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Please Mr Blair, leave us space for spontaneity

Education, education, education. It is a long time since education has enjoyed such a clear priority for an incoming government. It would be good to think that the repetition reflected a recognition that there is much to do in primary education, much to do in secondary education, and much to do, too, to make lifelong learning accessible to all.

The Queen's Speech on May 14 is expected to contain proposals for education legislation. Again, ideally it will have three chapters - the first two focused on the needs of the initial education and training system, the third inevitably broader, reflecting the complexity and diversity of adults' aspirations as learners, and the range of social policy initiative which affect them.

The preamble to the White Paper might be expected to recognise the close and mutually reinforcing impact of the different initiatives planned. The research evidence collected by the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education and others is clear. Those people who do well in initial education develop the confidence and capacity to come back later on. As Naomi Sargant's The Learning Divide, to be published by NIACE on May 19 in time for Adult Learners' Week notes, the best platform for lifelong learning is a successful and extended school education. Conversely, negative experiences at school produce barriers to participation later on.

The Basic Skills Agency's experience in the field of family literacy, building on the work of Tom Sticht in the US demonstrates the related point that where parents participate in adult literacy programmes, their children's literacy skills showed marked and sustained improvement. Family learning more widely supports the same message. Good initial education is a key platform for successful adult learning; and enthusiastic, motivated adult learners motivate and encourage young people to learn.

However, this virtuous circle is not without its complexities. Where, as in Britain, too much of the resourcing is focused on the initial preparation of the young, learning opportunities for adults get squeezed to the margins. You can see that vividly in the experience of local education authorities in the 1990s. Faced with a statutory obligation to delegate the bulk of their budgets to schools, and faced with the risk that schools would opt out if dissatisfied with their share of resources (with a consequent weakening of an LEA's capacity to offer a community wide service), most authorities have felt obliged to concentrate more and more resources on schools. Despite increasing attention to education the experience of LEA adult education and youth services, and the experience of adults looking for discretionary grants to overcome the inequities in the funding regimes in post-school education, has been that the recession of the 1990s has been long and deep.

For adults whose learning needs can be met in the range of activities supported by the warm embrace of the Further Education Funding Council this has not mattered too much. But for anyone looking to do something experimental, or crossing the traditional sectoral boundaries, or wanting to pursue study for the joy of it, the price of too great a focus on schooling has been paid with a loss of opportunities for older people. Nowhere can this be seen more clearly than in inner London.

So, the White Paper will need a broad view. In addition to the issues raised by the next Dearing report, Helena Kennedy's report on widening participation; change to the punitive Jobseekers' Allowance, and moves to introduce a University for Industry and a Learning Bank, the White Paper should address how we get an education system greater than the sum of its parts. It could start by defining the legal duty to secure "adequate facilities" for further education. It could rewrite a post-schools inspectorate. Most of all though, I hope the White Paper recognises that much of the most powerful learning we do is unplanned, accidental, the serendipitous exploitation of the moment. Leaving just a little room for that will reap rich rewards for learning leaks. Lessons learned in one place transfer to another. Passions rub off - people fire each other. But it is not all tidy. So, parts one and two of the White Paper need that sharp focus good legislators are good at. But part 3 - the recipe for lifelong learning needs a combination of order and licence, structure and experiment, in short education, education ?

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


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