Better deal needed to complete the vision;Commentary;Opinion

1st May 1998 at 01:00
When Labour was elected I remember thinking lifelong learning might have to wait until the Government's second term - if it survived until then - not least because of Tony Blair's commitment to education as the Government's priority.

My experience was that politicians who are new to office find the case for focusing on school issues irresistible - not least because many adults share the view that if resources are short, then do something for the young.

It was an enormous and pleasant surprise that David Blunkett, the Education Secretary, chose Adult Learners' Week for his first public outing and used his speech to announce the creation of the National Advisory Group for Continuing Education and Lifelong Learning, with Professor Bob Fryer as chair.

The establishment of a group to develop proposals for a University for Industry, the setting-up of the New Deal task force; the welcome offered to Helena Kennedy's brilliant and brilliantly-timed report, Learning Works, and the robust reaction to the Dearing Committee's proposals on student finance all demonstrated a government with a greater commitment to thinking about lifelong learning than we have been used to.

A year on, I have to confess to some sense of initiative fatigue - as each day offers the chance to comment on yet another key issue to be considered.

I am not complaining - it is important that neglected issues get attention. But I keep being reminded of that old Chinese curse - may all your dreams come true. You then have to live with the consequences.

While The Learning Age Green Paper does not answer all the dreams adult learners may have of support from a benign government, it sets an impressive agenda, as does its sister Welsh Green Paper Learning Is for Everyone. Both show how far Government has come in joining up the thinking on lifelong learning. What is not in doubt is the vision.

David Blunkett's foreword to The Learning Age encourages us to the same kind of social responsibility, institutional innovation and zest for learning that characterised the popular movements of the Victorian era. He wants us to contribute to economic prosperity and a rich, diverse and argumentative civil society.

I read little in the press reaction to the Green Paper that argued with the vision. Doubts were expressed about the detail and two arguments dominated early reactions. The first pointed to the priority given to labour market issues and the second to the lack of new money.

Although there is much that needs strengthening in the paper, I did not find myself in sympathy with either argument.

On the first, it struck me as a price liberal adult educators should happily pay to be at the centre of the social policy debate. The case for adult learning has always been easier to make in the context of labour market planning than in debates about formal education. It was, after all, the Manpower Services Commission that first found the money for full-time courses in literacy and numeracy and the then Department for Education that split the adult curriculum in 1992, against all the evidence that you cannot tell the purpose of the student from the title of the course.

The amalgamation of the Departments of education and employment did only good for adult learners. What starts off as a concern to address issues of labour market failure quickly evolves into a recognition that learning spreads confidence, and that the cases for economic prosperity and social cohesion are inextricably linked.

Anyway, there is much to be done in the labour market. I was more concerned that the Green Paper did not accept the Fryer report recommendations on a code of practice for employers.

The second criticism, that there is not enough money, is absolutely right. Further education and community-based adult education in particular are strapped. Colleges paid the price of unrealistic squeezes imposed in the name of efficiency, while student numbers were rising. Adult education was squeezed too, while local authorities had a legal duty to deliver lifelong education. Treasury cash settlements and local cuts left many services as little more than school boards.

I hoped the Green Paper would recognise the vital role local authorities play, as multi-purpose agencies, backed by clear expectations from Government. That kind of measure is needed if we are to offer older people a halfway decent service to support active retirement, or if the vision of active citizenship is to work for all of Britain's communities.

Part-time students - overwhelmingly adults - are still waiting for a better deal, as are the adults awaiting the second New Deal.

Despite all that, I found myself out of patience with the criticism about no new money. First, it stood to reason that with the comprehensive spending review unfinished, no big numbers would be announced in the Green Paper. Second, the fiscal discipline of Labour's first year has avoided a crisis in the city. In an economy that is most reliant on its finance sector, that is a necessary pre-condition for the achievement of a learning society. Third, the paper gives us tools to use in making the case for more money.

The Learning Age is an achievement to be built on. We do need money, passion and imagination for that. And speaking for myself, time to get on top of the current crop of developments before the next round of initiatives appear.

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

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