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Never mind the qualifications, feel the breadth

Let's hope that lifelong learning will offer students more than just a new set of badges to collect, says Carole Stott

The Learning and Skills Act provides a planning and funding framework that could offer much to the country's economic well-being and to wider social policy.

The learning and skills councils in England and their equivalents in Wales will no longer fund colleges. Rather, they will look to meet the wider needs of society and of the country's economy.

In David Blunkett's vision, lifelong learning will underpin neighbourhood renewal, encourage active citizenship, strengthen families, help older people to stay healthy, and promote independence and wider participation in the arts.

This is a newly permissive world for the providers: "We can fund anything we believe will make a positive and valuable contribution," says Blunkett.

But the national LSC must increase demand for adult learning and equalise opportunities by offering easier access to learning. "Putting the learner first" is an integral part of the Council's mission, and this is mirrored by an inspection framework that will put more emphasis on the learner and less on systems. Henceforth, the main question will be: how effective is provision in supporting learners, meeting their needs and raising their achievement?

The impact of all this on curriculum, which will be geared to learners' experience rather than defined by qualifications and accreditation, is likely to be profound. One consequence of Schedule 2 of the 1992 Further and Higher Education Act has been that curriculum has been limited to a choice of qualifications rather than focusing on learners' needs.

Innovation and creativity have been stifled. Curriculum has become an impoverished area - and this must surely change.

Qualifications must no longer function as a proxy for quality or curriculum. New qualification structures such as the Learning Disabilities Award Framework, NOCN Family Learning, and other vocational qualifications will foster wider participation and achievement, and encourage flexibility and innovation.

Even so, it is vital that these qualities be dovetailed into learnig that is genuinely fit for the purpose.

Certainly, qualifications and institutional "quality marks" will not be sufficient to accomplish these aims. Nor will four-yearly inspections of providers be enough to support the development of curriculum.

One solution could be a system of local validation of learning. But this should be part of a national framework that patrols the progress of qualifications. It should also support pupils who are taking their first steps back into learning. In any case, certification should be a choice.

Accreditation can also play a valuable role. This should be effective and not take money out of the system. With the demise of Schedule 2, there is a danger that we will create a false conflict between accredited and non-accredited provision. Under Schedule 2, accreditation was equated with qualifications and was often driven by funding - and sometimes it was inappropriately chosen or used.

In the recent non-Schedule 2 pilots, many providers used local Open College Network accreditation, even though this provision is often referred to as "non-accredited". For example, Community Involvement for Women, run by Leeds City Council, offers credit for achievement at levels one and two. The main difference between this accredited provision and Schedule 2 is that certification was optional and thus was not obliged to match Schedule 2's false constructs.

The Further Education Funding Council's qualifications database will be replaced by a new qualifications framework that will be accredited by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority.

This framework will need to be forward-looking, innovative and flexible to meet the needs of learners and employers. Learning will not necessarily lead to qualifications, but it will have to prove its quality and value.

Qualifications, accreditation, and non-accredited provision should be seen as a whole. The options for learners and employers should be made clear. Furthermore, in all cases mechanisms to support development and review of curriculum will be essential for effective provision.

Carole Stott is chief executive of the National Open College Network

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