Which will arrive first: Godot or the White Paper?

6th February 1998 at 00:00
In A Sense of an Ending Frank Kermode discusses the difference between imminent and immanent events. The first are straightforward. They describe events which are just about to happen, like the 3.30 from St Pancras. The second are always just about to happen - thus some millenarian sects identify the date of the second coming, and when the appropriate time passes without the arrival of the heavenly host, sect members will recognise that the calculation must have been flawed, and come up with a revised date.

You need confidence and determination to pick yourself up, and set a new date, but you do. Waiting for the White Paper on lifelong learning has, over the past weeks, needed the confidence of the faithful, as it moved from an imminent to an immanent event. Bob Fryer, author of the paper advising ministers on lifelong learning, says that it is better to have a White Paper that deals with the main issues right than to get one early. But it would make life easier to know what is in store.

In its absence the territory is being explored in a variety of ways. On the day the White Paper was to appear at the end of January the BBC's director general held a seminar in which he shared his view of the future, and the place of learning in it, with 60 or so policy-makers and institutional heads. Digital information systems will change everything, he said, and the BBC is determined to be ready for the new era - exploiting its archive, linking mainstream to specialist channels, being commercial abroad; public service at home.

Still, with 24 Hour News so recently launched, and available to so few, you couldn't help wondering what programme-makers will have to do without for us to afford the investment in tomorrow. The BBC's track record in developing motivational shorts to persuade people to take up computing, or to send off for a literacy pack is unrivalled. For this it is already developed technologies that matter. And good programmes don't come cheap.

I left the presentation with two thoughts niggling away at me. The first was that broadcasters too often treat the future as much more imminent than it turns out to be. So, because we were told that cable was going to eat up all ITV's profits unless regulation was relaxed, Mrs Thatcher signed away ITV's obligations to present educational programmes. When they slipped off ITV's prime time, they were quickly pushed to the margins of the schedule on BBC1 as well. And then cable turned out to be less of a threat than was feared. The second was that John Birt seems to conflate education and information - and we need more than wall-to-wall information.

The Kennedy report made the point that we need to use prime-time broadcasting in the struggle for a learning society, and the lesson from the 1990 Broadcasting Act is that regulation helps. I have no doubt that committed learners willing to watch in the day time, or time-shift their videos to pick up the Learning Zone, or to zap into a specialist channel will do well in the new era. But, as Alan Wells of the Basic Skills Agency said, we also need clearly educational programmes to be broadcast when mass audiences are watching.

It would be good if the White Paper or the consultation that is now coming instead were to suggest quotas to be achieved for overall output, and for prime-time mass channel output - where all terrestrial broadcasters reported, after the event, on how they had done their bit.

Perhaps such thoughts have occurred to the people working towards the prospectus for the University for Industry. I am involved with a project the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education is undertaking for the TUC, looking at what trade unions might expect from and contribute to UFI.

No one outside the Government machine and the task force has a clear enough idea of what it might do, and what its boundaries will be. That has not stopped us from exploring what it ought to achieve, and two clear pieces of advice are already apparent from the conversations I have had. The first is that the UFI needs to be inclusive - to remember the universal in university, and that work, industry, is undertaken outside as well as inside the labour force - to be about "employability" as well as "competitiveness".

The second is a lesson lost these past years - it is that we know things together that are greater than the sum of our individual understanding, and we need a UFI that is responsive to collective learning, and to partnerships with people skilled in working with, and alongside, groups under-represented in the learning business.

The same lesson is worth noting by the National Advisory Council for the Education and Training Targets. Until 1992 we had a good first target for lifetime learning. It said everyone in the workplace should be involved in learning. It was abandoned, apparently because it was hard to measure. While we wait for the learning society it would help if it were resuscitated, and extended to include all the adult population. We would not succeed immediately - but we have still got some way to go on most of the existing targets. But we could use the mass participation surveys as one tool of measurement.

The responses to LEARNING DIRECT, the free telephone advice line which was launched on January 12 will be another source of data. Readers waiting for the arrival of clear Government policy might want to ring, to check the accuracy of the data currently held, (the number is 0800 100 900) and then go out and encourage others to ring for advice and guidance. Meanwhile, the helpline is a sign that some things which have been a long time coming do arrive, and are worth waiting for.

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

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