No sign yet of joined-up government


What does it cost to open a 14-19 University Technical College? If you are Lord Baker, Education Secretary to Margaret Thatcher, it’s upwards of £20m. If you are from Cleveland and Redcar College you get the same for £30,000 – the research grant they won from the Learning and Skills Improvement Service that multiplied into a huge range of support from local business and industry.

Let’s make another funding comparison. Accolades were rightly awarded to John Hayes, FE and Skills Minister, for wresting £210m from the Treasury, against all the odds in the recession, for adult safeguarded learning. But local authority advisers I spoke to when researching an essay for the Parliamentary Skills Group book, Open to Ideas, pointed out that it was nothing compared with the £600m dished out for free schools, over which they have no say despite the impact on local education provision.

And what do free schools bring? We have Eton launching a free sixth-form in Newham where there is already an FE college, sixth-form college and school sixth forms, all judged by Ofsted as “good” to “outstanding”. The new providers blithely suggest there is a shortage of good “academic” sixth-form places. They would not say this had they consulted those on the ground who know the picture.

And there is worse. Daily Express journalist Toby Young and the head teacher, Katherine Birbalsingh – darling of the 2010 Tory party conference where she chose to rubbish her comprehensive school – both plan new academically elitist schools where there will be no skills teaching under the age of 16. Despite the fact that overwhelming evidence points to such a curriculum as incomplete to the point of negligence, they are setting-up these establishments as free schools with the blessing of Education Secretary Michael Gove.

Even worse, the language Young and Birbalsingh use in the media and any other platform they can reach, denigrates skills learning as second rate, and is akin to casting people who pursue it as “rude mechanicals”. College managers have already spoken to me of the negative impact such moves are having on young people and hopeful apprentices coming through the system.

Everyone at a Parliamentary Skills Group seminar which I addressed this week was of a like mind – stop seeking so-called parity of esteem between academic and vocational learning (a false distinction in any case) and, instead, imbue a lifelong love of skill and craft in all, whether for work or pleasure, from the earliest possible age.

The word “lifelong” is key here. With numbers of NEETs now topping a million, there is much heart-searching over how to tackle this seemingly intransigent problem. As a result, “schemes” such as the work programme are tacked onto the system with mixed outcomes, which at best fall well short of desired targets, as all such schemes have shown repeatedly for decades.

But a Niace-sponsored two-year inquiry into the future of lifelong learning suggested a more radical solution. Considerable national and international evidence was drawn on to show that a greater concentration of resources onto adults (even at some cost to the earlier ages) created role models and had a disproportionally positive effect in encouraging the young to remain in education and training.

It may seem counter-intuitive but the inquiry report in September 2009 called for a redistribution of 1% of cash (£1 billion) from under-25s to the over-50s. Given demographic changes it could be managed, despite the recession, with no cuts in real terms to per capita spending on the young. Provision would also more directly reflect spending on lifelong learning in countries much higher than the UK in OECD success ratings such as Norway.

Whether such a policy ever stood a chance of being tested is a moot point; Gove would never wear it. And there’s the rub. Despite the Departments for Education and Business, Innovation and Skills sharing a minister, there appears to be little synergy and a lot of waste, notably by the DfE. It seems as if they don’t talk to each other.

When I suggested this at the seminar, there were firm nods and comments in concurrence from college and business representatives. Other speakers warned that policies “may cut against each other” with unintended and damaging consequences. After the meeting there were further expressions of irritation and anger that DFE money went on vainglorious projects to flatter the incorrigible like-minded egoists, Baker and Gove, while BIS projects were comparatively starved of cash.

At the outset the Coalition government promised a seamless and truly lifelong education service with necessary skills at its heart. With further cuts looming, have we really achieved the fiscal sustainability across all departments we desire? If not, what do we cut and what do we keep?

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