From education to employment

QIA Conference Offers Cautious Welcome for New Minister

“I want Further Education to stand at the pinnacle of education.”

As the rest of FE would say: “Don”t we all, Sir, don”t we all.” Yet inherent in Alan Johnson MP’s speech, delivered at the first Quality Improvement Agency conference on Wednesday 7th June 2006 at the Birmingham ICC, was a notion of honesty. Trailing his colours as a Labour minister, the delegates were rewarded with a fine speech detailing his passion for the sector. Whether he delivers, as is well documented, remains another matter.

Still, for the time being, let FE sit back and be rightly satisfied with the deserved praise the Rt. Hon. MP bestowed: “We all need to be clear about the kind of system we want. The QIA and its partners will help to play a dynamic role.” Recognising the unwarranted tarnishing the sector has received throughout its turbulent life, the Secretary of State for Education and Skills remarked: “After nine years in office, I hope we have buried the description of FE as the “Cinderella” sector ““ it should never have been allowed to take root.” The questions occurs, as to why this should be the case! “The Further Education sector’s work is deep in impact and diverse in style, putting 6 million students through 10 million courses.”


Figures to seduce the audience, no doubt, but compelling nonetheless. As though understanding the current troubles in clarity that can be experienced by policy makers in FE, the Minister did display his political skill by praising the importance of the FE sector, a message already in the FE consciousness. On FE, he said: “It is of huge importance for our country. Capital, goods, services and jobs now move freely across the borders.”

The statement may well have been a repetition of earlier policy comments; someone, pull out the swear jar? “This change has been dramatic but the pressure will increase in the future. We need to help people to cope ““ “skilling”, “re-skilling” and even more “skilling”.” Like Silas, the beleaguered Albino monk from the Da Vinci Code, I feel as though I must punish myself for not noticing it sooner”¦

The questions springs to mind, however, of where a minister would be without his statistics? “Since 1997 we have introduced new vocational G.C.S.E’s and opened over 400 vocational centres and over 14,000 Union Learning Representatives.” If that’s not enough to satiate your hunger for statistical achievements throughout the last nine years, then there was more: “Over one quarter of a million adults have now got a Skills for Life qualification. More people pass through Further Education since 1997 and our retention and progression is better.”

And naturally, there followed a reference to globalisation, something of a perennial of FE. “We are way behind France and Germany. Although the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA) helps, we”re still 24th out of 30 OECD countries for 17 year olds in education”¦8 million adults are still without level 2 qualifications.”

Striding Forward with FE

Then, normal service resumed. Launching swiftly into action, the Minister outlined his vision for taking FE into the next decade. “Widening choice and increasing personalisation is the way forward. So, Cinderella is now dressed and ready to go to the ball.” A little presumptuous, but there you go; we”re riding the express train of “things we”re gonna do to save the world” and it feels good. “First, we must focus on the right people at the right time in the right subjects. 16 is a vital age. It’s not just what they can learn, but what they can “earn”. They must see a correlation between a good education and a successful career.”

Aiming straight for a headline, he proclaimed: “Less Pilates, more Plumbing. Tai Chi may be useful to those studying it, but it has not much use in the economy”. At this point, I must congratulate the Rt Hon gentleman; that headline was marketing heaven, delivered at the crucial point in his speech, just before we get to: “Courses should appeal to students. It is entirely possible that colleges could raise fees and enrolment.” He then returned to the body of the speech, and to the rhetoric: “We have to end our endemic bad thinking of vocational courses, and we must embed earning for life. Most of today’s workers grew up without a PC ““ you can”t foresee what the world will be like in 20 years. Standing still means slipping back.”

Do his ambitions for FE exceed FE’s own expectations? “We need to increase freedom for the best providers. We need to spread excellence by 2008 at the latest. Where progress still doesn”t materialise, we will take action.” He was also specific about the measures he wants to implement, saying: “We”re not engaging in this progress for a quiet life.” He was even more specific in the following Question and Answer session, restricting himself to replies of: “I”ll need to find out where we are”; “I”ll have a look”; “We are listening very intently”; through to my favourite, the succinct and simple, “Yes.”

As Yoda could have phrased it, unnecessarily harsh the criticism may be, and new to the post he is, but in FE we have learnt to be sceptical about the long term implementation of government policies and initiatives. It remains a case of “wait and see.”

Vijay Pattni

What does the monkey say? Find out in From the FE Trenches!

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