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New look at the Big Apple's core values

Going away for a few days gives you a fresh perspective on things. Like everyone who works with adult learners, I have been worrying about how the daftest excesses can be avoided as new policies affecting adult learning get turned into practice.

The broad lines of policy are fine. It is good that people get free tuition up to their first level 2 (GCSE-equivalent) qualification. Good, too, that local learning and skills councils are looking to reshape local provision via the strategic area reviews. And the proposals in the new LSC circular that aim to protect learning for personal and community development are very welcome, given the utilitarian, target-obsessed pressures in the system.

But it is hard to see how the various initiatives interlock, or assess the influence national policy advice now carries with local LSCs. Will opportunities for personal and community development be available to the full range of communities served by local LSCs? How fast can you close the gap when learners in Herefordshire get much less than their Gloucestershire neighbours, and without destabilising both services? I worry that as resources shift to new priorities, progression routes will narrow.

How will outreach and guidance services be paid for? Will good-quality provision survive for people with learning difficulties and those recovering from mental health problems? How can we support learners to strengthen literacy, language and numeracy skills while they pursue other studies? How do we support teachers to deal with change? The questions are legion.

Five days in New York gave me a fresh eye on all this. The first was that whatever you do, some kinds of adult learning will persist. In the subway, bright posters in several languages encourage you to enrol in English classes. Naomi Campbell adorns the cover of The Learning Annex, a free brochure about self-improvement classes, available on every street corner.

It offers an "unforgettable" evening with the "supermodel and super-person".

Most people can only dream of such success - but "Naomi will show you how to achieve it - regardless of where you are in life." For $19.99, your life can be transformed. Among hundreds of courses you can find, "How to make the right man fall in love with you"; "Open your own Laundromat - turn coins into cash"; and a course for writers, photographers and entrepreneurs: "How to be overpaid, well-fed, non-struggling, happy and working."

The market for quick-fix self-improvement, linking learning to people's dreams of changing their lives is alive and well in the United States - and there is no obvious parallel in the UK's portfolio. It points to a concern to develop the confidence of a can-do culture, if not to a curriculum in which most learners' aspirations are likely to be achieved at the end of the course. To my second conclusion: we need to do more - and more systematically - to foster learning for entrepreneurship.

Offers are everywhere in New York - the Gotham City writers' workshops; the Blue Note jazz club masterclasses. Every cultural institution offers programmes to extend your understanding of all you have seen and heard.

Such a private sector secures range, but for quality and depth, curriculum and staff development, the public system has no equal. The State University of New York and its community colleges, and the private universities, all make comprehensive and widely understood provision with clear progression routes. Innovation is at classroom level. Of course, it is not without problems - and even remedial classes at the local college need to be paid for.

Talking to a community college colleague, I envied the way she could take for granted the levels of stability in post-school learning, and how well-funded the public system is. Why can't we have it, too? Our debate is too much about structure, too little about learning.

Why can't we cherish teachers and trainers, and trust their judgement? Healthy forests thrive when the environment secures stability. The community colleges in the US remind us that the same is true for learning institutions.

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

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