From education to employment

Looking Back on the Week that Was with FE News!

Local elections seem to be the single yardstick for measuring a Government’s true public status in the interregnum between media ““ saturated nationwide campaigns.

So allegedly the local campaigns are a representation of each local community’s interests, which of course vary from area to area. As such, there would seem to be less need for Star Trek costumes, a several hundred thousand pound battle bus for the Deputy Prime Minister or thousands of pounds worth of hair styling for the Prime Minister’s wife. Instead, in an ideal world local elections should be fought on the basis of what the parties accomplish and address in each area on an individual basis.

In the light of this week’s events, of course, it seems relatively clear that as much as local campaigning and issues did have an impact on voting habits (even with another disappointing turnout on the part of that greatest of unpredictable beasts, the British electorate), the vote was also used to make a statement to the Government. Even the local issues were symptoms of a far broader malaise, one that has been clearly noted.

Thinning out the Herd

If one imagines a Government as a herd of wildebeest staggering gamely along through the underbrush, it is possible to discern the importance of structure in politics. In every herd, there are specific roles that must be fulfilled, and a general awareness that the best form of security that can be hoped for is that which comes from numbers. Conversely, the predators who stalk this herd long for nothing more than to wait for the herd to leave behind the weak and the helpless to their tender mercies.

Hence, the single voice with which the vast majority of the Labour Party spoke in the five years following 1997’s electoral win can be taken as an example of a good solid herd mentality. Similarly, the endless bickering, scandal and infighting of the last few years of Conservative government can be taken as a poor herd mentality; and as soon as individuals start breaking off from the herd, jackals will approach with a broad smile and a speculative look on their faces, deciding which limb to rend first.

Looking back on the April that was, it becomes clear that a herd can only maintain the same integrity for a certain amount of time before the circling longtooths are rewarded for their patience. Following widespread public sector strikes, looming strikes in the airports for yet another successive summer, a Health Minister declaring the NHS to be in fine fettle when nurses and workers are being let go, a Deputy Prime Minister caught up in a web of scandal over an extramarital affair, and the then Home Secretary admitting to any number of departmental failures in losing ex ““ offender immigrants, the Prime Minister decided to take matters into his own hands.

Fresh Meat?

In the midst of a reshuffle that saw Mr. Blair move on some of the heavier hitters such as Jack Straw and Charles Clarke, the movement of Ruth Kelly, the erstwhile Education Secretary of egging fame, to cover much of the remit of the Deputy Prime Minister has been largely ignored. Admittedly this move is of less general relevance than those of a Foreign Secretary or of the Home Secretary, and the role of Education Secretary is often one where the incumbent moves on swiftly; but the appointment of former postman Alan Johnson MP as the new Education Secretary is of special significance for FE.

The Education Bill proposing significant reform in the formation and management of schools was a source of great unrest within the Labour Party, and the recent conference for school headteachers witnessed proposals for advising parents to keep their children away from schools on league table exam days. Mr. Johnson has a difficult time ahead of him, and will be coming into the post of Education Secretary as the growth in direct Government spending on Education is set to slow. The search for private sector involvement in education development is set to begin in greater earnest than ever before.

The appointment of Mr. Johnson, however, may well prove to be the correct one at the correct juncture. His previous role at the Department for Trade and Industry (DTI) should afford him a greater awareness of the needs of employers in education and could trigger a more comprehensive approach to encouraging participation. His background as a union activist may help him to deal with the myriad issues presented by various trade unions, and could even allow greater Government support for workplace training initiatives.

As these are some of the key issues for education as a whole, and as FE is the best positioned sector to deal with these issues, the appointment should not interrupt the steady move of FE to the centre of the political and education arena. One cautionary note must be sounded, however; in the past two years education has had three new ministers. Continuity in Government policy and practice would surely be best sustained through the appointment of an Education Secretary for more than a matter of months.

Jethro Marsh

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