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England expects

Jim Donaldson looks at prospects south of the border for a transformation of learning and skills

Learning and skills are the subject of major change once again in England.

The publication of the white paper - Further Education: Raising Skills, Improving Life Chances - heralds a new relationship between government, the Learning and Skills Council, and colleges.

As part of the reform, the Department for Education and Skills and the skills council as funding council for the colleges will implement massive reductions in staffing levels, and introduce different ways of working.

The DfES will become more strategic, moving its day-to-day operational activities to its funding council. The post-16 education and training system will be underpinned by a new national learning model, designed to ensure that resources are deployed to best effect for the economy and society.

While there is much to celebrate in the Scottish further education system, it is reasonable to ask whether the changes being introduced in England have relevance to Scotland. Despite the enormous progress since college incorporation more than a decade ago, we still face major weaknesses in learning and skills.

For example, the proportion of 16-19s not in employment, education or training (the NEET group) has hardly changed since 1999, some 16 per cent of people of working age have no or low qualifications, welfare recipients need better support to acquire the skills for sustainable employment and HMIE recently reported that more than 20 per cent of adults say they have difficulties with literacy and numeracy.

Add in acknowledged weaknesses in student attendance, retention and completion rates, and the need for better engagement with the requirements of employers and jobs, and one quickly concludes that major drivers for reform exist in Scotland.

In England, there has been clear acceptance and recognition of the need for change if colleges are to play a key role in transforming the life chances of young people and the skills of the workforce. The prevailing view is that further education has been trying to do too much for too many and that reform is essential if the sector is to tackle the key problems faced by the economy.

The Government is of the view that a new specialist system is required. In future, every FE provider will develop one or more areas of specialist excellence which, in turn, will become central to that college's mission, and drive improvement throughout it.

The existing programme of Centres of Vocational Excellence (CoVEs) is central to this with new, higher standards for accreditation and development of CoVEs in related disciplines within a single college.

However, this new economic mission for colleges should not be interpreted as narrow vocationalism. The general education valued to date by employers will continue to be offered.

National Skills Academies (NSAs) will play a key role in driving forward the networks of specialist institutions. Proposals for NSAs, which will deliver high-quality training through the establishment of national centres of excellence in skills and training in major sectors of the economy, will be led by employers, their sponsors, with the support of sector skills councils.

Twelve skills academies will be introduced by 2008 and, as resources allow, the network will be developed to a point where there is at least one academy for each major employment sector.

The aim of the package of reforms is to make the sector more able to respond to the needs of employers and learners while recognising that one of the key ways of doing this is by putting more power in their hands. In this way, they can choose the courses and training options that will help them most.

Learners and employers will be in the driving seat in determining what is funded and the ways in which services will be delivered. New entitlements for a full level 3 qualification (A-level or equivalent) for those aged 19-25 will build on the existing entitlement to free tuition towards a first full level 2 qualification (equivalent to five GCSEs at grades A*-C).

All full level 3 programmes that employers in each employment sector judge most valuable will be identified so that learners can be advised accordingly.

This new entitlement will give many more young adults every opportunity to prepare themselves for success in life. It will improve the skills base and provide progression routes for those who left school early and who want to improve their qualifications and career prospects.

Learner accounts, holding virtual funds, will be used to pay for learning at the discretion of the learner and will hand power to learners who will begin to exercise real choice. Union learning representatives and advice and guidance services will play a part in steering individuals towards courses that best meet their needs.

There will also be an increased focus on the quality of teaching and learning which will be more tailored to individual needs. Data will be used to track student achievement, facilitate individual target-setting and provide a bridge between teaching and pastoral support structures not only to identify problems but to support intervention strategies.

Colleges that fail to improve quickly enough will have funding withdrawn.

But there will also be more autonomy for high-performing providers in the form of less inspection and bureaucracy.

Plans for focusing the system more fully on a core employability mission will critically depend on a funding system which rewards that focus. In future, funding in England will follow the expressed choices of learners and employers. Funding will also reward high-quality programmes, enable the removal of unsatisfactory provision and encourage new providers.

Significantly, a new approach to funding for 14-19s will be introduced enabling the delivery of a curriculum entitlement to an individual through more than one provider. In this way, more young people will be able to pursue courses meeting their needs and qualifying them for success. The new entitlement will mean that schools, colleges and other providers will need to work together to deliver it.

A review of Scotland's colleges is currently under way. Launched in June last year, the aim is to complete "the most fundamental and wide ranging review since incorporation" by February next year. Many of the problems facing learning and skills in Scotland are identical to those experienced in the south, and it will be interesting to see the extent to which the strategies outlined in the white paper are put to good use here.

Jim Donaldson, a former member of the inspectorate in Scotland, was chief inspector of the Further Education Funding Council in England, and is now a consultant.

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