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Is the learning revolution under threat?;Comment;Opinion

From pre-school to third age, from ABE to MBA: the prospects for lifelong learning enjoyed high profile and an upbeat glimpse of the future at a recent Glasgow conference.

The occasion marked the culmination of Liaise, the three year Scottish Office adult education outreach project. A major contribution of Liaise has been to demonstrate how cross-sectoral approaches - the development of practical and collaborative partnerships - can reach out effectively to the previously unreachable. (Latest product now available from the Liaise stable, incidentally, is a cross-sectoral training pack).

The Liaise message to Government drafters currently beavering away on the Scottish lifelong learning consultation paper is unambiguous. Adult education outreach no longer occupies some stigmatised ghetto on the fringe of the other anti-social exclusion measures.

Community-based adult learning is now recognised to be central to the achievement of wider Government policies, at least south of the Border as outlined in the new (English) Green Paper. It is the bottom line and the underpinning of the adult outreach network.

Without it several proposals close to the heart of Government - the University for Industry, the New Deal, national targets, revised or otherwise - are likely to remain fine phrases in the pantheon of political rhetoric.

This conference was a couple of months premature for the Education Minister Brian Wilson, in his canter through the pastures of Government intent, to give any foretaste of the measures planned for Scotland.

But the Scottish Office has a hard act to follow. The English The learning age: Renaissance for a new Britain is as exhilarating a read for the devotee of lifelong learning as any visionary (and uncosted) set of proposals around.

Most significant is the focus on the centrality of outreach work. But titbits dangled include more cash for guidance and an extra pound;4 million a year for the Basic Skills Agency (no parallel organisation in Scotland), plus an additional pound;5m for 1998 summer schools in basic education.

Other proposals include a high-powered (English) working group to advise on effective post-school basic skills provision. Also - for the Department for Education and Employment - a long overdue national skills task force, to tackle the curious question of why, after years of TECs (and LECs in Scotland) skills shortages still litter the employment landscape.

In the context of the Government's stated major priorities, social inclusion and welfare to work, partnership approaches to the most disadvantaged in The Learning Age appear both imaginative and wide-ranging.

In the spirit, too, of the Kennedy and Fryer Reports (no equivalent in Scotland) the spotlight of this report beams brightly on further and community education as the keys to picking up those who failed at school, widening adult participation and reaching targets whether in or out of the workplace.

Such a spirit does not, unhelpfully, shine as brightly in at least one recent consultation document currently under consideration in the Scottish Office Education and Industry Department, the review of FE funding methodology. A dry-as-dust title sadly ensures that the topic is on few people's urgent reading list (except perhaps some of Scotland's beleaguered community college principals, who currently see funding for starter (often uncertificated) learning and social exclusion work leaching away).

The yawn potential is unfortunate because it obfuscates a growing suspicion that wider adult education access - the sine qua non for success with social inclusion and welfare to work measures - may be falling victim to lack of policy coherence within the Scottish Office.

Could it be that departmental rivalries go unchecked? Or perhaps some civil servants are more equal than others? Government needs to get its act together.

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