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FEfocus Editorial - Blair may have been right to take it slow

It is now well established that the Coalition is paying particular attention to Tony Blair's admission that his big mistake was not to have tackled reform of public services at a faster rate. The admiration of Cameronian Tories and Orange Book Liberal Democrats for Blair's political skills is clear: even as they opposed him, they must have had the sort of sneaking affection that Milton had for Satan.

And so, following his wisdom gained through tough experience, the Government departments responsible for FE have swiftly put into action a host of changes to begin the work of remaking education in a new image.

If you admire someone for their success, paying close attention to their regrets may be a mistake. It is entirely possible that Blair's original political instinct to go slowly was precisely what allowed him to become Labour's most electorally successful leader.

The response to the news that college recruitment of 16 to 19-year-olds has fallen short (page 1) gives some support to this idea. It is not hugely reassuring for the Department for Education simply to say that it does not know why college recruitment fell so short of expectations.

It gives the impression that, in its rush to play its cards, the Government sat by the dealer and therefore has to bet blind. The other players will have to divine its intentions from the moves it makes. Here, we need to look at the cumulative effects of a number of moves.

There was the endorsement of the Wolf report's criticisms of vocational education (frequently described in media reports as "college courses") while emphasising the value of traditional academic GCSEs and A- levels.

On top of that comes the abolition of the EMA, relied upon by the poorest students, most of whom choose to attend colleges.

At the same time, independent advice and guidance in the form of Connexions began to suffer cuts from cash-strapped local authorities, with no one quite sure of what will take its place - making it harder for students to learn about all their options, and perhaps more likely that if they stay on, they remain in school.

Most serious of all, there is the continued proliferation of new school sixth forms, something that is explicitly encouraged with, for example, plans for the creation of new free schools.

There remain some unknown elements - a certain amount of flexible enrolment may mean that the final numbers in colleges are boosted by some recruitment later in the year - but the overall picture is not one of a Department making it easy for FE provision at 16.

It might seem like a charitable assumption that the decline in FE enrolments relative to schools is an unwanted side effect. A cynic might call it mission accomplished.

One hopes not. As the National Audit Office reported last month, larger institutions, which tend to be colleges, get the best results. It said: "Sixth-form colleges perform best on most measures of student achievement, despite currently receiving pound;280 per student less funding than school sixth forms." The Government as a whole has made deficit reduction its defining battle and the result is that every penny of public spending needs to count. Fragmenting sixth-form provision with more small classes is a sure-fire way of getting less for more.

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