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Counting the cost of qualifications

Evidence-based policy is a good thing, and despite the Government's commitment to it in principle, it is surprising where it is and where it is not applied. Take "other provision" in further education - that pot-pourri of provision that does not quite fit the qualifications framework.

What do we know of how it is used by businesses, looking for ways of making use of the system to meet their own skills needs? Or of how individuals have woven learning journeys, en route to formal qualification? What do we know of learners' sensitivity to price changes? Or of how learners use credits from open colleges in mapping their way through the system? How much of the work fits exactly the "first steps" provision lauded in this summer's White Paper?

My sense of it is that we know too little of the scope and impact of this work, to be confident in cutting it back. Yet local learning and skills councils are under pressure not to increase such work - whatever the manifestation of local demand. Meanwhile, as FE Focus has reported, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority is reviewing the size, nature and rules of combination needed for adult qualifications.

The most encouraging thing I heard at the first meeting of the Skills Alliance delivery partners was Mary Curnock Cook from QCA saying that the system needed to produce more flexible qualifications and also to value meaningful learning that stops short of qualification. That seems to me to be right.

We urgently need a credit-based system underpinning our qualifications.

When we have got one, we risk finding that we may have abolished many of the building blocks of the system in "other provision" in FE by prioritising what gets supported without a good enough evidence base.

Clearly there is a need for a short, sharp study on the size, scope and characteristics of "other provision". The danger is that the welcome focus on level 2 qualifications will cut out the range of preliminary studies that give people confidence to gain a whole level 2.

Mind you, I am also waiting with bated breath to see what the level 2 entitlement will mean in practice. How small a bite-sized chunk will you be able to study, and still claim public support? How long will you be able to take to complete your studies? What if your purposes change along the way? Here my worst fears are that we shall find that policy-makers will yet again find part-time learners difficult to deal with, and go for quick wins with learners willing to get a qualification quickly.

This piloting of adult study grants for full-time learners is an excellent development, however modest the funding. But how long will it take before part-time students have the chance to benefit?

I do not envy the Learning and Skills Council its task in securing three million new level 2 qualifications by 2010, with the pretty clear remit to do it with no additional resources. There will, of course, be welcome quick wins - like the decision of the large employers in construction to require a licence to practise for everyone working on their sites. For many, the qualification will be a confirmation of already existing skills; for others a modest top-up will suffice. For the LSC this will hold out the prospect of a lower unit cost for a completed level 2 qualification.

But the Council must both achieve its goals for equality and diversity, and offer real access to qualifications to people experiencing multiple deprivation and low skills levels. That will not come cheap. A key feature of the Skills Strategy is the determination of ministers to secure coherent policy-making across the piece.

Given the commitment to a voluntary approach to employer engagement, where carrots are preferred to sticks, is it too much to hope for an early review of one controversial pilot scheme? Seeking to make participation in basic skills provision compulsory for benefit claimants who do not want to lose a proportion of a tiny weekly pay-out does not seem fair. It smacks of one rule for the affluent, and another for the poor.

Alan Tuckett is director of the National Institute of Adult and Continuing Education

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