IN THE last weeks before my granddaughter Rosie was born, my daughter shifted from excitement and expectation to an impatience to get the birth over with. I have been feeling that about the Bill on post-16 reforms.
Yet the Bill itself will not be the last word. A prospectus will tell us what the policy means, and then there will be a funding principles document, for widespread consultation, followed in late spring by the funding proposals the Government means to adopt. Meanwhile, the Government may introduce amendments to improve the Bill in Parliament. And then there is the comprehensive spending review - lots to argue about for a new millennium.
And it is worth arguing. It is possible to lose Parliamentary votes and still win the argument, when administrators come to make the system work.
There is also plenty of evidence that once the Government is convinced, it backs its policy with serious resources, as the million pounds a day of new money for college sector work announced at the Association of Colleges conference makes clear.
Spending the money well to widen participation and achievement will create demands of its own, but the scale of need dwarfs anything yet available.
This was brought home to me at a work and lifestyles seminar at the culmination of the Debate of the Age, organised by Age Concern. The afternoon began with the welcome announcement of Third Age Apprenticeships, to tackle age discrimination in the workplace. They fit well with the range of measures that see access to work as the key welfare strategy, and the Government has good news to tell about the growth of jobs.
This was followed by Ray Pahl and Jonathan Scales who reported on their work for the Debate of the Age study group on work and lifestyles.
Their analysis was devastating. It demonstrated the gap in Britain between the work-rich and time-poor and time-rich but work-poor, and pointed to four interconnected social trends that produced a sharpening divide in Britain.
First, they showed that there is a sharp rise in administrative and managerial jobs; a similar if less marked increase in low-skill service sector jobs (cleaning, hairdressing and so on), and a dramatic fall in jobs in the middle, with the decline of skilled manufacturing jobs. They showed that in households with two adults, 70 per cent of men in administrative and professional work had partners with similar jobs, while only 15 per cent of men in the lowest paid work had partners in the more skilled sectors of the economy.
Two-job households contrast with no-job households. More and more of the new jobs are taken by women - and many of them pay wages insufficient to maintain an unwaged partner. Health care and educational opportunity are more likely to benefit the relatively successful. And globalisation is strengthening these trends.
Taken together, Ray Pahl suggested, the trends show that where the absolute living standards of the poorest may rise, those of the mobile and affluent rise ever more sharply. The inescapable conclusion of the study was that getting people into jobs is not in itself enough.
The scale of the challenge is apparent, too, in the final report of the Policy Action Team on Skills, led by the Department for Education and Employment for the Social Exclusion Unit, in response to its neighbourhood renewal strategy. The report looks at the reasons for the failure of successive measures to open learning opportunities to socially excluded communities. It suggests that there are three main reasons why current arrangements fail the most excluded communities. First, the system is still not adequately focused on meeting the needs of socially disadvantaged adults. Second, local capacity to develop and sustain initiatives that can help people to improve their skills is usually weak. Finally, people who live in socially disadvantaged areas believe they have nothing to gain from joining in.
What is impressive about the report is its recognition that the complexity of the problems facing such communities will not respond to a single solution, but to patient sustained work on a number of fronts over an extended period. It is not cheap work, and it does not quickly and predictably lead to easily auditable outcomes. Hard but necessary lessons for the Treasury during the Comprehensive Spending Review.
Alan Tuckett is the director of the National Institute for Adult Continuing Learning