THE LEARNING and Skills Bill, like Vladimir Nabokov's Pale Fire, comes with its ready-made explanatory text. It is just as well.
Without the prospectus you look in vain for any mention of lifelong learning partnerships. They are absent on the face of the Bill - yet the new thinking requires partnerships to play a critical and much changed role in making sure that the FE system is responsive to pressures on the ground as well as to central initiatives.
Again, the White Paper held out the prospect for local education authorities of a changed "duty to contribute to provision for adults". Yet, while the proposals in the Bill meet the substance of this policy goal, there is no mention of a duty. Apparently, Parliamentary Counsel won't have split duties on the face of legislation. I have never met a Parliamentary Counsel, but they are clearly powerful souls, telling Government what is and isn't possible.
Powerful, but not always clear. From 1944 on we have looked, unsuccessfully for a Government definition of "adequate" further education for adults.
The new Bill redefines adequate as "reasonable". And what is reasonable? Easy. "Facilities are reasonable if ... the facilities are of such a quantity and quality that the (Learning and Skills) Council can reasonably be expected to secure their provision". This might work, but is hardly a comfort if cold winds blow, under a different administration, or a less benign Secretary of State.
Still, I think this administration, and this Secretary of State have done adult learners proud. The ludicrous Schedule 2 that differentiates between leisure and vocational courses is to go - though no one should suppose that that will mean the end of differential investment in the curriculum.
The establishment of national statutory committees for adults and for young people will help the Learning and Skills Council in its work. There is a clear and key strategic role for local government. There is a recognition that quality assurance is important outside the qualifications framework, and local education authority services can look forward to the rigours and the support of regular external inspection.
And they can sleep at night during this budget round, safe in the knowledge that ministers guarantee that the Learning and Skills Council will maintain spending for the first two years of operation. All good stuff.
There are, inevitably, worries.
First, the inspection arrangments must be changed - at least to make sure that colleges with a majority of adult learners are inspected by teams led by the new adult inspectorate. But a single post-school inspectorate would be better.
Second, if young people's work is to be inspected on an area basis, so should provision for adults.
Third, the local learning and skills councils will have just as much need of adult and young people's committees as the national council, and it is a weakness of the proposals that this is left to local discretion.
On the subject of committees there is surely a case, too, for the establishment of a quality recognition and improvement committee, to wrestle with the complexity of capturing learning gain across the full range of the LSC's activities.
Another concern affects one of the successes of the last decade. The introduction of Investors in People relied on the local teams that fuelled the expansion of the programme, yet the prospectus would split them between support for IiP in small firms and that offered to others. It would be better to keep the expertise together in my view.
Again, there is still work to be done to recognise that young adults use youth services for learning, but we are promised another new paper on this. The papers could say more about adult guidance, too.
Each of these issues can be addressed, and would improve the Bill if they are. However, the major worries relate to securing the policy gains of the Bill in the long run.
To return to lifelong learning partnerships: they are given a critically important role in consulting learners, and liaising with the voluntary sector. How will that survive a policy change in Sanctuary Buildings or Number 10? There is altogether not enough about accountabilities to stakeholders, users, local communities - and there needs to be if we really are committed to revitalising and sustaining active civil society.
In the same vein, the Bill and the prospectus have too little to say about the social and economic benefits of joined-up social policy - notably in the field of health, but also in the co-ordination of our many technology initiatives. Without such links, many adults will still find their learning needs missing in the gaps between complementary but unrelated social-policy dynamics.
Put all that right, and win the resources to back it in the Comprehensive Spending Review and adults will start the millennium with a bang!