What can be done in the next six weeks to make the case for lifelong learning an election issue? It is a question we ask at the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education every time the country lumbers up for its brief moment of active democracy, and at first sight it seems as though it should be easier this time round.
After all, the three largest political parties have all produced policy papers in the last year, and the European Year of Lifelong Learning was successful in offering politicians the chance to say that there is more to a learning society than the schooling of the young. Still, that has not stopped anyone from hitting the budgets for adult learning when times get tough - as the debates about the FE Demand Led Element or this round of LEA cuts make clear. Nor has it stopped the re-emergence of that scourge of adult learners, the customs and excise officer in search of VAT on adult classes - as Snowdonia National Park study centre know to their cost.
Still, elections do offer the chance for agenda setting, and for quizzing the tribunes of the people. My shopping list for a society supportive of lifelong learning is reasonably short but it does not come cheap. It starts with four questions, and ends with a set of demands that go beyond the status quo:
How much is enough? The 1992 Further and Higher Education Act charges FEFC with securing sufficient academic and vocational education for 16-19 year olds, and adequate provision for the rest of us. It charges LEAs with the duty of securing adequate provision for all the further education outside the FEFC's remit. But no one will say what adequate means. In the Lords when they debated it, Lord Renton suggested adequate meant sufficient. This is not simple semantics. The key first question for politicians is how much is enough? Why do we accept wildly different levels of provision in Haringey and Hereford and Worcester than you can get in Richmond or Northampton? The National Youth Agency call for sufficient provision for all. If politicians can't agree, who should go without? I think the answer is clear - government needs to define adequacy, and set minimum levels of provision, as it does for schools.
What is wrong with part-time students? Most part-time students are adults. Few get help with fees or with living expenses. Any financial support for learners is concentrated on young people studying full time in higher education. Institutions are rewarded better for full-time students, too. If we want a learning society how can we end discrimination against people who fit study alongside their other responsibilities? Again, I think it is clear - to continue to discriminate against part-timers is to cut off your nose to spite your face.
What is vocational? Education and tax policy carries on the old distinction between vocational and general education. The 1992 Act is built on it. But as Jenny Scribbens, principal of South Thames College, illustrates graphically when describing the uses students make of their Battersea cake decorating classes, you cannot tell the purpose of the students by the title of the course. All right - most sewage engineering courses are taken by people with a work related interest - but where are the boundaries with French, with computing, with flower arranging? What we know about tomorrow's economy is that most of the jobs we will be doing in 2010 are not yet invented. We know learning leaks - that confidence acquired in one place is applied in another. Can we have a system please for the 21st century, not the 19th? And while we are at it, an inspectorate to match, able to work across the piece to make connections, to promote good practice, to understand as well as to judge...too much to ask of a first Parliament, you say? Surely not.
What about the 30 percent? Will Hutton and Robert Reich have mapped the exclusion of a third of the population from most of its benefits. It is a message picked up by the Churches in their poverty report, and Naomi Sargant's studies for NIACE show that it does not do to be old, to be poor, to have no qualifications, to be unemployed if you want access to learning opportunities. We know what the barriers are, and how they can be overcome, but is the will there to achieve of the widening participation committee and the proposals in Inclusive Learning, or are we happy to settle for the learning divide? As my colleague Tony Uden says, "If at first you don't succeed, you don't succeed." But is that inevitable, when cash is tight?
The other demands are straightforward:
l a recognition of the importance of the family as a structure to support learning and of the benefits to children's performance of their parents' participation;
la recognition that for unemployed people purposeful study is actively seeking work, and an end to the punishment of study enshrined in the 16 hour rule;
lthe right to assessment and recognition of learning acquired informally;
l the need for a national credit accumulation and transfer system across community, further and higher education, from Open College Network credits to modular postgraduate courses;
lthe creative exploitation of new learning technologies, targeting the full range of communities;
lindependent guidance and advice accessible and affordable to all, backed by learner support for people on courses: lcoherent and collaborative strategic planning - recognising the limits of competition - locally, regionally, nationally, and in Europe;
la duty on all terrestrial broadcasters to promote learning - motivation is curriculum;
ltax remission for all personal investment in learning;
lan entitlement to learning, backed by a cash limited budget, with priority of access given to those who have benefited least before;
Not enough, of course, but a start.
Alan Tuckett is director of the National Institute for Adult Continuing Education