Monday, 19 November 2012

Two views of the Future

by Mick Fletcher

No Stone Unturned’ is the catchy title of the Heseltine Review which looks at ways to restore growth in the British economy.  Unfortunately there is one stone he never bothered to turn – according to the credits in the report he listened to more people from Canada or from Sweden than in the English FE system and he appears to have taken little notice of the policies of the key department concerned with UK skills – BIS.   His analysis of a sector he clearly sees as central to growth policy consists of the repetition of tired clichés about too many hairdressers and a study he accepts as based on seriously flawed data.
 Such cavalier disregard of evidence is always worrying but is the more so because it leads to proposals for yet another round of dramatic structural reform.  The moves by the coalition to reduce central controls on colleges have scarcely had time to take effect yet we are now threatened with a new set of planning structures, loosely camouflaged by ‘employer leadership’.  It sounds like a bureaucrats dream.  The adult FE budget would be included in a ‘single pot’ managed by 39 LEPs with

Industry Councils playing a key role in articulating the national skills needs for the sectors they represent and feeding this information into the national growth strategy. It will then be for LEPs to originate proposals with the help of Local Growth Teams to contribute to this national requirement. The Local Growth Teams will work with the Government’s sector teams to ensure that aggregate needs are met

This is a pity because there are also many good points in this idiosyncratic report.  It highlights the lack of any serious attention to growth in the coalition strategy; and it emphasises the need for localities to be at the centre of proposals to re-invigorate the economy.  He understands that the regions differ and that a strategy focussed around London and metropolitan concerns will not deliver the changes the country needs. 

The Lingfield report, published at almost the same time, has a quite different set of recommendations for FE and appears to be a little more in tune with the zeitgeist.  It argues for increased autonomy both for individual professionals and for FE institutions, picking up a comment from John Hayes to the effect that the sector has been progressively disempowered by central regulation.  It argues for FE to have control of its own qualifications, as in the HE sector and suggests that the current style of inspection leads to colleges focussing on inspectors not students.  It is a little odd however in describing much of FE provision as ‘remedial’ and offering the wildly optimistic suggestion that as schools improve the need for this work will fairly rapidly shrink.

In many ways Lingfield builds on the direction of travel set out in the Wolf Review which urged the removal of manipulative funding mechanisms in order to give providers greater scope to design programmes around learner needs.  It also builds on the new freedoms and flexibilities in BIS programmes, best symbolised in the single adult budget.   Lingfield however would also align with the recent criticism of BIS from Baroness Sharp over the emasculation of proposals for the ‘innovation code’.  The Colleges in the Community report argued that over time much of the FE budget should be deployed on priorities determined locally.  The reality offered by BIS is that if colleges are in the process of developing a new qualification that fits the QCF template they can start teaching before it gets final approval – a pale shadow of the original proposal.

There is an odd symmetry between these two reports which is perhaps more important than their limited area of overlap.  They are both slightly maverick: Heseltine’s enthusiasm for government intervention is substantially out of line with mainstream conservative thinking: Lingfields vision of FE as essentially part of the HE system (like US Community Colleges) has no resonance with the current Skills agenda in BIS.  They are both ‘pushing the envelope’ rather than defining the future. Nevertheless to the extent that they add weight to the pressure for greater local involvement in planning FE provision and for greater professional independence in shaping it they are both welcome.

Mick Fletcher is a policy consultant to the Campaign for Learning and a member of the Policy Consortium  He writes here in a personal capacity.

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