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Older learners on high alert

The Government unveils its Skills Strategy in a White Paper next month. So, what does the Association of Colleges expect from it?

The original consultation document on the Skills Strategy recognised the importance of adult learning. The contribution of learning and skills to individual aspirations, business success and national prosperity is well documented. So first the Government must accept the need to give adult learning a higher priority than has been evident in the past.

Second, the Government must acknowledge that there are many reasons for underperformance. There are shortcomings with government itself, with employers, individuals, schools and learning providers.

Colleges, in particular, are not responsible for the parlous state of adult basic skills - or for the low qualification levels of the UK workforce relative to our competitors - although they have an important role in tackling those problems.

To be credible, the Skills Strategy must show how the Government intends to tackle low demand for learning from individuals and under-investment by employers, as well as how it plans to reform the supply side.

Third, the Government must recognise the vital contribution colleges make in equipping the UK with skills. The statistics for the award of vocational qualifications are telling: FE delivers more than half the vocational qualifications achieved in England - more than 500,000 each year.

The Government must build on the success colleges are having in helping to meet employer needs and not just carp at the areas of underperformance.

Consultation documents have underplayed the importance of vocational education routes into employment and the extent to which colleges are training those in employment.

The fourth priority in the Skills Strategy must be measures to stimulate employer commitment to training - especially among small-to-medium enterprises - and encourage more effective links between employers and learning providers such as colleges.

Model examples to build on include the employer training pilots and innovative workforce development schemes developed under the Learning and Skills Council. The strategy must also address the vexed question of fees and employer contributions.

It is important to break through the barriers that inhibit access to learning - the poor motivation and attitudes of the many adults who did not succeed at school. They need better careers advice and help with practical problems such as finance, travel and childcare.

Fifth, the AoC expects the White Paper to recognise the need to maintain diverse provision which is responsive to changing skills needs.

We accept the need to give priority to previously poor attainers. But if those priorities restrict publicly-funded learning to the least-advantaged groups, denying others, the costs in terms of social cohesion, individual opportunity and business success will be huge.

Similarly, better planning with regional development agencies and sector skills councils can simplify the funding system and improve responsiveness.

But if planning is too rigid it will inhibit colleges in their efforts to respond to a dynamic labour market.

Measures to simplify the funding system will be welcomed if they help providers respond to demand. But the Government must ensure that this does not simply replace one set of bureaucratic restrictions with another.

Overall, in creating a new framework for adult learning, the White Paper must reflect Tony Blair's commitment to public service reform, devolving responsibility, encouraging focus on learner and employer needs, and fostering creativity and innovation.

Adequate funds to meet set objectives are equally important. In this respect, the current constraints on growth in adult provision, and the mismatch between government aspirations expressed through the public service agreement targets and the current funding, are already making it difficult for colleges to respond to the new agenda.

John Brennan takes over as chief executive of the AoC this autumn

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