From education to employment

QIA Conference Afternoon Session Sees New Voice on Public Service Funding

It sometimes feels as though, when the whole world has descended into madness, sane people are a commodity rare in presence yet rich in architecture.

Not to suggest that last week’s introductory conference from the Quality Improvement Agency (QIA) was this; more that when the same messages are “shared” around without caution, you tend to grow a bit weary. Which is why the afternoon session on Wednesday 7th June 2006 was slightly more refreshing. Held in the cool confines of the impressive Birmingham ICC, Anne Rossiter, Director of the Social Market Foundation, kicked off the proceedings with a popular declaration: “For a lot of people in the public sector, government intervention is well intentioned but misguided. We generally feel battered about and lectured at.”

Funding Bubble Bursting?

There’s a philosophy the entire nation would agree with. But her emphatic delivery did feel genuine; such is the processed norm that dictates speech policy at conferences such as this. “Public services can be productive if they are done in the right way.” In her eyes, policy is moving along the right lines. “Government has tried to fix public services by chucking a lot of money at them. Previously, in some services, there was a feeling that you get what you”re given. And so now government has tried to understand what users need and to give different sorts of provision; focusing on the failures; trying to understand what is happening and to make services more user-focused.”

Touching lightly on the fabled whipping boy in FE, targets, she said: “Instruments like targets are really suitable for organisations that are badly failing, but there are not that many that fall into this level. Next along are adequate providers dealt with devolution and a lighter touch, with the more excellent ones dealt with through self-improvement.” The message is clear then: fail and you get controlled. Succeed, and you take control.

When questioned on the satisfaction of the user not correlating with the social outcome, she responded: “In one sense, it’s true to say that if you”re satisfied as a user, we should accept that. But the student isn”t the only user; there is a broader society and a whole lot of stakeholders who are affected.”

Heart of the Matter

Yet the students are still at the heart of the debate, as explained by Maggie Semple, Chief Executive of The Experience Corps. “Any debate about quality has to have appropriate and robust evidence. The challenge is in front of us ““ much of the debate around learning and skills focuses on 14-19, but there are many learners who don”t fall into this category.”

Calling on the increasingly age diverse workforce in action, she said: “14-19 is a visible category but how visible is the older learner’s category? How will providers reflect the diversity of learners or change their provision?” And on this notion of reacting to older learners, she asked: “What are we doing to prepare for what is becoming a reality? I leave that to you.” And yet, as much as FE tries to step forward, again we hear diversity messages and speeches about increasing it. Indeed, it often feels as though circling the word “diversity”, capitalising it and highlighting it in bold colours is the only option. “On my database,” she said, “there are 60,000 members from the Sikh, Hindu and Muslim community and they are not engaged within the fabric of society.”

Truth in Diversity?

Speaking as a Hindu, I know from my own experience that this might indeed be the truth, but that is an attitude from the community, not of FE. In my eyes, while the vocational sector can play an important role in accommodating diverse groups, which it does, communities themselves must open out and spread their roots. “When I ask them why,” she said, “they say employment, skills and health. The learning and skills sector forgets about people. It doesn”t look at society ““ if it was a business, we would have lost our customers.”

“Most of societies diverse make-up are here to stay. When does a refugee or asylum seeker lose their tag?” she asked. Presumably, when people stop calling them a refugee or asylum seeker. I find calling somebody by their name usually helps, but I might be in the minority here. And if I am in the minority, then FE has to take its share of the responsibility. Yes, FE is responsible for my lack of motive for branching out into the community and for my failing to have ambition to better the economy. As much as we unshackle ourselves from the constant barrage of negativity, here we have professional delegates heaping yet more needless accusation at “Cinderella’s” doorstep.

Still, the last speaker of the afternoon did at least provide a different viewpoint. A blind adventurer who has conquered numerous obstacles and completed praiseworthy expeditions, his sometimes-jittery yet overwhelmingly buoyant deliverance pepped up a waning audience, seeking out the little remaining energy. “If the QIA is to succeed, you people need to work together. Use your strengths not to compete but to cover each other’s weaknesses.” Contestability? Never. Nonetheless, it was a lesson the England squad could perhaps learn.

In his eloquent words: “I”m one beggar telling another how to get a square meal.”

Vijay Pattni

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