Darkest hour is waiting for paper to arrive

11th July 2003 at 01:00
When I was young I used to work on the pea vines - 12 hours a day seven days a week, lifting lorry loads of vines onto the shredders that separated the peas. Bird's Eye's contractors were best. The work was hard, but it came in spasms. Thirty minutes on the grab, and then there was time for a cup of tea, to sit and read the paper in the shed, while the next lorry arrived and dumped its load.

The same job on nights for Ross Foods was different. There were fewer peas, for one thing. Often the work was effectively over by about 3am. No chance to sit down, though. If you wanted to be paid, you had to look busy, and brush the bits of vine on the yard floor from one side of the room to the other, until the end of the shift. I didn't last a week. It was a useful learning experience - people work better when they have some agency over what they do.

Drafting a column the week before the publication of the new Skills for Life White Paper, knowing it will appear after many readers have seen its contents, feels a bit like the hour before dawn at Ross's. Energy flags.

There is nothing else to be done before dawn, except to wait, discover what it says, and prepare to respond. I am feeling optimistic. I think the Government does well in building the maximum degree of consensus in the shaping of its policies - the next trick is to get enough time for implementation.

The debates leading up to the publication of any White Paper are a little like stately square dances. If you want to influence the out-turn, you must first advance the case you have to make. Then the counter arguments are made, and you feel sure that things may turn out worse than they have ever been. Consultative committees rehearse old themes afresh; the pattern repeats. Eventually a date is set for the end of the dance. The paper is published. A new dance starts when it is taken through Parliament. You propose amendments in one house, then the other. After Parliament, everyone works out what to do to put the policy into practice.

Even if you lose the vote in committee, the quality of the argument can affect what happens when the legislation is implemented - so in the 1992 Act, the Government of the day resisted fiercely legislative amendments that would allow adult education services to be funded directly by the Further Education Funding Council - only for the council to accept the practicality of exactly that arrangement from the day it began work.

While waiting for the new White Paper to appear, I went to Bangor for Bob Fryer's Raymond Williams memorial lecture. It was characteristically broad in sweep, erudite and challenging. One of his many strengths is the choice of telling quotes. Two he cited offer benchmarks to test the new policies against. First, Jacques Delors' demand of education systems, in Learning: The Treasure Within: "None of the talents which are hidden like buried treasure in every person must be left untapped - memory, reasoning power, imagination, physical ability, aesthetic sense, the aptitude to communicate with others and the natural charisma of the group leader, which again goes to improve the need for greater self-knowledge." Can the post-school policy secure that generosity and inclusiveness of vision?

The second challenge is sharper. Zygmunt Bauman's analysis in Postmodernity and its Discontents is bleak : "No jobs are guaranteed, no positions are foolproof, no skills are of lasting utility, experience and know-how turn into a liability as soon as they become assets. Livelihood, social position, acknowledgment of usefulness and the entitlement to self-dignity may all vanish together, overnight and without notice." He continues: "The switch from the project of community as the guardian of the universal right to decent and dignified life to the promotion of the market as the sufficient guarantee of the universal chance of self-enrichment, deepens the suffering of the new poor - adding insult to their injury, glossing poverty with humiliation and with the denial of consumer freedom, now identified with humanity." That is more or less the analysis that informs the Government's social exclusion policy. How far the White Paper can address the challenge facing the "new poor" will be one test of its aspiration to combine the economic and the social justice imperatives of education policy.

Beyond this White Paper, one challenge is to find resources to meet the burgeoning demands on budgets for English as a second language teaching.

Apart from the demands made by people settled in Britain, there are those from people seeking citizenship under the new nationality provision; from refugees, asylum-seekers, and those with exceptional leave; those on work permits, and on managed migration permits. Then there is a raft of new European directives affecting the rights of migrant labour, and the extension of the European Union to 10 more states. A case for Skills for Life 2 perhaps?

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

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