A quest for coherence

4th June 2004 at 01:00
FURTHER EDUCATION AND ADULT LEARNING. By Colin Flint. Published by NIACE. ISBN 1862012067, pound;8.95


TESTING, TESTING - ASSESSMENT IN ADULT LITERACY, LANGUAGE AND NUMERACY. By Peter Lavender, Jay Derrick and Barry Brooks. Published by NIACE. ISBN 186201193895, pound;8.95


Alison Wolf reviews four discussion papers on adult learning and recommends a couple for a politician's bedside reading

Everyone in further education is all too aware that theirs is the invisible sector. But one has to sympathise with politicians. Junior ministers charged with policy face the mind-boggling complexity of multiple funding streams, myriad types of student, qualifications they have never heard of, and media indifference.

What are they to do? Obvious responses are: launch another initiative, which can be explained to journalists as bemused as themselves; leave the rest well alone; try to stay out of trouble and hope, shortly, to move on.

Suppose, though, that you were a minister determined to understand why so many people in FE are unhappy. Public-sector institutions always complain about funding, of course, but you are convinced that something far more substantial is amiss. But what? And how do you find a way of even thinking about the issues properly, rather than drowning in minutiae?

The answer has been "with extreme difficulty". Most writing about the sector is for insiders: which is why the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education's (NIACE) new policy discussion papers are to be strongly welcomed. They have all the pluses and minuses one would expect from documents debated before publication by a policy committee: a careful tone and an insider's mindset, but also the confidence that the authors truly know their field and their facts. There seems nowhere better, in principle, for our hypothetical minister to start: but how useful would this latest quartet be?

The answer is: less than one might hope at the macro level, but very useful indeed on specific issues. Of the four policy papers reviewed here, two - those by Leisha Fullick and Colin Flint - take a very broad look at adult learners, in terms of structural changes to lifelong learning (Fullick) and FE provision overall (Flint).

The small degree of overlap between the two papers reinforces the impression of a sector in which policy has completely lost coherence. I thought I was relatively well informed about adult learning. Yet, Fullick's paper is full of initiatives and organisations I had never heard of. I learned that government offices (GOs) are to broker and monitor learning partnerships' (LPs) links with local strategic partnerships (LSPs) in the adult learning field; that regional development agencies (RDAs) may become dual key-holders over adult learning funds; that neighbourhood renewal teams reporting to regional government offices (RGOs) have their own skills and knowledge teams. By the end I had a splitting headache and was deeply grateful not to be facing parliamentary questions on any of it.

What I did not bring away was any sense of how to get a handle on a wasteful and bureaucratic system of overlapping responsibilities. The same is true of Flint. The author is clearly steeped in the system, but I am not sure how much his paper would help a newcomer to understand the major forces that shape FE, or clarify policy options for the future.

The paper is also a bit schizophrenic over qualifications. It worries about crude numerical targets, signs up to "learning for life": but then spends much of its time discussing qualification and accreditation issues and the desirability of accrediting bits (units) of qualifications. Perhaps it is the nature of this endlessly shifting sector that those who know its pathways best necessarily tend to focus only on the trees.

Tony Uden's paper on education for offenders, and Testing, Testing deal with far more specific topics. None the less, they are the ones I would select for a politician's bedside reading. Learning's Not a Crime is exemplary for the way it presents a clear well-argued point of view, and a set of definite recommendations while also explaining what the counter-arguments and alternatives might be.

I knew very little about the details of education for offenders and ex-offenders before I read it: by the end I was enormously better informed without feeling that insiders would have been bored or patronised. I am completely convinced by the core argument that education and training should not be compulsory. Equally important, if I were a politician or civil servant, I would finish this paper far better able to reach my own conclusions on issues that extend well beyond prisons and the probation service.

Exactly the same applies to Testing, Testing. On the face of it, this has a narrow subject: not even assessment in general, but assessment in adult basic skills. In fact, the topic encapsulates the major dilemmas facing contemporary provision of "public goods" such as education and health; and the three essays here illuminate the opposing arguments.

In an attempt to increase efficiency, transparency and accountability, and also, in many cases, to impose what is seen as "best practice", our public services have experienced an explosion in quantitative targets. The current major programme to improve adult basic skills exemplifies this.

As Lavender shows, the initiative is now about getting people through particular tests: the goal of improving the skills of a given number of people is, in effect, one of so many test "passes'. The danger is that - as in many other education and health contexts - this results in distortions of practice which undermine the original purpose.

Derrick's paper explains this in concrete detail: showing what it means in terms of teaching practice; explaining the choices and alternatives teachers face; relating them to the academic literature on effective assessment for learning, and offering some concrete recommendations for change.

But how else can governments operate other than through the targets and PSAs (public-sector agreements) that practitioners so dislike? Barry Brooks, offering a view from the inside, mounts an eloquent defence of a focused, centrally-driven strategy. He argues that we have no real evidence that distortions are major, and plenty that practice needs (and needed) improvement. Moreover, the specificity of his response (and of the whole paper) should be an education for any new politician in the level of detailed activity required to implement any large governmental initiative or change in qualification policy.

Brooks's vision of integrated, seamless, personalised provision is not, I suspect, something to be achieved in the fragmented hinterland that Fullick and Flint describe. But no politician who reads Testing, Testing could fail to be better informed about not only adult basic skills policy but the whole management of further education.

Alison Wolf is professor of management and professional development at King's College, London

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