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Continuing the response to the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), the private sector would appear to be broadly in agreement with the opening of the education market to more competition.

The report highlights several issues of concern for employers and industry, mainly focussing on two areas; the quality of the provision and advice on offer (both in terms of absolute quality improvement and in terms of the degree of employer engagement on the part of FE), and the opening up of FE to ethos and practices of private sector competition. The report encouraged a great deal of comment from various quarters in FE, notably from the Department for Education and Skills (DfES), the Learning and Skills Council (LSC), the Association of Colleges (AoC) and the Association of Learning Providers (ALP).

Notably, the report stresses that employers (according to their survey, which did not make use of the National Employer Skills Survey [NESS] results) were dissatisfied with the attitude of some FE colleges towards employer engagement. The report calls for the development and expansion of the Government's proposed policy of removing any failing colleges" management teams and opening the provision up to the private sector. The argument, it would seem, is that competition would drive up quality in FE provision.

Competition is Good?

Mentioned in the report is VT Education and Skills, and their Managing Director Simon Withey was kind enough to offer his thoughts on the CBI's report. He said: "This report endorses our view that the private sector has much to offer the rapidly evolving education market. Companies such as VT have considerable experience in supplying efficient and cost effective services to Government and we are already well versed in bringing best practice to areas such as developmental support for young people and adults through the provision of information/advice and support, vocational training and school support/consultancy services."

Mr. Withey also pointed out the value of allowing private business and the private sector to participate in education on an equal footing, saying: "We believe there is considerable potential to extend this experience to other areas of the education sector, for example on the Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme, where VT is already preferred bidder in the Borough of Greenwich. We are also actively working in partnership with several Further Education colleges addressing many areas covered on the CBI report."

The logic of opening the sector up to competition would seem to be based on sound foundations. However, the history of public sector responsibilities being opened up to private market competition is not replete with notable success stories. The sector is likely to have a number of concerns should the CBI's more aggressive advice be heeded by the DfES and Number 10.

Jethro Marsh

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