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'Dear Minister' - an open letter to Nick Boles


Lynne Sedgmore, executive director of the 157 Group, writes:

Dear Minister,

Welcome to your new role as Minister for Skills and Equalities, we wish you every success. With just nine months to a general election, your thoughts will undoubtedly be focused on what your policy and actions should be if you are re-elected, and I am taking this opportunity to offer a few suggestions.

It is often said that we are judged more by our actions than by our words, and that leads us all into a potential trap – the feeling that we must be seen to be doing lots of policy and actions in order to be appreciated. But my overriding message to you, Minister, is that you should do only what truly improves, nothing more.

You see, SO much has already been done in the world of education – and, in particular, in the world of vocational education. In the past four years, we have removed qualifications and reformed those that remain, experimented with ideas (not always new ones) for how we can get employers more engaged in the system, launched various new initiatives and institutions and ‘streamlined’ funding to the point where many institutions are facing some very stark choices.

To do more at this point runs the risk of setting all this previous ‘doing’ up to fail. People – even those many gifted and passionate folk running educational institutions – can only cope with so much change at once. Many of the reforms to date have received strong support from colleges, but time is needed to embed them. We hope that your arrival gives us a valuable opportunity for some much-needed breathing space to ensure the best success for learners.

We understand that we must find new ways of engaging with employers. We understand that we must ensure our operations are as efficient as they can be. We understand that you don’t want us to feel beholden to the government for funding. And we hope that you can trust us to work out what is right for every individual learner.

But principals of colleges across the country – those in the 157 Group and others – need time to work out how all that can happen most effectively – and they have to do so within a context of massively reduced funding. They are resourceful and entrepreneurial, but the reworking of business models and retraining of staff requires time to work through and implement.

I suggest two important actions that you can do. The first one is deeply important – revisit and review the basic principles upon which all the current reforms are predicated. Aspiration, success and fairness for all lay behind many of Alison Wolf’s recommendations, which the government accepted wholesale. We all understand the critical link between educational performance and economic growth – so there is a clear criterion against which to judge the success of the reforms currently underway.

I find it hard to see the fairness principle in action when large A-level programmes for ‘the brightest’ are prioritised over basic education for all 18 year-olds. I find it hard to see a focus on employability in action when Ofsted frameworks for schools and colleges differ so widely. And I find it hard to see aspiration for all in action when the autonomy promised to college principals ends up being constrained by over-prescriptive funding methodologies and data requirements.

The 157 Group are keen to offer our support over the next nine months for a review of how well the implementation of policy matches up with its well-intentioned aims.

The second action I suggest you take is to talk to the Treasury. Not to beg for more money – we understand the situation – but rather to seek clarity and stability for what we can expect – not just for the next year, but for three or five years’ hence. We already have a skills system which delivers good results – a longer-term commitment to its success could make it truly world-class for many years to come.

With kind regards
Dr Lynne Sedgmore CBE

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