Foster forgot about the adults

That's that then. Ruth Kelly has welcomed the Foster report. The Education Secretary made clear in answer to a Parliamentary question that Sir Andrew had addressed the main issues confronting further education colleges in his national inquiry. She took on the chin the report's criticisms of the Department for Education and Skills and the Learning and Skills Council - and promised a government response in the Spring.

There is much to welcome in Foster, not least that he resisted the temptation to call for the post-16 sector - colleges and all - to be restructured. His focus on workforce development is all the more welcome because the training needs of teachers, lecturers and managers have been neglected for far too long.

The National Institute of Adult Continuing Education (Niace) also welcomed Sir Andrew's call to listen more closely to learners. However, many in the sector face a daunting challenge in trying to give due weight to the views of all students - full-time and part-time, younger and adult. There is also a need to find ways of consulting potential learners.

Foster reflects a wide consensus when he says the main job of colleges and other providers is vocational education: preparing people for work and supporting education and training in the workplace. Eight in Ten the recent report of the inquiry into adult learning in colleges sponsored by Niace agreed that these were key tasks.

But our inquiry added a third task, representing a long and proud tradition in colleges: "sustaining and enhancing cultural value". This has grown up in response to the demands of communities around the colleges. As Foster's own evidence from focus groups of learners young and old made clear, learners have more complex aims and recognise a broader range of achievements than those captured in government targets.

While Foster genuflects towards the need to widen participation, he gives it little attention. Yet so many of the people needed for the jobs of the next decade are under-represented in education and training. That may not be true of economic migrants in Esol (English for Speakers of Other languages) classes. But it certainly is the case with settled women from linguistic minority groups, and with people on incapacity benefits and older people inside and outside the workforce.

Then, despite telling us this was a report on what the post-16 sector must do over the next 10 to 15 years, Foster is all but silent on the demographic time-bomb. The Learning and Skills Council anticipates 500,000 adults being lost to FE over the next two years. We expect significantly more, since colleges, for understandable reasons, avoid the risks associated with charging fees by cutting more adult work than the LSC planners predict. That has certainly been the case over the past two years.

Meanwhile, the shortfall in labour market entrants that is already emerging in several sectors will accelerate, while we build capacity for 16 to 19-year-olds that will be surplus to need just three years from now.

The failure to think hard about the balance of funding for young and adult learners is the key weakness in Foster's thinking, and paralleled by much of the thinking in the Department for Education and Skills and LSC.

It is of course vital to give young people a good start in life, but a college system sensitive to the labour market must be better able to meet the needs of adults over the next decade.

To do that, the system needs to support study that allows adults to fit learning in among the huge demands on their time. The new framework for achievement may help people build the qualifications they need over time.

But, until that is available, the level 2 (GCSE-equivalent) entitlement must be open to those only able to study for partial qualifications.

Therefore, something must be done to secure the cash to pay for it - including more funds from employers and individuals.

By contrast with Foster, there seems hardly to be a report from elsewhere in government that fails to recognise the adult skills and learning issue.

The Turner report on pensions makes firm recommendations that the LSC should give priority to training older workers. The Leitch committee's analysis recognises clearly that the skills adults need are central to the future health of the economy. The national mental health strategy recognises the importance of adult education in preventing mental illness health, and in helping with recuperation.

Why then do we find it so hard to get adult learners a fair hearing in the post-school education and training policy debate?

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

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