From education to employment

Education Minister Ruth Kelly Sees Cause for Concern as FE Seeks to Meet Skills Challenges

Speaking at the Association of Colleges (AoC) Conference in a sunlit Birmingham today, the Secretary of State for Education, Ruth Kelly MP, announced that the Government is seeking to redress the estimated 13% funding gap between FE colleges and school ““ based sixth forms.

This announcement was sure to be music to the waiting ears of the AoC delegates, who had been much angered by the headlines on Tuesday in the printed media regarding failing colleges. However, whilst this would go some way towards meeting the demands of the sector, even after the additional measures that she announced there would still remain a funding gap as FE funding strives to catch up with the more publicity conscious HE sector.

An Engine on the Blocks

She welcomed the publication of the Foster Review of Further Education Colleges this week, which she branded as an “excellent” report. She acknowledged that the report challenged all stakeholders in the sector to improve their provision and development, and pointed out that the Government has indeed ploughed a great deal of funding into the FE sector amounting to an increase “in real terms” of almost 50% since 1997.

She recognises that more and more young people are staying in education as they see this as the best means of attaining the standard and type of life that they seek, and fully believes that the Learning and Skills Council (LSC), the Government in the person of the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) and the colleges are ready to face the challenges. As she put it, this “places you [FE colleges] centre stage of the engines of progress.”

The OECD Shame

The picture was not entirely rosy, however, as she was forced to point out. Recent reports from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) have revealed that Britain is indeed lagging behind many other competitors in the battle for skills. The Foster Review was forceful in, amongst other things, the statement for the need for FE colleges to focus on developing the skills training that the economy needs to compete; and the Minister spoke in some detail of the stark figures that illustrate the difficulties ahead.

In a league table from the OECD, it was revealed that the United Kingdom is in the lowly position of 24th place for young people staying on in education; a figure which would seem to put into context the earlier assertion that more and more young people are remaining in education, and also leads one to wonder just how few were remaining previously. As these young people will be part of the workforce when the Olympic Games arrive in 2012, the Government and the nation as a whole risk public international humiliation unless this is addressed.

In another table, it emerged that Britain is only 21st in the table for countries regarding the number of adult workers who are skilled up to at least Level 2. This is surely the reason for the Government’s repeated initiatives to improve adult education provision in basic skills, and the reason for the LSC guaranteeing from September of this year that all training up to Level 2 would be free for all.

The situation is not one that can simply be solved by catching up, as she pointed out – currently, the UK’s productivity level is some 25% lower than that of the United States of America. Other nations are charging ahead, which makes the “economic imperative” as she calls it for education and skills all too real and urgent. Whilst she recognised the need for socially motivated courses and the benefit that can be accrued from social mobility, she does not believe that there is any need to choose; better economically motivated education will improve lives, and thus increase social mobility.

Jethro Marsh

OECD and Foster; what did he really say about the need for skills in the future? Find out here!

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