelator, and get into coach 8, which I did. I settled to some work, and glanced up to see, to my horror, the last train pull out of the station from the track on the other side of the platform.

At this point, I felt like crumpling. I got out of the train, and called out. Eventually someone found me, and kept me under supervision while the empty train I had been sitting on was checked by security in case I had planted a bomb. Finally, I was let out - too late for the last flight to Brussels. I recognised the experience of disorientation when you can no longer do things that used to seem straightforward - the sense of embarrassment and incompetence.

Still, I did as a result get to stay in the new Travel Inn in County Hall, and I am sure that the room I slept in was one I used to visit for meetings about ethnic monitoring when I worked for the Inner London Education Authority. When finally I got to Brussels my colleagues were generous, and the meeting went well.

The Learning Age had a bit of a messy journey to its final publication on February 25, too, though I think its reception has been a bit grudging. It is easy to be knocked off balance by stories of behind-the-scenes fights over its status - but I think anyone who works with adult learners must recognise that in David Blunkett's foreword, and in the initial overview there is the clearest statement in decades of the importance of adult learning to the social, spiritual and economic well-being of society.

Of course, the paper is not perfect. There is not yet a clear enough statement about what the vision will cost to implement. There are omissions. The vision will not be translated into felt experience on the ground until learners are not rewarded for studying full-time and punished for fitting part-time study into crowded lives. It could do more for old people. University for Industry (UFI) will not work without local guidance to complement the national phone service, Learning Direct.

It is cautious about entitlements -preferring to promise support for young people up to National Vocational Qualification 2 rather than aspiring to offer all support to NVQ3, as Helena Kennedy QC proposed, and the Scandinavians are currently introducing. The Government is too permissive with employers - Jim Sutherland's work for Professor Fryer linking a framework of good practice to the health and safety experience was a better model.

And yet despite that, it is a generous-spirited and creative framework. Take, for example, higher education. The cap on student numbers is to come off, but public support for growth will link to more than half of students being recruited among under-represented groups and mature students. It is good to see the Government asking for advice on Individual Learning Accounts. The proposals for adult qualifications are a step forward. So, lurking in the corner, is the commitment to improved provision for local authority adult services. Baroness Kennedy's recommendations are endorsed, but we have to wait to see the colour of the Government's money.

But for these and the other measures the best thing about the paper is that it provides a framework for serious debate - to secure a UFI able to help with employability as well as competitiveness, Individual Learning Accounts that expand the learning community, rather than exacerbating the learning divide. The challenge and the opportunity is real - to improve the chances for the vision to be turned into practical measures, to make the wait worthwhile. I don't suppose another train will arrive in a hurry.

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

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