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Two steps forward, two steps back, now twizzle

I used to go folk dancing in Cornwall in the 1960s - I liked folk song, and folk culture there had not yet split apart. You might go to an event to hear John the Fish and Brenda Wootton, but once you were there, there was no escaping the Cumberland Square Eight, and the rest of the repertoire. All the dances offered a semblance of intimacy, and a curious logic which separated you from your partner as soon as the dance got under way. Quite a good metaphor for early adolescence as a whole.

However, I was reminded of a different feature of folk dance when discussing the tension between meritocracy and democracy in lifelong learning policy in England the other day. Lots of the dances involve two steps forward, two steps back, and twizzling your partner on the spot. Yet somehow you progressed down the line. That seems to me to be the way we make progress in lifelong learning.

The National Health Service University clearly represents two steps forward for the democratic dynamic in government. It aspires to be the largest corporate university outside China. It has recruited Bob Fryer as chief executive; its target is to involve everyone working for the NHS - all 1,200,000 of them. Its budget, pound;2 billion, will amount to a third of that dispensed by the Learning and Skills Council. Like lots of new Labour initiatives, it comes hard on the heels of other measures with overlapping concerns - all of which will need to be carried into creative partnership.

A great deal of its budget is spoken for in existing commitments. But the decision that everyone means everyone holds out real prospects for those people at the bottom of the NHS feeding chain. There will be a recognition that everyone contributes to patient care, a focus on communication and values, and a skills escalator where staff can transform career opportunities by getting credit for what they have learned. It will be exciting to watch it grow.

The news on the basic skills national tests, though, is less encouraging. The Moser committee all but failed to agree a common report over the proposal that national tests should be an obligatory part of publicly-funded literacy and numeracy work. The happy compromise the committee agreed was that tests would be developed, alongside other equivalent measures of progress. This approach was fleshed out by hard-working task groups, which met following the publication of the report to address implementation issues. Now we hear that only those learners who have signed up on courses, and sat and passed an approved qualification in basic skills will count towards the national target of 750,000.

The Adult Basic Skills Strategy Unit is clear that funding will not be limited to provision leading directly to the test. But providers are often confused. The assumption is that perhaps a half of all those who sign up for basic skills will follow through to take the test. There is also quite encouraging news that large numbers of learners are willing to sign up.

However, when the Adult Learning Committee of the Learning and Skills Council discussed the target, I was keen that they should adopt a wider measure of learner achievement. In part, my concerns about the test are borne of years of experience, albeit earlier in my working life, with learners who had been failed by education where teaching had been narrowly focused on preparing them to pass tests.

When that approach does not work, and you fail the test, you tend to blame yourself. But even if times have changed for many, there is still the technical problem that the UK's basic skills crisis relates to the application of literacy and numeracy skills in the widest range of contexts - literacies and numeracies difficult to capture in a "one size fits all" testing model.

We risk letting a tool to measure progress distort what is taught and learned. Targets galvanise systems into action, and that is a good thing. But when they are allied to too narrow a system of audit, they can get in the way. What we need is for every course in the workplace, in colleges and communities to offer basic skills support, and for people to take confidence from the skills they gain. That will need different measures. The narrowing of the measures towards the target feels like two steps back.

Every reversal for the democratic dynamic ends up reinforcing privilege. In this case everyone is trying their hardest to do their best for people failed by the system. But we should trust good tutors to tell us the balance needed to measure the progress we are all committed to secure.

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

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