From education to employment

Seminal Seminar Event in London Welcomes Straight Dealing Education Minister

The leaders of the FE sector gathered in a plush blue conference room on Monday the15th of May for the CEL Conference, “Leadership in the Learning and Skills Sector”, to quite suddenly consider the merits of dealing from the top of the deck.

Welcoming Bill Rammell MP, the Minister of State for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education, Libby Purves OBE, Chair of the CEL, said pointedly that the sector should be delighted that Mr. Rammell was not reshuffled recently. Judging by the applause, and the comments throughout the morning session, it would seem that the rest of the FE sector’s management and leadership also welcome his retention in his post.

Contempt for Skills?

In her introduction, Libby Purves referred to a comment from well known outspoken Labourite Tony Benn, who commented in the early 1990’s that Britain might be told that it has an entrepreneurial society but that he believed we suffer from an utter “contempt for skills”. This would seem to be born out by the perceived image problem of FE, either as the commonly cited “Cinderella sector” or as Sir Andrew Foster’s “forgotten middle child of Education”.

This is a challenge, said Mr. Rammell, that FE must meet, and indeed that he believes that the recent FE White Paper is designed to combat. He expressed his delight at being able and invited to attend the conference, as well as his pleasure at the open and honest discourse that the FE White Paper had thus far prompted. His belief in the need for debate and consensus did not conceal his driving ambition to turn FE into the engine room for economic prosperity through reform and change that the Government so frequently refer to.

Engagement and the involvement demonstrated by the sector are, according to Mr. Rammell, not the end of the process, merely the first steps along the way. Given that this was a CEL event it was hardly surprising to find him highlighting the achievements of the agency in the sector. He referred to more than 400 providers benefiting from CEL guidance and involvement, to the considerable improvement in College inspection results, and to the 375% increase on the previous year’s takeup (with particular praise for inclusion programmes).

A Standing Start

However, as Mr. Rammell said: “We cannot afford to stand still”. With education still called “the number one priority for this Government” by the minister, encouraging the growth of skills and employer take ““ up in the economy are vitally important to the future of the UK. The streamlining of the administrative burden (particularly in the Learning and Skills Council [LSC]) and the move towards a far lighter touch from central government do not herald a slackening off of the pace of change; Mr. Rammell stated that the Government remain firmly committed to the eradication of inadequate provision by 2008.

Incremental change, it would appear, is not quite good enough. Encouraging FE to meet the skills demands of the employers in the marketplace relies on the quality of the provision, and also on the successful engagement of employers in functioning partnerships with colleges or with other learning providers. Partnerships between schools and colleges, for instance, can offer a local community a more complete skills provision package than an overly competitive catfight for funding, and these should be encouraged.

The FE White Paper consultation period concludes on the 30th of June, and Mr. Rammell urged everyone in the sector to be certain to express their opinions and make their suggestions by this time. It could be argued that this was the most significant element of the address; for all the praise for the FE sector, the proof of the participation pie is in the eating. As the skills of the workforce are crucial for the Government’s programmes of economic growth and prosperity in the decades to come, in the face of what Mr. Rammell describes as the “daunting” pace of progress by certain competitor economies, FE sector professionals are called on to throw their own educational spices into the broth.

Jethro Marsh

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