Why excellence should not be our only goal

"WHAT'S the use of a centre of excellence among a sea of poverty?" Sam Isaacs, head of the South African Qualifications Authority asked my breakfast companion last Sunday.

The question in-vites you to think about how much is appropriate to spend on higher education in a country where 12 million or more lack basic literacy skills. It invites thinking about quality that includes social value. Mr Isaac's organisation combines the functions of this country's Qualifications and Curriculum Authority and the Quality Assurance Agency here. His agency does include questions about the social impact of education in their national qualifications framework. These issues are as relevant, if on a different scale here. They are recognised by the CBI in its concerns about the long tail of under-achievement and the way this might affect the skills of the future workforce. But will they impact on current debates about quality here?

I was able to listen in to the conversation because I was recently on honeymoon in Cape Town, and we were catching up with friends. We had a wedding party at the Co-operative College at Stanford Hall, a people's palace dedicated to the value of the learning we do together beyond the individual learning most of our systems measure.

A good deal of the fun at the party was had retelling old stories - marking shared memories, illustrating how things have changed, how we make sense of life. Most of our stories made connections that highlighted common experiences. Many of them captured a warm sense of the ridiculous - affectionate reminders of the gap between how we are and how we see. I was reminded of the time I interviewed someone for a part-time job in adult education in 1973, and spent nearly four hours grilling the candidate for a one-off two-hour-a-week short course in popular planning.

Events like this are convivial and the source of new stories, to be distorted, refashioned, remembered on other occasions. They draw on and strengthen trust and social capital. It's hard of course, to measure the learning we do together, but it is none the less palpable that we learn as well as live it up.

I came back to work thinking how impoverished we have let debates about quality become. The audit culture has given priority to the needs of funders and institutions. In public, inspection has focused on accountability and judgment, leaving advice and encouragement to private conversations.

But learners' perceptions about quality - of courses, institutions, or the services in an area - have not been part of the discussion. The Learning to Succeed White Paper began a process that can change this.

Local Learning Partnerships are required to consult learners - 16-19 "area" inspections should do likewise. We can ensure that learners have the chance for informed reflection on the quality and accessibility of guidance, progression routes, and learning support, and on mechanisms to ensure that institutions are responsive to community demand. They will have views on the balance to be struck between excellence and inclusiveness. And help, perhaps, to answer Sam Isaacs' question.

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

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