After much ministerial wrangling, the Government has published its plans for an education system offering a lifetime of courses to fulfil the needs of the new century with its ever-more rapid technological change
The latest Green Paper from Education and Employment Secretary David Blunkett creates a bold vision of the lifelong learning family.
Mum wants to retrain for work after having a family. She has finished a University for Industry (UFI) basic skills and IT course, and now she is off to the open-all-hours village school. Leaving her child in the homework club, she settles down to a group tuition session. Careers counsellors from the FE college are on hand to advise.
Dad, meanwhile, is improving his skills and promotion prospects, cashing in part of his Individual Learning Account (ILA) - a joint investment fund with the state and his employer matching any money he puts in. By cashing it in for a college course, the ILA also covers childcare costs for their youngest.
Everyone is giving support in the global village of the new millennium - 24-hour libraries, companies, colleges, universities, training and enterprise councils. Even the local town shopping mall has a "learn as you shop" centre.
Nice idea. But big ideas need a big cash investment and the cloth of Tory spending constraints - to which Labour is committed for two years - is looking threadbare.
Very long on vision and exhortation, the Green Paper, The Learning Age, is short on certainties or even speculation about when it will all happen. All we know is, it will require more the lifetime of this Parliament.
This paper is only the start. Nine more "Learning Age Papers" are promised, two this week and seven in successive months. They include Government responses to the Kennedy and Dearing reports on colleges and universities, and papers on the UFI, the Careers Service, 16 to 19 qualifications, individual learning accounts and national education and training targets.
The vast bulk of the paper is a restatement of intentions and commitments already agreed in these nine areas. The report itself says: "Some of these have already been announced; others are in their development stage." In other words, there is nothing new.
Its gestation has been long and fraught. Redrafted ten times, rejected by Tony Blair, demoted from White to Green Paper - to the universal anger of the post-school sectors - it finally emerged this week.
"After two decades of inadequate investment in learning, we face a challenge," the paper says. Individuals, employers and the state must all contribute to get out of the mire. In the short to medium-term there will be no significant new money from Government to meet the 39 "priorities for early action" outlined by ministers.
The hope is that the paper will trigger a national debate and process of change in Government. The underlying belief is that "a strong economy depends on an inclusive society".
Evidence of the damaging effects on the individual and the economy when people are excluded from learning were amply detailed in reports on which the Government drew for the Green Paper - those of Baroness Kennedy, Lord Dearing and Bob Fryer's Government task force on lifelong learning.
"The results are seen in the second and third generation of the same family being unemployed, and in the potential talent of young people wasted in a vicious circle of under-achievement, self-deprecation and petty crime," it says.
The Green Paper sets out to ask why the need for reform is so pressing, what is meant by lifelong learning, who is involved and who excluded, and how the Government can carry forward its strategy.
Parallels are repeatedly drawn with New Labour's earlier schools Green Paper Excellence For All. Indeed, the vision is of a seamless education robe not just post-16 - a debate which pre-occupies the post-compulsory chattering classes.
"We will promote greater co-operation between schools and colleges in sharing resources and in providing greater choice," it says. "In some places there is also potential for greater efficiency through rationalisation of provision and facilities, harnessing competition and making progress through local partnerships. The development of a collaborative network of tertiary education is a long-term objective of the Government."
But schools and colleges will have to alter radically: "institutions and the ways of doing things will need to change in response to the needs of learners."
Education in learning centres is already making way for distance learning, the sort of home tuition and a mix of learning styles with the tutor going to the pupil through home visits, group lessons in non-traditional places such as Learning World in the MetroCentre - Europe's largest shopping mall.
But none of these initiatives will flower without a fundamental change in attitudes of individuals, says Mr Blunkett in a foreword to the report. "To realise our ambition, we must all develop and sustain a regard for learning at whatever age. For many this will mean overcoming past experiences which have put them off learning.
"For others it will mean taking the opportunity, perhaps for the first time, to recognise their own talent, to discover new ways of learning and to see new opportunities opening up."
IMMEDIATE 10-POINT PLAN
* Expand further and higher education student numbers by 500,000 by 2002
* Launch University for Industry in 1999
* Spend pound;150 million setting up 1m Individual Learning Accounts
* Invest in Young people - initiative to boost study beyond 16
* Widen participation in further, higher, adult and community education
* Set clear targets for skills and qualifications the nation must achieve
* Work with employers and trade unions to boost workplace learning
* Build a qualifications system that is more easily understood
* Launch Learning Direct freephone helpline for advice on courses and the University for Industry
* Lift cap on HE student numbers