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Learners who 'vanish'

On Tuesdays, a group of women meet in the church hall at Cwm, a former colliery community in the heart of the south Wales valleys. Their 13-week course in women's studies aims to give them "portable" learning credit which they can transfer between further and higher education.

The project is run by the PACE Partnership - a cross-sector collaboration between Coleg Gwent, the Workers' Educational Association, the University of Wales College Newport and Blaenau Gwent Community Education. The course is accredited with the Open College Network at levels 1 and 2 and is also validated by the University of Wales College Newport at higher education level 1.

Michaela Howell, the project's curriculum development officer, says that while it has great potential in delivering learning to the community, there have been difficulties for the partners trying to make it work.

"It's fraught really - the systems don't support this way of working. But it's clearly what the learners want to do."

She believes these hurdles represent in microcosm some of the issues for Wales as a whole as it moves towards implementing a credit-based qualifications framework.

"Nobody's putting the learner at the centre. Nobody up until now has been testing what the difficulties are going to be when we do put it into practice," says Ms Howell.

"If you take this group of women, they'll all have to enrol within the FE system, so the WEA will have them as their learners. But when it becomes apparent that some of them want to push themselves and achieve HE level 1, on paper it will look like they have dropped out because at that point they enrol with the university.

"This means they do two sets of enrolments (and nobody likes paperwork at the best of times). And only at that point can the higher education institution pull down any funding for them. So who then pays the tutor?" Ms Howell also points out that the partnership's aim of making learning portable is currently only achieveable within the institutions of that partnership. "If a woman in Cwm does a module in women's studies, there's no framework for that to be recognised if she suddenly moves to Swansea," she says.

The PACE Partnership is one of several cross-sector projects to be awarded cash by the Welsh funding councils as the move towards a credit-based system for further education and higher education gathers momentum. In February the National Assembly endorsed the reforms to post-16 education and training in Wales, including the principle of the emerging credit-based framework.

Wales is already well down the road with this. The background goes back to 1997 when urther and higher education funding councils in Wales were asked to develop links between existing credit schemes in FE and HE. A study was commissioned and the ensuing report by KPMG recommended establishing a strategic working party representing FE and HE sectors. This was done in January and the post of project director has been advertised.

The unitised funding system in Wales has been a big aid to providers developing credit-based programmes and a good proportion of the FE curriculum is already credit-based.

Another factor putting Wales ahead in the move towards credit is FE and HE funding councils sharing the same executive. Proponents point to the advantages for learners - especially adult learners. Credit allows learning achievement to be easily recognised and valued at each step and is recognised as being good for motivation. It is also portable and offers a good means of progression.

Alison Spencer, of the South East Wales Open College Network, believes that projects such as the PACE Partnership are highlighting some of the practical difficulties in putting a credit-based framework into operation across the sectors, but much more groundwork still needs to be done.

"That's the line we've taken for some time and we've told other people to slow down. It's not that we're not committed to single credit framework, but we're more committed to doing something which actually advances the needs of learners."

The Strategic Working Group on a single credit framework has set itself a two-year development programme. But it is no easy task, admits Wil Edmunds, principal of Deeside College in Flintshire, north Wales, the body's joint chair and a board member of the Welsh colleges' organisation Fforwm. "There's an incredible amount of enthusiasm about it, especially from FE," he says. "And I know that some of my senior colleagues in HE are equally impressed with the value and the possible outcomes.

"Nothing's going to work in two years. It may be two, three or maybe four years to get this thing bonded in - but we will, no doubt about it."

He believes a single credit-based system is an essential ingredient as Wales moves forward with its reforms of post-16 education and training.

"The issue is this. The LIFE (Learning is for Everyone) report for Wales identified well over 350,000 people who weren't participating, some of whom didn't even have a qualification to their name. Not everybody can get a degree; not everybody can get a certificate or a diploma. So it's about looking at the segments of society we can get to quickly. And I think this will be a major thrust into that area."

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