Programmes frozen, budgets cut, young people excluded. Now responsibility for vocational training is to be handed to local government, with little evidence that it is prepared…
In 2006 the Leitch review reported on the future of Britain’s vocational education. The review found that Britain’s skills lagged behind those of competitor nations as the result of employers’ neglect of education and training over a decade (though Leitch glossed over this important fact). Illogically, Leitch then suggested that the way out of this situation was for further education to become more “employer-led”, as if the very people responsible for the lack of co-ordination and planning in further education could be trusted to turn the situation round.
As a result, new apprenticeships and diplomas were to be created. Train 2 Gain was set up, under which colleges could bid for contracts with the Learning and Skills Council (LSC) to offer on-site training to employers. Adult learning, which had been an important part of college work with the communities they served, was cut back drastically. The government’s proposal in a paper called a Learning Revolution was that adult education should move out of colleges and that people should organise their own courses in rooms in public libraries and museums.
The LSC, which dispensed government funding to colleges, has proved a disaster. Its offices had to be fitted with a revolving door to cope with the frequent turnover of senior staff. A building programme was launched, and colleges invited to develop plans for the much-needed improvements to the antiquated premises in which much of further education is delivered.
Yet, with 144 colleges and plans approved, and contractors on site, the LSC announced that the programme was drastically over-budget and froze all of it. Colleges were left with holes in the ground or half-erected buildings, and contractors were ordered off-site. In the event, after a scrutiny process in which colleges had to justify their plans, already approved, a merged 13 projects were allowed to proceed, many in a reduced form.
Recent reorganisations in government have not helped. Government responsibility for further education is now distributed between four departments, those of Business Innovation and Skills, Communities and Local Government, Children Schools and Families, and Work and Pensions.
The Learning and Skills Improvement Service warns of “significant financial instability” in colleges. In a scenario familiar to universities, colleges are told to increase fees, and logically, will want to attract as many lucrative overseas students as they can. Many already do and the recent visas scandal, in which it appeared that some providers were recruiting students to courses with promises of two years’ right of residence in Britain at the end of their studies, shows the danger of distortions to college curricula and recruitment that could result.
Do more with less
Defying the laws of arithmetic and logic, colleges are told to do more with less. Though colleges are told to recruit more students, funding is cut. In a paper called the Skills and Investment Strategy, the government department BIS announced in November, after a leak, £340 million in cuts to the learning and skills sector.
The rate paid to colleges for apprenticeships will be cut by 3 per cent, while for those over 25 years old, the cut would be 10 per cent, the rate for students on Train 2 Gain programmes will be cut by 6 per cent, and for adult learners by 3 per cent. These cuts, or “efficiencies” as they are termed, are to be implemented through pay freezes, redundancies and reductions in learners.
While colleges may still be able to recruit, it is probable that they will not retain students throughout the length of the academic year. There are already high wastage rates in FE. If colleges are required to bring in more students than they can actually teach and support, the numbers leaving before completing their course will rise yet further, with concomitant waste of the students’ time and energy at a crucial phase in their life.
The LSC’s life is moving peacefully to its close, and government is transferring funding and commissioning for education for 16- to 19-year-olds to local authorities. A Young People’s Learning Agency and a Skills Funding Agency will take the LSC’s place nationally.
There is little evidence that local authorities are prepared or able to take on this role. In any case, especially in the big cities where the largest further education colleges are sited, and because of the narrowing of the curriculum as a result of the employer-led approach.
Try finding a pipe-fitting course in London. There’s one college offering it in the whole capital – students may well study far from their home local authority, and no one has yet said how colleges will be paid for students from other authorities who enrol for their courses.
There is talk of sub-regional partnerships. These will probably be managed as well as the LSC was. The model the government has taken here is easily recognisable as the discredited one from the NHS where, Workers readers will remember, money was supposed to “follow the patient”. A poll by the Learning and Skills Network found that only 15 per cent of the public trusted their local council to run 14-19 education.
New age bar
The “participation age”, the age until which young people attend school or college, is to be raised, initially to 17 in 2013 and then to 18 in 2015. There is no capacity in the further education system to absorb these extra students, to say nothing of how staff and other students might cope with the already difficult behaviour problems, the so-called guns ,gangs and knives issues, which will be exacerbated by including large numbers of students who have no wish to be there, and are only in college to meet a legal obligation.
Private providers lurk in the shadows. One cannot throw a stone in any FE college without hitting a consultant. With local authority commissioning, what is to stop a local authority deciding to buy its education from a private college? Colleges have already been forced to compete with one another.
The new arrangements will make it obligatory for college principals to spend their time, not on providing the best possible education for students, but in trying to put their neighbours out of business. The trends toward college mergers, with accompanying job losses and cuts in the curriculum, will gather strength.
It could be very different. The system of technical colleges Britain established in the 19th and 20th centuries was a model copied around the world. If we value skill, the essence of our existence as a working class, then we could construct a twenty-first century system for its transfer to new generations of the class.