A Clapham Junction of policy initiatives

4th July 1997 at 01:00
July promises to be a heady month for adult learners, with new policy initiatives arriving like trains at Clapham Junction. Each of them seems to be going in the right direction, but you cannot quite be sure which platform to select for the earliest and quickest train - always assuming you are certain of the destination you want to reach.

If the Further Education Funding Council is celebrated for nothing else it must be credited for its courage and vision in commissioning the Kennedy and Tomlinson reports.

The elegance of the funding mechanism carried the sector, and its external partners, through the early years after the 1992 Further and Higher Education Act, with all the necessary compromises and enough growth to muffle screams of institutional pain. There were anomalies, of course, that, for example, left full-time young A-level students funded at a massive premium to part-time adults pursuing the same qualifications.

For a while it seemed as though it was cast in stone. However, it is hard to see how the scale and quality of the challenge to inherited practice that Tomlinson and Kennedy pose can fail to change the funding and priorities of further education and of post-compulsory education more widely.

Both reports make clear that existing funding regimes privilege some learners at the expense of the most vulnerable. Both highlight the need for adequate learner and learning support if adults without previous successful experience of post-school education are not to be failed again. Both recognise it will not come cheap.

I was delighted to see that the Kennedy committee accepted the case we made that promoting learning was a curriculum issue for a system that seeks to include everybody, and impressed at the determination to face the difficult choices we confront in balancing the need for more high-quality FE with the need to secure adequate fundings for university-level education.

It is interesting to note the differences in the reception of the two reports. There seemed at first to be a resistance to Tomlinson's arguments. The concept of inclusive learning is not tidy or simply addressed. Yet a year on, it is immensely encouraging to see how many colleges have adapted their practice to take on some at least of the report's recommendations.

The excitement generated by the Kennedy report, however, is palpable. For the first time in my working life there has been a clear statement that the case for widening participation cannot depend on new money alone. If FE is to be the heart of the learning society, as FEFC chief executive David Melville argues, it must be inclusive.

If there is not significant new money in post-school education it does imply redistribution from higher to further, and from the educationally privileged to the rest. In part that case has been heard, and argued with, because it has been made by someone with the cultural confidence, eloquence and sheer passion of Helena Kennedy.

This is to take nothing away from John Tomlinson's convincing advocacy, just to recognise that adult learning and FE have gained a powerful new champion, able to translate its concerns to a wider public.

Still, there are things to tease through in the report. You can understand how a committee charged to widen participation in FE might be attracted to extending the boundaries of schedule 2 provision (which gives state funding for courses), and no doubt many effective external providers in LEAs would make sure that FEFC funding supported programmes previously at risk with cutbacks in LEA funding.

Yet the case for securing adequate uncertificated provision through strengthening the requirements on LEAs to meet their statutory duty is surely just as important to the learning society. And each extension of the schedule 2 boundary risks weakening the resolve of councillor's juggling tight budgets to defend and develop services for community development, youth work and adult learning.

I find myself uncertain of the journey to take today, believing that the curriculum split enshrined in the 1992 Act is a nonsense, yet being unwilling to argue that services for adults should be simply integrated under a single funding regime, which is surely the real logic of the widening participation case. I would want to be sure that the voice of democratically elected local authorities was heard in decision-making, alongside the voices of what the Europeans call social partners, and other providers.

I would need to believe that learning that supports and develops active, argumentative citizenship would be as well protected as just-in-time training, and that the messy diversity of adults' learning styles and aspirations was secured in the funding of lots of different types and styles of provision.

If those conditions could be met, then I think the case for a coherent integrated funding system would be unstoppable. But you would need the confidence of the Danes to adopt such a system, since you would have to trust that all sorts of learning can make equal contributions to an economically prosperous, fair and inclusive society.

The advisory group chaired by Bob Fryer holds its first meeting today, and has the rare privilege of advising Government on just this sort of question. Yet at the same time express trains are passing through the station. The New DealWelfare to Work initiative touches many of the concerns of adult educators.

It will need to address the extent of the alienation and disaffection felt by many excluded young people, and design learning contexts, styles and strategies fit for purpose, as the project led by Bryan Merton for the National Youth Agency and National Institute of Adult and Continuing Education, with backing from local authorities and from Carnegie, is seeking to do.

In working with single parents it will need to concentrate on how best to foster confidence, and a recognition of the relevance of the skills and experience new entrants and returners to the labour force bring from their experiences at home and in community settings. Much of that will involve giving people permission to value their own contributions.

In working with long-term unemployed people it will want to build on, rather than reinvent, the lessons of the REPLAN experience. It will need to recognise Kennedy's and Tomlinson's lessons about the role of motivation, outreach, guidance and support for learners in securing successful outcomes.

Above all, it will want to avoid confusing throughput with output. Perhaps to that end, we might hope, over the summer, that we shall find we need to make haste slowly enough to make sure we catch the right train.

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

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