A central piece in the jigsaw

26th May 2006 at 01:00
Adult Learners' Week comes at a time when funding for further education is under intense pressure, with a tough government spending review.

It is imperative that we all help by making clear the economic and social importance of adult learning to the Chancellor Gordon Brown, who is leading the review.

As always, the Treasury will want substantial "efficiency" savings. In education, this debate is likely to focus on the ambition to reduce by 40 per cent the number of adults at work without level 2 qualifications - equivalent to five good GCSEs.

When discussing possible savings, the Department for Education and Skills must scrutinise school and university spending with the same scepticism as it does further education. Savings should be spread across the board. The Treasury must acknowledge there has never been sufficient public money invested at level 2 and below. Remember why this target was adopted. While level 2 is a springboard to higher levels of learning, individuals and employers saw little or no return on investing below level 3 (technician or A-level-equivalent). Therefore, Government agreed to fund an entitlement to full level 2. Yet, even if all uncertificated "other" adult courses were scrapped, there would still be inadequate public money to meet the target.

The Treasury should recognise that, without a better framework for assessing achievement, much of the success of the Government's Skills Strategy goes unrecorded in the target. Overwhelmingly, adults study part-time, and pick up their achievements in bite-sized chunks. Remember, too, that the biggest group of people in work without such qualifications are already doing jobs requiring skills at level 2 or above.

Most importantly, the Treasury must recognise that qualifications are a proxy for the skills, know-ledge, understanding and creativity that the country needs. As the Small Business Council never tires of saying, a huge amount of learning at work is informal, and many workers choose to learn from colleagues rather than formal courses. Part of the spending review debate must focus on how best to adapt the targets to include less formal learning. That, after all, is the whole point of education - adaptation in the light of what we have learned.

The Skills for Life target needs overhauling, too, despite being a success story. It ignores those in greatest need. We need more money and new "sub-targets" for learners below entry level 2 and for the burgeoning numbers of students lacking the most basic English language and information and communications technology skills. They urgently need the right support.

How much we should pay remains a vexed question that needs resolution. Sorting out fees for individuals, and remissions policies that don't unintentionally reduce provision for people with disabilities must be priority of the spending review. Measures must also be introduced to ensure that employers share the burden of improving the skills of employees, since they will, without doubt, share the benefits.

It must be remembered that two in three of the jobs of the next 10 years will be filled by people who are adults today - among them women outside work, migrants, older workers, ex-offenders and people on incapacity benefits. Each needs a learning strategy that starts from their personal experience.

Finally, the challenge is for the Treasury to take off its blinkers.

Adult learning supports a wide range of other government targets - in health promotion, community cohesion, engagement of older people, among a number of others. That support is vulnerable if the focus on formal qualifications is not accompanied by a rich offering of less formal education, provided by well-trained and properly paid staff.

The Treasury is more likely to respond to these arguments if they are made consistently, by a number of different voices. As long as they do take the advice, though, adult learners have little to fear from the spending review.

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

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