Rhetoric must become reality

VIEWPOINT The Government must invest in further education professionals to help achieve its ambition of a 'learning age' and access for all

WHAT is lifelong learning? How do we translate rhetoric into reality? How do we "sell" learning to those parts of the community hitherto untouched, including many who regard their school days as the direst, rather than the best, of their life? For those who happily gave up school at 16, how do we make this stuff about the "Learning Age" come to life?

These are some of the questions that have intrigued me since I became minister for lifelong learning last summer. It has certainly been hectic as the Government has put some of its answers in place.

The new Learning and Skills Bill, Parliament willing, will establish (in place of the Further Education Funding Council and Training and Enterprise Councils) a national Learning and Skills Council and 47 local councils. It will place within one policy framework, and one funding stream, some pound;6 billion and some six million learners.

The Bill also establishes the new youth support service - Connexions - for 13 to 19-year-olds. It sets up individual learning accounts, a new inspection system and other parts of our framework for post-16 learning.

The essential change is that provision will now be determined by the needs of learners rather than the convenience of providers. This has radical implications.

Today most jobs demand intellectual rather than purely manual skills. This requires a longer period of learning at the start of life and the capacity to learn thoroughout life, where further education has such an important role.

Some of the most pressing learning needs and skill shortages are the legacy of recession and mass unemployment.

The result is that as many as one in eleven young people aged 16 to 18 - about 170,000 - are not in education, training or jobs. Now FE is playing a major role in giving these young men and women a second chance. The new Connexions service will work closely with this age group, not least with the most disadvantaged.

But it is not just the young who need that second chance. One in four adults cannot check their change in a shop and large numbers struggle with basic literacy. Many adults have little or no computer skills. Too many have no qualifications.

Last week Dvid Blunkett announced a new pound;20 million package aimed at adult basic skills, using money from the Budget. This underlines our commitment to tackling the needs of those who missed out on basic education.

Our programme for higher education has to be equally bold. Globally, and here at home, the number entering higher education is greater than ever. There is further expansion to come. In the early 1960s you would have had a one in 18 chance of going into higher education. Today young people have a one in three chance. The Prime Minister wants that improved to one in two.

Yet this is not just about numbers. First and foremost, it is about maintaining standards: there can be no trade-off between quantity and quality.

Second, it is about widening participation, allowing the ablest to enter university (including the most famous establishments!) regardless of background. Third, it is about new routes into higher education and new types of degrees, enabling a mix of academic and vocational education.

Modern Apprenticeships offer a credible alternative to the traditional route to higher learning. Graduate Apprenticeships will integrate higher-level study with work-based learning. I look forward to a broad cross-section of universities becoming involved when they are introduced next year.

Foundation Degrees are also intended to address the skills deficit. Starting with prototypes next year, they will bring higher education within reach of all communities and open up new horizons for many people.

We are willing the means, not just the ends. For example, in FE, spending is due to rise from pound;3.1 billion in 1998-99 to pound;3.9 billion next year - a 16 per cent increase in real terms.

This means that we can afford to, and must invest in, highly professional staff. That requires a proper qualification structure; a fair and effective pay structure; no abuse, by agencies, of employment rights; and an end now to any lingering examples of the macho management style that bedevilled some of the sector.

We are under no illusions: our ambitions for lifelong learning depend crucially on the professionalism and morale in further education. The stakes are high. Our country's economic future and our ambitions to build a fair society depend on turning our aspirations about the learning age into reality.

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