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Time and space for the benefits to flow

THIS is a column in praise of slowing down. Zhou en Lai, when asked whether he thought the French Revolution had been a good thing, retorted famously, "Too early to say".

Contrast that with the haste with which we now invent policies with targets, timelines, and benchmarks; and then move on to shake up some other dusty corner of the public services. Before you know where you are, the whirligig of policy-making is back: shuffling the organisational arrangements, refining or replacing targets, identifying new imperatives.

Six years into the life of a Government with an itch to do different, there is a risk that we may lose sight of the good things done in response to the day before yesterday's policy priorities. I wholly applaud the Government's aspirations to make a post-school education and training system that supports the creation of a vibrant economy, where people can find jobs which are rewarding in themselves, make use of the skills people bring to their work, and develop new ones. People who benefited least from schooling are more likely to get the chance to learn at work than elsewhere.

Yet, we have developed systems of workplace and work-based learning in which part-time and temporary workers and the least skilled are offered much less of a chance than their educationally privileged colleagues.

Giving the least skilled a chance - addressing what the CBI called "the long tail of under-achievement" - necessitates policies which address economic prosperity and social inclusion at one and the same time.

This was the rationale behind the Delors' European White Paper on Competitiveness in the 1990s, and behind this Government's impressive lifelong learning policy, spelled out in the Learning Age and the legislation that flowed from it.

The Government, wisely in my view, took its time to settle on the policy and the structures needed to implement it. Partners were consulted extensively, and involved in thinking through the balance of national strategy and local responsiveness the system needed.

There was nuance, and a sense of the complexities and differentiation needed to create a vocationally dynamic and socially inclusive system, where everyone could find a place - whether their aspirations were to consolidate professional development, to appreciate Miles Davis, or to learn collective solutions to a community's shared problems.

When the Learning and Skills Act passed through Parliament, there was considerable bipartisan agreement on many of the measures. I thought at the time that this was the product of the time taken to identify the challenges, and work on the maximum level of agreement. But then, the pace changed. The embryonic Learning and Skills Council was given half as long for setting-up time as the less complex Further Education Funding Council had been given a decade before.

The chief executive had a miniscule team to manage the transition until the date the training and enterprise councils were abolished. Then, all of a sudden, thousands of people were in place needing to be managed.

There was, it seems, no time for a cool analysis of the skills sets needed to support the breathtaking range of provision the 47 local councils were responsible for. As a result, the vast bulk of staff with job entitlements transferred straight from the TECs to the new councils. This produced a challenge for the new council's staff to develop competence and sensitivity about all areas, while delivering the new system from day one.

All in all, it is impressive that the transition was managed without major mishap. The council gave proper priority to securing stability for existing providers. Decision-makers impatient for evidence of change had to wait while the new structures bedded down; and, inevitably, some of the nuances of the council's first remit letter were marginalised when the Prime Minister's delivery unit boiled the task down to hitting the headline targets.

My sense is that we are now in a position to benefit from all that change, if only we could leave space for the benefits to flow. Effective change takes time. Meanwhile, the initiatives rain down remorselessly. Success for All, the latest skills strategy, the review of adult funding, workforce development, new ideas for higher education - all good, in part at least.

But all would benefit from time, to improve policies and build consensus rather than a mad dash to implementation.

The prospects look gloomy, though, as paper after paper lays out a truncated timeline, where the need to act fast puts creative and reflective policy makers under unproductive pressure. It takes time and space for things to grow, and for quieter voices to be heard.

Alan Tuckett is director of NIACE

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