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Throw open the windows of opportunity

Alan Tuckett reflects on the three Niace conferences, supported by FE Focus, on the future of post-19 education.

Two years ago, the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education's independent inquiry on the state of adult learning in colleges published Eight in Ten. The title was taken from the proportion of adults in further education.

Like the Foster report on the future role of FE colleges published shortly afterwards, Eight in Ten argued that colleges had key roles to play in vocational education and workplace learning. Unlike Foster, it argued that colleges had a third core function: to create and sustain cultural value.

Foster's view chimed with the Skills Strategy, was reinforced by the Leitch review of skills, and was backed by the Government. The result is that if the Niace inquiry was to publish a similar report today it would be called Six in Ten, and Falling!

The Niace and TES conference series on Further Education for the 21st Century, the last of which was held yesterday, has reviewed developments affecting adults and looked at future prospects. They have shown just how creative and responsive colleges can be in meeting the needs and aspirations of adults when they are given the chance to get on with the job. They have shown, too, how often and quickly the goals set by the system have changed and that there are risks when government seeks to force the pace too quickly.

Geoff Hall, principal and chief executive of New College Nottingham, argued tellingly that a rush for numbers leads to problems with quality and accountability, and that the financial irregularities experienced with individual learning accounts and franchising were likely to be reproduced with Train to Gain. It is clearly government's responsibility to set the direction of travel, but the lesson of recent years is that it is best to go slowly.

Cuts in funding for "other further education" - which is not directly associated with government targets and priorities - have been dramatic. Add in sharp fee increases in many areas and the result has been a big decline in adult learning opportunities: there was a 40 per cent reduction in Learning and Skills Council-funded numbers in further education for post-19s between 2003-04 to 2006-07; for over 25s, it was 43 per cent, and for the over-60s, it reached 58 per cent.

Low-waged earners working for employers who decline to invest in training have missed out significantly. The loss of 1.4 million adult students - when the LSC estimated a loss of 200,000 - devastated colleges' capacity to respond to locally expressed need, and the Innovation, Universities and Skills Secretary's grant letter suggests there is more pain to come over the next three years for anyone whose needs are not met within the targets. That will affect the poor and marginalised more than the affluent.

There have, of course, been successes. In Skills for Life, level 2 (GCSE equivalent) and apprenticeship participation has been buoyant and achievements on target.

Until this past year, colleges had had great success in meeting demand for courses in English for speakers of other languages, but that demand is now capped. The Government has, however, produced a helpful consultation paper on how to support local decision-making in giving priority to settled migrants with language learning needs. Particularly welcome is the inclusion of asylum seekers on the list of priority groups.

Colleges should be trusted to set their own priorities, not just for Esol, but also in other areas. Current policies are dangerously narrow in scope for a country which needs its citizens to be well informed and its communities to get on with each other.

The key lesson of the conferences was, as the veteran socialist Tony Benn suggested, that the time has come to campaign. We need a broad alliance of colleges, communities, faith organisations and the wider voluntary sector, unions and businesses to reassert that we need public support for learning for the good of our society - for life as well as work - and we need it now.

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

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