FE feels slighted by ministers' carve-up

Ian Nash

The carve-up of ministerial responsibilities in the newly merged Department for Education and Employment has infuriated college leaders who see it as a demotion of further education.

There is deep discontent among schools, colleges and adult education leaders that there has been a damaging fragmentation of education and training which could undo the benefits possible from a merger of the two departments.

Control of universities by Eric Forth, the Minister of State, signals that the Government has made it a priority to sort out the sector with the imminent release of the long-awaited higher education review, which had been chaired by Tim Boswell, now a junior Agriculture minister.

This far-reaching review will look at the aims of HE - what it is for, what it is meant to achieve, how performance and quality are measured and how it is to be funded as mass education for the 21st century rather than an elitist system.

Mr Forth asked to take over HE and the employment beat following the restructuring of departments, seeing the two as crucially linked and key issues in the wider economy. There appeared to be a consensus in FE, HE and adult education that it was "sensible" to have a minister for higher education.

But college leaders are angry that FE did not go with it. James Paice, moving from Employment as parliamentary under-secretary, takes responsibility for FE, along with post-16 school organisation, much of adult learning and the training and enterprise councils.

Ruth Gee, chief executive of the Association for Colleges, said: "To give HE to a minister of state and FE an under-secretary signals that the esteem in which they have constantly told us they hold FE is no longer reflected in their policies." She condemned the move as "unnecessary unstitching of a seamless robe".

Bryan Davies, Labour's FHE spokesman said: "It is a blow to those FE colleges which have made a conspicuous contribution to HE and very damaging to the concept of lifelong education." An equally damaging split came with the separation of curriculum and assessment from FE (see new ministerial appointments, page 8).

"To split responsibility for FE from the Dearing review of qualifications at 16 leaves the curriculum firmly in the schools' hands, suggesting that ministers think the best advantage is with school sixth-forms," he said. "This distribution of responsibilities is on the whim of ministers rather than coherently through any clear education and training strategy. It is difficult to identify any rationale."

The Labour party's concerns are shared by others, including adult education leaders, who are bemused by the share-out of responsibilities. Many college and TEC leaders said they were hoping ministers would reveal the blueprint behind John Major's surprise departmental restructuring. So far, they have been disappointed.

Alan Tuckett, director of the National Institute for Adult and Continuing Education, said: "It is very frustrating. We now have four ministers dealing with different aspects of adult education."

With the emergence of FE as a separate sector following incorporation, adult learning replaced it as the Cinderella sector. Evidence from a range of organisations suggests that it is in decline, having been marginalised further from mainstream education.

A consultation paper on lifelong learning was due out from James Paice and the Employment Department. This is still imminent and is expected to address the concerns raised about the erosion of adult education since the 1992 FHE Act. Mr Tuckett argued that the Government should use the departmental merger to reform that part of the act which carved up vocational and leisure education between the colleges and LEAs.

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