Missing pieces leave us puzzling over future

There was good news for post-school education in the recent public spending review, which sets all state spending for the next three years. Good news especially on Adult Level 2 targets for 2006 and 2010, and the revised basic skills targets.

I was pleased to see Estelle Morris quoted in a Whitehall press release saying, "Too many adults have been failed by the system ... and many have not reached their potential." Even better, she was reported as adding, "We've got to develop the skills of these adults, both for their own quality of life and if we are going to close the productivity gap with countries such as the US, France and Germany.

Just what we wanted to hear, except that in her actual speech, Estelle failed to say anything significant about FE. This leaves an overwhelming impression that it does not matter, or is a low priority. Exactly the problem the lifelong learning policy was supposed to overcome.

But look carefully and you notice the things not said in the review announcements. Nothing on closing the gap on pay between schhool and college teacher. And, given a 6 per cent increase in education funding overall, a 1 cer cent rise for colleges committed to reform, does not sound enought to maintain, let alone narrow the pay gap with schools.

And where was the role lifelong learning can play in overcoming exclusion and helping poor people too old to get education maintenance allowances? Where, too was adult community learning?

What the review actually means for FE will become clearer in the autumn, once departments have finished internal debates about priorities. Meanwhile, morale is fragile, despite welcome injections of cash. And that is where the symbolic importance of politicians' speeches comes in. If FE, let alone lifelong learning, is ever to lose its Cinderella status, it must be talked about, not relegated to the press release.

We find similar problems in the Learning and Skills Council's approach to equality and diversity. Like the spending review its sins seem to me to be ones of omission - and not just because the latest (and second) meeting of the LSC equality and diversity advisory body fell victim to the London tube strike.

What the LSC has done is laudable enough: supporting the work of the Commission on Black Staff in FE, producing equality and diversity guidelines, and lots of impressive local initiatives. Butits early record compares poorly with the start made in the early 90s by the Further Education Funding Council. It commissioned John Tomlinson to lead an inquiry, which led to the ground-breaking Inclusive Learning report. Later it commissioned Helena Kennedy to lead a comparable inquiry into widening participation. These provided an agenda for the LSC to apply to its much broader range of providers.

The LSC's record seems all the poorer because, unlike the FEFC it has an explicit planning remit. Since April last year, there have been civil disturbances in Oldham, Burnley and Bradford; the new race legislation and the 2001 Special Educational Needs and Disability Act is coming into effect.

But where is the authoritative voice of the LSC on these matters? How regularly does it consider equality issues? Where is the equality dimension in its draft workforce development strategy? And how well is it serving the needs of people with learning difficulties?

One problem is the structure the LSC has for dealing with discrimination. At a time when plans to merge the different national equality commissions are under consideration, it seems odd that the LSC keeps the management of work with adults with learning difficulties separate from broader equality and diversity work. It seems odd, too, to me at least, that the equalities work is limited to the quality arm of the national council. I think it should be based in the chief executive's office, acting with his authority. Cultures form early, and if equality work at the council starts off as a low priority, the risk is that that is where it will stay.

I believe the LSC needs to establish a wide ranging equality and diversity commission, with an authoritative, external chair. Its report would sharpen thinking and practice throughout the LSC and its providers, and help with the wider debate about what post-16 education can do to make our society worth living in.

Alan Tuckett is director of the National Institute of Adult and Continuing Education.

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