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Five challenges that will test ministers this year

Can we really develop an education system that keeps the learner at its centre, and offers success for all? Despite its considerable strengths,I'm afraid it is likely to be harder once the measures in the government policy paper Success for All are implemented.

I see five immediate challenges to overcome. The first relates to the recent proposal to reward successful colleges with 5 per cent extra money. The first paper, published in the summer, was warmly received for its commitment to making learning and teaching central to the post-school system. We looked forward to a shift away from the obsessive attention needed to make institutions viable during the Nineties. But it said nothing of the proposal to reward better colleges. As a result, there was little debate about how this will affect learners in less successful institutions.

Bertolt Brecht argued that the measure of a civilisation was its treatment of its most vulnerable members. So, the question to ask about the higher education 50 per cent target is what impact it is likely to have on the other half of the 18-30 age cohort. For colleges, how will standards and services be improved by only rewarding better performers? Is there evidence that the best providers are the best people to share good practice. Will they use extra money to consolidate their elite position?

A second challenge also arises from this plan. If retention and achievement have a dramatic impact on rewards for institutions, won't they be tempted to narrow participation to guarantee success? Chris Hughes of the Learning and Skills Development Agency reminded me that the postcode factor added just 8,000 learners to colleges after the Kennedy report. I replied that when the widening participation factor was just one of many affecting funding it was insufficient to force change. I said asking colleges to outline successes in widening participation, when allocating core budgets, was more likely to succeed. But it won't work if the incentives ignore the issue of participation altogether.

A third challenge lies in the decision to treat individual providers differently. We already have golden hellos for college staff, but not in adult education. We have welcome and necessary increases in budgets, but no guarantee that learners in local authority services will get the same volume, range and quality of provision as those in colleges next year.

Learners in FE can look forward to a fully-qualified teaching force by 2006, but their counterparts in work or the community have no such assurance. Mobility of students between colleges and community may get worse before it gets better. How can we avoid uneven development?

A fourth challenge arises from the determination to construct a distinctive 16 to19 focus in institutions that educate students of all ages. Can that be done without weakening services to older learners? And where is the evidence that teenagers do better when they are taught separately? In this, at least, Jane Davidson is leading Wales in a different direction to the one Andrew Adonis seems to be taking England.

Finally, Education Secretary Charles Clarke has made an impressive challenge to colleges to raise their game with employers. The challenge will be to free colleges to meet employers' needs, while keeping track of the plethora of targets.

Employers want bite-size just-in-time training and prefer to invest in learning on the job, it will do no good to offer mass solutions. To meet their expectations we will need qualifications reform, better processes for assessing prior learning, and a more relaxed approach to what counts towards qualifications.

A separate dynamic is at work in the neighbourhood renewal strategy. The Learning Curve highlights the need to improve the skills of poor communities. The Strategy Unit report, In Demand 2, recognised a revitalised adult and community learning service had a key role to play. Alas, the Learning and Skills Council workforce development paper did not mention this.

But adult educators in local authorities were comforted by minister Ivan Lewis's clarification of the role of adult education: to improve skills, and foster cultural and citizenship education. It bodes well that he recognises complexity and the need for diversity.

To make this work for all learners is no small task. But with luck policy-makers will be so busy working out what to do that we may enjoy an initiative-free New Year. Well, January is a time for dreaming!

Alan Tuckett is director of NIACE

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