Is Pounds 6m enough to close the skills gap?

Neil Munro reports on the reactions to last week's announcements on lifelong learning

"Two million pounds a year - well, gosh." That was how Keith Geddes, president of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, dismissed a three-year package to support lifelong learning and adult guidance. The Pounds 6 million, described as a "lubricant" by Ed Weeple, head of the further and higher education and training division at the Scottish Office, is to be used to get the new Scottish Guidance Group off the ground, establish local guidance networks linked to a national telephone helpline and database, fund the new local learning partnerships and promote the Campaign for Learning.

The Government expects matching funds to be provided by the various "partners" in these initiatives. But Mr Geddes, speaking at last week's "Unlocking Potential" conference in Glasgow, contrasted the strength of ministers' commitment with the financial plight of councils. Spending on adult education and community education, central players in making a success of lifelong learning, was being cut back, he warned.

Glasgow, the largest authority, has been been forced to reduce spending in these areas by 40 per cent over two years and shut 12 community centres, while contemplating the loss of another 12 centres in the coming year and laying off 50 out of 118 staff. Support for voluntary organisations in the city has been reduced by 18 per cent with a 10 per cent cut in prospect for next year Mr Geddes added.

Scottish Power, by contrast, has committed Pounds 2 million a year to 22 open learning centres aimed at employees and their families, according to Liz McGregor, the company's open learning co-ordinator. Greg Bourne, director of BP Scotland, who chaired the national skills forum, said staff training and development was a Pounds 6 million business for BP Exploration.

Mr Weeple conceded that the Scottish Office was offering "a small sum". But he believed the central challenge funds to which bids would be made for local learning partnerships would stimulate innovative ways of addressing the needs of the unemployed and the unqualified who were not being reached by the traditional education, training and guidance systems.

Astrid Ritchie, the leading Conservative who chairs the Scottish Adult Education Forum, also defended the Government's announcement. She said the two national organisations, the Adult Education Guidance Initiative Scotland and Learning Initiatives for Adults in Scottish Education, "have done fantastically well on a fraction of the money that is been promised today".

There was a general plea from the conference to the Scottish Office not to make financial support for the new programmes conditional on the achievement of qualification targets, at the expense of pre-vocational courses and community education. Mr Weeple gave an assurance that officials "would not attach tight strings" but said that they would have to keep in mind progress towards overtaking the national education and training targets. He agreed that adult learning was not just about acquiring vocational qualifications for career reasons but should also focus on personal enrichment and expanding the potential of individuals to contribute to their communities.

Despite financial reservations and fears about "target-driven" systems, reflected in concern over the decision to give a key role to the Advisory Scottish Council on Education and Training Targets, the conference welcomed the emphasis on a more coherent and partnership approach to lifelong learning. "Lifelong learning should become the norm," Raymond Robertson, the Education Minister, said in the opening address.

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