It is rather like the people who have calculated the exact date of the end of the world. Neither the purveyors of millennial doom nor the financial-page journalists pause for a moment. They move quickly to recalculate in time for the next deadline, or the next movement in the constellations. The literary critic Frank Kermode described this state of permanent expectation, permanently thwarted, as immanence.
I have spent much of my professional life looking for signs that things might be about to improve for adult learners. From time to time, I have felt confident that the moment has come, only to find out that new cuts or reorganisations set us back a few years. As I have got older, I should have developed a proper sense of caution, but I haven't. The imminence of the general election brings risks that the landscape may change for the worse again. Yet, I find myself convinced that we may be on the cusp of cultural change.
I think the overwhelming hegemony of qualifications in post-school education may be on the wane. The first prompt to this renegade idea was the lecture that Dick Smethurst, Provost of Worcester College, Oxford, and the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education's president, gave to our annual conference. In it, he explored the limitations of the value of metaphor in policy-making, focusing on how the language of industrial production had come to shape thinking and decision-making about education, and how an excessive audit culture had grown up as a result.
He captured the dangers of an over-reliance on metaphor in a wry passage in which he pointed out that, unlike widgets, the outputs of the educational production line had a disturbing habit of running back to the beginning of the line and jumping on again.
Qualifications are invaluable in an audit culture - since they provide a proxy for the quality and complexity of learning undertaken. They also provide a useful sifting mechanism for public support. Courses leading to qualifications attract better levels of funding - whatever the motivation or circumstances of learners.
Yet, there is plenty of evidence that the range of qualifications on offe bewilders all but the most assiduous bean counters. I learned this early when my father explained that he couldn't see any reason why I shouldn't get a first-class degree since I had passed my 11-plus. After the 11-plus, all tests blurred into one for him. I think the unswerving popularity of A-levels are the result of people knowing broadly what they mean.
The second prompt was Alwena Lamping's presentation of the findings of the Nuffield Inquiry into Languages to the Adult Learning Committee of the Learning and Skills Council. She described a real mismatch between the pattern of course offers to adults wanting to learn languages, and their retention patterns. Many learners, voting with their feet, made the case for bite-sized learning opportunities. Providers are too often trapped by funding structures and custom and practice into offering less flexible provision. One organiser's drop-out becomes another's flexible learner in a better-geared system.
The third prompt was Geoff Mulgan's description of the Performance Improvement Unit's review of workforce development. Are qualifications quite as central to the development of a skilled workforce as we have assumed these past 20 or 30 years? As an employer myself, I want to answer yes and no. For my colleagues, qualifications formally recognise their talents and achievements, giving them mobility in the labour market. Yet, often I find I don't quite know what I can ask of them that is different as a result of all that hard work.
By contrast, the learning gained and reflected on at work is often easier to identify and make use of, and I am convinced we must foster curiosity and learning as an integral part of the work, whether that learning is accredited or not.
A world where qualifications are less dominant has its own challenges. How are learners to have a secure measure of the learning journeys they have undertaken? How can we benchmark good practice? How can we secure progression?
They are key questions for a funding system that can support NVQs, uncertificated French, and teamworking skills, but they have long been central concerns for adult education. NIACE is working with the Learning and Skills Development Agency to capture the assessment of achievement in non-accredited courses. But I have a sneaking feeling it is work that may imminently impact across the whole terrain.
Alan Tuckett is director of the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education