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Essential learning Down Under

It seems our public servants will go to the ends of the earth to improve the way our education system works - and no expense is spared.

The Adult Learning Inspectorate is so keen to find out how other countries do things that it recently went all the way to Australia on a pound;4,000-a-head fact-finding tour. It sent seven people, including chief executive David Sherlock and chairman Richard Handover. And judging by the snaps the delegates brought back from their trip to New South Wales, it seems they had a very good time.

The Department for Education and Skills thought the trip was such a good idea that it went, too - sending Elaine Hendry, deputy director for apprenticeships, and Hugh Tollyfield, deputy director for skills for success, to join the seven ALI fact-finders.

Also packing their corked hats were Teresa Bergin, of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, Geoff Fieldsend, of the Sector Skills Development Agency, David Way, of the Learning and Skills Council, and Rod Kenyon, of the British Gas Engineering Academy.

Just in case you thought this trip Down Under was nothing more than a hideous squandering of public money, you would be wrong.

The ALI has produced a much-needed report, based on the trip, which will be essential reading to everyone involved in adult learning. It is titled Aspects of Vocational Education in Australia.

Presumably to save money, the thrifty delegates used their own photographs - some looking like they've come straight out of your Auntie Mavis's holiday album - to illustrate the document.

The subject material includes Sydney Opera House, the Blue Mountains, a child climbing a tree, downtown Sydney with the sun behind it, and a Sydney park.

All included, no doubt, to help the reader to gain a better insight into the world of Antipodean post-16 education.

When they weren't enjoying the scenery, the delegates were no doubt very busy indeed with such tasks as studying "ways in which Australia is addressing the needs of its indigenous people".

You might have thought Australia's immigrant ethnic minorities would be a more relevant subject for the ALI to look at, with Britain's indigenous people not widely regarded as being in any need of special help.

Or perhaps our Celtic and Anglo-Saxon population is about to find the shires turned into a giant semi-autonomous reservation. The report doesn't say.

Apparently, the ALI did not set out to assess the quality of training in Australia - to do so would have been "impertinent" on such a short trip, said the report.

Quite so, but the ALI could not resist pointing out that the Aussies could learn a thing or two from the old country.

The report said the Australians need an education and training environment that is not "unduly hindered by trade union pressure".

But one luminary from the world of British education was notably absent from the trip.

You would have thought Ken Boston, the QCA's Australian chief executive, would have joined his QCA colleague in the delegation.

Perhaps he was too busy.

And, of course, Ken already knows all there is to know about the subject.

Until 2002, he was director general of the education and training system in, er,New South Wales.

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