From education to employment

Workshop Appearance from Stephen Marston Warns that Achievement Would be “Middle of the Pack

That he was appointed Director General of the Lifelong Learning and Skills Directorate within the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) in September 2005 gives Stephen Marston sufficient credibility.

That he was Director of the Skills Group prior to this suggests his knowledge on the sector is acute. And, since he has been involved within the Department of Education since 1983, his judgement should perhaps be considered. All of which makes it all the more disturbing when he proclaims, without hesitation: “Even if we meet our current targets, which in itself would be a pretty heroic achievement, we would still be middle of the pack.”

Stephen Marston, speaking at the Association of Learning Providers (ALP) conference in a workshop entitled “Skills Development ““ DFES view,” seemed to reinforce the point throughout his delivery. However, he touched on a simple premise with regard to the oft-debated and much quoted skills debacle that is becoming of our nation’s daily fabric: “We start from productivity, not skills. Skills are a significant part of that.”

All the World’s A Stage”¦

Returning to that perennial buzzword of globalisation, the issue was yet again bandied around in a room of delegates from the “neglected middle child” of education: “We have a productivity gap with our major competitors,” he stated again, before going on to say: “We have relatively low staying on rates post-16, and there is a continuing debate on the status and value of vocational routes.”

This feeling of the Further Education sector being somewhat undervalued came up during his somewhat dry delivery. “There is a long-standing absence of an alternative to the so-called “prestigious” A-Levels,” he said. So how do we redress the balance to give FE the credit it so desperately deserves? Well, according to his power-point slides: “Retain A-Levels and GCSE’s.” Again, assuming that amnesia had swept the confines of the Radisson SAS hotel, Mr Marston reminded us of the predicament: “The FE sector has many purposes, for example, a love of study or a practicing hobby, but if we are not equipping adults with the skills to work, we”re failing everything. If we focus on the low-skilled and under-qualified, we can help the balance of social inclusion as well.”

Heading the Questions

Perhaps the first question to crop up in the minds of those assembled was: “We know all of this, but how do we fight it?” Accordingly, Mr. Marston outlined the main components of reform that undoubtedly legitimise his standing, albeit in an obvious manner. “We need a clarity of mission with support for specialisation. The needs of learners and employers must remain at the centre, so that their choices drive funding and performance management,” he maintained. But a particular principle, which of course had already been mentioned earlier in the conference, cropped up. “We need to encourage innovation and enable new providers to enter the market,” yet, “there must be a reduction in bureaucracy with more autonomy for excellent providers”.

Inviting new players into the market while attempting to reduce administration seems to be counter-intuitive, but the position was maintained. “A concern with colleges is that they”re quite heavy, bureaucratic and prone to regulation. Our plan to reduce overheads is to reduce staff significantly from the DFES, the Learning and Skills Council (LSC) and the Quality Improvement Agency (QIA),” he commented. In a carefully worded response on the questions of skills, he said: “The relationship between skills, qualifications and productivity is indirect. There are more factors involved to make a productive economy.” Consequently: “If you don”t have a well skilled workforce, it is unlikely that these other factors would combine in the right way.”

However, while the DFES continues to give warnings and guidelines on skills issues, Mr. Marston dramatically changed tack when questioned on the long-term future of this intensive skills focus and praised certain elements of the skills position. Suddenly, the skills we have on offer today are “generic and transferable skills,” and “Diplomas today are not simply about equipping young people to do today’s job.”

“It’s the routes for people who don”t want to do A-Levels which are failing us.”

Vijay Pattni

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