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Speak out now to change bad law quickly

GOVERNMENT sometimes works with impressive speed and purpose. Sometimes, progress is slow and negotiations feel like treading through treacle. To start with the treacle: for as long as I can remember, adult educators have been wanting the Government to define "adequacy and sufficiency".

The 1992 Act, taking a lead from the 1944 Butler Act, requires the Further Education Funding Council to secure sufficient 16-19 provision, and adequate facilities for adults to undertake courses covered by schedule 2 of the Act. A parallel duty requires local education authorities to secure further education for adults in areas not covered by the schedule.

Try as we might, we could persuade neither minister nor bureaucrat to lift a pen. The result has been, at least in the case of local authority adult education, that councillors talk of it as a "non-statutory" service. Faced with government pressure, many authorities put money allocated (at least notionally) for work with adult learners into schools' budgets. Of course, many honourably resisted the pressure.

More than a decade ago, the Unit for the Development of Adult and Continuing Education did groundwork on what adequacy might mean. In the early 1990s, Bryan Merton, then a senior HMI, carried on the work.

This last winter, there was money in the Standards Fund for LEAs to audit their services, to provide baseline data which might be useful in defining adequacy. Now I hear appalling rumours that the people preparing the Bill arising from Learning to Succeed are considering dropping the words from the legislation.

This will not do. Until we have an explicit charter of rights and entitlements for adult learners, there must be a clear public commitment to securing a minimum curriculum range, and access to learning facilities, guidance and learner support, within reasonable reach of home.

Without a commitment of this kind, we will not get the learning society we are all after. Defining adequacy is a tortoise that could do with help in overtaking the hares in the Government who are preparing the Bill. There is still time to respond to the White Paper, and it is worth readers' while to do so.

As my organisation says in its response, on the subject of the proposed arrangements for inspection, the best time to change bad law is before it appears in a Bill. Thinking about inspection, and the rampant growth of audit culture during the 1990s, I have been prompted to think how much I relied on my institute inspector, Bill Carter, in the Inner London Education Authority when I was a principal.

It seemed that Mr Carter was sent to me from heaven, to ask good questions, to help me hear things when I was not listening, to challenge our academic board to be more adventurous, in designing learning opportunities, in short to set our sights higher. It felt as if responsibility for serving adult learners in Clapham and Battersea was shared by both of us, and of course my colleagues. There are echoes of that role in the current work of college inspectors. I think the test of the new legislation will be how quickly it helps us all move back to thinking about learners and learning, and how to support them better.

But to return to speedy and purposeful government. Sir Claus Moser's report on literacy and numeracy, A Fresh Start, was published in the spring. Since the Government has put in place a technical implementation group, affectionately called TIG, to oversee work leading to practical implementation of the report's proposals. It is backed by smaller work groups looking at English as an additional language; research; standards; learning difficulties, and so on.

I am impressed at just how much has been achieved - at how open, and consultative the work being undertaken, and how serious some of the discussion is. Nevertheless, there remains a tension at the heart of government thinking between its commitment to standards, and its determination to widen participation. Of course, opening the doors to poor education is unacceptable. But so, too, are needless hurdles to participation.

Happily, pluralism is winning out - so far at least. But with legislation imminent, I would like to see the publication of the social exclusion unit's paper on skills, and a fresh prospectus from the University for Industry. We need all the fuel we can get to protect the rights of hesitant learners to study at their own pace, working to their own agendas, gaining confidence and voice as they go.

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

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