From education to employment

Has FE met its Prince Charming or Prince of Darkness?

“Not only will Cinderella go to the ball, but she has met her prince,” John Hayes, minister of state for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning, quipped during a recent speech made at City and Islington College, London.

But is he a Prince Charming? Or, the Prince of Darkness?

There has been much to commend in the rhetoric of the coalition government skills and business ministers. Their use of language: “Philistinism is bad economics” and “We emphasise the economic and overlook the social and cultural benefits of learning at our peril” has sought to establish their view in opposition to the previous government’s stance, which is characterised as utilitarian, bean counting and hoop-jumping.

Mr Hayes has outlined a set of new freedoms for colleges: the removal of a need for a summary statement of activity; the end of Ofsteds for outstanding colleges and the scrapping of the qualifying programme for principals. These have been met, on the whole, with favour, as has in particular the ability of principals to vire their budgets and use as and where they need.

He, and other ministers, have made the case for a “greater permeable membrane, not an iron curtain” between HE and FE. This may be seen as a way to save money, but there is also a compelling case, particularly in the vocational field, of having a different path to progression to higher-levels qualifications other than university-delivered degrees. Which brings us on to apprenticeships: Mr Hayes wants a ladder of progression. Some people will need help to get on the first rung. But we agree that a more coherent and recognised system is needed and we will be working with our members and the sector to look at ways to fulfil this.

What else? Well, unlike the Department for Education, a drastic quango cull has not been immediate. While they have all had to make efficiency savings of 11 per cent, bodies such as Skills Funding Agency and Young People’s Learning Agency have been given time to prove their worth. However, the sword of Damocles has been unsheathed.

But as ever, you need to follow the money. The main impact has been the reallocation of Train to Gain, with £150m going towards creating more apprentices and £50m to FE capital (which could be a one off and lost in subsequent years?). Funding for younger apprentices (16 to 19 year olds) is provided by the Department for Education and the coalition government has promised to safeguard spending on this age group. A letter from Vince Cable to the Skills Funding Agency indicates that there will be £3.5bn this year to support FE and workplace training places for adults and a further £1bn to support other areas of FE spending.

But the big question is what will happen in the autumn, when the details of the Comprehensive Spending Review are revealed. The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills faces a cut of about 25 per cent. This is a huge chunk of money. Reading the runes suggests that apprenticeships will be protected but what it will mean for adult FE and skills is unclear. FE colleges say they are already feeling the pain of cuts implement by the previous government.

Perhaps it is a fairy godmother that is required.

Tom Wilson is director of unionlearn, the TUC’s learning and training organisation


Read other FE News articles by Tom Wilson:

So the cuts begin

Union-led learning produces results

Employees’ right to take time off to train

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