Education white papers were once rare beasts, but now they seem to come along almost as often as the Clapham omnibus. Since 2002, we have had Success for All and the two skills strategies. We are now awaiting another, the Government's response to the Foster report.
When the report was published, Education Secretary Ruth Kelly told us the Government accepted Sir Andrew Foster's overall analysis - so it will be interesting to see what that means in practice. He focused on colleges'
vocational education mission, but ignored demographic change.
The interim report of the Leitch review on the future skills needs of the country, by contrast, makes clear that the key to strengthening Britain's skills base lies in the education and training of adults. It argues, too, that even if the Government achieves all its targets for skills, we will be only a mediocre performer internationally.
Chris Humphries, director general of City Guilds, says that to develop an effective lifelong learning strategy would cost 10 per cent of the country's gross domestic product. Clearly, the state won't meet all of those costs, the appetite for public taxation being what it is. But what should the balance be? There is an urgent need for a public debate on this which, with luck, the white paper might stimulate. I'd be keen to see a proposal for licences to practice, given their success in the construction and care sectors.
When colleges narrow their mission to vocational education, what will happen to the other things they now do? Who will hold the mission for what the NIACE- sponsored inquiry, "Eight in Ten", identified as a third mission alongside access to employability and workforce development - to sustain and enhance cultural values?
Judging by this year's early allocations to local authority adult education services, education for citizenship, community development, and cultural enrichment look vulnerable, as LEAs nurse an average 16 per cent cut in their FE budgets.
Prospects for adults in colleges, too, are bleak if Newham in London is in any way typical. There, cuts of pound;2.5 million in post-19 budgets will inevitably mean cuts in English for speakers of other languages, and other basic skills.
Meanwhile, there is an acute shortage of English for Speakers of Other Languages provision in the capital, and evidence of too many teachers leaving the Skills for Life programme across the country. There is, still, for all the success of the first phases of the Skills for Life campaign, an inadequate career route for such teachers. Too few full-time jobs, too little serious and sustained training, too little mentoring. Yet the challenges pile up for the next phase of the campaign - as we reach harder to serve learners, and develop skills for life in more workplaces, and with learners whose primary educational goal is not literacy, numeracy or language. And there are large numbers of people, already trained as teachers, who are not working in the profession.
Thankfully, Sir Andrew Foster made clear that FE needs serious investment in its own workforce. I hope the white paper will identify ring-fenced money for training. Otherwise, the risk is that the investment won't be made. But the white paper needs to explore innovative developments for increasing the numbers and the diversity of the teaching workforce.
The RETRO project, which the NIACE managed for a year, provides a model worth building on, particularly to address the shortage in ESOL teaching.
The project, funded by the Department for Education and Skills, focused on recruiting and training new and inactive teachers and getting them into jobs. It sought to increase the number of generic and specialist training programmes at level 4 (higher education) in each region, to build the numbers of teacher trainers, and to bring together the infrastructure for teacher supply in the three regions in which it was run.
Its lessons were stark. Regional strategic planning for teacher supply increases value for money. RETRO showed the need for much more sustained investment, and, alas, the continuing reluctance of sector institutions to invest in full-time staff. Not for the first time, the effectiveness of peer group mentoring - and the value of reflective practice in strengthening teaching skills - was demonstrated. The Higher Education Funding Council needs to consider how to expand Skills for Life teacher training across the country. Government agencies must give sustained attention to staff development. I hope the white paper will include RETRO 2 or something like it, not just for Skills for Life, but for all those other curriculum areas that need mature entrants. When something works, back it.
The policy paper Every Child Matters captured the aspirations of government. Let the FE paper be called Every Adult Matters - please.
Alan Tuckett is director of the National Institute of Adult Continuing education