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Singing praises of system in harmony

Simon Midgley meets Nick Stuart, the man in charge of translating Government education theory into practice.

NICK Stuart, the Department for Education and Employment's 57-year-old director general for lifelong learning, has set his heart on creating a society in which it is cool to learn throughout one's life.

"It's about creating a climate in which nobody finds any difficulty in picking up learning at different stages," he said. "It's enabling learning to take place where people feel most comfortable."

The architect of The Learning Age Green Paper has spent the past nine months overseeing the development of The Learning and Skills Council, which will cover all post-16 education and training from next April.

At the beginning of May, Mr Stuart was appointed director general of the department's huge, new Lifelong Learning Directorate - responsible for higher and further education qualifications, youth policy, the Connexions careers service for over-14-year-olds, lifelong learning and adult and work-based training.

He wants continuing education and be recognised as a vital route to acquiring further learning and skills, as well as improving the nation's competitiveness.

Mr Stuart's Harrow School and Oxford University background, as sketched out in his entry in Debrett's People of Today 2000, suggest an upper-crust pedigree.

This is misleading. His father, Douglas Willoughby Stuart, is a former BBC foreign correspondent who created and presented The World Tonight on Radio 4. Nick grew up in India, West Germany, Vienna and America.

He wanted to be a sports reporter, but could not support his family on the wages of a local newspaper journalist. Instead he joined the Department for Education and Science after graduating from Oxford with a degree in modern history in the 1960s.

In an interview with The TES last week Mr Stuart, whose hobbies include antiques and growing vegetables, said that further education had been frequently dubbed the Cinderella service, yet it catered for four million people in colleges and another 2 milllion in work-based adult and community traning.

Those people, he added, deserved a quality, well-financed service that was responsive to the needs of individual learners and employers. The new national council and its 47 local subsidiaries will establish a strategy for workforce development, create new opportunities for education and training and raise standards of retention and achievement.

The council's very large agenda included widening access to FE and HE, raising the quality of adult and community education, and equipping young people to make informed education, training and career choices.

Another key challenge is to improve adult literacy and numeracy. "It is a national scandal that 7 million adults are estimated to have the reading skills of an average 11-year-old," Mr Stuart said.

Together, the Learning and Skills Councils and the Small Business Service pilot schemes needed to experiment with new ways of bringing affordable training to people, he said, by providing communal training schemes on industrial estates. The success of David Blunkett's Union Learning Fund in encouraging learning and training among trade unionists was heartening, he said.

For the past year, Mr Stuart has been turning the Learning to Succeed White Paper into the practical legislation embodied in the Learning and Skills Bill. Royal assent is expected at the end of this month. He has also been establishing the new council and overseeing arrangements for winding down the Further Education Council and 72 training and enterprise councils.

He sees the Learning and Skills Council as the final dividend of the merger between employment and education. A single, stronger organisation with the very wide remit of the Learning and Skills Council, he said, will be able to make sure that the system sings in harmony.

"We are very clear that the LSC, both locally and nationally should have a strong business emphasis." Getting the LSC working successfully will be Nick Stuart's final project before he retires in August 2001. Then he intends to build a luxurious 55-ft narrow canal boat, so that he can go gliding through the countryside.

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