Too much of the work designed to make further education and training more inclusive is "superficial" and does little to improve employment opportunities for groups such as young offenders, the disabled and those from ethnic minorities, according to a new report.
The report, from the National Skills Forum, says that while progress has been made, the FE system suffers from simple assumptions about the needs of groups traditionally excluded from education, training and employment - not least that within these diverse groups not everyone is excluded.
The paper, based on a six-month inquiry, says there is too much focus on processes, which results in learning providers adopting a "tick box" mentality to achieving student tarqualifications. This leads to inflexibility in the education and training system where funding is triggered by the achievement of targets, it says.
Systemic rigidity does little, the report says, to encourage excluded communities into FE in the first place and can mean that, once in the system, they are acquiring skills that do not best meet the needs of local employers. A lack of so-called "soft" employability skills is cited as a problem for a qualifications-driven system.
"During the research, it has become apparent that that many of the initiatives to tackle equality and diversity issues are superficial, focusing only on the processes and arbitrary targets," it says.
"We must tackle these attitudes by fostering a culture for equality in learning which goes beyond the structures and processes in place."
The report quotes a raft of figures to show the cost of exclusion in social and economic terms. Figures from the Centre for Policy Studies show that youth unemployment costs pound;10 million a day in lost productivity. Raising the employment rate of disabled people could boost the economy by pound;1 billion a year, according to a report from the Social Market Foundation.
It quotes Tom Schuller's report on the future of lifelong learning, which said investment in prison education could cut reoffending by 5 per cent and result in a saving of pound;325 million to the prison system. The exclusion of ethnic minorities from the jobs market costs the UK economy pound;7.3 billion a year, according to the National Audit Office.
Jacqui Henderson, co-chair and director of Creative Leadership and Skills Strategies, said: "What emerged clearly from the inquiry was that we must start with the needs of the learner rather than obsessing about targets. It is not enough that we recognise these perennial problems; we must take bold policy steps to meet these people's needs.
"That means putting in place simplified funding mechanisms that support people with disabilities into training and on into work, and doing more to tackle negative or low aspirations around black and minority ethnic learners. Too many offenders are falling through the cracks and going back into prison because they don't have the opportunities to make that leap into employment."
Gordon Marsden MP, co-chairman of the inquiry, said: "We urgently have to expand our approach to training, skills and education for a generation of learners from disadvantaged or excluded groups.
"We must act to provide them with the kinds of educational and training opportunities that we give to others to help boost their skills and improve their lives. That's a vital requirement and message for any society wishing to make the best use of its talent and resources."
Robin Landman, chief executive of the Network for Black Professionals, who contributed to the inquiry, said: "The approach in the past has been superficial bean-counting. The Government has passed responsibility for delivering equality and diversity to non-departmental public bodies, which tend to contain the usual suspects. We have not dealt with those not wanting to go to university, so let's think about redirecting people away from the failed university experiment in a way that fits in with a new technician class. It has also been difficult for ethnic minorities to break into blue-collar work."
Mary-Lynne Jones, head of supported learning at Lewisham College, who also contributed, said: "There is still not enough joined-up thinking on disabilities and too much thinking in silos. The qualifications-driven curriculum is a very retrograde step. I am also worried about the capacity of local authorities to carry out learning difficulty assessments as not all have the expertise."
- Visit www.skillsandinclusion.org.uk for the full report
NATIONAL SKILLS FORUM'S KEY RECOMMENDATIONS
Black and minority ethnic learners
- Greater government and voluntary sector partnership to inform BME parents of pupil opportunities
- The National Apprenticeship Service (NAS) should launch a campaign targeting BME communities
- More resources addressing negative aspiration incorporated into the professional development of teachers and careers advisers
- Department for Work and Pensions' Ethnic Minority and Employment Task Force expansion to cover skills
- Sector Skills Councils should encourage employers to partner learning providers with high numbers of BME students
Offenders and ex-offenders
- Include education and training programmes when handing down sentences
- Make education and training part of the daily prison regime
- Allow prisoners to leave jail on temporary licences for work experience
- Information and guidance in prisons should make offenders aware of the full range of learning and skills opportunities
People with disabilities
- The NAS should conduct a full equality and diversity report
- Government should reissue guidelines to local authorities on their duty to provide learning difficulty assessments
- Extend disability awareness training for teachers and careers advisers
- Training providers with good equality and diversity provision should be rewarded with more flexible funding
- Local authorities should collect and publish data on attainment and employment rates for the disabled.