THE NEW Labour Government sold itself to the electorate on its commitment to create a learning society. And this week education secretary David Blunkett announced a new National Council for Adult Learning, chaired by Bob Fryer, of Northern College, writes Phil Baty.
Alan Tuckett, director of the National Institute of Adult and Continuing Education, will be his right-hand man. Their remit is to help shape the Government's forthcoming White Paper on Lifelong Learning.
This new initiative has raised expectations. But Mr Tuckett, a long-time campaigner for adult learning, is still not sure that the new Government can really bring back the disenfranchised with its current policies.
Manifesto pledges to set up the University for Industry and Individual Learning Accounts and a Queen's Speech promise to "respond positively" to Sir Ron Dearing's higher education inquiry, have met with cautious enthusiasm. Labour, according to Mr Tuckett, has to be a lot more imaginative.
"The trouble with adults is that they are not tidy," said Mr Tuckett.
"You can't judge the use of a course from its title. The old distinction between vocational and liberal education is nonsense. Arts are a bigger industry than the motor industry. Four-fifths of the firms that will be employing people in ten years time have not been invented."
Labour, he believes, has at least got the point: lifelong learning is about the nation's economic wellbeing and competitiveness, but almost as important, it is about social cohesion and citizenship.
So is its approach right? Labour has promised to fill one million Individual Learning Accounts with Pounds 150 each, with money it may divert from Training and Enterprise Council budgets. The individual's contribution to the account has yet to be determined.
Mr Fryer stressed that a "multiplicity of partners" including local education authorities, women's institutes as well as FE colleges will deliver the programme.
"I'm sceptical about the plans for Individual Learning Accounts," said Mr Tuckett. "The principle is a good one, but there is a danger that administrative expenditure will be so high that it will offset the real gains. Pounds 150 is not a huge sum if you're the kind of person who is not convinced that education is for you. You might have to dip your toe in the water more than once."
He has more enthusiasm for Labour's nebulous idea for a University for Industry, but he still urges caution. "The prospect of a UFI is very encouraging," he said. "Especially if it reaches people in small business who don't get well served, don't know what's on offer, and have no time to find out. But discussions about the UFI say that it will be self-financing. My experience is that you do not get the disaffected adults participating in education without spending money."
For Mr Tuckett, there is still a great deal missing from Labour's early promises. "We're looking for the Dearing committee to produce a level playing field in university funding where part-time learners - overwhelmingly adults - are not penalised by prohibitive fees."
"We're looking to the publication of the Kennedy report in further education to widen access by making proper proposals for an adult pathway. We're looking for at least a minimum provision for adult education in local authorities. We're looking for discussions on regionalism to hold out serious prospects for cross-sector collaboration. It boils down to money," he said.
In her first speech as education and employment minister, at a conference to launch Adult Learners' Week in London, Baroness Blackstone said that the Government will set up a national learning telephone line to give adults "high quality information" about UFI and learning accounts.