What is happening about lifelong learning? Even New Labour's staunchest supporters might agree that the message has been a little confusing lately.
The issues that are at stake will remain pressing whatever the Government decides at the end of its consultation. More important they will not admit of a neat, photogenic solution. This profoundly complicated topic will vex ministers for years to come.
Throughout this century, most of us have become familiar with the idea of adult education. Unless you were directly involved, most teachers thought of it as a mildly mysterious practice which involved evening classes peopled by consenting adults who were interested in carpentry, newts or Jane Austen. Easily stereotyped and pigeon-holed, adult education attracted little attention outside the band of enthusiasts. Much to the surprise and even bemusement of most adult education professionals, their life as the Cinderella's Cinderella is over.
Lifelong learning is no longer a luxury for the few but a necessity for all. We can no longer rely on our initial schooling - all citizens must acquire new skills and new knowledge throughout their life. And more: we must recognise and promote the informal and incidental learning that goes on in the family, workplace or voluntary activity, since the capacities acquired in one setting can be profitably applied elsewhere.
While governments find these arguments extremely persuasive, they rarely know quite how to pursue them. To take one example, the recent Amsterdam Treaty placed lifelong learning at the core of the European Union's objectives, but nowhere can we see the traces of concrete policies which will enable the EU to reach this goal.
The tensions can also be seen in the first report of Bob Fryer's advisory group on continuing education and lifelong learning, which urged the Government to change attitudes and build a "learning culture". This goal, however much it complements the view that what is learned matters more than how and where it is learned, sits uncomfortably with conventional notions of what good government is about. Indeed, does government have a role?
What, then, are the challenges that should provide the focus for David Blunkett and his ministerial colleagues? One forms the topic of a current study of adult learning and social inclusion by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development; as the OECD points out, the centrality of lifelong learning among the majority of the population means that those who are left out may become even more alienated than before, with extreme consequences for the individuals involved and their communities. This is something that the Government, committed as it is to tackling social exclusion, should regard as an urgent priority.
There is also the continuing challenge of developing our human capital - something about which the Fryer report said too little. By moving forward on the University for Industry, Individual Learning Accounts and Welfare to Work, the Government has taken some important early steps, but we have to confront the question of funding for skills development - an issue where governments of both colours have caved in to the employers' lobby.
Lifelong learning must also shape the teaching of tomorrow's adults. This may be an uncomfortable process, since it will require a new look at priorities. We know that supporting family learning can pay massive dividends to both parents and children, for example: what does this tell us about the current balance of spending as between schooling and the family?
We have fiddled around constantly with the school curriculum, but have we paid enough regard to the skills and abilities required by all young people for learning later in their life?
Above all, we need to ask whether we have the right balance of attention between initial schooling and lifelong learning. The Prime Minister's target of 500,000 new entrants to further and higher education sounds initially attractive, but is it really much more than a way of defending their entry to the labour markets?
Rather than continually extending the age at which young people leave full-time education, we should start to invent more imaginative pathways between school and work - extending the New Deal to school-leavers, rather than just the unemployed, for example - and use the funding to promote adult learning instead. Will it happen? Maybe not, but it would be a sight more productive way of using public resources.
John Field is professor of lifelong learning at the University of Warwick. He is a member of the National Advisory Group for Continuing Education and Lifelong Learning.