OBITUARIES of Lord (once Sir David) Eccles who died recently reminded me of several things too easily forgotten. The first is that Secretaries of State for Education normally seem better in retrospect than at the time, the second that, back in the fifties, he was one of the first Cabinet ministers xto carry a public torch for further education, and the third that he coined the observation that the curriculum was like a "secret garden".
The thing about gardens, secret or not, is that the relationship between the plants and those who tend them is complex. As is, of course, the relationship between the sometimes tender and delicate students in colleges and those who control them: the examiners, assessors and validators. Is the purpose of a garden to encourage the plants to flourish, or is it to give pleasure to the gardener, to conform to notions of tidiness and neat display?
The questions are not whimsical. The whole thrust of the Government's lifelong learning programme to encourage luxuriant growth in previously scrubby parts of the garden may be in jeopardy because of the way in which the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority appears to be constructing its book of rules. Widening participation means bringing into education people who for one reason or another don't always have good memories or experiences of education. They are nervous about their abilities, sceptical about institutions, and out of practice passing exams. If they are to come back they need several quick successes, and they don't want anything which will remind them of school.
Colleges say that this group of clients needs special programmes of relearning how to learn, short sprints rather than a long slog, and, in many cases, opportunities to start at a very modest level. But they also want a recognised qualification which fits into a framework or system of qualifications which they can understand. They don't want to be fobbed off with a scrappy certificate with the currency of a toffee apple. They want, in short, to be readmitted to the main stream.
The second major group consists of those whose personal life is complicated by family commitments, poverty, or where they live. Others include people in a cul de sac job with no time off for education or training. Quite a lot of potential clients will have all these difficulties. These are not the sorts of people who can sign up to a long-term course of study with many hours' attendance every week.
The QCA worries about rigour and comparability. Re-entry courses with a quick payback certification come into the awkward category of "vocationally related" provision which the QCA wants to align with the effete academic route on one side and the sweaty, work-based national vocational qualifications on the other. So here we are, in the very late Nineties, still thinking about curriculum not as a continuum, but as a framework, divisible into discrete categories. Between the familiar polarities of academic and vocational we have now inserted the new creation of "vocationally related".
The idea of a national qualifications framework came from a Dearing report, and the Government requires the QCA to make it happen. However, Dearing was proposing a framework for 16 to 19-year-olds, not lifelong learning. Sauce for late adolescent geese is not necessarily sauce for ganders.
The attempt to show how the three pathways interconnect has led the QCA to propose that vocationally-related qualifications should have 70 per cent of the competencies to be tested drawn from the "nearest" NVQ. Those who set the standards for NVQs have little natural interest in or even knowledge of the new student clientele, and the standards are therefore inappropriate. And what of those whose level of achievement falls below the lowest level of NVQs? Rafts of qualifications, designed for adults and being submitted to the QCA by exam bodies - in particular by Open College networks whose business is with mature students - are likely to be rejected.
As for middle category qualifications which lie nearer, in content but not level, to academic awards like GCSE or A-level, the QCA is toying with the idea of an external examination or assessment. Nothing is more calculated to put off nervous adults re-entering the system. For them it sounds like the sort of ritual public humiliation to which they were subjected at school. Once they have a few successes under their belts, maybe, but not until their confidence has had a boost.
Lord Eccles would have liked the recognition of FE's place in the scheme of things. He might well have liked the secrets of the garden being opened up to public scrutiny and debate. He would surely have resisted the attempts to stifle growth by over-vigorous pruning and unimaginative, artificial path-making.
Michael Austin is principal of Accrington and Rossendale College