The ever-widening gap between rhetoric and reality

It was too good to last. All those warm words, the cross-party consensus on the importance of lifelong learning to the economy and to social cohesion - all washed away with the dregs of the New Year parties. There was hardly time to celebrate the last rites of the European Year of Lifelong Learning before the economic realists were scything through the budgets on which adult learners rely.

In the further education sector the gap between rhetoric and practice could not be starker. Ever since the 1992 Act the Government has proudly committed an open cheque book for growth beyond planned targets, as evidence of its recognition of the importance of the sector. As recently as January, Gillian Shephard was highlighting the policy in a letter to Ribble Valley's MP. For a decade politicians have berated colleges to forge closer links with local business. This month for the first time, the Further Education Funding Council called on the Treasury to honour its commitment - asking for the additional Pounds 82 million it had spent on the Government's behalf and giving advance warning of the Pounds 84 million due by July. Amazingly, the first time the money is asked for the Government wants to change the rules.

Roger Dawe's letter to FEFC expresses anxiety about college provision in workplaces, delivered by franchise, doubts over whether the Pounds 84 million will be found, and little prospect of future demand-led element (DLE) funding. Concerted pressure has seen off the bulk of the problem for this year, but real damage has been done. Who will feel safe to grow now?

The great bulk of expansion in the further education sector has been among adult learners.

What the future now holds for them is uncertainty, and potential disruption to this year's programme of studies particularly in institutions hit hard by the cut, and little prospect of adventurous development of opportunities as almost Pounds 100 million is taken from the system. The Dawe letter arrived 10 days before Helena Kennedy's launch of proposals for an adult pathway programme, and the prospect of inter-agency collaborative projects to widen participation, and just ahead of the FEFC's consultation on the implementation of the Tomlinson committee's recommendations on work with people with learning difficulties and disabilities. What chance is there of getting a creative response from institutions under siege?

Certainly, there will be little hope in the local authority and voluntary sector external providers. Far too many are expected already to deliver further education costs at marginal funding rates. Yet they have been major contributors to the sector's impressive growth performance - accounting now for 10 per cent of the sector's enrolments. For many the DLE cut spells potential catastrophe. At the Linwood Centre on Leicester's Saffron Lane Estate (where Sue Townsend set The Queen and I) an imaginative student-centred basic education programme relies on DLE for up to 70 percent of its budget. How can we afford such a casual abandonment of adult access to the first rungs of the learning ladder?

In local education authorities the situation is, if anything, worse, as the FEFC funding crisis is compounded by swingeing cuts in local education authority budgets - Newcastle is planning to cut its adult education budget altogether; Nottingham is taking half a million on top of the Pounds 2 million removed two years ago. Kent, for so long a leading authority in offering learning opportunities to adults, plans cuts between 40 per cent and 100 per cent of its budget. Bury, Northampton...the list is lengthening daily.

Creative organisers have over the past five years balanced regular reductions in LEA budgets with expansion in the FEFC sector. This year there is nowhere to hide. This is not just a matter of lost jobs and wasted expertise. It is a diminution of the quality of life and resources for hope of people all over the country for whom learning offers confidence, dignity and a chance to open horizons. Of course, we are told, such cuts are only made reluctantly. Apparently we can no longer invest in the learning society nationally because we have spent too much on clearing up the mess of mad cow disease. And that is by no means finished yet. And local authorities are always under pressure. So never mind that they have a legal duty to secure adequate provision...something has to go. The depressing thing is that adults will in the main go quietly, and we shall all suffer as a result. It is almost 10 years since the proposals that led to the Education Reform Act were amended to include the abolition of the Inner London Education Authority to improve educational standards in London. Compare the opportunities London's pensioners then had to prolong active citizenship through learning with the menu on offer to older people in any one of the tiny successor authorities. Then for Pounds 1 you could take any course you wanted anywhere in the inner city, choosing from tens of thousands of courses, close to home or a tube ride away - from boat-building in Tower Hamlets to Sanskrit at the Mary Ward Centre, from botanical illustration at Ravensbourne to clear thinking in Camden. By comparison the best of the boroughs today make within their walls a shrivelled offer to pensioners, however well done, and at substantially higher cost. But if you go beyond the borough boundary woe betide.

All the pensioners who lost as a result of these changes, in what is after all a richer country, have not stormed the barricades. Yet their losses to communal activity impoverish all of us. The same is true of today's cuts.

Of course, all this is happening in the run up to an election, and central government. Tory cuts are matched by Labour and Liberal Democrat LEA ones. We would do well to ask candidates what they will do to help create the learning society, with and without new money. There will be good ideas, doubtless. But then we will need to know how to make measures secure against short-term financial crises. There are difficult choices to make on limited public monies, but we cannot afford for adult learners always to come last.

Then again, there is the lottery. Thank goodness for the generosity of the poor, contributing through voluntary taxation money to remind us that we can find collective solutions to our problems. The fourth round of grants from the National Lottery Charities Board will not paper over all the cracks. It will stop short of offering opportunities for all. But it is one step further along the way than central and local government this week.

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

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