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Countryside loses out in learning vision

HOW are we doing on joined-up government? Three new policy documents give an opportunity to test how far the Government's commitment to lifelong learning has spread from the heartland of education and employment policy.

First up is the Urban White Paper, Our Towns and Cities: the Future - Delivering an Urban Renaissance. It builds on the analysis in the Cabinet Office Social Exclusion Unit's reports on neighbourhood renewal, and shows a reasonably complex understanding of the complex of issues to be addressed to arrest urban decline.

The paper accepts that to make a difference, government, business and voluntary agencies will need to work together, across traditional boundaries. There are no explicit measures relating to adult community education in the paper, but there are plenty of opportunities for creative providers to demonstrate that community-based learning for adults has a key role to play in regeneration.

The paper has four key measures which should impact on adult learning. The core proposal, to create overarching Local Strategic Partnerships may bring a groan to the lips of everyone struggling to make the existing jungle of local partnerships work effectively. Yet the role of the new partnerships - to develop a community strategy, to agree priorities for action, and to co-ordinate the work of local partnerships, may yet hold out the prospect of a more coherent network of local links. Still, few overstretched voluntary-sector providers I have spoken to are holding their breath.

The role and budgets of Regional Development Agencies in securing skills appropriate to the needs of industry are to be strengthened. Educators dedicated to widening participation for people who have had little or no learning opportunities since school, often forget that the workplace is a key site for learning opportunities. This is particularly true for semi-skilled and unskilled men, few of whom find their way over the threshold of conventional institutions of learning.

Skills in information and communications technology are given priority, notably through the development of UK Online centers. The paper makes an economic case for this, but strengthening skills will have a positive impact on confidence, citizenship, entrepreneurship, and community involvement, as long as employers' needs are looked at alongside learners' aspirations.

The paper also recognises the valuable role higher education can play in regeneration, through involvement with communities and businesses. Then, it goes on to endorse the findings of the Skills Policy ction Team report, and highlights the role local Learning and Skills Councils can play in regeneration. All in all, then, a helpful paper.

By contrast the rural White Paper has almost nothing to say about learning, despite emerging from the same department, just a fortnight later. Does this suggest that learning is seen as an urban issue?

In his foreword to Our Countryside: The Future John Prescott comments: "How we live our lives is shaped by where we live our lives. But wherever that may be, people want the same basic things: jobs, homes, good public services, a safe and attractive environment and a society offering opportunity for all." And in a learning society, he might have added the means to enrich life, and improve the chance of meaningful work, through access to learning opportunities.

By a happy accident, the failure of the paper to look at the cluster of issues denying a fair chance to learn to poor people in rural communities was thrown into contrast by the publication on the same day of John Payne's Rural Learning, a practical guide to learning opportunities in the countryside.

Finally, the broadcasting White Paper, a joint production of the Department for Trade and Industry and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, recognises the importance of television and radio as "public goods". As the late Bridget Plowden observed, memorably: "Broadcasting is democratic, there are no reserved seats."

The White Paper agrees: "With the growth of new technology there is a real risk of a digital divide, which public service broadcasting can bridge, by offering new and interactive services of information and education, and ensuring the development of the Internet is not purely commercial."

All well and good. But the paper does not, alas, recognise the key role broadcasting can play in shaping attitudes towards learning. There is a proud record of effective campaigns promoting learning through broadcasting - from Channel 4's Brookie Basics to the BBC's Webwise.

Yet ITV will carry no obligation to promote learning, or to carry educational programming. So the risk is that the main channel diet will still leave learning at the margins of the schedule. Fine if you are a committed learner. But scarcely a help in achieving the vision of a learning society where everyone feels the right to join in.

All in all, then, a mixed picture - but as ever with adult learning, it looks as though it may pay to live in town.

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

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