Can we solve skill shortages?

Yes, says civil servant David Forrester: A network of colleges can achieve it

The latest world ranking of educational performance was the occasion for a triumphant press notice from the Department for Education and Skills. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development applauded the way the UK is tackling historically low post-16 staying on rates: in fact, its ranking improved by four places this year.

What the OECD report brings out but the DfES judiciously omitted to say, is that this dramatic "improvement" is due to the correction of a previous error. Our apprentices have previously been omitted from these statistics, because they included only those 16 to 19-year-olds in the UK in full-time education.

Reports of our sudden progression from dunces to somewhere in the middle of the class are therefore much exaggerated. In the coming weeks, however, as we await the Leitch report on the skills that the UK needs, ministers will doubtless emphasise the challenges of the global economy. For the FE world that will mean big changes affecting both the 14 to 19 and adult skills agenda.

We may be certain of needing a lot more skills. FE colleges have not delivered on this agenda to employers' satisfaction to date. And the new "Train to Gain" programme may prove only a partial answer. So, here again, many are looking for new structures.

For example, Nick Pearce, director of the Institute for Public Policy Research, in these pages on September 1, called for separating FE provision for adults and young people. This would involve breaking up secondary schools into their pre-14 (junior high) and post-14 (high school) elements, and of FE colleges into their 14 to 19 and adult student elements.

If the preferred model were a comprehensive one, then post-14 schools would merge with sixth-form and FE colleges to produce 14 to 19 multi-purpose colleges.

If it were a "differentiated 1944 Act" model, then the 14 to 19 high schools would embrace any local sixth-form college (or vice versa), and 14 to 19 FE colleges would provide the vocational alternative.

Most successful OECD countries have variants on such systems. Should we follow? The answer is an unequivocal no.

We have a very mixed system of education, with different institutional arrangements in each part of the country. The evidence is that the key differences in observed performance are due to effective leaders and high quality teachers and support staff.

It may be easier for an institution to be successful if it has a narrower mission: as a sixth-form, art college or a grammar school, or as a faith or specialist school or academy. However, at system level, there is no clear evidence that one pattern of provision is more effective than any other in maximising the attainment and staying on rates of young people.

Uprooting effective institutions to fit in with an "ideal" template makes no sense. Moreover, the residual adult-only FE colleges would be but a pale shadow of the all-age institutions that have earned respect around the world.

There is room for differentiation for providing more inward-looking pastoral campuses for 14 to 19-year-olds, and more outward-looking flexible systems of delivery for adults.

However, this can be achieved within the framework of strong colleges such as those that Sir Andrew Foster saw, in his review of colleges, as leading the FE sector. If there is a need for restructuring, it is to build around such colleges to produce employer-supported higher-level vocational provision. These would be the Centres of Vocational Excellence - proposed in the post-FE White Paper - and would lead to partnerships of other FE colleges, specialist schools and work-based training providers.

This vocationally specialist model, built on existing strengths and involving no uprooting of successful institutions, is likely to be the one that best affords 14 to 19-year-olds their entitlement to all 14 specialised diplomas.

That entitlement comes into effect in 2013. We have seven years to make it a reality. This is a constructive and achievable agenda for reform - and a possible escape from permanent revolution.

David Forrester was director for FE and youth training at the DfEE from 1995-2001. He is a governor of City and Islington College

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