Don't leave out the learning volunteers

5th May 2000 at 01:00
DAVID BLUNKETT recognised the importance of the voluntary sector in one of the more lyrical passages of his preface to The Learning Age when he reminded us of the way working-class Victorians formed organisations to overcome their problems. He is not alone: both the Further Education Funding Council and the Social Exclusion Unit would agree.

Why, then, is the voluntary sector so marginal to the arrangements for establishing the Learning and Skills Council? Two rumours illustrate the problem: one with implications for local voluntary bodies, the other affecting national agencies.

First, the local problem. I hear that the arrangements to create transitional task forces leading to the new local learning and skills councils explicitly ruled out the recruitment of voluntary-sector representation onto local planning bodies. If this is true, it is crass. Certainly, there is a complicated job to do to make sure that the system works on April l, 2001- also to ensure stability for existing providers.

But the reason for the changes is to make learning accessible to all, which will not be achieved without the voluntary sector. To mobilise the sector effectively will not be easy. Voluntary bodies come in all shapes and sizes, crossing public-policy boundaries. They are strong in some areas and weak in others. They have different capacities for engaging with planners and bureaucracies, but their experience seems invaluable in planning a more inclusive and consultative system than the one we have now.

Engaging them will be a vital role for lifelong-learning partnerships and some have made a good start. Others will need help to change from being strategic planning bodies, where everyone at the table has large budgets, to the kind of place where providers large and small can be involved. But do the partnerships have enough resources to involve everyone while responding to the massive volume of planning that is going on?

Despite the Government's real efforts to consult widely on the Bill and the changes that flow from it, most voluntary gencies do not know where and when to make representations. The risk is that their experience will be under represented on the new councils and that rules written with large providers in mind may not work for smaller ones.

Of course, not all voluntary bodies are small and the larger ones have enormous reach. The WEA is the largest single provider in FE, and thousands of parents re-engage with learning through the Pre-School Learning Alliance.

Single-issue environmental groups are the major source of adult-learning opportunities about sustainable development, while the Big Issue Foundation and the Foyer movement have been more successful in involving homeless people in overcoming their exclusion than many statutory providers. The sector is citizenship in action.

Last summer, the learning and skills prospectus promised that national voluntary bodies, much like national multi-site employers, could apply to the national council for funding for their national work.

But piecing together a national plan through 47 local negotiations would be a nightmare. Recent consultation meetings suggest that, unlike business, national voluntary agencies might have to apply to the local council serving the area in which their headquarters are located. This would be unacceptable.

The case for a national employers' unit is surely that the council would develop an expertise in the common issues affecting employers contracted to the LSC. By contrast, officials dealing with voluntary bodies would be dealing with them in the margins of time otherwise focused on the needs of a single area.

Expertise would be scattered and consistency of treatment hard to guarantee.

I can see no villains in this story. The DFEE has less experience of focusing on voluntary agencies than the Home Office. As a result, perhaps too little attention has been paid to making the reforms work well for voluntary agencies.

There is still time to put that right.

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

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