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Fairness goes out of the window of opportunity

So, there's to be no White Paper on lifelong learning. Its announcement last May initiated a planning blight, but we hoped that this would be justified when we saw the post-16 threads drawn together coherently. Not any longer, we don't. What is worse, we are promised monthly consultations. What about?

We've responded to almost everything - well, everything we've had time for - and if our responses have been read everyone who has asked for our views knows what they are.

If anyone has missed anything, let me recapitulate our responses. We are in favour of a fully unitised post-16 curriculum. We think that the key skills difficulties would be fewer if people remembered accreditation of prior learning, especially as far as A-levels are concerned.

We deplore the attempt to gain respect for the GNVQ by making it more like A-level. We do not believe that lifelong learning should start at 19, or even 16, come to that. We think that lifelong learning, if it means anything, means more than collecting more qualifications.

We know that league tables compare like with unlike, although we have done very well out of them. We think the Private Finance Initiative is a joke for all but very large establishments.

The slogan "You have to speculate to accumulate" should be belatedly applied to our sector, confusingly regarded as being the source of economic regeneration and at the same time an effective loss-leader in public spending.

We feel that the country is lucky to have colleges full of peanut butter-eating people instead of the monkeys it has paid for. We think principals should be allowed to stop playing the witch in Hansel and Gretel, looking over teachers and lecturers who have done good service all their working lives, to see who's fattest and should be cooked first.

We think governors have inordinate demands placed on them considering they take on the burdens of governance without remuneration and usually without complaint. We think all colleges should be funded to employ a reader, who will read all the papers and circulars that come into colleges, write extracts of those worth summarising, decide who should be given the extracts, and bin the rest.

We think it's a miracle that so much is given to students by staff who receive so little.

I think that's the lot - please don't bother to consult me monthly on anything else. Especially don't consult me on anything on which you have already made up your mind, as that is not only a waste of time but insulting as well.

Try to remember that colleges sometimes have a different lead time from yours. It really isn't just obstructiveness that makes us exclaim that we can't implement all new initiatives within a fortnight. Just let us know what is going to happen and we shall do our best, which will be better than you have any right to expect.

But we are getting more tired and more depressed all the time, all the same. The fact is that we wanted to widen participation, and we welcomed the recognition that we wanted to be inclusive. We resisted any temptation to make life easier by becoming selective and trying to freeze out students who needed someone to give them a chance after 11 years of failing. If we succeeded, we thought this was a contribution to lifelong learning, because some of our students tasted their first success and didn't want to stop. We want, as we always wanted even before incorporation, to give a good service to our community where it is needed.

The White Paper would, we thought, point the way for us to do this even better and more coherently. For the first time, staff and students would understand the patterns of what was available. This increased understanding might make the task of guidance easier, too. We hoped that the White Paper would look at the necessarily limited funding available for the whole of the post-16 spectrum and point the way towards a fairer distribution. Student fees in higher education would be justifiable because the money would be used for further education students. Expensive school places would not take funding from colleges which could offer so much more choice.

Maybe some of this will still happen over time. But the message is that we should not be too hopeful. The revised target won't be for 2000; they probably won't appear before 2002. Once again Cinderella won't be going to the ball, and the Ugly Sisters will go as of right and because they have always had their own invitations. A cheap NVQ in hearth-sweeping is all she can look forward to, and where's that likely to lead her? It's all very depressing.

Anne Smith is principal of John Ruskin College, Croydon

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