Skill-less at the Scottish Office

4th September 1998 at 01:00
WHOSE granny said that fine words butter no parsnips? If it wasn't the Secretary of State's, perhaps it should have been. Recently he gave the inaugural lecture for yet another gang of the heavyweight well-intentioned - SURF, the new Social Urban Regeneration Forum.

The core message was one often heard from Tory ministers. Co-ordination of service delivery is key. Lack of this blessed and lubricating commodity between public sector agencies leads to frustration, failed intentions and wasted resources.

How true. I recall as a councillor receiving anguished complaints that the council grass-cutters, defying dolorous local appeals, had insisted on mowing the common green spaces despite the myriad budding shoots of the municipal crocuses previously planted by their buddies from the parks department.

To combat such evils Donald Dewar has launched a range of pathfinder projects aimed at developing streamlined new management structures. How splendid it would be if he would initiate just one such project within his very own Scottish Office where it seems warring factions within the education and industry department are mired in mutual suspicion, disagreement and resultant inertia. There are certainly some extremely frustrated officials around.

Brian Wilson, the previous education minister, may have been good for Gaelic but he didn't do much for adult education, bar setting up a welcome working group under Douglas Osler, the head of the Inspectorate, to consider the future of community education in relation to social exclusion and lifelong learning.

Otherwise both running and scoring have largely been left to councils in the shape of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities' community education task group, whose report Producing Learning is out for consultation. It is but the latest in a line recommending a currently non-existent Scottish Basic Skills Agency.

The report points to continuing comparative neglect and disproportionate cuts for adult basic education in Scotland. It is still reckoned that 20 per cent of the population have basic skills difficulties. The current mismatch between need and provision is pathetic. Demoralisation among community educators stalks the land. Perhaps Mr Wilson's brief was too wide for him. Or perhaps Mr Osler's army needs to sing louder. Some of the industry hardliners still haven't heard or understood the implications of a large-scale basic skills deficit for Government policies.

The situation here contrasts strangely with the almost missionary zeal of Education Secretary David Blunkett's targets for the socially excluded, which aim to get around 500,000 of the (English) educationally challenged into literacy programmes. The corresponding figure here would be around 50,000 - a long way from the actual 6,000 Scots currently on dedicated literacy programmes.

Lack of co-operation between Scottish Office departments isn't new. Ten years ago education was unable to get representation on the high-level housinghealthsocial work unit that carried forward the Government's care in the community policy. The results at local level were often farcical.

Now Cosla is calling for an interdepartmental strategy on lifelong learning. The Government has already set up such an interdepartmental task group on social exclusion under Lord Sewel, aiming to co-ordinate approaches to this high-profile policy. Similar treatment is needed for lifelong learning.

Scotland has waited these many months for its Green Paper on lifelong learning, or the publication of the Liaise report into adult education outreach now gathering dust in St Andrew's House, or indeed any sort of policy lead.

The new minister must produce chart and compass and offer a sense of direction. Where does Scottish Labour stand on lifelong learning? Or is it mothballs until the Scottish parliament?

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