Rise to learning culture challenge

31st October 2003 at 00:00
Mark Haysom has quite a job. He has taken over the Learning and Skills Council and must strike a judicious balance between coherence, encouragement of solutions for local councils, and at the same time oversee the work of the new meetings of the Skills Alliance.

But it is good that his role in the alliance will remind him that achieving a change of learning culture in the UK needs the creative partnership of a range of agencies.

I have been impressed with his openness so far, but it will not be easy to resist pressures to concentrate almost exclusively on managing the complexities of the LSC. Just how much importance the Government attaches to the alliance was seen when five ministers attended its launch meeting.

But the key challenges lie with the Council and the Sector Skills Development Agency.

The council's widening participation strategy captures the challenge neatly. Six and a half years on from Baroness Helena Kennedy's Learning Works report there is still a way to go to achieve her vision of consistent and equitable access to learning for adults. The LSC recognises this.

It has adopted a welcome definition: "For the purpose of the strategy, widening participation is defined as a process where education and training providers successfully adapt their programmes and ways of working to meet the learning needs and aspirations of individuals and groups whose experiences or circumstances inhibit participation."

The difficulty is that those adaptations will have to go ahead while targets are achieved. There are bound to be temptations for local offices to focus spending on quick wins - topping up skills for those with short learning journeys to achieve qualifications, rather than the slow, expensive and uncertain investment needed to engage the hardest to reach and keep.

That was why, when the LSC was created, the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education argued strongly, and apparently successfully, for the adoption of a participation target backed by surveys so that under-represented groups could be easily identified, and supported in local LSC areas.

Three years on, the target promised in the first two corporate plans has slithered from sight as the council seeks to avoid being bogged down with an overload of targets. The talk is now of "a measure". Whatever it is called, it must be a key tool in identifying those people the system needs to adapt itself to, if the widening participation strategy and the skills target are to be achieved.

The council will need to change, too. Take the voluntary sector - regarded as a key partner in extending the reach of the system. A sign of serious intent would be to end the long-term resistance to creating a national voluntary sector unit, to parallel the national business unit. Bodies like the Pre-School Learning Alliance, or the Salvation Army need a single point of expertise and experience in the LSC, capable of exploiting the potential of the sector.

There are challenges, too, for providers. We are not likely to see investment on this scale again in those people failed by the system, if every effort is not made to make the strategy a success.

In colleges, there will need to be determination to keep other further education courses in place, until they are blessed with recognition under Ken Boston's qualifications reform. And local LSCs should be encouraged to ease up on draconian measures to cut back such work - since it caters for the very learners who need support to progress to level 2 GCSE-equivalent qualifications.

Most daunting of all is the task facing Christopher Duff of the Sector Skills Development Agency this year. Not only must he put in place a full suite of sector skills councils - with the lifelong learning council puffing along at the rear of the pack - but to develop credible programmes with real reach.

A good start has been made, at least for all those working on major constructors' sites. But to reach each small self-employed carpenter or plumber, Christopher will need your help and mine - to turn the loft conversion trade from a price-sensitive to a qualifications-sensitive business. Almost certain to make conversions dearer, but safer. And we will be doing our bit for the strategy.

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

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