The 'Big Society' idea is a major force behind government policy and is likely to feature strongly in the forthcoming consultation on the reform of the further education system. So what does it mean for colleges, local authorities, and third sector and independent providers? At NIACE, we feel the Big Society needs a 'bold and far-sighted vision of learning' at its heart if all of us, and not a relatively few better-placed citizens, are to get to grips with its possibilities and implications. While recognising the concept is both highly contested and still evolving (and debate therefore remains critical to shaping what it can become), we would argue that the major reforms already happening in its name require a coherent and robust response from the FE sector to put the case for the centrality of learning.
The Big Society is about more than social action and a greater role for volunteers and civil society organisations (the aspects that have tended to shape current discussions around the Big Society and learning) - important though these are.
Its three defining goals also include the radical reform of public services and community empowerment through localism. The aim is to move unprecedented amounts of power and responsibility away from national government to those regarded as best placed to find solutions to local needs - elected representatives, front-line public service workers, community groups, families, social entrepreneurs, charities, neighbours, mutuals and co-operatives.
More and different skills, knowledge and understanding are needed if the greater agency on offer is to be a reality for the widest range of local people, and particularly those who are most marginalised. Our ability to read, write, understand English and, increasingly, to work online and source and use data, will directly affect how we engage with Big Society changes. More of us will also need to understand planning and decision-making processes and how to influence them, and have the 'know how' to develop networks and groups, organise and advocate, manage public money and other assets, and build successful, fledgling 'mutual' businesses. These tools will help determine how we respond to new 'rights' and incentives for citizen action, and our capacity to discharge new and increased responsibilities.
These growing demands illustrate why the Big Society needs learning: to make sense of it, to bring out the best in it, to make sure we can all join in, to transform increasing amounts of public information into knowledge and to build sustainable services and businesses. And the learning and skills sector has a wealth of relevant experience and knowledge to offer. There are numerous examples of where learning is already making a major, positive contribution - active citizenship and social responsibility, learning and volunteering, learners as partners in the creation of services, learning for the digital age, and learning through and for families.
Inevitably, this is all set against a background of unprecedented cuts to central and local government budgets, reductions in funding for voluntary and community organisations, and the cumulative impact of these on structural inequalities that already restrict participation in civil society and the economy. NIACE argues that 'ensuring social justice and equality in the Big Society is perhaps its biggest challenge', stressing the need for a much clearer debate about the interdependence of its associated reforms and economic policy.
By arguing for the huge potential and need for learning in the development of Big Society thinking, NIACE seeks to raise the role of learning in current analyses and would like to work with partners from inside and outside the FE sector to build the case for its centrality to debate, programmes and policy. We have published a policy briefing paper on this - 'Learning for a change: Why adult learning will make the Big Difference to the Big Society' - and invite you to comment and identify areas for developing the analysis and the best means of taking this essential work forward.
Dr Cheryl Turner leads work on the Big Society for NIACE, which encourages all adults to engage in learning