Lifelong Labour

24th May 1996 at 01:00
Labour's new document on lifelong learning is rather like one of Michael Heseltine's Competitiveness White Papers, wrapping up a selection of old, new and borrowed ideas into a package designed to look more than the sum of its parts.

There is everything to be said for developing more coherent policies for post-16 education and training - and this new chapter for the manifesto says much of it (page 4). What is harder is to get attention for anything but the sexy bits, or to convince anyone that you can reform a fragmented system without breaking the bank.

So this week's mostly positive headlines were devoted to Labour's conversion to a university student loan system, rather than all those other sound promises of quality, access, equity and accountability in further and adult, as well as higher, education. And last week's high-profile announcement of plans for a lost generation was hijacked yet again by orchestrated reactions to any threat to child benefit. Both proposals deserve to be seen in context, though if the party's leadership makes a botched job of leaking them you can hardly expect the media to help them out.

What David Blunkett is now advocating on student loans, on the lines of Australia's successful graduate tax, has long been the most attractive option on everyone's shopping list, though few quite dared to plunge for it. Jeff Rooker did before the then Labour leader John Smith was ready for it, and got sacked from his shadow higher education post. On the Government side, the Treasury spoilsports dug in their heels against any tinkering with income tax or national insurance systems for repayment. And just as the Liberal-Democrats were ready to get in first with the end of free higher education, they were pipped by the news that decision-making had been dumped on Sir Ron Dearing again. With vice-chancellors and students on board now, really the only question left for Dearing is whether tuition fees as well as maintenance grants are included in the package, as the vice-chancellors want (though Labour doesn't).

A more ground-breaking question for Dearing on HE is whether it is right to consider financial support for university students without looking at further and adult education too, as in all equity he should. His brief seems to rule this out and, though David Blunkett has been fully consulted, he plainly hopes more might be possible, given that Dearing will report after the election. This week's comprehensive lifelong learning proposals also serve as Labour's evidence to Dearing, and as such constitute a a pretty blatant attempt to widen the agenda from the start, which makes sense if fairer and more coherent policies are to be implemented in power.

Which brings us to child benefit, post-16. In view of the present unsatisfactory state (or absence) of support, allowances and benefits for the 16-19 age group in particular, it makes perfect sense to survey their provision across the education, welfare and training divides and consider whether the money might be more effectively and fairly spent. Such a review has been advocated before, though even Sir Geoffrey Holland, as Permanent Secretary of the Department for Education, was unable to command sufficient cross-Whitehall support to make much headway.

So it has to be a good idea for Labour's shadow Chancellor to get together with his colleagues in education and welfare, David Blunkett and Chris Smith, to conduct just such a review of post-l6 financial support. It all went wrong when Gordon Brown surprised his colleagues as much as the rest of us with a pre-emptive leak that child allowance was to go, before the review itself had even been announced. Maybe he thought (rightly) that news of sacred cows for the slaughter was more likely to get the headlines than a sober financial review. But they were the wrong headlines, and the party was still digging itself deeper into the child benefit hole when it tried to launch more positive plans for the age group last week.

Both these Labour documents, on the lost generation and on lifelong learning, share common ground with the Government on aspirations and provision in a cold global climate. But the signs are that their paths will diverge on financing and control as the squeeze gets ever tighter for both further and higher education: on the one hand more private financing, market forces and a chopping away of public support (page 25); on the other more regional planning and local accountability. Tough choices to come.

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