Ruskin chief says Labour approach to education is too focused on jobs

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The Independent Online

The Government risks causing irrevocable damage to education for the most disadvantaged adults by focusing on basic skills for work rather than wider learning, the head of an Oxford college has warned. Professor Audrey Mullender, principal of Ruskin College - alma mater of John Prescott - accused New Labour of pushing a dangerously narrow employer-driven agenda.

She said the wider role of education was in danger of being "lost in this country forever". The academic's college is hosting a major debate today to mark the 30th anniversary of an historic speech by the then prime minister, James Callaghan, credited by many to have changed the course of education policy. Phil Hope, the Education minister, and Roy Hattersley, the former Labour Party deputy leader, will rekindle discussion over the purpose of education in a debate that looks set to see Old Labour take on New Labour over its education strategy.

The college's further education budget was cut by 11 per cent this year because ministers focused money on basic literacy and numeracy classes and vocational courses for disaffected teenagers. Professor Mullender said this was taking money from the most disadvantaged groups the college has traditionally helped back into education, such as homeless people who may have no formal qualifications but can be tempted back into education by the diverse range of courses offered at Ruskin.

She said the Government's policies had benefited the middle classes at the expense of the most disadvantaged families. "In 2006, we are witnessing a wholesale undermining of the funding for liberal adult education, pushed aside by a narrow skills focus and an employer-driven agenda," she said.

"Higher education, too, is falling prey to regional number-crunching and political interference. Though it does still give many people a genuine chance to think for themselves, there is evidence that policies aimed at widening participation are benefiting the affluent classes more than the disadvantaged groups we all want to reach."

At Ruskin, on 18 October 1976 Mr Callaghan delivered a historic speech, known as the Great Debate. In it he set out his view on the purpose of education, insisting that it must never be used merely to train people for work. "The goals of our education, from nursery school through to adult education, are clear enough. They are to equip children to the best of their ability for a lively constructive, place in society, and also to fit them to do a job of work.

"Not one or the other but both. There is now wide-spread recognition of the need to cater for a child's personality, to let it flower in its fullest possible way."

But it is this principle that Professor Mullender fears has been undermined by New Labour's focus on the skills needed by employers.

"We feel the Government has lost sight of this [wider role of education] and is just looking at the work side of things. It is now all about employers and what they want," she said.

"What worries me generally is the government agenda which is causing damage in further education and adult learning."

Ruskin College was established in 1899 as an independent, providing university-standard education for working-class people to enable them to act more effectively on behalf of working class communities and organisations. It specialises in educating adults with few or no qualifications many of whom were prevented from succeeding the first time around because of financial, personal or social obstacles.

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