Forget the lifelong yo-yo, let's have a play station

EVERY 10 years or so for the past two millennia the yo-yo has made a comeback. The simplest of all toys, it spins out, hovers for a few seconds and then returns home to the comfort of a friendly hand. The cynics of Scottish education are already suggesting that Opportunity Scotland, New Labour's Green Paper on lifelong learning, displays the same qualities.

The argument goes that the paper comprises a set of predictables which are likely to go unhindered by the tiresome process of consultation. The cynics argue that it has reinvented the thing that came before the wheel. But the cynics are quite wrong.

Of course, there are problems surrounding the paper. It should have been white - the colour of confidence - not green. Also, the strategic framework for FE should have been set out in some detail before an FE funding council is set up. Most importantly, the emerging gap between development and implementation of Government policy, the policy gap, might still prevent some or all of the proposals from becoming a reality.

I believe that the early cynicism about the green paper is based upon this policy gap. The proposals may not be new. But they are ambitious and constitute an unequivocal commitment to place lifelong learning at the heart of both economic prosperity and social cohesion.

The paper's 10-point action plan is full of promise. Unilateral access to technology is paramount. Individuals will be funded to commit confidently to learning at home, at work and, hopefully, in the community. All young people will have a right to study. Skills development will be the basis of economic well-being. Barriers to learning will be dismantled by co-operation between providers. A comprehensive, seamless qualifications framework will serve as a backcloth to both formal and informal learning.

But administrative comfort and spurious financial considerations are already undermining the agenda: administrators charged with policy implementation cannot always be relied on to bridge the policy gap. Their agendas can be quite different from those of government. They are, quite simply, provider-led. The handling of Higher Still, for example, calls into question the paper's commitment to raising awareness. Why has there been no national publicity campaign aimed at parents and adult learners? Likewise, the commitment to improving access has been ludicrously undermined by the revised access fund regulations, which make it a requirement that full-time HE students apply for and receive a maximum student loan before qualifying for access fund support. Are ministers aware of this barrier?

And where are the cross-sector funding initiatives which are proposed to widen participation and tackle social exclusion? Is institutional self-interest and competition still the watchword?

In terms of encouraging progression, is it fully understood that the six-year honours degree, based on HND entry to the first year of university, is alive and well and used by admissions officers as a benchmark for standards?

And finally, is Labour's aim of ensuring quality really possible when colleges and other providers are monitored against varying and often contradictory quality standards? Is value for money ever considered by HMI in the inspection process? Is adequacy of provision enough?

These questions conspire against lifelong learning and must be answered. It must be unilaterally accepted that learners come first, that partnerships are the bedrock of successful planning and that all funding is directly linked to New Labour's priorities including informal learning. Nothing less will do.

By the next millennium I would like to think that lifelong learning promotes the image not of a yo-yo but of a freely accessible play station without limit.

Graeme Hyslop is depute principal of Langside College Glasgow and a member of the Educational Institute of Scotland. He writes in a personal capacity.

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