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Red tape attends birth of European learning year

1996 is the European Year of Lifelong Learning, and I have learnt a lot as it has taken shape. It is the first time that the frame of reference for a European Year has been formed through decisions involving the Commission, the Council of Ministers, the European Parliament, the Committee of the Regions and the social partners.

Watching the formal dance of the parties has been fascinating and frustrating. If the year is to be a success it will be despite, not because of, the planning so far.

The Year was proposed early in 1994, following Jacques Delors' ground-breaking European White Paper on Competitiveness. It said lifelong learning must become a priority for Europe, not only for economic prosperity but also to combat social exclusion.

The White Paper argued that learning was a seamless web, generating economic and social benefits, but the boring details of life are shaped by Treaty agreements. Articles 126 and 127 of the Maastricht Treaty only allowed the Commission to offer programmes of vocational training or education.

Since it was recognised that adult learning crosses the tired old vocational non-vocational divide, it was felt that a European Year to promote the merits of learning throughout life would help to build a bright new future.

Characteristically, alas, this future was to be constructed on minimal resources, like all major adult learning initiatives of the last 30 years. Initially the Commission proposed a budget of 6 million ecus (Pounds 5. 3m) for the year, to cover the 15 member states of the EU and the four states bidding to join. After a year's hard bargaining the budget was raised to 8 million ecus - still scarcely enough to transform the learning culture of a continent.

At first the planners' main concern was not to commit the EU to expenditure after the year. Slowly, however, it was recognised that it would be useful if networks of practitioners offering education and training to adults could be strengthened.

By the time the Council of Ministers finally adopted the Year in June 1995, seven loose and baggy priorities had been adopted. Each member state was invited to establish a national commission and to identify its own priorities.

In the UK, the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education and the Training and Enterprise Council national council had each bid to undertake the work, but the decision was taken to organise the Year through a committee of officials of the four home countries.

On August 30 NIACE was asked to act as UK information office and to receive bids for the first tranche of European funding for England and Wales. Guidelines had, apparently, been sent that week and organisations had until September 15 to submit proposals for preparatory activities to be completed by the end of 1995. The plan was to see what local and regional providers proposed before fleshing out a more detailed national programme.

Extraordinarily, after two weeks' frantic work, 383 English and Welsh bids were received, asking for a total of Pounds 9 million in matched funds, with extra bids in Scotland and Northern Ireland. However, the total available for distribution in the UK was expected to be only Pounds 100,000.

The bids were processed by the information offices, screened by civil servants, short-listed by officers, commended by a panel of "experts", and confirmed as the UK proposals by the Government committee more or less in time for the European closing date in mid October.

But then the Commission recognised that most countries could not bid on time, and that it would be helpful if preparatory activities took place in the first three months of 1996. And then, silence until mid-December, despite prompting that guidelines for the second round of bids would need to be out by early November if UK organisations were to bid for some in the second round by January 15.

In the week before Christmas, the UK office posted guidelines to the 7, 500 organisations requesting details of round two. By the time they hit the right desk, organisers should have at least two days to bid for the Pounds 300, 000 available in round two. Decisions should be made by Easter.

Meanwhile, the logo has finally been designed. One Commission mole described it as the journey from the darkness of ignorance to the European light of lifelong learning - an appropriately modest motif for such a slickly-run year.

Given the pace of planning it is a relief that the Year is not to be officially launched until February 2 and 3 in Venice.

Nevertheless a rich and varied diet of activity is planned. This should come as no surprise to adult learners who have had to make do with the droppings from educational fare designed primarily for the young all down the years, making up in creativity and passion for the lack of coherent planning or adequate resourcing.

EU-supported projects include an outreach project in which Airedale and Wharfedale College is taking courses into Tetley's pubs and a conference on global learning organised by Liverpool City of Learning in June.

But it would be wrong to see the year mainly in terms of the distribution of small grants. More creative work is planned outside of the framework of EU bids. Much of the work for which money was sought will happen anyway - like Gloucestershire County Council's conference, Towards an Educational Ecu, on the need for a credit framework for Europe.

With luck the Year will have enough madness, wit and humour to overcome its bureaucratic birth. Of course, the Year is for everyone - young and old alike - but for adult learners, at least, a moment in the sun is long overdue.

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

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