Lots of questions but too few answers

March 6, 1998

The shadow secretary for education and the Lib Dem spokesman on education respond to the green paper

The Government publication of its green paper The Learning Age reminded me of the 1970s reggae hit by Jimmy Cliff, There are more questions than answers. In this case 60 questions with very few answers. Indeed the government's failure to live up to the early hype of its plans for lifelong learning is only surpassed by David Blunkett's failure to persuade the chancellor to back his vision with money. If ever a green paper had the dead hand of the Treasury on it, then this is it.

Few could disagree with the need to create a lifelong learning society. To compete in the global market we must address the huge skills shortage that exists. We cannot allow the monstrous waste of human talent that sees one in three of our young people fail to reach NVQ level 2 by the age of 19.

Though soundbites are fine, what we need are sound ideas and sound practice - sadly missing from this paper. Months after being promised a white paper we get a collection of laudable promises that rely for their detail on calls to a hot line.

But The Learning Age does have some good ideas. The Investors in Young People (TIYP) Strategy, targeting those who have not succeeded at school, is particularly welcome. The New Start programme for disaffected 14-year-olds will give schools a realistic alternative to the national curriculum while the statutory right to time off for study provides 16 and 17-year-olds with a path back to education and training.

The renaissance of a statutory and invigorated youth service is particularly welcome. The development of a more responsive careers service and the government's determination to raise standards in the tertiary sector is applauded. The challenge is topersuade all for whom education has been an unrewarding experience that it is worth trying again.

It is sensible to require new further education teachers to have a teaching qualification but curious that FE teaching courses will not attract exemption from tuition fees, unlike courses for graduate trainee schoolteachers. Curious, too, is the government's refusal to limit the level of "agency' staff working in each college. The students the government has targeted for special help need the continuity of staff who can give them personal and professional support. Colleges need flexibility but also dedicated staff.

Extending the successful modern apprentice scheme by 10,000 places, introducing national traineeships and setting targets for training in the workplace should be supported. Equally the creation of a national skills taskforce will help target training on areas where there are acute skills shortages. However, the real problem of how we support the nation's small and medium-sized businesses remains vague with few incentives for all but the committed to take part.

The centrepiece of the government's proposal is the University for Industry (UfI). This proposal to harness cyberspace to build a universal learning experience is an exciting and appropriate vision for the 21st century. It has potential and could provide the same impetus to learning as the creation of the polytechnics or the Open University.

To make the UfI work requires more than a Learning Direct hot line. It requires a huge initial investment to allow the latest in interactive technology to invade the workplace, the classroom and, more importantly, the poorest of homes. Only with investment in these new technologies will it be possible to invigorate disaffected learners and offer them new experiences.

Sadly, it appears that even the entrepreneurial skills of David Brown of the electronics company Motorola could not produce a solution acceptable to the Treasury, so consultants are working on a more financially acceptable package.

This obsession with restraining public expenditure affects every part of the green paper - not least in the feeble attempts to introduce individual learning accounts. In principle they are an exciting way to tie students, employers and the state into a partnership. But the refusal of government to insist on contributions from industry and its own timid response (raiding TEC balances to provide a "maximum" of Pounds 150 per account) means the proposal will fail.

Had David Blunkett won support for tax incentives, or matched state funding, there would have been a real incentive for individuals and companies to invest. But for the scheme to work it should have been bolder; ILAs should also be used for student loans, the payment of university fees, examination fees and for the costs of professional or technical qualifications. An opportunity has been lost and it is doubtful if any financial institution will agree to manage one million accounts, each with less than Pounds 200.

The lack of financial commitment is a constant theme throughout the green paper. Even the government's plans for an extra 500,000 students in tertiary education seem set to depend on further and higher education sectors continuing to absorb costs to make that pledge a reality. In reality the only major new source of income is from the students themselves with the imposition of tuition fees.

Reading through the Learning Age it is clear why, at the last minute, the prime minister intervened to downgrade the planned white paper into a consultative green paper. Like Jimmy Cliff he must have felt "the more I found out the less I know''.

Phil Willis MP is the Liberal Democrat spokesman on further and higher education.

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