THERE is a tension in Government policy between its desire to assure consistent, coherent and high standards of achievement and its determination to open learning opportunities to all those communities which are under-represented. Yet both are clearly needed.
The National Institute for Adult Continuing Education has argued for a decade, alongside the Further Education Development Agency and others, that what we need is a coherent credit framework for assessment throughout further and higher education. It should be sensitive to the requirements of those learners who need or choose to study episodically, and to those who want their previous learning accredited.
But as the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority sets about its challenging task of bringing parity of esteem to qualifications for young people, with all that A-levels bring with them, I have become increasingly convinced by the argument of Peter Wilson, of the National Open College Network. He believes that at least in the short term it would be more realistic to seek an adult credit framework alongside the one being designed primarily with young people in mind.
One merit of an adult framework would be its explicit recognition of the differences adults bring to the assessment process. The young people's framework is designed to capture achievement at school, and to support the transition from initial education into work. Overwhelmingly, young people have had common experiences of full-time study in schools or colleges. Adults, by contrast, bring a bewildering diversity of experiences and achievements with them to their studies. How best is the balance of experience, reflection and new study to be captured?
My blood runs cold at the remarks reportedly attributed to Richard Layard, a 10 Downing Street adviser, and member of the Moser Committee on basic skills. Apparently, he wants formal externally-set and marked examinations for all qualifications. If that idea is adopted, and funding is linked to qualifications, we may as well shut up much of the widening participation shop.
Too many adults, and especially those needing basic skills, have nightmare memories of exams - participation is likely to be narrowed overnight. No one doubts the importance of securing robust and rigorous standards - but the diversity of routes adults take, the variety of ways they demonstrate achievement, and the complexity of their purposes in learning, may be better defended if we accept that an overall coherent qualifications and assessment process needs to have a variety of mechanisms for demonstrating success. The risk otherwise is that in pursuit of clarity and simplicity, large numbers of courses at present recognised for Further Education Funding Council support will be tidied away.
It is not surprising that the council has ended up funding far more Open College Network credits than national vocational qualification units - and hundreds of thousands of learners are at risk if the QCA fails to get the new system right.
One of my colleagues, hearing me arguing for separate development in education, reminded me that the US Supreme Court rejected the idea in 1954.
Yet the successful development of Access courses as an entry route to higher education has been undertaken as a parallel route to A-levels. Again, to overcome institutional anxiety the lifelong learning Green Paper, The Learning Age, proposes separate developments in the creation of a credit framework in higher and in further education. Things will of course combine, but not just yet.
Separate frameworks for young people and adults may mean some headaches in further education - where different age cohorts study together - but that is in my view preferable to the accidental exclusion of those very adult learners the Secretary of State is keen to see recruited. Managing learning environments where students have diverse goals is the day-to-day experience of tutors working with adults, and for many the experience has been formalised in the years since the 1992 Further and Higher Education Act, with uncertificated students squeezed into the spaces left by those pursuing certification.
As Nick Tate suggested when he first took over the QCA, one of the major challenges facing any quality assurance system is supporting quality for those learners for whom qualifications are inappropriate or irrelevant. These include people learning for pleasure and curiosity - suddenly visible again after the welcome announcement that the Standards Fund provides funding for local education authorities to develop lifelong learning development plans. But they also include people with learning difficulties, wanting to study to maximise the contribution they can make as citizens, and to minimise the discrimination they experience.
Jeannie Sutcliffe and Yola Jacobsen's All Things Being Equal captures the scale of the challenge. Their research, funded by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, examined services for adults from marginalised groups who also have learning difficulties. The broad picture is depressing. In too many places there is no appropriate provision, and where imaginative arrangements have been made, all too often the funding is short-term and the staff vulnerable.
Yet in the honourable exceptions detailed in the study - such as Liverpool Community College's inclusive learning programme, and Manchester's Black Vision workshop - there is plenty to admire, and cause for hope. Backing such work with quality assurance and staff development must be a priority in a learning society.
Most important of all, we need to link quality assurance to the learning people do as groups, to further their collective ends - making a society worth living in. John Daines and the Workers' Educational Association have done some work on this. But there is a great deal left to do.
Alan Tuckett is director of the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education