Other parts of the forest lead out of the woods;FE Focus;Comment;Opinion

7th May 1999 at 01:00
Consultation, consultation, consultation. It is now more than a year since the publication of The Learning Age. Apparently it generated thousands of replies, but we are still waiting for the publication of the Government's summary of the issues raised. We also await a government statement on what will happen next, and for that matter we are still expecting the second report of the National Advisory Group for Continuing Education and Lifelong Learning. Things are happening, of course, but too many people are left with the sense that we are engaged in a dialogue of the hard of hearing.

Much of what is good for adult learners has been achieved almost by stealth. Slowly, the needs of part-time students are being addressed. Modest, practical steps make a difference. The latest good news is the decision of the Higher Education Funding Council for England to maintain an annual development fund for widening participation projects, at double the current size, alongside the additional cash for the same purpose to be built into higher education institutions' mainstream funding. The project funding amounts to about 15 per cent of the allocated total.

While more money is needed to make a real difference to the system, the strategy is surely right: an adult-friendly HE system needs institutional managers to recognise the need for change, and to devise strategies to that end. But at the same time, project funding gives permission to highlight the needs of groups under-represented in the system, to work with them in new ways, and of course to fail on a scale small enough for lessons to be learned without putting institutions at risk overall.

The same principles will need to inform the Kennedy agenda in colleges. In the light of the highly-publicised problems of Halton, Bilston and the Wirral the temptation may be to avoid risk at all costs. Yet without risk many adults whose needs are not currently met well by colleges will continue to be excluded.

As our institutional relationships move from the sharp-edged world of competition to the cuddlier world of partnership, confidence to get some things wrong will be as important as ever. Reflection on what went well, what could have been done differently, what produced unexpected outcomes is the stuff of learning. Still, reflection on its own is not enough. You have to tell stories for others to have the chance to understand what you have learned.

I was struck by this at two different consultation meetings in the past fortnight. The first was convened by the Department for Education and Employment to offer national organisations a chance to consider issues that will, (or do I mean might, or could?) be addressed in what seems now to be called the post-16 review. I was struck by the remark of a panjandrum in the system who said: "Surely we might agree that the primary purpose of education is preparation for the labour market?" In Pinochet's Chile perhaps, but in a democracy?

Competitiveness remains a major commitment of government. But the context has changed. There is an impressive range of strategies to address social exclusion and community building. Yet if your work is focused on labour market concerns, it is possible that much of the change may have passed you by. You need people in other parts of the forest to tell you the wonders they behold. One of the benefits of consultation at its best is that it gives the space for people to tell each other useful stories. This was illustrated at the consultation meeting, hosted by the Local Government Association.

People are more open to listening to one another, and learning in an atmosphere of trust. And surely government at its best should, like the LGA, host a good conversation, in which different interests explore the maximum possible area of agreement,. Still, trust grows slowly and you need plenty of time for everyone to feel they have had a chance to join in. Some will wait until there are clear options to consider. Some will change their minds. But if you take time you can secure wide ownership of change.

The temptation when you are busy is to put your head down, and get on with it. But given the aspiration to create a learning society I don't think that is an option open to any of us in partnerships, institutions or, for that matter, in government.

Alan Tuckett is director of the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education

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