From education to employment

What’s good for the goose, is good for the gander

We are rapidly approaching the end of the phoney budget- cut war and the 20th October – the day of the CSR announcement when the real in-fighting will begin – is nearly upon us. There’s little doubt that we have all been prepared for the worse – no doubt in the hope that whatever is announced will be palatable if it is less bad than we have all been led to believe. But the British have a strong sense of fairness and reactions to what is proposed may not be quite what the government is hoping for. Pretty well everyone sees the need for cuts. What isn’t so clear is why they should fall on the delivery of our key public services.

Those of us in education who are on the front line and seeing our funding supplies rapidly diminishing or in some cases drying up may indeed accept a severe tightening of the belt but it won’t be without protest, unless the government itself is prepared to put its own house in order. The waste of public money pointed out by Sir Philip Green in his recent report into government procurement practices is truly staggering and that is without any consideration of the inefficiencies caused by allowing political dogma to get in the way of efficiency, effectiveness and common sense. Delivering “more for less” has to start at the heart of government and that means more than the tokenism of reducing ministerial salaries and the bonfire of an odd quango.

We have no money but, for example, we can still afford to have two departments with their various civil servants looking after education (DFE and BIS), two (or three if you include HEFCE) funding agencies as well as a National Apprenticeship Service to administer funds to those over 16 and a host of new “initiatives” that will add little or nothing other than additional costs to the learning and skills landscape. Studio Schools, Free schools, University Technical Colleges and the like are not only unnecessary but on anything other than a pilot scale very expensive. And then of course there are the small ineffective as well as inefficient school sixth forms. When the National Audit Office reports back to the Public Accounts Committee on efficiency in 16-19 provision in the spring, there’s going to be some explaining to do.

So what’s the answer? For the man on the proverbial Clapham omnibus the way forward isn’t that difficult. Create one department for education, set up one funding agency, go tertiary for those aged 16-19 and allow 14 year olds to attend a vocational course at college if they prefer a vocational route. You could also actively promote two year vocational degrees in colleges rather than universities (allowing students to study at home and qualify with relevant vocational skills at a fraction of the cost of going to a university). Add on a central procurement function manned by professionals and how much money could be saved? The answer must be in billions.

There is, however, a more basic problem. David Cameron has a big idea. It’s called the “Big Society” – a concept that aims to devolve more autonomy to the locality and in its purest form would allow an integrated approach to providing public services in an area, rather than through a ‘sector by sector’ division of responsibilities. The target for everyone would be to improve the lives of those who live and work locally; to put the common good above institutional interests. The idea didn’t exactly attract thunderous applause at the recent Tory Party conference but was that because it wasn’t/isn’t such a great idea or because those present were only too aware of the fortified walls between government departments and the complete lack of integrating key activities at a national level?

These are difficult times and at such times the key to success often lies in the bravery and vision of those at the top. We all know that we couldn’t have gone on spending money that we haven’t got. But let’s eliminate the more obvious examples of waste and put efficiency and effectiveness before political dogma, starting with central government. If the “Big Society” can be rolled out nationally as well as locally then we really might be on to something. And maybe the effects of the cuts on the front line won’t need to be as bad as we are all expecting.

James Ebury is a former college principal

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