Neglected workforce has no appetite to learn

We asked leading figures to comment on the findings of the biggest ever inquiry into adult education. This week, David Sherlock, head of the Adult Learning Inspectorate, and below Paul Mackney, NATFHE general secretary, give their views

Andrew Foster's review of FE colleges ("Realising the Potential") was published last term shortly after the NIACE review from a commission into the position of adult learning in FE colleges ("Eight in Ten"). The Foster report makes a compelling case on behalf of colleges, but has the feel of the systems analyst about it. The NIACE report has the smell of colleges.

You can feel the anguish in the latter. While correctly backing the fashionable case for "workforce development" for adults, it also asserts the importance of "access to employability" and "creating and sustaining cultural value" - areas being cut while the commission was sitting.

Foster's trifurcation is similar - achieving academic progress, promoting social inclusion, and building vocational skills - but the focus is firmly on the third, particularly for youth, reflecting the tilt in his terms of reference from government.

There are two ironies here: the skills of adults have never been so important to the economy with adults expected to fill two-thirds of job vacancies over the next decade; and academic education has never been closer to "'vocational training" with modern employment requiring people who can think and act independently.

The NIACE report is a useful corrective to Foster in stressing that four-fifths of college students are adults, and that women (61 per cent) and ethnic minority (15 per cent) adult students are "over-represented". It makes little economic sense to slash adult provision in the drive to try to attract the 200,000 16-19 refuseniks. Maintaining an adult focus is "basic social inclusion".

There is a danger that, while Foster calls for a more diverse FE workforce, this may accompany a return to a young, white, male technical student body.

Foster's emphasis on skills could penalise the poorer adults with most to gain from second-chance education.

NIACE usefully asserts that adult college students are different. Their motivation is more complex and individual than 16 to 19-year-olds. Often alienated from structured education, they bring more life experience to their studies, necessitating less traditional teaching methods. Their study path and patterns of attendance are "untidy" and disrupt standard performance indicators - something colleges are told to acknowledge in being more responsive to employers' needs.

The NIACE report implies that we need a "well-educated" workforce as well as a skilled one, quoting from the 1998 DfEE document "The Learning Age":

"As well as securing our economic future (lifelong) learning has a wider contribution. It helps make ours a civilized society, promotes active citizenship, helps us fulfil our potential and open doors to a love of music, art and literature. That is why we value learning for its own sake."

You may recall that Ruth Kelly, the Education Secretary, was sneaked into the AoC's Birmingham conference in November past Natfhe representatives from 220 colleges who were on strike for pay parity. She explained how the gap between school and college funding will be bridged by levelling down the money for schools. No doubt other tricks such as income and fee targets will help to massage the figures.

Foster specifically excluded the funding gap from his remit, and the press and TV presented his report as being solely about the 4 per cent of "failing colleges" being threatened with privatisation. We've seen privatised FE:financial debacles, ghost classes and phantom registers under franchising; their sale over the internet with individual learning accounts; poor performance from private training in work-based learning; and the intrusion of tax-avoiding plutocrats via skills academies.

The Foster Review and college strikes mean that FE is at another turning point. We must ensure that an idiot wind of ideology doesn't wreck it again. And government has to learn that it will never re-skill and re-educate the nation with an underpaid and neglected workforce.

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