The learning society: stands Scotland where it did even six months ago? The answer sadly is no. Recent unhappy signs of slippage mar the adult learning landscape, in a country which already lags in the proportion of adults who see themselves as learners. The year 1996 was, satisfyingly, one of progression for Scottish lifelong learning, building on the impetus of the European Year. National targets were uniquely altered in Scotland to include the quite remarkable statement that "all individuals should have access to education and training opportunities". Surely a potential victory for grey power if ever there was one.
Scottish responses to the UK Lifetime Learning consultation were analysed and agreement to action in key areas reached by government. Secretary of State Michael Forsyth accepted the Skills Forum's report recommending the development of local learning partnerships supported by a strengthened Advisory Council for Education and Training Targets. Other recommendations accepted included local guidance networks, a national guidance helpline and a central guidance unit to provide strategic leadership. The Lifelong Learning Strategy for Scotland was launched in January this year with starter funding of Pounds 6 million. All seemed set fair.
Now, under Labour, several factors are slowing the impetus, and causing concern among professionals and punters. First is the surprising lack so far of a ministerial statement. Indeed, the Education Minister has suggested his is a caretaker tenure: after two years he anticipates heading to Westminster. So is lifelong learning now to be shelved for the duration?
Second is the fact that England gets a White Paper on lifelong learning. No parallel legislation is envisaged here, the inference being that devolution matters will dominate the Scottish parliamentary landscape.
Third, it would appear that there is no intention to extend to Scotland the wide-ranging findings of the excellent Kennedy report on further education and the widening of access. Likewise the National Advisory Group (the Fryer committee), currently advising the Government on the coming White Paper, is setting itself to redress the imbalance between further and higher education, Again, nothing similar for Scotland, where such a move is sorely needed.
Unlike the Dearing report, which appears to believe that the needs of young full-time students are the most pressing, Fryer is setting out a vision in which higher education is no longer given priority over further education. This is the approach likely to underpin the English legislation, and is perhaps a real step along the road to parity of status. Certainly a welcome shift of balance. Fryer envisages workplace learning as the "largest challenge". It should eventually be as normal in the working world as health and safety.
Ironically, Scotland is well on the way to achieving in Higher Still's unique qualification structure a powerful mechanism that will allow real progression towards parity of status. But mechanisms are not enough in themselves to produce attitudinal change. Scottish teachers' leaders are currently talking about "second-class schools", the ones which will not be able to offer Advanced Highers. Once again, influential voices perpetuate the traditional - and elitist - Scottish belief that the academic route (and school) and the fast-track honours student are superior to all others.
Parents listen to such voices, even if industry takes a different perspective. So when will the school sector wake up to the fact that Scotland already produces well at graduate level by international comparisons? Our country's comparative shortfall is at craft and skilled technical levels. Government action would help.