From education to employment

Assessing Whether Blair’s Convictions On Education Have Been Made Into A Reality

In the course of perusing various past statements on public funding and services by the various political parties in the lead up to the general election on the 5th of May, it became clear that the funding of public services and their development has been an issue of some contention both between the parties and candidates, but also within party structures. How has this debate manifested itself in the past? And how has this government performed in the Further Education sector in particular, and in their approach to public services in general? Have they indeed followed the courage of their convictions; or could they be accused of treading water?

Keeping The Troops Happy

The article referred to in this instance is one written by the Prime Minister for the Fabian Society, an influential think-tank within the Labour Party’s policy formulation process. Entitled The Courage Of Our Convictions, the pamphlet is designed with a number of purposes in mind. One of these is undoubtedly political in nature and origin. It is widely acknowledged that the Labour Party has undergone a significant metamorphosis with the birth of New Labour and the move of policies towards the centre ground of the political arena and away from the more traditional wing of the party. This does not mean that the Labour Party has lost the members with these views; and it most certainly does not mean that these members have been sanguine about the move away from the 1945 settlement.

As the leader of the Labour Party, even one spearheading New Labour, Prime Minister Blair obviously felt obliged to justify his decision to reform the approach as stipulated in the 1945 settlement to the more Left wing element in his party, and this can be seen in the language used. He stresses, for example, the need for “universal services” being provided within the public sector, and talks of the need for people to “act together in solidarity” in communal action, even within what he describes as the new environment of individualism in the sector and a desire and requirement for a greater freedom of choice. Alongside the more common political appeals to national feeling, with reference to the services available not being “of the quality a nation like Britain needs”, Prime Minister Blair sought to gather behind his platform of reform as broad a support base as was possible.

Individualism and Public Service Provision: Has It Traveled Well?

Having addressed the purely political aspect of the pamphlet ““ an important element given the intended audience of this particular document ““ it is possible to turn to assessing the key element of this proposal. Prime Minister Blair stressed the great strides that were made in public sector service provision under the 1945 Settlement, but highlighted the changing demands of both the public and the industries within which the various services exist. A growth in individualism and a desire for a greater element of choice, he claims, requires radical changes in the systems in place. In terms of the education sector, he states that public services should be funded through collective provision, but that this could be enhanced with Public Private Partnerships (PPP). He further says that the services need to be more responsive and that there is a real need to move from “the old, monolithic, “one size fits all” system to a new specialist system with higher standards”¦and more choice”.

But can this be said to have been achieved? An educational sector responsive to the demands of the market ““ assuming that we are treating the students and the potential employers as consumers ““ would surely show equitable levels of funding for the further education sector, equal pay grades for FE service providers and educators, adequate provision for adult skills learning and retraining (especially in the current climate and with recent events concerning MG Rover in mind), and equal status accorded to vocational qualifications as to academic qualifications, to name but a few of the concerns of the FE sector.

The reality is somewhat at odds with this ideal. Funding for the further education colleges teaching sixth form students is much lower than that given to sixth forms within schools, in spite of greater numbers making use of FE services. There remain significant discrepancies in salary levels for those working in the FE sector and other employees at similar roles elsewhere. Little active government encouragement is evident in the field of adult skills learning, education and retraining, in spite of the obvious and growing need for such a provision. And whilst it is widely acknowledged that vocational qualifications can be very valuable and serve to prepare the student for employment in some fields with vacancies to be filled, there has been very little movement in this direction.

The Courage For The Future

The rejection of the Tomlinson Report’s recommendations serves to highlight the lack of real progress in this issue. Recently, the Right Hon. Phil Willis MP, Liberal Democrat Shadow Minister for Education, stated that he had only given one interview on further education, in spite of the large and growing numbers involved in the sector on all sides. For the FE sector to be as successful as it should, it needs government commitments, to sustainable funding, to further and more active reform of the qualification processes, to more local flexibility in budgeting and development. Having the courage of convictions is laudable; having that same courage in action is preferable.

Jethro Marsh

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