Rugby is more fun than the budget dance

9th January 1998 at 00:00
Since I moved to Leicester I have taken to watching the rugby - partly because, along with Asian cuisine and fashion and inter-cultural relations, it is something done with distinction in a town with a tendency otherwise to apologise for itself.

In part, too, there is something very attractive about the family-friendly courtesy of the crowd, a throwback to football matches in the Fifties. But above all I go because there is a curious contrast between the balletic elegance of Greenwood, Healey and Stransky's running and the dull thud of flesh on flesh, bone on bone, through which they pick their way.

Still, there comes a moment in most matches when it is not the flash running of the backs that is called for, but the remorseless applied pressure of the forwards. A slow, determined shove can work wonders.

The resilience and the pressure of a good heave is just what adult educators need to produce this new year if 1998 is to deliver any of the benefits trailed in 1997.

Last year promised quite a lot. The publication of the Kennedy and Dearing reports both held out the prospect of widened participation as a key goal of policy in further and higher education.

Ministers also promised a revitalised commitment to family and community education in the delayed White Paper on lifelong learning.

A version of the values underpinning such a commitment and an outline of the steps to turn commitment into practice was central to Bob Fryer's Learning for the 21st Century, the first report of the National Advisory Group on Continuing Education and Lifelong Learning.

Work on the University for Industry holds out the promise of a new high-profile adult learning institution - or rather network - and current discussions on individual learning accounts could help fund learning.

There was just as much for adult educators to worry about last year. Everyone recognises the discipline the Government accepted when taking over Conservative spending targets. But the risk is that fiscal probity can do serious damage to the prospects for other policies' achievement.

Take local government. Each year through the Nineties we have seen a procession of authorities sacrificing adult budgets to balance the books and to worship at the altar of local management of schools. No more than half of LEAs can now point to a reasonably adequate range and provision of adult education. In the past, one year's cuts would be clawed back quietly over the next two or three years, and organisers with flair and ingenuity would squirrel resources from other budgets.

But in the Nineties one year's cuts have been followed by another and, in too many authorities, only the figleaf of Further Education Funding Council money for approved provision disguises the scale of the problem.

It is what Graham Lane, chair of the education committee of the Local Government Association, complains of when he says that there is more to LEAs than being glorified school boards. I hope he will repeat that loudly this month, backed by every organiser, tutor and student, since the early indications are that this is going to be a very tough year for adults.

The reason for this is arcane. The Government found welcome additional funds for schools, but ring-fenced them - they can only be spent on schools. Local authority treasurers reason that education departments have done well from the rate support settlement, so any savings will need to be made from other education spending, sparing other local authority services. So, in Manchester and in Buckinghamshire there are early plans for major cuts in adult education. Both have high quality and well developed services, and articulate students who are also voters.

But the cruellest and most ignorant plan I have heard comes from Lambeth, where I worked in the Eighties when it was part of the Inner London Education Authority.

There the authority apparently reasons that since last year's Tomlinson Report argued for "inclusive learning" there is no longer a need for discrete provision for adults with learning difficulties.

Quite apart from the fundamental misreading of Tomlinson's case - which was that learners should have learning fit for their needs, whether integrated or discrete, so they can join in on as equal terms as possible - this decision shows the danger of fragmented social policy planning. What will be the social price of failing to meet the learning needs of the most vulnerable groups? And how does this square with education as the top priority?

There is nothing inevitable about this. It is a key skill of organisers of adult education to ensure that local politicians understand the impact such services have on the dignity and quality of life of learners. And it is not even too late for those lessons to be heard this time round if learners add their voices to the advice politicians get before budgets are finalised.

It would be wonderful to think that the White Paper will offer a way out of this depressing annual dance. But I am sure loud voices will be needed during the consultation period if the properly important arguments for labour-market-driven developments are not to drown out the case for community learning.

In FE a different form of advocacy is needed - to end the bunkered reaction of too many principals who see Kennedy as another way to transfer money to London.

Making a funding mechanism work that is sensitive to excluded adults is a key task of the new year - what we need is less of the accountant and more of the educator of those least easily reached if FE is to be as central to the future as its leadership argues and the country needs. We need a policy on convergence that secures equal quality for learners in external institutions.

The Government, too, needs to bite the bullet. Whatever else is lost we need equality of opportunity, support and funding for part-timers at the heart of the White Paper. And then we shall have to agree - noisily. So we are all in for a busy, argumentative spring and a long, hard shove.

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

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