THE Executive's strategy for lifelong learning is a bit of a mixed bag, as might have been expected in a document that covers such a huge and complex field. It does, however, throw considerable financial and political weight about to create a single tertiary sector, introduce learning accounts for small businesses, make a start (albeit highly tentatively) on a learning entitlement for those not in full-time education, set a target for improved adult literacy and numeracy, investigate barriers to learning and ensure there is more reliable careers and labour market information.
It would be churlish to quibble, and we could even acknowledge that some of these measures are ambitious in their scope. The merger of the further and higher funding councils, for example, has the potential to make a real difference to long-held complaints about overlap, resource inequities and barriers to progression from FE to HE. And learning accounts for small businesses are another answer to a long-standing cri de cOur.
The strategy is strangely more ambitious, however, on behalf of those "getting on and getting by"; those "getting nowhere" are subject to a more tentative regime as witness, for example, the piloting of a learning entitlement for young people leaving care and, even then, only those whose schooling has been interrupted. There are to be taster courses via learning roadshows and individual learning accounts, but what about the main courses?
There is much sympathy about possible barriers to learning, whether financial or attitudinal, but no immediate action other than the promise of an investigation. There is also no sign that the Executive acknowledges the disparities in funding between FE and HE:why should a full-time engineering place at university attract funding of pound;6,859 a year but an exactly equivalent engineering place at college only pound;3,068, for example? We expect differences but surely not to that extent.
But the main challenge to lifelong learning is the unwillingness of many in the community at large to engage in it - and this is where the strategy seems weakest. The Executive has made a start in getting greater coherence into the post-school system. But it will have to be vigilant to ensure it is not simply rearranging the furniture on the middle and luxury decks while doing nothing about steerage.