From education to employment

Funding Changes Needed to Meet New Challenges, says Minister

Stephen O”Brien, Shadow Skills Minister, has called for improved funding arrangements in order to boost skills amongst young people and adults in the UK.

O”Brien made the announcement during a speech at a conservative party conference fringe meeting hosted by the Association of Colleges (AoC), where he spoke alongside representatives from Blackpool and Fylde College, University of Buckingham, Help the Aged and the AoC.

He began his speech by highlighting the crucial significance of providing a wide range of opportunities to young people and adults. This, he stated, would allow them to return to learning after giving up education and help create a sense of hope amongst young people and adults by encouraging them to take up courses regardless of their previous experience of education. He emphasised the unpredictable nature of the workplace, claiming that people tend to undergo four big career changes throughout the course of their working lives ““ two of which they have absolutely no control over. He stated it was vital that young people were sufficiently prepared to cope with such changes, possessing a solid set of skills to fall back on.

Prison Education a “Scandal”

The Shadow Skills Minister stressed the significant need to establish a balance between the government, the industry and the individual in funding Further Education that would encourage the individual to take up a course of study. He added that prison education had, in his opinion become a “great scandal”.

Alongside Stephen O”Brien spoke Pauline Waterhouse, a representative from Blackpool and Fylde College who reiterated O”Brien’s views on the necessity to equally prioritise young people and adults. Ms Waterhouse was speaking from her own direct experiences at a college that primarily caters for 16 year olds in further education, but also offers vocational courses to 14-16 year olds still in secondary education. The students attending this college come from deprived communities and the college is located in Blackpool which came 24th in a government index of deprivation.

The college’s post -16 participation levels are also below the national average. Waterhouse attributed the multitude of problems faced by the area to the negative impact of the tourist industry, a “transient” population and the seasonal nature of the job market in Blackpool as a whole. Despite the government’s claims that funding has more recently been focused on education for 16-18 year olds, the college consistently found itself confronted with overwhelming demands it was unable to meet with the current levels of funding, and consequently had spent over £1 million on providing courses not funded by the Lancashire Learning and Skills Council (LSC).

A Structural Flaw

Professor Alan Smithers of the University of Buckingham highlighted an underlying flaw in the education system’s structure, declaring an urgent need to strengthen the links between education and employment. He claimed what was needed was a greater distinction between compulsory and non-compulsory education. For Professor Smithers, the non ““compulsory education for 16 -19 year olds and thus a more sensitive and nuanced approach to this valuable “transition period” is required.

His solution is to strengthen communication with employers, extending their involvement in the post 16 year old education process so that courses can be tailored to the specific requirements of a vocational post. This would ensure that students will acquire the relevant practical skills needed to pursue a career in their chosen field. Smithers went on to propose a voucher system which he claimed would “empower” young people and adults by widening their options. He did acknowledge that progress still needed to be made in this area amidst concern that such a method could discourage prospective students from undertaking more expensive courses such as engineering. Stephen O”Brien, on the other hand, emphasised the difficulty of foreseeing which skills will be most needed in five years time.

Director of Policy Research at Help the Aged, Paul Cann, also endorsed the Shadow Skills Minister’s call for balanced discussion stating that 3 million of the 20 million people aged over 50 in the UK demonstrated a considerable lack of skills and were economically inactive. Drawing a comparison with rates of education amongst younger people, Mr. Cann declared that whilst less than 10% of 18-24 year olds lack skills, 30% of those aged 50-64 were in the same position. The main objective for Cann was to facilitate the employment of people in this age group and provide them with a sense of empowerment. He suggested the need for funding shorter courses that would not discourage older learners and also proposed an extension of the CEHR’s remit to include a provision for older people.

The AoC Predict a Worsening Situation

John Brennan, spokesperson from the AoC, predicted a worsening situation as far as funding is concerned as demands are continuously increasing whilst funding remains static. He estimated an overall shortfall would amount to around £500 million. Brennan implied that the government had been overambitious in its attempts to improve adult literacy and numeracy, taking rash and expensive measures to solve the problem without possessing sufficient funds to cover the costs.

He also defended the colleges on their provision of courses, stating it was a lack of investment on the part of the government that was to blame, and argued that colleges should be allowed to play a greater role in the assessment of their local needs and funding requirement.

Stephen O”Brien agreed that a long term solution was needed in order to fully address the issue of funding and expressed concern that the situation may be exacerbated by reform following the Comprehensive Spending Review. A representative from the Sector Skills Development Council, however, stated that his hopes for a greater “cake of funding” that could be more fairly shared out, lay at the point “where education and the productivity agenda meet” drawing comparisons with countries such as India and China that both possess large numbers of skilled people.

Sara Hashash

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