LEARNING to Succeed is the best White Paper for adult learners since the magnificent Report of the Ministry of Reconstruction's Adult Education Committee in 1919.
While the writing of the 1999 White Paper lacks the elegance and lyricism of the earlier paper, much of which was written by RH Tawney, it shares with it a determination to put learners at the heart of the system. Yet, curiously, Learning to Succeed has little to say about the curriculum, beyond the welcome end of the nonsensical schedule 2non-schedule 2 divide.
The complex muddle of overlapping responsibilities in post-school education and training was bewildering to learners, and in places indefensible. Sorting out the muddle has led to a paper that focuses on structures.
I like the way it recognises that the system needs to combine coherence and diversity. It allows for national strategic planning, for national priorities, and for industry specific needs. At the same time there is provision for planning on a travel-to-study and travel-to-learn basis, which makes sense for much of the work of colleges.
The proposed remit of the 50 sub-regional learning and skills councils should enable European funding, regional development agency initiatives, and the skills needs of local communities to be synthesised.
The new duty given to local government will be critical to the success of the structure. Effective strategies for work with many older people, tenants groups, people with disabilities, and minority linguistic communities rely on the creative co-operation of different arms of local government. All in all, the paper proposes a structure in which power and decision-making can flow up and down the system, and where learners can hope for equitable support wherever they learn. Of course, a huge amount of detail needs to be got right for the system to work in practice. And people who work with learners need confidence that their concerns will be heard.
It is important that the sub-regional councils impact effectively on learning in the workplace. All the evidence shows that most adults still get access to learning at work, and we need a much closer link between work-based learning and learning in colleges, and community contexts. The issues of motivation, the recognition of prior experience, fitting learning in to busy lives, issues of assessment, and of the transferability of skills learned in one context to another are all shared across the different contexts adults learn in.
The only merit I can see in the new inspection arrangements is that they will make those connections easier to make, as will the new adult sub-committee of the national council.
Still, colleges will face the happy prospect of at least two sets of inspectors crawling over the same provision, because learners will be untidy, and learn in mixed-age settings. We have to be careful that we do not replace the inanities of a curriculum divide with too rigid a distinction between 16 to 19 and adult learners.
Given the energy driving the 16 to 19 agenda, an adult qualifications framework, which recognises the importance of small steps of learning, and the need to give them credit, is a necessary protection. Now we need to sort out appropriate ways of measuring such learning. It would be good to move beyond the excesses of audit culture, where the needs of the external observer seem paramount, to involve learners in understanding their own learning gains, in the way the pioneering work of the Workers' Educational Association has done.
It may be understandable that the Government left higher education out of the planning, given the complexity of the task. But the boundaries are increasingly blurred. With so much higher education now taking place in further education, it would be a good idea if a follow-up paper could join up the thinking. Both higher and further education support learning at work. Widening participation is central to the concerns of both. And both have roles to play in fostering a rich, creative civil society.
Another omission is teacher training. The omission of learning support for the people who will need to make the system work is serious. Our current arrangements, where large numbers of part-time workers get little or no staff development or training are not adequate to the task.
For adults, the relationship between funding for uncertificated work, provision supporting progression, and work leading to qualifications will need teasing out, so that each is properly supported. Thank goodness there will not be a single super tariff to cover everything, but until the details are on the table, real anxieties will continue. Sorting them out will make for a busy summer.
Alan Tuckett is director of the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education