College leaders seek urgent assurances from ministers that lifelong learning will stay top of the Government agenda after the decision this week to scrap the White Paper.
The paper, The Learning Age: Towards a Learning Revolution for the 21st Century, was to set in train a series of initiatives including a special fund to support adult education and a commitment to expand further and higher education by 500,000 places by the year 2002.
Further and adult education and training interests virtually monopolised the White Paper, which was due to launch three months of consultations next week. It drew together all the pledges that Education and Employment Secretary David Blunkett had made to further education since well before Labour's victory last May.
The decision to scrap the paper and go for lower-key, long-term consultations on individual lifelong learning initiatives surprised college leaders and Opposition parties. After nine redraftings, Mr Blunkett gave his personal assurance two weeks ago that the White Paper would be published.
Don Foster, the Liberal Democrat education spokesman, said: "People are inevitably going to be dismayed by this move. Any way you look at it, backing away from a White Paper commitment is a downgrading of lifelong learning on the Government agenda."
Bob Fryer, principal of Northern College and author of the recent Government advisory paper on lifelong learning, cautioned against over-reaction. "I don't think anyone should see this as a downgrading. Much of the White Paper is filling out things already in place."
But John Brennan, policy director for the Association of Colleges, said:
"We are very disappointed that the Government is not making a clear statement. "
The announcement on scrapping the paper was very low-key. Dr Kim Howells, the minister responsible for the paper, said during a visit to Brighton University: "We will publish our consultation paper on lifelong learning, together with our responses to the Dearing and Kennedy reports on February 25."
Other issues which were to be in the White Paper included new education and training targets and the expansion of the Modern Apprenticeship scheme.