And do you still believe in Santa?Viewpoint

3rd November 2006 at 00:00
The fallacy of widening participation calls to mind another well-known myth we all love to be true

What has the Government's widening participation strategy got in common with Father Christmas? Answer: nobody wants to tell you that they don't exist. You have to work it out for yourself. In the case of the latter, the lack of a chimney is a bit of a giveaway. The sheer improbability of all those presents being delivered by reindeer in one night dawns slowly.

Various clues force the unwilling acceptance that the Santa story is just not true.

Much the same is going on with widening participation. Funding for adult learners is becoming as restrictive as a modern chimney. The adult participation target is as real as the reindeer. The presents being delivered are all very useful, rather than the stuff of your dreams.

It is clear that the priority now is to get adults a full level 2 (GCSE-equivalent) qualification, rather than merely engaged. But it is remarkable how many people cling to the view that widening participation trumps everything. It no longer does. It is an important part of government policy, but not the most important part. And in a target-driven regime that is running out of cash, "being important" may not be enough.

I am reminded of the observation of a wise old college principal when asked how to keep abreast of constant changes in policy and spot the emerging trends. The answer was that spotting the new stuff is easy - it's knowing when a policy is on the way out that's tricky. No one will tell you that a policy has been abandoned. You have to work it out - like spotting which Soviet leader was on the way down from where they stood for the May Day parade.

In this spirit, it is worth spending a few moments reflecting on those policies which may be slipping away without fanfare or obituary. Curriculum 2000 is an obvious example. It's still there but it's a long time since I heard anyone leading the cheering for it. Key skills are due for a re-badging. There are still a few adjectives meaning "pretty damn important" that we haven't applied yet. But there may be other, less clear-cut cases in which it would be wise to keep a finger on the pulse over the next 12 months.

Consider the case of information technology. It doesn't seem so long ago that we were worried about the digital divide. For many, IT was the third basic skill - up there with reading and writing as an indispensable precondition for finding and keeping work. It was said to be important to bridge the gap between the IT "haves and have-nots". It was equally important to bridge the generation gap between young people who acquire IT skills at school and from their peers,and those born well before the computer revolution who missed out on its benefits.

It now seems that this bandwagon has stalled, if not gone into reverse.

Courses for IT-users seem to be among the prime casualties of Learning and Skills Council cuts across the country. Colleges are withdrawing from franchise agreements. Outreach centres are being closed. There is no announcement of a change in policy, but there is a clear sense that IT for the masses is yesterday's issue.

What about planning? Few still think that strategic area reviews are at the cutting edge of action, although nobody has yet administered the last rites. But it is possible that plan-led funding, introduced only a short while ago, may also be sickening.

The aim of this sort of funding was to introduce stability into college budgets while at the same time allowing the LSC to steer courses towards government priorities. It was seen as a secure foundation on which the Agenda for Change funding reforms could be built. Yet almost before the ink is dry on the funding consultation, Train to Gain promises to take us off in a different direction.

To get Train to Gain funding, providers need to bid. It's called "contestability" because competition sounds very 1990s, but it brings the same unpredictability into institutional planning.

Finally, what of the level playing field? Last year, Ruth Kelly, then education secretary, promised to close the funding gap between schools and colleges - almost nine years after Gillian Shephard had promised much the same thing. Modest steps have been taken, but no one expects progress to be rapid.

Furthermore, as the government works slowly towards closing the funding gap between schools and colleges, another is opening between young people and adults. It looks as though one of the core reasons behind the setting up of the LSC, the introduction of a single consistent basis for funding learning, might be on the way to the back burner. If it is, though, we can be sure that no one will say so.

cash control for colleges, 6

Mick Fletcher is an education consultant and former research director for the Learning and Skills Development Agency

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