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A big tent with room for the whole gang

Teamwork could prove a major bonus in solving FE's funding conundrum, writes David Forrester

THE White Paper, 21st Century Skills, Realising Our Potential, is the last brick in the wall of the Department for Education and Skills' "birth to the grave" policy statements. But it is not just a DfES document.

The Secretary of State for Education alone has signed the forewords to all previous DfEEDfES White Papers since 1997. But this one is also signed by the Prime Minister, Chancellor of the Exchequer and Secretaries of State for Trade and Industry and Work and Pensions. They have signed it because they all co-own it: a powerful message in itself.

Does this mean that DfES has lost some ownership? No, not exactly.

Ownership is not a zero sum game.

This government inherited the most generous system of state support for post-school learning in the world. It was particularly generous at the higher education level. But other countries (at least until recently) have had free tuition regimes for initial education up to age 21 or so. What is unusual about the UK is its long-standing support for adults to return to learning at all levels.

Tuition fees cover only a tiny proportion of the costs of educating the four million adult learners in FE colleges. Colleagues in overseas governments over the years have expressed a mix of admiration, envy and incredulity to me about this. It was inevitable that, as with higher education, the Treasury and others would question whether continuing expansion of FE could be afforded on the existing basis. And, as with higher education, that meant shifting the burden in part to the individuals and employers who stand to benefit. But how?

The White Paper rejects calls for legislation to restore, for example, some variant of the levy-financed "corporate 1970s" industrial training boards, except where that is what the particular industrial sector wants. The Confederation for British Industry has long made it clear that any additional support for FE would first require measures to improve its quality and responsiveness.

In the debates preceding the White Paper, a coalition argued for greater use of market mechanisms to empower the purchaser, whether individual or employer, over the supplier, thereby extending choice as well as quality and responsiveness. That would have meant re-launching some variant of individual learning accounts (ILAs). These were conceived before 1997 by the Labour opposition employment team. The team did not realise that FE was free to most of the priority groups of adult learners, at whom ILAs were targeted. For the scheme to add value, it had to give access to providers who were outside the state funding regime for adult learning: private training providers.

Some of these proved evanescent, others simply crooked, and the scheme was suspended. This gave the market sceptics or planners at the DfES and LSC the chance to argue that, instead of a son of ILA, the White Paper should signal the intention to bring within the scope of LSC funding only those private providers "who have something distinctive to offer".

This was a safer option. Combined with extended learner entitlements for the ILA target groups, it could be presented as bringing more market pressures to bear. The ILA threat was seen off.

But the bigger threat to the LSC and its sponsor department was an idea - which seems to have been bruited by the Treasury - that the LSC's adult learning budget should be split up and given to the regional development agencies, and perhaps the new sector skills councils, when they exist.

This was, if anything, an even greater threat to FE colleges. Think of the impact on schools of much more modest changes in their funding regime this year.

The solution to all these problems and threats is the White Paper's big idea: to erect a big tent with everyone inside - the archetypical New Labour Skills Alliance, and its regional (RDA-led) equivalents. For the DfES and the LSC, agreeing to talk, listen and even obey is a small price to pay for hanging on to the pound;8 billion budget.

But it still leaves a potential funding hole. That Charles Clarke and Patricia Hewitt will co-chair the Skills Alliance is important symbolically, and perhaps practically as well, as evidenced by the particular welcome given to this by the CBI. But will the welcome be as great when the employed who sit at the table with the Government are expected to pay for dinner?

The author was director for further education and youth training in the then Department for Education and Employment from 1995-2001. He is now an independent consultant and college governor. He writes in a personal capacity

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