Chance for students to have their say

Carole Stott, Finbar Lillis directors of Credit Works

Most debates about learning and skills focus on spending public money and getting value for it. We subvert the question of what constitutes such value by lining up a set of oppositions: young people versus adults, acquisition of skills versus lifelong learning, non-accredited versus accredited learning, qualifications versus the rest.

The state uses this approach to decide what it will and won't fund, to show that public money reaches those who need it most and provide a guarantee of quality. But these oppositions are often flaky, insufficiently distinctive, and the results far from satisfactory. Work by our organisation, Credit Works, for the Learning and Skills Council identified failings in the system below level 2 (GCSE-equivalent) for adults. The unpalatable truth was that the system was failing far too many of those most in need.

It is heartening that reforms we recommended to address them were largely adopted by the LSC. It shows a real willingness to test the capacity of colleges and other providers to respond to a new and different set of entitlements for adults. Until now, "learner entitlement" has been about saying who can and cannot be subsidised by the public purse. Whether this was what adults wanted or was any good was another matter. But the new Foundation Learning Tier is now testing a different concept.

By 2010, all learners without level 2 qualifications will be entitled to have their achievements recognised in the Qualifications and Credit Framework. They will be offered personalised learning - reflecting their interests, abilities and choices - and coherent learning programmes that lead somewhere the learner needs to go rather than to where the provider is able to "drop them off". At last, we are testing a system which creates a subtle profile of achievements over time.

Qualifications will look very differently from the unwieldy offers we have now. This leads to fresh demands on providers. Achievements at foundation level will count towards qualifications in the new framework - no more preparing learners to be ready for qualifications, some time next year, some time never.

The framework gives learners and employers more influence on the content and design of qualifications - redefining what constitutes valuable, useful and successful achievement. Adults will need skills and confidence to gain control of their own learning and achievement and to demand what they need instead of taking what they are given. At present, those who don't pay have the least say. Making these new entitlements work in the foundation stage will be a real test of how far the system really wants learners to exercise such rights.

The focus of public funding must be sharp enough to recognise which adults need public funds. Clumsy categorisation and cross-matching of adult learners, provision and qualifications is not enough.

Learners could at last be given the means to exert direct influence, challenging embedded interest and helping the push towards a demand-led system, working with policy reform from the top, to lever change from the bottom up.

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