Passion and best practice

18th June 2004 at 01:00
Helena Kennedy rouses the spirit, quickens the pulse, and generates passion and enthusiasm in the struggle to inspire more people to learn. It is seven years since her ground-breaking report, Learning Works, brought the idea of "widening participation" centre stage.

At a National Institute of Adult and Continuing Education conference to review progress last week, Baroness Kennedy reminded us that a tough challenge remained and encouraged us all to generate a new national campaign to create a "learning country" - as called for in her original report.

In a confident and inspiring response, Ivan Lewis, the adult skills minister, reminded us how far things have come in seven years, and of the scale of the challenge ahead to reach disaffected and excluded people. The cycle of educational disadvantage, passed from parent to child, would not be broken by a quick fix but by serious and sustained hard work.

He encouraged colleges, adult learning centres and other providers - as partners in a shared enterprise - to stop talking further education down as a "Cinderella service". Take pleasure in what has been achieved, he said.

But how do you remake an entire culture, so that everyone feels they have a stake in learning? It is best to start from where people are. Use trusted intermediaries - shop stewards, neighbours, pre-school organisers, religious advisers - who can open the door to participation.

Success of the government-backed union learning fund lies in building on and changing structures to make best use of existing resources. It is an approach that will also be the key to the sustained success of NHSU - the corporate university for the National Health Service.

The NHSU goal is to sign up everyone in the health and care workforce who has never been offered training and development. Even cursory attention to the complex work and domestic pressures on cleaners and porters in the health service reminds us that, for many, work is the only place where there is any meaningful chance for a return to learning.

In this respect, the Kennedy report and the Government's skills strategy make a common cause. The workplace is clearly central to widening participation. All reports of the evaluation of the employer training pilots suggest that they do motivate employers and staff alike to get involved in education and training, tailored to meet their needs. But it is costly, and to roll out the state-funded pilots as a national programme in their present form would surely break the bank.

I was, therefore, encouraged to hear Ivan Lewis call for employers to meet a bigger share of the costs. Government can help by creating a framework for employers to take on that responsibility, just as it shapes the debate about the fees individuals should pay for different courses.

Outside the workplace, it is important to discover other structures that successfully widen participation.

It is now recognised that the family can be a place that nurtures mutually beneficial learning and builds self-esteem and confidence in adults and children alike. Families can provide a "system" for lifelong learning that meets the needs and wants of people of all ages. So can the community group, and even informal alliances forged on the allotment.

For adults returning to learn, the Kennedy report proposed a "new learning pathway", that could provide a necessary "wrap around" of guidance, learning support and effective planning to support progression and enrich the curriculum.

That idea sank without trace seven years ago. Now - heeding Lady Kennedy's call - it is surely time to look at that agenda again. Given the skills strategy target, it is imperative that we help people to make sense of what is provided on those "first steps" back into learning, and to equip people for a sustained journey.

Mix in some passion, story telling, dancing and a sense of fun, season with staff development, and the sharing of best practice among supporters and intermediaries, and you have the core ingredients for a learning culture.

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

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