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FE deserves its place in the sun

Further education is back in the spotlight. Polish plumbers usually get more coverage in the British press than plumbing courses, but not this week. It's the turn of FE colleges.

The white paper fulfils the Government's commitment to extend free tuition for A-level courses up to age 25, as my institute recommended in a report last year. This is one of the most important measures it contains, alongside the roll out of the adult learning grant, the commitment to extend demand-led funding, and the zero tolerance powers extended to the Learning and Skills Council to intervene in failing colleges.

The white paper also gives local authorities the lead strategic role over 14-19 learning. Although local authorities have little experience of work-based training, they are best placed to lead the planning of education and training for young people. Local authorities have democratic legitimacy and the ability to integrate planning across a range of services for children and young people. The local LSCs have neither.

The 47 local LSCs were created because the then education secretary, David Blunkett, was hostile to regionalism but did not want to squeeze FE colleges back into local government. They have never taken root in the landscape of English public services, a fate they share with other units of government created by Whitehall in preference to those shaped by history or local democratic decision-making. The white paper is their death knell.

The LSC has regrouped at the regional tier and shaped itself to be open to whatever institutional arrangements eventually emerge from the tussles over city-regions, the Lyons review of local government and the future of the Greater London Authority. That makes tactical as well as substantive sense.

Labour is clearly in devolution mode once again, making a virtue of necessity after the defeat of the North-east referendum. City-regions, empowered local authorities and more muscle for Ken are all on the table.

But nobody is yet clear in Whitehall about what that means for regional government. So the LSC is well advised to be a flexible friend.

These debates make a lot more sense when viewed through the prism of the different needs of young people and adults. Hitherto the Government has promoted markets and competition in the 14-19 system, and planning for adults. Precisely the reverse should be the case. The white paper marks a belated recognition of that fact, with the return of learning accounts and layers of bureaucracy stripped out. Courses for adult learners and business should follow choices, with only broad, light-touch planning. Provision for young people, on the other hand, should be more collaborative and directive, reflecting the fact that this stage of learning is still a preparatory one in which breadth, as well as specific knowledge and skills, are required.

England has always been an outlier on international comparisons of the content and structure of initial post-compulsory learning: more permissive on the curriculum than other countries, with less distinction between what is offered to young people and adults. We are now moving slowly in the direction of a greater differentiation, and this should be pressed further - not because the general FE college offers lower standards, but because there are pedagogical, pastoral and infrastructural improvements that can come from an age-related focus. The direction of travel should be to split provision but on a pragmatic, locally determined basis.

Whether Ken Livingstone, Ruth Kelly or King Tut has responsibility for adult skills, planning should be limited and choice expanded, allowing colleges and other providers to serve the market. The white paper remains Janus-faced on this issue. There are still references to plans from all sorts of bodies, as if this constituted demand-led learning. Employers and adults, not proxy representatives, should shape demand for skills and learning. Yet this kind of fudge is inevitable in a government policy document.

Gordon Brown's signature on the white paper, alongside those of the Prime Minister and Ruth Kelly, signals not just a collegiality necessary in an era of orderly transition, but a more specific interest in FE from the Chancellor. The sector featured strongly in his Budget speech. But astute observers will have noted that the ambition to close the funding gap between state and private schools will run through the coming Comprehensive Spending Review, making it that much harder to close the other equity gap between FE and schools to which the white paper refers. The spending review will be eye-wateringly tight, and it just got harder for FE colleges.

Nonetheless, the sector has its place in the sun this week. The Labour government has been kind to FE, despite the legitimate concerns of lecturers and college management. It has invested in the sector and now stated clearly its ambitions for coming Parliament. Skills are a driver of social justice and FE colleges are the engine room.

Nick Pearce is director of the Institute for Public Policy Research

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