From education to employment

Continuing the exclusive FE News debate on

When I launched my first report as Chief Inspector of adult learning five years ago the headlines were grim: 60% of work-based learning inadequate; on average less than a third of learners achieving their qualifications. It was the story of a sector that had been sorely neglected, ground down by constant change and languishing without any clear direction or understanding of what was expected of it or even, in some cases, what quality looked like.

How different things look today. We are rapidly approaching the time when 90% of learning and skills provision in this country meets the needs of learners. That is about as good as it gets. Standards have improved dramatically in all areas of learning and skills provision, some quite spectacularly so.

In 2005-06 just 12% of work-based learning providers were judged inadequate – down from 25% last year and from 60% in 2001-02. More than half of this year’s providers were awarded good or outstanding grades. Ordinary working people are now getting a decent opportunity to gain the skills and qualifications to get on at work. Work-based learning providers can now rightfully take their place centre stage instead of being on the periphery of further education.

What is particularly heartening this year is that some of the biggest successes have been in the areas of greatest need. In the past I have highlighted woefully inadequate provision for the most disadvantaged people in our society ““ for offenders, adults with low literacy and numeracy, those with disabilities and the long-term unemployed. I am delighted to report that this year all those areas have improved, and often dramatically.

What characterises many of these programmes of learning is the vital role they play in bringing people into the workforce who, without support and encouragement, would not otherwise have been there. One issue I highlight in my report is the hard choices Adult and Community learning providers are currently facing. With funding increasingly focused on vocational learning, higher fees for other activities may exclude older people and the unwaged from services which bring wider benefits to the community in terms of social cohesion, culture and health. Our, perhaps controversial, conclusion is that in setting the level of public subsidy it would often make more sense to discriminate on the basis of learners” ability to pay than between subjects.

If Leitch had set out his vision of a demand-led, efficiently operating market in adult learning and skills five years ago it would have been met with derision. We now have a “learning and skills sector” ““ private, public, charitable ““ which is broadly coherent in both standards and commitment to public service. We have created the circumstances in which “contestability” is a viable policy option. Providers are now well able to withstand, and even welcome, direct competition with one another to secure contracts.

But let me sound a note of caution. As the CBI has suggested, the vision of Britain as a world leader in skills will only be realised if employers and learners have access to independent judgement of the quality and effectiveness of provision on a course-by-course, programme-by-programme basis. I am concerned that, at the very time we need to provide robust and comprehensive data on the quality of training, we are reining back on inspection. I fear that a “light touch” will give only a very cursory glance at the best provision, putting our trust in the notion that nothing changes.

If we take the example of further education colleges, 40% of those in the top performance quartile change in every inspection cycle. Much as the investment advisers say, you cannot rely on past performance as a guarantee of future quality. I also have reservations about the concept of self-regulation. I do not doubt the capacity of good providers to be self-critical. What I doubt is the sufficiency of internal procedures to improve quality to world-beating standards. Without the impetus of rigorous external scrutiny, providers may be over-generous in their assessments or become complacent about the need for continuous improvement. An independent eye is needed for a smoothly-functioning market to be developed in learning and skills. Cutting back on inspection at this juncture could make what Leitch is suggesting extraordinarily risky.

The ALI is now preparing to pass the baton to the new Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills, to the LSC, the Learning and Skills Network and the Quality Improvement Agency. Most of all we are passing the baton to providers. We leave them with a new level of expertise, a new confidence, a new and higher ambition and a new sense of common national enterprise. The legacy that the ALI leaves is one of success. It is for them to make the most of their inheritance.

David Sherlock, Chief Inspector of Adult Learning, Adult Learning Inspectorate [ALI].

Related FE News articles:

FE System “Needs More” – 15/01/07

FE Stats Published ““ 13/12/06

Adult Learning Inspectorate Publishes Final Report ““ 12/12/06

“It Is An Enormous Opportunity ““ 06/12/06

“It Is A Radical View” ““ 06/12/06

Breaking News ““ Lord Leitch’s Final Report Published ““ 05/12/06

Tomorrow: John Hayes MP, Conservative Shadow Minister for Vocational Education, continues the debate exclusively to FE News.

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