From education to employment

More Response from FE as QIA Refer Responsibility On to LSC

The report from the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) on the future of the FE sector would appear to have accomplished its task with considerable aplomb.

That is assuming, of course, that the task at hand was to generate response from the sector regarding the strength and competitiveness of the sector. From the first response from the Association of Colleges (AoC) that criticised the figures used and called attention to the achievements of colleges to the Trade Union Congress” (TUC’s) condemnation of the report as doing “more harm than good”, the pattern seems to have been established for picking up on the section that is relevant to the Agency concerned.

A Report on Quality

One particular strand of the CBI’s research that seems to have generated a great deal of dissatisfaction is the use of findings and indeed the research methodology. The failure to make use of the National Employer Skills Survey (NESS) and to gather their own data from their responding members was highlighted by the AoC, who point out that the NESS find the rate of satisfaction with FE on the part of employers to be significantly higher.

Furthermore, the report suggests that the funding regime must be altered to become fully responsive to the needs of employers by opening the training market. The CBI argues that provision has enjoyed a protected status with funding, and states that both poor and coasting provision must be subject to changes in management to drive up quality and to improve responsiveness to the needs of employers. Not only would this have a significant impact on bodies responsible for distributing the funding packages; it would also seem to affect the bodies responsible for the quality of provision in the sector.

Quality Statement from the QIA?

This would seem to be an appropriate juncture for the Quality Improvement Agency (QIA), the acronym that began to operate from the 1st of April 2006, to enter the fray. After all, the quality of the provision in the sector would appear, on the surface, to be their main remit for action. However, in correspondence with the QIA, it would appear that they believe the main issues raised in the CBI report are relevant to the LSC and centre on funding; as such, they felt able to offer only a more general response.

On the broad area of improving quality, the Chief Executive of the QIA Andrew Thomson has stated: “In the outline Improvement Strategy that the QIA will be launching at the end of this month for consultation, we celebrate the significant improvement in quality across the sector in the last few years. And we recognise that there are already many excellent colleges and providers”¦but that others can do more to improve.

“As part of our process of consultation on the outline Strategy,” he continued, “we plan to meet with CBI and other employer organisations to discuss how QIA can work with them and with colleges and providers to ensure that employers needs are met. We will want to share existing good practice in employer engagement across the sector. QIA will support both existing and new providers in their drive for excellence.”

This is of course a helpful statement and a positive comment to make. It remains to be seen what exactly will be contained in the Improvement Strategy that will be put out for consultation, which is only the first step in the process. However, the QIA’s response does leave questions unanswered, and one interpretation could be that this represents passing the buck. After all, the CBI report does specifically mention quality and the need to improve provision.

It would appear that there is still some work to do to draw clear lines of practical responsibility in FE between funding and quality. At the moment, changes in the funding regime are being cited as the way to improve quality. In such an environment, essentially introducing financial competition and market competition to the mix as a punishment for poor provision, a stark division of responsibility between those who spread the money out and those who work on quality strategies could be a difficult line to draw in the sand.

Jethro Marsh

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