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Higher Still holds the key to unlock the potential of lifelong learning

Let me give you a thumbnail sketch of three typical further education students. Anne-Louise is a granny, she will tell you proudly. She will take a wallet out of her bag and show you pictures of her granddaughter. But wait. If your idea of a granny is the archetypal grandmother from the opening scenes of Edward Scissorhands, complete with apple-rounded cheeks, scraped-back grey hair and a comforting bosom, then think again. Anne-Louise has long blonde hair and black-lacquered fingernails, wears a pelmet for a skirt and sports John Lennon spectacles. And did I mention the nose ring?

Pete left school and spent seven years working as a builder's labourer, wishing he had stuck in at school so he could have gone to college. Three years running, he got hold of an application form for a National Certificate course and three years running he bottled out of filling it up. This year, he did it.

Joanne was a gifted child. She excelled at school, picked up a first in maths and began a PhD. "I was brilliant at what I was good at and scared of trying anything at which I might fail." One day she simply rebelled against the conveyor belt she had been channelled on to. "I just felt like a brain on legs," she says now. She gave up her academic career, got married, got pregnant. She is back in education now because, she admits, marriage isn't good therapy. She is making a new life for herself, picking up skills to equip her for working with people and for the first time feels she is developing as a whole person.

These three are typical of our lifelong learners - people who make a decision to come back into education and find that it can offer them a new start whatever their age, experience, background, or goals.

"Lifelong" learning is a new buzz-word, as if it has just been invented and hasn't been at the heart of FE for a very long time. But in order to work lifelong learning cannot centre around FE colleges alone. Lifelong learning begins at school, with further opportunities available in the workplace, at college and at university level. It has to be accessible, transferable and seamless.

These are the principles embodied in the Higher Still programme, which makes the schism developing between schools and colleges regrettable. English teachers especially perceive the changes embodied in Higher Still as importing the old Scotvec system, more suited to the workplace, into an academic situation. Lecturers see much of the innovation achieved through the unitised Scotvec system being eroded. Both feel ground has been lost.

Many lecturers see Higher Still programmes failing to take full advantage of the successes FE has demonstrated and pulling the study of literature, for example, back to the school model. Take the Literature 1 module. It is successful because of its egalitarian, open nature. Texts chosen for study may well have a vocational link to the student's course. This means that there is no perceived esoteric barrier to studying poetry or drama, and students need not be disadvantaged through prior limited exposure to literature.

Both sides of the camp, then, feel anxious about the changes. Where do I stand? I can appreciate both points of view and sympathise, but my experience of teaching in university and in colleges is that if the concept of lifelong learning is going to be grounded in a solid reality then schools must learn from the college experience.

The academic-vocational divide is not one we recognise. Teachers who fear that enrichment will be lost should come and see what we are doing at the moment in units like critical analysis of texts, where students gain an understanding of new theories of literary criticism and go on to apply them to texts in a way which throws up new illumination and new meaning. It is pretty exciting to listen to a group of students offer a Lacanian analysis of a Crichton Smith poem once they are given the tools and the confidence to use them. It is a unit which sits happily within vocational courses but it also pleases the universities because it helps prepare students for the "highest levels of academic study".

The academic-vocational divide has always been a shaky dichotomy. Give me 10 minutes and I will persuade you that working out how a brick wall is put together is no different from analysing how a poem achieves its effects. Yes, poetry is my research field. But I grow uneasy when teachers or lecturers talk about wonderful poems that mysteriously make the hairs on the back of their neck stand up. A poem is no more mysterious than a brick wall. To quote the Bee Gees, it's only words. And words are just building blocks, every bit as concrete as those bricks in the wall.

Competence-based assessment began in vocational education but colleges have shown that it can work in academic areas, too. Assessment of competence and innovative, stimulating teaching are not mutually exclusive concepts.

Higher Still gives us the framework to make lifelong learning a reality, no matter who you are, where you start or where you are going. It means the revolving door instead of the one-chance-only door for which you need to hold the correct key. Anne-Louise, Pete and Joanne demonstrate the needs our future learners will have. Flexibility and choice are the way forward. Let's hope we can settle our differences and put Higher Still to work.

Dr Carol Gow is a lecturer in mediacommunication at Dundee College.

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