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Time for unity

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When David Willetts, then a shadow minister, stood up at the AoC Conference last November he was very clear as to how the learning and skills system would be supported if the Conservatives came to power. There would be one funding body, one monitoring and evaluation body and one improvement body. That was of course pre-election and since then we have had a change of government, the coalition and an unprecedented budget crisis.

This statement was then based of course on the firm belief that the machinery of government changes introduced by the Labour government, which created the Department for Children, Schools and Families and Schools and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, were “nuts” and that what was needed was one Department for Education. Well that’s exactly what we have got, except that no one imagined that Higher Education and the Learning and Skills sector would remain where they are, and surely no one believed that having a major part of the British Education system beholden to two separate departments and two (competing?) masters was a good idea.

So two months in, what progress has been made towards Willetts’ ideal? In a word very little – a Department for Education that seems almost blissfully unaware of what the college sector contributes to the 14-19 agenda, and focuses on an ultra traditional view of what education should be about, and BIS almost powerless to drive the vocational skills agenda forward when so much of the funding is tied up in the coffers of Michael Gove.

Despite high level discussions on how the Further Education Funding Council for England worked and how it could be made to work better in the 21st century, we are no further forward in creating one funding body than we were six months ago. In fact if anything we have gone backwards. We may have a notion of a “big society” and shared resources at a local level but we still have entrenched silos nationally where high powered individuals, who should know better, are hardly speaking to each other let alone working together for a common end.

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And of course it will be the learners that ultimately will suffer. Free schools – one of the first ill thought out initiatives – will almost invariably want to have a sixth form, for example, adding to the increasing number of unviable units across the country when all the evidence points to the college sector as being the most economic as well as the most successful in delivering post-16 qualifications. And who knows, we may even have different funding rates for 16-19 year olds as compared to adults doing the same qualification post-19. In this crazy world anything seems to be possible.

So the honeymoon is over. New ministers have surely got used to the trappings of office and their new toys. It’s time for common sense to come back into the system. One funding body, one monitoring and evaluation body, one improvement body and above all one Department for all Education and Skills. I wonder how much money could be saved? There may even be some old logos kicking about!

James Ebury is a former college principal

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