Bill leaves us feeling insecure

28th July 2000 at 01:00
THE Learning and Skills Bill has been put to bed, the budgets are bulging and, slowly, the shape of the new system is becoming clearer. There has been enough consultation for many of the remaining flaws to be our fault. Yet I'm sloping off to summer feeling a bit gloomy.

Despite the commitment of ministers to policies that provide learning opportunities from cradle to grave, the new Learning and Skills Act preserves the primacy of the young.

Unlike 16 to 19-year-olds, adults have to make do with an entitlement to free basic skills. After that they will get what is left over once the promises to the young are met.

We should remember that the Skills Task Force suggested there should be entitlements for young adults, up to level 3 (equivalent to A-level), and for adults over 25 to their first qualification at level 2 (GCSE-equivalent). Helena Kennedy was more ambitious in Learning Works, suggesting that adults needed free education up to university entrance.

The commitment to give what's left over to adults is all well and good while cash flows into education. Yet, as Baroness David remarked in the Lords, it would be better if ministers stated a clear aspiration to introduce a proper adult entitlement.

That is what Tony Blair has done with his goal that 50 per cent of young people should be in higher education. Such a statement concentrates the minds of policy-makers.

Education and employment minister Tessa Blackstone's reply to Baroness David was interesting. "At this stage," she said, "I am not able to make any commitment about there being an entitlement to adult learning. However, I shall certainly take away her suggestion, which may in the longer term be desirable."

I should, of course, feel pleased by the hint of a better future. But it is the word "may" I have a problem with. Of course, it might merely be evidence of the fiscal caution. I hope it does not mean that the old fashioned Treasury view - that adult learning isan optional extra - lingers near the heart of government. There is still plenty of work to do to turn the Act into a workable system.

Many of the details of the funding formula are still to be sorted out. I hope that as much as possible of the adult and community learning curriculum gets built in to it from the beginning. That will involve modelling work, to make sure that there are no unintended financial consequences for providers.

Voluntary agencies need much better briefing to play their role in the new arrangements, and many local learning partnerships have some way to go to include the full range of providers.

I think, though, that the largest challenge lies with those committed to widening participation. To serve the needs of the learning poor, who have their best chance of learning at work, new alliances will be needed.

The new learning and skills structure will bring education and training closer together. But the trick will be to think how we can better serve the needs of part-time and temporary workers, who often have too little free time to study outside work.

Workplaces and community settings alike can be sites to tackle exclusion. But using a workplace might raise a question about who pays for what. Hence the case for defining what the state will

provide in an adult entitlement.

When he came into office David Blunkett talked about the patience needed to change policy affecting adults, and compared the task with turning round an oil tanker. Much has been achieved, but little is written into the Act. As a result another administration, or different ministerial priorities in this administration could easily reverse many of the gains.

And that is the source of my gloom. So much to feel pleased about that it feels churlish to point out that there is not enough in the Act to secure the future adult learning deserves.

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

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