From education to employment

Englishmen, Irishmen and Scotsmen (and Welshmen) Could Benefit by Comparing Notes

A new report released by the Learning and Skills Development Agency (LSDA), “Policy Learning From ‘Home International’ Comparisons” claims that there is a need for greater communication between the different organisations responsible for post-16 education across the UK.

Since devolution, England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland have all adopted different approaches to education and training, and the report suggests that they could learn valuable lessons from each other’s successes and failures.

Professor David Raffe of Edinburgh University, who led the research team, said that policy-makers in all four countries had overlooked this rather obvious conclusion.”Governments have often looked overseas to countries such as Germany, Korea or Finland for lessons for policy, but some of the best lessons may lie closer to home”, he said.

Andrew Thomson, LSDA Chief Executive, called for a sea change in attitudes:

“There is a lot that we can learn from looking at how each of the home countries tackles similar issues, but we are not doing enough of it”, he complained.

Different Strokes for Different Folks

The Edinburgh University team that produced the report conducted interviews with 25 “key informants” across the country. These included policy makers, policy analysts, academics, and members of public agencies and international organisations.

Informants from all four nations listed similar priorities when asked about the big issues that governed policy. A qualifications framework for 14-19 year olds was high on the agenda, as were apprenticeships and work-based training, basic literacy and numeracy skills, credit frameworks for qualifications and the need to get employers more involved in education and training.

But while the issues are often the same, the way each nation chooses to tackle them can be radically different. In Wales public bodies involved in education and training have been reduced and absorbed into the Welsh Assembly Government, while in England and Northern Ireland they still proliferate; Scotland has merged its FE and HE funding councils and is standardising the provision of HNCs and HNDs, while the rest of the UK is encouraging diversity in this area; and in Northern Ireland, post-16 and pre-16 education are handled by two different government departments, who effectively share responsibility for the 14-19 curriculum.

Local Policies for Local People?

The four member countries of the UK differ in many ways, and the local issues that occupy policy makers in each of them often reflect this. Wales is concerned with the provision of Welsh language tuition, for example, and Northern Ireland is an economic area “lagging behind” with a significant skills shortage.

But despite such peculiarities they are fundamentally similar territories and have much in common, and the researchers believed that local differences were not entirely responsible for the different strategies pursued.

Instead, the report concludes that different policy “drivers” (i.e. the motivations driving policy) create different approaches. In England, improved productivity and increased competitiveness are the sole motivating factors behind post-16 provision, and a similar situation exists in Northern Ireland.

By contrast, Scotland and Wales give almost equal importance to social inclusion, social justice, citizenship, personal development and economic concerns, with less emphasis on markets, competition, and quantitative targets.

With these different motivations governing approaches to post-16 education, each nation will continually come up with new ideas and ways of doing things. That each could learn from the other’s successes and mistakes is obvious.

The only surprising thing is that policy makers need a report compiled by university researchers to tell them this.

Joe Paget

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