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Learning vision slips out of focus;Learning partnerships

The role of learning partnerships is unclear now that new skills councils are to lead the charge in post-16 education, reports Rosie Waterhouse

CREATING a "culture of learning" and equipping young people and adults with modern skills is David Blunkett's mission.

The essence of lifelong learning, in the Government's White Paper, Learning to Succeed, is to kill the notion that education for the majority ends at 16.

"It's the biggest reform in national and local government for 40 years, bringing together for the first time education and training under one umbrella" says Graham Lane, chairman of the Local Government Association's education committee.

But somehow, during the process of drawing up the practical arrangements for changing the post-16 education world, the lifelong learning vision has become blurred.

The once-trailblazing lifelong learning partnerships appear to have lost their hands-on role - relegated to being merely advisers.

Under the White Paper a completely new infrastructure will be created, comprising of one national, and between 40 and 50 local, learning and skills councils to take over from the Further Education Funding Council and the training and enterprise councils.

It will be a colossal enterprise with a budget of pound;5 million to cater for five million "learners".

In general terms, their remit is to break down the barriers between the worlds of education and work.

Running closely with the councils will be the network of lifelong learning partnerships, established in July.

It's a big concept, but what exactly are lifelong learning partnerships and how will they work on the ground? Despite the fact that 104 are now in place, nobody really knows.

The partnerships were planned before the White Paper was launched in June. Their original purpose, published in January, was to provide a strategic body in each area to bring together all existing partnerships covering post-16 and adult learning.

The partnerships were told to include representatives from, for example, further education colleges and local authorities. They were told to "think creatively" about bringing in others, such as employers, churches and social services. Their objectives were to widen participation, raise standards and meet the skills challenge. They were also responsible for achieving clearly defined local targets linked to the Government's new national learning targets (see panel).

Then along came the White Paper in June, announcing far greater changes than expected. The new councils would take over from the FEFC and TECs from April 2001, with a budget five times bigger than the pound;1 billion spent by the 72 TECs.

In the new hierarchy, the national learning and skills council was given overall control of delivering all post-16 education and training (excluding higher education) and the local councils were given ultimate responsibility for planning and co-ordinating education and training locally.

Although the White Paper said the partnerships "will be at the heart of these new arrangements" their role appears to have been downgraded to that of adviser and conduit for feedback from learners and employers.

They are now to "bring greater coherence at local level, address gaps in provision, eliminate duplication and co-ordinate local action".

From 2001 the national council will also take over responsibility for achieving the national learning targets, with help from the partnerships at a local level.

Leaders of the partnerships are currently feeling bemused and confused about their future role. Tom Crompton, assistant chief executive of Tyneside TEC, which is acting as administrator of the Tyneside lifelong learning partnership said: "There is a tension between our original remit to be strategic planners and the White Paper which seems to have relegated us to advisers. We are all raring to go but there is uncertainty about what we will be expected to do and how we will work with the new learning and skills councils."

On the ground, David Bell, director of education for Newcastle city council, admits he is sceptical about how effective the new lifelong learning partnerships will be.

Representing one of the four local education authorities which are members of the Tyneside LLP, he worries it will simply be a "talking shop".

"No-one could disagree with the concept of lifelong learning, but the practical proposals so far are a bit woolly. The existing regional development agencies will also have to be consulted on strategic planning matters, involving yet more consultation and meetings, " he said.

"There's a danger the LLPs will be just another tier of bureaucracy. We like to get things done."

The Department for Education and Employment admits there is "tension" between the original remit and the later White Paper. A spokesman told The TES that guidance to clarify the new structure would be out in November.

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