There's no slick way to turn the tanker round

19th September 1997 at 01:00
Sometimes an apt phrase can clear the fog. Two phrases did the trick for me in the past week which is just as well, since I came back from a summer of sand, sea, and our four-year-old's philosophy, washed down with generous buckets of Chardonnay, with a brain full of lethargy and static.

The first was David Blunkett's. He was speaking at a reception at Northern College to launch its new library and information technology centre - a harbinger, perhaps, for the local learning centres that should be created for the University for Industry. He talked about the challenge in meeting Britain's needs to be competitive, and to fulfil the aspirations of its people.

He highlighted the importance, too, of the kind of learning people do to sort out their own problems, to give voice to their hopes, and to transform their circumstances. He was under no illusions that it would be difficult immediately for such work to get enough support from the public purse for all the potential demand to be met. But the phrase that struck me was "swinging round the oil tanker" - his metaphor for the challenge facing the Government as it seeks to make a real change in education and training policy. He described the task of the lifelong learning White Paper as setting the direction for change, so that at the end of the life of the Government a real difference will have been made to the chances of those people excluded from current arrangements.

The point, of course. is that change can take time. Andrew Smith, minister of state for education and employment, was saying something similar at a reception at the Trades Union Congress in Brighton. Tough, of course, to wait too long if you are unemployed and the more punitive of the provisions of the Job Seekers' Allowance punishes you for studying too much. Tough, too, if the working rules adapted under the new deal fall short of the real aspirations ministers have for that programme to make a difference.

The challenges are daunting. As Clara Donnelly of the Unemployment Unit suggested at a seminar on the new deal in July, not everyone in the target group will find it easy to develop overnight the disciplines of the timetable of the working day. For providers, matching flexibility and sensitivity to learners with the need to meet the rules may be the key to a programme that genuinely transforms work prospects for people.

Ministers have made clear that they have a medium-term view as well as short-term goals, in their determination that the White Paper should combine commitments for early legislation with widespread consultation on the way ahead. Of course, all of us will want our major worries sorted out immediately. Community adult educators, working in the increasingly bleak fiscal environment of uncertificated non-schedule 2 provision, must hope for an early release from the worst of their struggles. Surely this time there must be hope that "adequacy" of provision can be defined. But would such a definition describe basic minima, or the good practice authorities need to work towards? Would it privilege some areas of work over others - and if so would the fashion for instant audit win out again? I suspect it will need more than a single policy document to shift the instrumentalism of the past few years, and that we shall have to work hard to develop defensible alternate tools for describing and measuring learning - of the sort John Daines has pioneered with the Workers' Educational Association.

But we need more than commitment and improved tools for describing and measuring learning. Harbans Bhola, the distinguished Indian adult educator, captures the challenge in the latest number of Convergence, the journal of the International Council for Adult Education, giving me my second moment of clarity this week. He argues that adult education in societies all over the world, whether developed or developing, "is first a culture, and then a sector". The distinction he makes is vivid:

"Within the adult education culture, adults educate other adults, by beating drums for attention, singing folk songs, and shouting messages over loudspeakers; by putting posters on walls, and organising exhibits; by organising political and religious functions on street corners or in city parks; and by spreading the message over the radio and television. On the other hand, the adult education sector is made up of the adult education establishment comprising governmental and non-governmental institutions: ministries, enterprises, research bureaux, night schools and adult learning centres."

The challenge in recovering adult education culture, where learning and articulate and active citizenship go hand in hand, while at the same time keeping up the pursuit of a world-class workforce is a real one. After all, how do you slow down the political function on the street corner, to capture the learning going on? Even the flexibility of Open College Network credits are stretched when the learning is spontaneous, unplanned, episodic. And if you cannot map it exactly, how can it be audited? And without audit, how shall we fund it?

Of course, the state is not the only source of funds. But for some contexts, and some communities, support in developing capacity is critical. Then again, what kind of progression do we value? There was a direct link between the composition of "We shall overcome" at a capacity building workshop at Highlander Folk High School in Tennessee, and Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech - yet it is hard to see how it might have been mapped in advance, and the appropriate funding application written. It is perhaps unsurprising that governments are more comfortable with sector than culture but David Blunkett's challenge is that we should swing the tanker round so that culture and sector are, if not one and the same thing, at least in intimate dialogue with one another.

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

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