Don't sink the partnerships

22nd September 2000 at 01:00
ALL MERGERS and structural changes generate anxiety, and the run up to the Learning and Skills Council is no exception.

When the White Paper, Learning to Succeed, was published, the training and enterprise councils were in no doubt that business experience had been written out of the script. George Mudie, then lifelong learning minister, made no secret of his view that many TECs had failed to deliver. Many had been forced to squeeze the price agreed with training suppliers, preferring through-put and healthy reserves to quality.

The result was that the first report of the training standards inspectorate reported that half of classes visited were not good - a devastating indictment.

Despite this a healthy number of TEC directors are playing a role in the local learning and skills councils. The new adult learning inspectorate draws its chair and new chief executive from the Training Standards Council, and of course the tentacles of the Office for Standards in Education continue to spread.

The announcement of executive directors of the local learning and skills councils is unlikely to reverse the sense that the Further Education Funding Council's experience is being lost. Yet the FEFC has successfully expanded opportunities, and secured a quality of education that needs to be at the heart of the new system.

Certainly, the council had its bureaucratic excesses, but what has impressed me has been its flexibility in seeking learner-sensitive solutions. So, the recognition of Open College Network credits enabled it to continue to satisfy the push for vocational courses while recognising that many adult learners study in chunks. The work on widening access and the commitment to inspecting all providers (except the poor education authorities) - benefited adults with little prior successful experience in education.

Perhaps the FEFC's greatest recent achievement was helping the college secor back from the gung-ho marketisation encouraged in the early 1990s. And now the rules are being written for the new system. We cannot afford to lose the best of the FEFC's contribution to the new order, and reading the papers this summer you could have got the idea that the system failed. It hasn't, but it does need to be built on.

The biggest challenge for the Learning and Skills Council will be cultural. How can 47 new sub-regional agencies achieve the learner-centred system the Government wants? The challenge is enormous. Almost all the meetings of working groups on finance, quality or adult learning I have attended focus on a top-down supply-driven model. This is understandable. Stability must be secured and audit structures in place.

Yet most of the discussion stops at national level. By and large, the role of local learning partnerships is seen as something to be attended to once funding and planning is in place. The risk is that a system where the partnerships are conceived as an add-on will afford them no real function. Since the partnerships have a key role in securing the voice of learners and in fostering a co-operative environment, the risk is a serious one. We do not want the outcome of all this change to be business as usual.

The challenge in making the system more sensitive to learners' experience was highlighted at this months's third national adult learners' forum. Learners shared a suppressed but real anger at the failure of providers to deal with them on equal terms. Poor information flow, cancelled classes; lack of consultation were legion. There were exceptions, but the forum made sobering listening. At the same time, it heard how learners and organisers could work in partnership to create a more learner-centred system. The partnerships should be encouraged to begin now.

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

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