From education to employment

Competition and the World Beyond Four Walls Puts Pressure on British FE

As the days grow longer and the conventional academic year enters its final stretch, it can be all too tempting to forget that the issues that education must face do not obey a calendar.

Speaking at last month’s Association of Learning Providers (ALP) “Partners in Learning” Conference at a hotel beside the bustle of the terminal at Stansted, David Sherlock CBE, the Chief Inspector of the Adult Learning Inspectorate (ALI) spoke of the need to meet the changing demand for skills in the workforce. As his inspection body draws to a close, he also discussed the positive impact that the ALI has had on the Work Based Learning (WBL) sector, and drew the attention of the audience to the potential problems and challenges that would confront their organisations in the coming years.

The Trials of the Times

Mr. Sherlock’s main argument, unsurprisingly, was founded on two notions. The first of these is that the world as it is today and is expected to be tomorrow presents a remarkably different mien to that faced by previous generations. In essence, the spectre of “globalisation” hovers ever at the edge of awareness and clouds every silver lining. Mr. Sherlock was clear and expressive on the scale of the change we are in the midst of, calling this “the greatest peacetime adjustment since industrialisation.” Echoing the blunt terminology often used by the Government, he added that the choice is stark: “Improve, or die.”

The theme of globalisation was one that Mr. Sherlock warmed to in his discussion, stating the need to realign the working population and change the skills base of that population towards the needs and requirements of a knowledge based economy. The strain of feeling many years older since the start of 1997’s supposed odyssey into FE on the part of the Government has, he indicates, comes as little surprise.

The issue of raising the retirement age also emerged as a key theme in the re ““ balancing of the economic and productive forces of the nation. Mr. Sherlock backed the trend in policy towards raising the retirement age as a means of re ““ balancing the percentage of “productive” adults. Although at what he calls a “high level”, further work needs to be undertaken. Furthermore, moving from fully public provision to a blended approach of public finance, private contribution and charitable action seems to be on the horizon.

Rising Quality

So how difficult is it to accomplish this? According to Mr. Sherlock, the work of the ALI has helped to build the quality of provision in the WBL sector and as such has achieved a great deal of success. He cited an inadequacy rate of just 10%, which has remained constant since April of 2005. Between January and March of 2006, almost 50% of WBL providers achieved either a Grade 1 (excellent) or 2 (good) in inspections.

Regardless of the principal name on the conference sheets when the Education Secretary comes to town, the White Paper will go ahead, and as such, inspection and quality will continue to be of vital importance. Mr. Sherlock points to the fact that 250 poor providers have disappeared in the past five years (or since the ALI began operations), which would appear to indicate that the sector is both obeying the laws of quality provision and the more contemporaneous law; the law of the market, where if you fail to provide the service required you will not last long.

Flash in the Pan?

As always, the toughest problem to unravel is what comes next. In the case of inspections in general, and inspection regimes for adult learning in the various different guises in particular, this represents a voyage into the unknown. After their rise to the present level of work ““ with one thousand inspections per year and with 99% of inspection reports published within six weeks ““ the ALI’s tasks are to be brought within the remit of the enlarged Office for Standards in Education, or OFSTED.

The task, however, does not lie with inspectors alone. Mr. Sherlock challenged the assembled delegates to look to their own professional consciences to maintain the rate of progress already achieved. This, he hopes, will continue the culture of “compound interest improvement”, with success built on success, and will ensure that the great strides taken are not simply a “flash in the pan.”

Jethro Marsh

Does the monkey agree? Read right here in From the FE Trenches!

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