From education to employment

Liberal Democrat MP for Bristol-West outlines problematic policies

For what has been described as the “Cinderella service” of education, the Further Education sector is set for an interesting ride over the next few months. Following on from the Foster Report in November last year and the FE White Paper earlier this year, the government is due to introduce the FE Bill once Parliament resits in October. Meanwhile the Education and Skills Committee has released its own report on the state of FE in this country. It seems that Cinderella might finally have the chance to go to the ball, hopefully with a small media entourage!

Back to the present and we have just been through what seems to be an annual circus: the publication of examination results, or rather the furore surrounding “devalued grades” and “slipping standards”. The pessimistic commentaries are rarely helpful but this time of year always brings up one of my major concerns: the inflexible provision for 14-19 year olds. The current system does not stretch the brightest students nor does it give a robust and relevant curriculum for all. The government unfortunately side-stepped any radical overhaul of 14-19 education when it dismissed the Tomlinson report.

This missed opportunity was bitter for many in the education sector and will do nothing to address the prevalent skills gap. Although the government has introduced a few new vocational diplomas, the divide between academic learning and vocational training is still strong. Tomlinson’s proposals sought to remove that divide. Vocational and academic courses were equally part of an overarching diploma that would provide clear progression for young people.

To provide the world class skills needed for a world class economy we must also adequately resource the skill providers. In most cases this will be through FE colleges, which already suffer from a well-documented disparity in funding. Schools are paid at least 10% more per student than colleges for the same courses. My party and I believe, as many others do, that equivalent funding for equivalent courses is only fair. That is why the Liberal Democrats are committed to closing the funding gap between schools and colleges.

There were some welcome proposals in the recent FE White Paper: a reduction in bureaucracy, more work-based learning and the promotion of a clear purpose for colleges. But it does not go far enough. Indeed, there seems to be little in the paper to warrant an actual FE Bill. The only new legislation proposed seems to be to give the LSC powers to “eradicate poor provision” and “dismiss a weak principal”.

More needs to be done. There are still numerous and, in some cases, monolithic regulatory bodies eating up valuable resources; colleges urgently need fairer funding; and finally, it is vital that vocational education is given the respect and flexibility required.

Without a change in the 14-19 educational structure this is unlikely to happen and the current skills gap may well become a chasm.

Stephen Williams, Shadow Minister for Higher and Further Education and Member of the Education and Skills select committee.

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