From education to employment

FE Titanic approaches the iceberg of MoG

David Grailey is chief executive of NCFE, the national awarding organisation

Global warming is melting the icecaps, but there’s still a colossal iceberg on the horizon for the FE Sector – Machinery of Government – and, as you know, we’re charting a Titanic-esque course right towards it.

There are barely over six months to go until the powers underpinning further education are decentralised and devolve to local government. But these are uncharted waters and it could be time to stop painting the deckchairs and start thinking about plotting a new course – or at least work out how we’re going to emerge unscathed from the danger.

In a bid to provide the right services in the right places, the responsibility of managing and funding education and training for 14-19 year olds will be transferred from the Learning and Skills Council (LSC) to local authorities from 2010/2011, as part of the changes to the Machinery of Government (MoG).

It was concluded by the Government that organising education from the centre results in a mismatch between what is needed regionally. While this will in the long term bring benefits to the system, the pitfalls of such a change are yet to be fully acknowledged and it appears that we are to brace ourselves for a significant period of disruption.

The positives: The new system will enable individual regions to have more input regarding the education and training that is offered on a regional basis. It is designed to bring more coherence in the planning, coordination and integration of 0-19 children’s services, and to encourage a greater deal of innovation in how these are delivered. With local authorities taking the lead, plans to overcome skills-shortages and attempts to accelerate the recovery of the economy will no doubt be facilitated, therefore in theory, it appears to be quite a sensible move.

However for the changes to be successful they will require sound management, close monitoring and will need to ensure the smooth transfer of LSC expertise to local authorities to enable regions to reap the intended rewards. We’re concerned that this may not be the case. In fact, if we dig a little deeper and explore the plans more thoroughly, it is easy to spot the cracks and identify potential drawbacks.

From national experts to local inexperience

By granting power to local authorities to manage the FE sector, we are essentially moving the system away from one group of national experts to many inexperienced town-hall-teams that do not have the relevant knowledge or understanding to enable an effective FE structure to take place.

Under the new proposals, further education will be under the ultimate control of the Directors of Children’s Services, roles that currently control local schools. Add sixth forms and colleges to these already over-stretched employees’ workloads and it’s probably fair to say that education could end up suffering rather than reaping the benefits that were originally foreseen.

Whilst greater coherence is in theory desirable, the practicalities surrounding the management of further education alongside primary and secondary education suggest that this may not be so straightforward, nor immediately achievable. The funding and planning structure for schools differs immensely from that of sixth forms, colleges and training centres and we are likely to witness a high level of disruption from these changes before we see any benefit.

Raising Expectations Action Programme (‘React’), a group launched last year, will remain in place while local authorities adjust to the new system. However compared to the number of local governments, which will have differing strategic plans, it is questionable as to how this relatively small group will cope with the increased workload.

It is appreciated that change can be a good thing, however we need to ensure that learners’ needs are of the utmost priority. The purpose of the changes is to ensure that young people have equal access to quality learning opportunities, including apprenticeships and diplomas, as well as more traditional qualifications such as NVQ, A-Level and BTEC qualifications.

Sixth forms, colleges and training centres are teaching tomorrows workers the core skills needed to progress a successful career. Making sure that learners are receiving the resources and guidance they deserve is vitally important in order to unlock their potential.

As with any new system, the switch is very likely to encounter teething problems – just how serious they will become is yet to be seen. After a prolonged period of economic turbulence, with little indication of recovery on the horizon, it is important to ensure that the FE sector is correctly managed. Over the next six months, central Government needs to ensure that regional bodies can cope with the increased workload that these changes are likely to pose for local authorities.

Only time will tell whether the new system is really as unsinkable as the Government suggests.

David Grailey is the chief executive of NCFE, the qualification awarding body

Read other FE News articles by David Grailey:

We must help UK’s jobless young get set for work

Sex, drugs and citizenship

NCFE Chief David Grailey on how to help the young, free and unemployed

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