Let's have a bonfire of the disparities;Comment;Opinion

19th June 1998 at 01:00
It's probably a combination of faith, hope and calamity, but as I look forward to next session - and the launch of the new Learning Age - I can't help thinking that the knowledge revolution might work. This week I spoke with one student, leaving for a World Cup sortie, who insisted that all good learning starts with the cry liberte, egalite, fraternite .

What is really needed, however, is a great big bonfire. I call it the bonfire of the disparities. A sort of celebratory event at which every organisation involved in responding to the needs of learners concedes a little in order to promote a successful learning society. Respect for your partners is the key driving principle. The bonfire - and the learning revolution - will not be achievable without a full and active role for the further education service.

Parity of esteem should be at the heart of the learning process. Higher Still - which heralds, for the first time in a European education system, parity between academic and vocational achievement - should be the first step. Parity of esteem should be comprehensively applied to all lifelong learning. We cannot afford to continue to accept difference in status between formal (certificated) and informal learning.

Employability permeates the basic literacy programme and the graduate training scheme alike. There should be equal respect between individual and communal as well as full-time and part-time modes of study. There should be no distinction between learning for work and learning for life or between structured and highly flexible programmes. Let's look to a comprehensive Scotcat credit transfer system which includes all post-16 units of study and rewards achievement without recourse to the tyranny of geography or social class.

With such parity the notion put forward by Ron Tuck, chief executive of the Scottish Qualifications Authority, of a single teaching certificate for schools and FE could be extended to include all adult educators. Like the laws of the people's game which apply at all levels.

It is surely possible for all providers to respect a common agenda based upon a commitment to promoting economic success, defeating social exclusion and raising national standards of educational achievement.

This could take lifelong learning well beyond adequacy. It is a modest goal even by Scottish standards, but it will only be achieved if there is parity of esteem and a mutual understanding of and respect for partners, including learners.

It is disappointing that clear disparities continue, with no FE presence on the Scottish Business Forum, the Scottish Childcare Board or any of the groups supporting the development of the Scottish parliament. FE has every right to say "no implementation without representation". Our belated presence on Lord Sewell's Social Exclusion Network is the way forward. We must be seen as equals with colleagues from universities, schools and local authorities.

Funding equity with schools and universities along the lines suggested by the Commons education select committee would further fuel the bonfire. We must call foul to greater FE efficiency savings in its higher education courses - higher than those demanded of higher education institutions.

We fully expect that the comprehensive spending review will accord FE a role in Tony Blair's proposed learning explosion. A shift of resources from child benefit into student funding or from the windfall levy into an FE capital programme could both be delivered next session. Likewise, a fully funded access programme will ensure that targets for wider participation are met in an atmosphere of equality and partnership between colleges and universities. Finally, the FE sector itself might consider adding fuel to the bonfire. It is well known that there has been a high level of disharmony around. The image of an FE college as a fair workplace does not automatically present itself.

Brian Wilson, speaking at the Association of Scottish Colleges' conference, will have noted that two of the colleges which blazed the trail to dismantle national negotiations have recently parted company with the ASC. Perhaps the time is now ripe to bring parity and harmony back into FE industrial relations.

Universities and schools operate within a national framework of pay and conditions. If FE wants to be fully represented in the new dawn maybe boards should admit we got it wrong and throw local agreements on to the bonfire of the disparities.

Graeme Hyslop is depute principal of Langside College, Glasgow, and a member of the Educational Institute of Scotland. He writes in a personal capacity.

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