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Don't leave the referee on the sidelines

PICTURE the scene. Welford Road, Leicester, half-time on Saturday afternoon, with the crowd in high dudgeon. Martin Johnson has yet again been sent to the sin-bin, a harsh decision in our view. There is the usual interval celebration of successful primary school teams; streams of thirsty fans make an optimistic dash for the bars.

All of a sudden the announcer asks us to put our hands together for all the stadium stewards. All 84 of them have completed an NVQ2 in safety control, through Telford College. Four stewards come to the pitch to pick up certificates (the others are hard at work). The announcer suggests it is a pity that there isn't an NVQ in referee control.

Sixteen thousand fans applaud the achievements of the stewards, and I think that leaves only 999,916 to go by 2006 for the new level 2 target to be achieved. The powerful message of the occasion was that it is normal to get qualified; that good employers such as Leicester Tigers rugby team help their part-time as well as full-time staff achieve qualifications relevant to their work.

A few more occasions like that and the thousands in the crowd will be asking whether structured learning is needed in their own working lives.

This was promotion at its best - positive, inspiring and not a gremlin or a hint of barbed wire in sight.

The incident showed, too, that qualifications and sports and cultural events mix well. The cultural industries are a serious site of lifelong learning, as the Department of Culture, Media and Sport recognises. Media studies graduates are markedly more likely to land work in the media than law graduates to get jobs in the law. Yet, few law students suffer the easy jibes about Mickey Mouse degrees that seem to be the daily lot of media students.

I was telling this story to a colleague at work. "Unfair," he said. What's unfair? "Slighting referees in that way." I pointed out that the referee had been too quick to judge. But he persevered, to point out that, in soccer at least, there may not be NVQs in refereeing, but every referee was scrupulously supervised and commented on by their peers. Only the successful progressed up the leagues.

Every Saturday on the hundreds of pitches on Hackney marshes, and in parks and school fields up and down the country, there is an invisible college in skills-building among referees. We are not yet brilliant at capturing it, when we reflect on the skills of the British labour force, but competence acquired in one setting transfers easily to others.

Refereeing, running a charity shop, governing a college, organising the school run, all develop the skills of active citizenship. That is one huge strength of the voluntary sector. Its reach among the most excluded communities is another, and a third lies in the fact that it is voluntary, not reliant on an Act of Parliament but on the will of people freely given.

Bryan Sanderson has made a welcome commitment to strengthening the Learning and Skills Council's engagement with the voluntary sector, building on the exhortation in the grant letter for the council to take account of the voluntary sector compact adopted across government.

There is a big mountain to climb. Both the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education and other groups in the voluntary sector have reported real frustration among the agencies they work with since the council was established. Communication has been poor, and the threshold requirements on new providers is high.

The priority has been to secure a stable transition to the new order.

However, the failure of the council to establish a national unit for dealing with voluntary-sector providers to parallel its national business unit is surely a continuing mistake.

There is a long history of education having a weak relationship with the voluntary sector. A 1990 Home Office study highlighted the then Department of Education and Science as one of the weakest in Whitehall in this respect. Yet, the sector has much to offer to the council and the department in pursuing equality and diversity, in successfully widening participation and achievement, and the building capacity to listen to learners.

I was disappointed to see no mention of the higher education sector's role alongside voluntary bodies: higher education's obligations to defend unpopular opinion, and to inform communities on the ethical, political and social issues arising from the work of academia.

Yet, surely that role is the reason for protecting higher education's distinctive academic freedom.

The White Paper had little to say about adults, how HE might work with the voluntary sector, the place of part-time learners, or the funding of pensioner students. All clearly await the second part of the strategy, "Higher Education - The Adult Experience". It should be in the shops and on the web any day now.

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

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