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Clouds spoil sunny view

It is now a year since the publication of the skills strategy. The anniversary bash, hosted by Education Secretary Charles Clarke and skills minister Ivan Lewis, had several good things about it. Four stood out for me.

The first was the announcement of just how far the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority and its partners, the Sector Skills Development Agency and the Learning and Skills Council, have progressed in creating a credit-based qualifications framework. When Ken Boston, head of the QCA, explained the proposals it was hard to remember why it has taken so many years to get this far.

As the report, issued to coincide with the conference, made clear there is still a demanding timetable ahead, and many knots to untangle. But this is a red-letter day for adult learners, and we have reason to be grateful to Australia for exporting Ken with all the chardonnay and shiraz that brighten up my life.

Just as impressive was the joint presentation by Brendan Barber, general secretary of the Trades Union Congress, Digby Jones of the Confederation of British Industry, and William Sargent of the Small Business Council. They announced a shared programme for development to achieve the goals of the strategy, to the evident delight of ministers. As they said, it is 50 years since such a consensus on priorities for public investment in skills existed across industry; and the dragon released by Mrs Thatcher, who ended any suggestion of a social compact between unions, management and government, is slain.

The third was the evidence that the new sector skills councils are finding their feet, and their voice. I was particularly impressed with the presentation of the e-skills passport. With a few slides we were shown how to use a simple on-line audit to identify strengths and weaknesses in a range of common and specialist computer applications, and to map these against organisational needs. I am going to sound out my 200 Niace colleagues to see if we can use the passport.

The fourth good thing was the speech of Patricia Hewitt, the Trade and Industry Secretary. She also celebrated the achievements of the strategy in fuelling new energies in work-related learning. But her speech was different - grounded in its effect on the lives of people previously excluded from education and training.

Taking her Leicester constituents as a frame of reference she outlined measures to support women into information and communications technology jobs at De Montfort university. She described midnight classes at Sammworth Brothers' food processing factory provided by Leicester college.

She highlighted the gender gap in apprenticeship take-up in higher paid industries; the challenge in engaging black and ethnic-minority groups in skills building. Here was the Government's policy aspiration - that economic modernisation and social inclusion, competitiveness and equal opportunity go hand in hand - made credible through practical example. The same message is there in the opening passages of the skills strategy report.

By contrast to all this positive news the five-year plan makes for a bleaker read. Any mention of the social inclusion dimensions of the skills strategy is missing from the plan's chapter on skills. The prospect of new school sixth forms and the return of inter-institutional competition, just when confidence in strategic area reviews is burgeoning, looks like bad policy to me.

All too often these statements of future purpose read as though they have been handed down from Downing Street, rather than grown from experience and best practice. Time after time Number 10's apparent passion for specialist academic provision for 16 to 19-year-olds seems to get in the way of rational local planning to meet the learning needs of all.

Despite this, employer training pilots, union learning fund initiatives, good access programmes and thousands of courses in colleges, communities and workplaces point to the way we can make the twin goals of the skills strategy work. It involves planning, co-operation flexible funding, learner and learning support, and a shared sense of direction - exactly the message of the conference. Shame about the five-year plan.

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

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