Seize chance to make learning adult-friendly

13th June 2003 at 01:00
I first met Manish Jain at the launch of an exciting Unesco initiative on "Learning without frontiers". Manish stood out for the clarity of his thinking and his belief that Unesco's bureaucracy should not get in the way of experiences that transform the lives of learners young and old. Alas, the initiative was still-born, and Manish gave up on Unesco, returning to work in a south Indian community project.

Manish has been an important contributor to a debate sparked by Sir John Daniel, assistant director for education at Unesco. John had written in praise of globalisation, and the associated "commodification". In this context, commodification means preparing courses for standardised global marketing - like baked beans, with all cultural specificity squeezed out.

But in this "McDonaldisation" of learning, who gets to decide what is worth commodifying? The responses of Manish and his colleagues are vivid in defence of learning not just as a product but as a way of enhancing dignity, choice, cultural diversity. He also argues in defence of learners determining what they study themselves.

All this is relevant to developments in the UK. I was cheered up last week, at the annual parliamentary reception for the Pre-School Learning Alliance, when the politicians spoke so powerfully in favour of the idea that learning should be fun. There was also a recognition of the vital role the voluntary sector plays in revitalising poor communities, and of the importance of engaging parents as partners in education.

If we can bring the same spirit of imagination and inclusiveness to the skills strategy, and avoid too much "McDonaldisation" we shall, I think, be doing well. There are signs that elements of an effective policy are being put in place.

The Government's review of vocational qualifications offers the best chance for a generation to create an adult-friendly qualifications system, where larger qualifications are supported by a more fine-tuned and inclusive credit system - so small chunks of work can be recognised and counted.

But will the review come too late for much of the work currently supported as "other" FE (courses not specifically related to the national qualifications framework) as local planners seek to hit headline targets? An early test of the new skills strategy is what it does for the tens of thousands of adults who will need to take the "other" FE route.

A second test will be how the strategy supports the development and funding of basic skills embedded in other courses. If the skills strategy is to work for most adults needing some help with writing, spelling and reading, it will surely be woven into the studies they pursue.

A third test concerns what will be offered to workers in firms unconvinced of the economic case for investing in training.

Ed Balls, chief adviser at the Treasury, has hinted at pressuring firms to train with talk of the Government's move towards a "post-voluntary" approach to learning at work. But Charles Clarke and Ivan Lewis have said emphatically that we need to make sure courses better reflect what employers need before any moves to regulation are introduced. So what can the strategy do for, say, a cleaner, bringing up a family and working for three or four employers, none of whom sees her development as their responsibility?

There are positive signs that the Government does intend to make a difference to social exclusion through education - talk of entitlements to a first level 2 (GCSE equivalent), which would take the explicit costs out of returning to learn; and of a new type of individual learning account being targeted at new learners who do not have any qualifications.

Statutory endorsement of trade union learning representatives is welcome, as are the Employer Training Pilots. But much of this will be put at risk if the effects of new targets for FE encourage colleges to shy away from widening participation, where there is a high risk of not meeting targets.

So the fourth test of the strategy is how much emphasis it gives to reaching out to the diverse groups who do not participate in learning.

Finally the strategy must respond to the needs of older learners, and of those who share Manish Jain's view that learning is for delight, and the transformation of our lot in life.

Clearly the strategy won't give us everything we need. But let's hope it avoids the pitfall of making things worse.

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

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