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Why our training targets must hit the bull's-eye

Who can join the learning society? Prospects for a mass participation in education are looking pretty ragged. Despite a cross-party consensus and the enthusiastic support of industry, the breakthrough called for when the National Education and Training Targets were adopted by Government in 1991-2 refuses to happen.

The original lifetime target one was especially bold: "by 1996, all employees should be taking part in company-driven or developmental activities."

With just six weeks to go, we are still wildly short of achieving the aim. Surveys of employers suggest that in any given four-week period, only 14 per cent of the working population has been involved in training or formal staff development.

Workforce surveys suggest that up to half the labour force has undertaken some education and training over the past three years. But surveys of the adult population as a whole by the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education make more depressing reading.

Only a quarter remember taking part in any structured learning activity over the past three years, and more than half say they have not done any since school. Those who have not taken part see little likelihood that they will do in future.

A cynic might say that it is unsurprising when the national targets were revised earlier this year lifetime target 1 was dropped. The review showed that it was impossible to get a reliable measure of progress, and anyway Britain has a critical need to become more skilled.

New, demanding and wholly welcome higher level targets were adopted. These are, again, worthwhile, but hardly has the punch and precision to capture the headlines with their declared aims. These are to improve the UK's international competitiveness by raising standards and attainment levels in education and training to world-class levels.

The Government suggests this should be done by employers investing in employee development to achieve business success. And all individuals should have access to education and training opportunities, leading to recognised qualifications, which meet their needs and aspirations.

The targets as a whole have the weakness, too, that they focus exclusively on today's workforce and do not include those who might comprise tomorrow's employees.

Parents, retired people, unwaged adults all have contributions to make to society and to our international competitiveness. But they are not included in the targets.

The results of this are often dotty. We are more concerned to stop full-time students claiming Social Security benefits than we are to encourage unemployed people to gain the skills to get out of the poverty trap. So, the Job Seekers' allowance legislation includes measures that take benefit away if you undertake more than 16 hours' guided study a week. But you can play with model trains for more than 16 hours a week without fear of losing benefit.

Again, there is now ample evidence that people who have had no education and training since school find it hard to uncover what is on offer. Television is particularly effective at stimulating people to learn. This year's Family Literacy adverts on the BBC brought a massive 350.000 enquiries in one week.

Yet Britain is a country which has not yet established a national educational and guidance freephone helpline on a permanent basis. We did, of course, enjoy a well-publicised Cones Helpline until it was closed earlier this summer, because not enough people wanted it.

The lesson of the attempt in the early 1990s to achieve the original lifetime targets is that a third of the population is already convinced that learning is a good thing, and they come back regularly for more. A third may join in, if they are encouraged.

Getting them involved will not be cheap. It will involve more outreach work, more on course learning support, and fewer will follow a course through to its conclusion, and to qualification, on one single step.

The overall impact of current Government strategies to encourage lifetime learning benefits the relatively privileged. Labour's proposals would also concentrate resources on the skills of the existing workforce and on those already convinced that learning is worthwhile, if early reports about the University for Industry and the Learning Bank are right.

If the learning society is to be for everyone, it will be important to target effectively. That is one good reason to welcome the widening participation committee, established by the Further Education Funding Council, and chaired by Helena Kennedy QC. It must address how funding can encourage participation from under-represented groups.

They will surely want to borrow the successful innovation of the Welsh Further Education Funding Council which rewarded colleges if they recruited more students from the poorest communities. It will also be important to monitor who benefits and the National Advisory Council for Education and Training Targets is committed to collecting evidence.

The revised National Targets may be useful in the struggle to make the learning society something everyone can join. But the Government will need help, encouragement and watching like a hawk for that to happen.

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

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