This Big Idea is too small

20th February 1998 at 00:00
Next week's Government consultation paper on lifelong learning needs to map out a practical, measured and affordable programme to encourage hundreds of thousands of people to restart an education which finished when they left school.

The thing no one wants is another round of consultations. The much-delayed, then scrapped, White Paper has imposed a planning blight and slow death by a thousand consultations. What is needed now is leadership. More money would also help; but clear priorities on how best to spend the huge sums already available are what is needed most to begin to create the lifelong learning society which has eluded Britain.

A bold strategy is available within existing budgets. The millions spent on education and careers guidance, taster courses and other initiatives should be diverted for free education and training health checks for everyone.

Tony Blair should make dropping into the local college, training and enterprise council scheme or school as easy as popping into Sainsbury's. There should be tax breaks for employers to release staff for vocational and leisure courses. Employees should be encouraged to invest their own time, training and money - with employers and Government matching expenditure.

This is possible within the Government's plans for individual learning accounts (ILAs). But why stop there? Radical reform of individual savings and pension schemes is Gordon Brown's priority. These should attract tax incentives for those who divert personal profits into ILAs, regardless of age.

More must be done to spread good practice or encourage people to take first steps into learning - whether that means filling a duvet cover in 15 seconds or holiday French. Scrap the ludicrous distinction between vocational and leisure courses - and if the Government really wants to get people off welfare and into work, abolish limits on the hours that benefits claimants can study.

Career development loans should be offered at reasonable repayment rates. Maintenance loans should be available to students at college and university - whether full-time or part-time. Guaranteed childcare support must be available for single parents returning to learn or work.

All schools should be encouraged to open in the evenings; funds should be available to extend library opening hours; tax breaks should help employers offer training facilities to the wider community. Part of this can be funded through a ban on direct state subsidy for employers training and diverting it to support staff on their chosen schemes.

Coupled with this should be an attack on bureaucracy. The Government must disentangle the internal market in education and training - as in the health service. This would cut waste - 460 colleges each spend as much on management as most LEAs did for FE five years ago.

An impossible dream? No. Just the promises from Labour over the past two years (including numerous promises to Parliament of a White Paper from lifelong learning minister Kim Howells). Remember election pledges - lifelong learning is one of Labour's "Big Ideas."

Much of the detail - how voluntary bodies and trade unions could contribute, a longer-term funding review, regional planning and learning centres in every locality - was spelt out last November in the Fryer Report. But the chances of it all coming together next week are slim. It needs joint action from education and employment, health and social welfare. The atomised post-school system with colleges, TECs and LEAs will not do.

Ministers will trumpet initiatives such as welfare to work and the University for Industry. But the answer needed is much, much bigger than this.

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