Spring may be a difficult step;FE Focus

2nd April 1999 at 01:00
The clocks went forward, and I lay in bed puzzling how my son's time clock had adapted to this change instantly, while mine resisted with great force. I stumbled grumbling to breakfast to find a glorious fresh spring day, forsythia smiling cheerfully in the garden, magnolia buds burgeoning on the neighbour's tree. Marvellous, but I could not quite adapt my mood.

I felt much the same at the end of NIACE's annual Study Conference this weekend. I came back exhausted, of course, from staying up too late imagining how the world might be better for adult learners. Still, much of the argument had been enlivening. There were dozens of examples of creative practice, much of it developed in spite of the external environment. There was also a clear sense that things were getting better, and that we might look forward to the day when creative new work happened because of enlightened policy.

But Bob Fryer, chair of the Government's continuing education and lifelong learning group, reminded us that while a great deal has happened to improve matters for adult learners in the past two years, we must not expect it all to happen overnight. Cultural change, he argued, results from a long haul.

Sue Waddington, the European Parliament's spokeswoman on the Leonardo education project, dropped in to report on the slaying of the commission, and how best we can preserve a European dynamic for lifelong learning.

Accounts of the current work and future challenges facing the University for Industry were also impressive. This was the first time I had heard the shapers of the initiative talking to key partners in a convivial and exploratory way. The UFI is the Government's flagship initiative, and it is essential, if it is to work for the benefit of adult learners that it gets its relationships with other providers right. On this evidence there is much to be cheered about.

Even Individual Learning Accounts - where individuals, employers and Government invest - were made attractive in minister George Mudie's vision of trade unions bargaining on behalf of cohorts of members to pool accounts to secure learner-friendly provision.

George was funny, warm, and steeped in commitment to giving those who have benefited least from the chance of education of a quality worth having. He instinctively trusts practitioners, and challenges policy-makers to be less territorial in their thinking, and their practice. He invited us to help the Government to address the overlapping but discrete needs of adults learning in the formal system, in the workplace and the community by having equally robust and demanding strategies for each. Far from receiving a hostile reaction, he sent practitioners back to work with their values confirmed, and ready for the challenges ahead.

It was, in short, the sort of conference you dream about: coherent, stimulating, flexible.

Why then am I so out of sorts? Easter exhaustion plays a part, linked to a big new task, and a sense that some critically important voices are not engaged with our agenda. The extension of the training and enterprise council review to include all of post-16 education gives a vital chance to shape future policy. I accept George Mudie's view that there is a need for coherent overlapping strategies for community learning and for workplace learning to go with further and higher education. It was, said differently, a key conclusion of the National Advisory Group for Continuing Education and Lifelong Learning. But adult learning is not a tidy business, and I am nervous that in pursuit of coherence we may squeeze out diversity.

Nowhere is that risk clearer than in Gordon Brown's throwaway remark in the Budget, that vocational tax relief is to be phased out, and with it public support "for non-vocational courses like diving and flying lessons". Translated, that will mean a return to the old divisions in employee development schemes with only approved subjects attracting tax relief. Old Treasury beliefs die hard.

Somehow we need to develop a dialogue with the Treasury to overcome its desire to demonise learning which leads to no obvious short-term economic benefit, to protect the widening participation agenda, and to persuade economists that learning is the key industrial skill, and it can be picked up in unlikely contexts.

But the Treasury is not alone in having misconceptions about lifelong learning. The Audit Commission's local authority performance indicators document suggests wrongly and crassly that adult education is not a statutory duty for LEAs, and finds it unsurprising when services are cut. Hardly surprising then when Surrey excises financial support for what was always one of the best of services.

Away from conference debate, the sunshine is still intermittent for lifelong learners. It will be a long haul.

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

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