Wednesday, 2 May 2012

A momentous week for education?

by Mark Corney

The local and city polls tomorrow are the main mid-term elections before the general election in 2015.

Next Wednesday the Queen's Speech will set out the future legislative programme of the Coalition Government.

Both parties of the Coalition will have factored-in a hammering in the English local elections long ago. The Queen's speech offers a chance to reclaim the political initiative. Education will have to feature somewhere.

The outcome of the London mayoral election whilst critical to the fortunes of the Conservatives and Labour is less important than a high turn-out.
A high turn-out will strengthen the London Mayor’s hand in wrestling more responsibilities from Whitehall. The funding of schools up to 16, post-16 education and training, employment programmes and adult skills could be on the agenda. Only higher education seems immune from the power of the London Mayor.

Similarly, the outcome of the referenda on whether cities outside the capital should have an elected mayor will re-ignite the question about the powers they should have. In the 'people' world this at least includes employment programmes, adult apprenticeships and adult further education.

The power relations between  Whitehall and our cities will be balanced no doubt by further consideration of the national architecture for the funding of education, skills and employment.

The creation of the Education Funding Agency establishes a single funding council for 3-19 education. The logical next would be to transfer 16-18 apprenticeship funding to it as well.

Less clear cut is the long-term architecture for adult skills, employment and higher education, and the potential brigading of the Skills Funding Agency and the Higher Education Funding Council England.

And lurking in the background is the Student Loan Company as income contingent loans are extended to cover fees and potentially maintenance in HE and post-18 FE.

But these governance and structural issues pale in significance to the double-dip recession.

When this week is done and dusted attention will quickly shift to the problems of igniting growth and reducing youth unemployment.

In practical terms, the Coalition has two opportunities to address the problem of the double-dip and high unemployment.

The first is a cabinet reshuffle whose timing oscillates between before and after the Olympic Games although is more complicated by the inquiries into News Corporation.

Yet, changing departments and their functions is more important than personalities. Creating a department for Business, Innovation, Skills and Employment,  with funding for the Youth Contract and the Work Programme transferred from DWP and the appointment of a Minister for Youth Unemployment would signal the Coalition means business.

The second opportunity is the Autumn Statement. This is the next chance the Chancellor has to restore meaningful growth and bring down youth unemployment and inactivity.

Both the Cabinet reshuffle and the autumn statement should be guided by the answer to the question ‘what should the role be of education in a double-dip recession?’

Mark Corney is policy adviser to the Campaign for Learning. He writes a personal capacity.

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