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Hard choices over adult basic skills

Alan Johnson, the minister for FE and HE (above), tells Ian Nash what he thinks are the new priorities

Alan Johnson has made a firm pledge to the learning and skills sector:

"There will be no more initiatives from us." At a recent breakfast meeting to analyse progress on the Success for All programme, the minister for lifelong learning received excellent news. "Every single indicator points towards improved performance and quality - from the evidence of reinspections and better achievements in modern apprenticeships to declining drop-out rates."

College success rates for all qualifications had gone up from 59 to 65 per cent in the year to September 2002, and the target of creating 250 centres of vocational excellence by March has already been passed, he added. "The evidence is also telling us: avoid new initiatives at all costs. It is obvious we are covering the wider front with Success for All and will see it through."

Nevertheless, tough choices still face the Government and its agencies in setting priorities, he says. "The most difficult task is to tackle the appalling problem of poor basic skills among adults and the number with no qualifications. Our next priorities have to be around getting them to level 2 (GCSE-equivalent).

"It is tough. It involves us in saying we cannot cover everything in the skills strategy without hard choices. As soon as we get people engaged in learning, they continue. This priority means that those who wish to study further will have to make a contribution while we tackle the job of getting five million adults to that level. The sector has never been more important than now. It's the foundation on which we are building economic and social security and success."

If this seems an extravagant claim, consider that:

* Fifty-five per cent of all 16 to18-year-olds in full-time education are in FE

* The sector supplies 40 per cent of entrants to higher education

* Some 1.85 million learners took up basic skills opportunities between April 2001 and July 2003

* In November 2002, there were more than one million enrolments on local authority adult education courses

* Output is around 30 per cent higher in the US, France and Germany than in the UK. Of UK employers, 65 per cent agree that training leads to increased productivity.

"We set up the Standards Unit as part of Success for All because we wanted to lead the work of supporting the learning and skills sector," says Mr Johnson.

"Much of the higher education expansion rests with FE. Our proposal to increase the number of 18 to 30-year-olds in HE from 43.5 to 50 per cent is about more than universities. A large part of it will be in FE colleges with foundation degrees." But he is concerned that "a press and media obsessed with schools and HE tuition fees misses or neglects these equally important issues.

"We cannot achieve our HE targets without the wider learning and skills achievements. They all link in to the 14-19 reforms, Tomlinson on assessment, the drive to improve stay-on rates at 16, 17 and 18 and the engagement of more employers in training."

Two items high on his wish list are "a drop-out rate of no more than 5 per cent at 16, and the achievement of a clear measure to show we are breaking down the prejudice against vocational education".

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