Time for grown-up debate about adults

28th September 2007 at 01:00

Three conferences on the future of post-19 education, supported by FE Focus, begin in November.

Paul Mackney, the associate director (FE) of Niace, who is helping to organise the big debate, sets the scene

IT SEEMS the Foster report of November 2005 and the Leitch report of December 2006 have not sorted out further education for adults. Even Richard Lambert, director-general of the Confederation of British Industry, said the reviews were not the transformational moments they were expected to be.

While it would be difficult to claim there is all to play for, it is far from sorted and, with the new ministerial team, now is the time for some creative thinking.

The splitting of the DfES into the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS) and the Department for Children, Schools and Families creates both problems and opportunities.

A government department concentrating on adults from basic skills education to university and into innovation is potentially very exciting. Perhaps FE colleges should raise demand from per capita parity with schools to parity with universities.

It is shame the DIUS is focused on post-19s. A post-16 department could have released us from the Blairist presumption that sixth forms in schools provide choice when in fact they reduce course opportunities.

The focus of the past two years on under-19s, to the detriment of one million adults, is astonishing when we know there will be a drop of about 80,000 18 year-olds over the next 12 years, two-thirds of new jobs will be filled by adults and 70 per cent of the 2020 workforce are already in work. Adult learning grants of up to pound;30 a week should be extended from the employed to those looking for work.

While we now have to live with colleges straddling two departments, there are unanswered questions. If pre-19 funding is going (back) to local authorities, should funding for adults follow? The difficulty is that the average college draws students from nine local authorities, with specialist provision attracting a wider group.

Should there be a regional body linked with England's regional development agencies, or other regional bodies as in London, or should there be a merger of the Higher Education Funding Council for England and the Learning and Skills Council?

The Leitch report, with its 700 references to employers and three to families, skewed the focus of adult learning. The weakest deliverers of training employers were given almost total suzerainty over the solution. The Train to Gain initiative, despite the hype, is hitting the buffers everywhere.

The definition of Leitch's central concept of economically valuable skills will inevitably be stretched to cover those who want to get into jobs as well as those already in work. If it isn't, expect civil disturbance from those with no hope. Although it helps with international comparisons, it is questionable whether dragooning young refusniks is preferable to giving them entitlements when they are older.

Train to Gain brokers are remunerated according to the number of visits made to employers rather than their outcome the number of workers sent on courses. A real expansion of training requires the money absorbed by this layer to be allocated to the providers.

Can the present configuration of quangos continue? Will the effective Centre for Excellence in Leadership gobble up the Quality Improvement Agency? One body growing in significance is Lifelong Learning UK, with the FE teaching qualification requirements and the now compulsory 30 hours a year of continuing professional development for college staff. LLUK is preparing a sector skills agreement and examining the feasibility of a further higher education Skills Pledge Plus that, hopefully, will lead to college lifelong learning committees.

Equality legislation will extend the obligation to consider the impact of provision on all disadvantaged groups. FE's role in ensuring social inclusion and cementing social cohesion is bound to grow with a focus beyond English for speakers of other languages to more general intercultural skills.

It will be a disaster if colleges are destabilised again just as they are hitting their stride. So what do we do, given Marx's dictum that we make history but in circumstances not of our own choosing? The black writer and socialist theorist C.L.R. James in his 80th birthday lectures gave the answer: "Don't give up; focus on the chinks of opportunity."

Join the discussion

The conferences are being organised by Niace under the banner "FE in the 21st century: What Works for Adults" and will look at the past, present and future of post-19 education, including learning for leisure.

Speakers are expected to include Tony Benn, the former Labour minister and veteran campaigner, and a range of experts and ministers. The conferences will be held at the London Chamber of Commerce on November 8 and 29 and January 17.

FE Focus is keen to provide a platform for the full range of opinions on the adult education debate. Readers who wish to contribute letters for publication, or simply to pass on their views or ideas, should email steve.hook@tes.co.uk

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