From education to employment

Reporter Vijay Pattni on Government Mob

“We will have it finished before the summer recess.”

The agility of some government ministers must be commended. Exorbitant time wasting, squandering resources and capsizing policies are ominously expected. Yet the public remain continually amazed at the sheer mobility of their argument; agreement, apology, backtrack and so forth.

This was the message that became abundantly clear during the course of the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education (NIACE) conference held on the 15th March 2006. A treasury spokesperson was present to comment on the forthcoming Leitch review; commissioned to identify the UK’s optimal skills mix in 2020 in order to maximise economic growth, productivity and social justice.

Economic and Social Health?

“Skills matter fundamentally for the economic and social health of the UK”, explains Lord Leitch in the interim report. Yet the inherent duality immediately recognisable to any government minister is evident. At one point we are ambitiously told: “The UK is in a strong position with a stable and growing economy. We have world leading employment rates”. Conversely: “Our nation’s skills are not world class. Productivity continues to trail many of our main international comparators.”

When questioned on this very issue at the conference, Her Majesty’s Treasury representative faltered, but at least toed the party line. “What changes should be made in policy structure?” asked one delegate. “Our final recommendations will hopefully be made in June. But we do have a basic skills problem. Our international position is poor,” he grimaced. “We are a long way behind.”

Brian Kelly, Training Officer for the Broadcasting, Entertainment, Cinematograph and Theatre Union made a similar observation: “We need to raise the current stock of skills. People who are doing degrees today are simply doing what A-levels were doing years ago. Therefore, we have more overqualified people doing exactly the same jobs.”

Tower Hamlets Get to the Point

While the government may appreciate the obvious skills deficit, they seem oblivious to the answers pooled within the minds of our very FE structure. Margot Farnham, head of programmes at Tower Hamlets College shot straight to the point: “The need for “soft skills” is seen as levels? Your comments please.” Again, bewitched by that disease that prohibits candid testimony, the response came: “We are faced with a qualification system and restrictive targets that take out flexibility.”

Having declared the obvious, he did emphasize the direction of the report: “A lot of our analysis is on what level of qualification people are at, but it is restrictive. We need to be less “target driven” and focus on needs.”

Speaking a Foreign Language

Sharon Czudak, Language Teacher Advisor at CILT, the National Centre for Languages, highlighted one of these needs. “Foreign languages are an employable skill. How do you see this?” Lamenting briefly on the past, the representative said: “Virtually all our predictions for policies in the past have failed. We are incredibly keen to build a system that is responsive to what employers and employees need.”

“A lot of our research has gone into assessing language issues. We are trying to find ways of making the system responsive, not telling you what to do,” he continued. Liz Smith, Director of the Union Academy, mirrored his sentiment in the need for further language training. “There is absent a realistic knowledge of accessibility and how to structure the learning. There is however, quite a strong demand for languages.”

The True Gap

But even if the government met its target skills level by the year 2020, the interim report still identifies horrifying statistical reasoning, indicating that our position may not have improved. It predicts that considerable problems will remain; a staggering 4 million adults would still fall short of the literacy capacity of an 11 year-old; 12 million would fail to match that child’s numeracy skills.

Colin Flint, Director of FE at the NIACE, summed up the seemingly disturbing lack of direction from government. “There isn”t a co-ordinated national response to the needs of Further Education in this country.”

Vijay Pattni

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