For centuries, British prime ministers have made their mark on our society – Sir Robert Peel left us the Metropolitan Police, Lloyd George women’s suffrage and bribes for peerages, Clement Attlee the NHS, while John Major bequeathed us the traffic cone hotline.
So what will be Tony Blair’s lasting memorial?
One he’d probably like to claim is a rise in educational standards and participation, although I rather fear it will actually be a steep decline in adult education and learning.
This may seem at odds with recently trumpeted planned increases in spending on education, but is very much in tune with the law of unanticipated consequences.
Take the further education (FE) sector: a recent Department for Education and Skills White Paper set out some big plans for FE colleges. If carried out, they will result in free education for those 19 to 25-year-olds who want it and haven’t been captured by the higher education sector.
Some will even get grants to help attract them into the classroom.
But more bums on more FE seats costs money. Education secretary Ruth Kelly says there will be £11m for lecturer recruitment and £11m for adult learning grants. Sounds a lot, doesn’t it? If I tell you that Italian football club Juventus spent £32m on a goalkeeper, then you’ll know it’s peanuts.
So savings must be found – and they will be found by charging adult learners more. By 2010, the level of subsidy for adult learning and so-called recreational courses – such as learning a foreign language – will fall to 50%. The days when you could learn Esperanto for a couple of quid will be a distant memory.
The National Institute of Adult Continuing Education (NIACE) has cottoned on to this. In a recent memo to the House of Commons Education and Skills select Committee, it said: “The number of publicly-supported opportunities for adults in England to undertake self-chosen education and training will steeply decline over the next three years.
“We estimate that by 2009, there will be at least one million fewer places for adults in further education colleges and publicly-funded community education as a result of current policies. Such a reduction will make it harder for the government to raise the education and skill levels of the adult population.”
It’s not Niace, is it? Certainly not at a time when the proportion of over-50s in the workforce is expected to rise from about one in five now to one in four by 2030. Training providers, such as Pitman, tell me they’re already seeing a surge in the number of learners aged 50-plus attending public courses.
And, as the labour market becomes more dependent on older employees, there will be increasing pressure for their skills and knowledge to be updated. After all, we are in the era of lifelong learning.
Sadly, it looks as if they and/or their employers will have to foot more of the bill, while the nation’s ‘yoof’ enjoys a longer and
less expensive ride.
So, if Blair wants ‘education, education, education’ to be his lasting legacy, he should address the needs of those who fund it.
John Charlton, editor and training manager