It is surprising how little attention the recent speech by John Hayes about his vision for further education seems to have attracted. It was not timed well for the weekly press but apart from a few tweets there’s been little social media coverage either – even by right of centre bloggers.
While the FE sector is often neglected by the mainstream media, things must be getting bad if an attempt to think about the future by one of the better ministers the sector has had passes without comment!
While Mr Hayes still commands respect for his commitment to the sector, there is perhaps a growing recognition at just how much work it will take to turn aspirations into reality.
On the positive side, even people who do not share every detail of his vision will welcome Mr Hayes’s readiness to consider alternative approaches to micro-management from the centre and very few could not endorse his readiness to empower adult learners to a greater extent – although there are still questions about how the all-age careers service will work.
Other ideas about re-forming the shape and character of the sector might be beneficial or they might not – but they are worthy of proper consideration and debate. Certainly the review of informal adult learning is having a positive effect as practitioners explore and argue about how to get best value from a public budget that, while safeguarded, has never been sufficient.
If there are real opportunities in the vision the minister sets out, there are also real obstacles. The scale and speed of reform may have the effect of making some providers cautious about exercising new freedoms. Managing change at a time of real-terms budgetary decline can result in a quite understandable reluctance to take any unnecessary risk – which could appear puzzling to a minister who may have expected that de-regulation and simplification alone would release a stream of innovation.
The biggest risk though, is in a growing gap between those who benefit and those who may get left behind. For adult educators a key question is always ‘who’s missing?’. Learning accounts and fee loans will be of little help for people on ‘inactive’ benefits who will shortly lose automatic fee remission. Likewise adults with learning difficulties or disabilities are also at risk of exclusion, even before reaching the age of 25. And a third group is older workers – in whom few employers are prepared to invest. The summer will also see a cohort of younger people making the transition into the labour market and at risk of not finding a job, training or further education – and who may simply be unready for an apprenticeship.
Ensuring that a new vision for further education remains inclusive for those who require more chances and more choices means that the sector needs to engage enthusiastically with ministers and officials in shaping change.
Alastair Thomson is principal policy and advocacy officer at NIACE, which encourages all adults to engage in learning