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Rare accord bodes well for upheaval

Comment: Alan Thomson

Comment: Alan Thomson

New year, new decade, new economic realities, new government (what flavour remains to be seen) and, not forgetting, the new Doctor. This is shaping up to be a year of significant change and, as our commentators on pages 4 and 5 say, further education can expect more than its fair share with budget cuts and structural change looming.

But change brings opportunity and, while FE is always quick to spot and exploit new angles, the question is whether these opportunities will be seized ad hoc by providers or whether the sector as a whole can draw up and stick to some sort of mutually advantageous game plan.

There is already consensus among colleges on the future for FE. The recent manifestos from the Association of Colleges and the 157 Group showed that all institutions are singing from the same hymn sheet, if not always in tune.

Now we find a growing political consensus in key areas. The report by Policy Exchange (page 1) - said to be David Cameron's favourite think tank - chimes with much in the Government's recent white paper "Skills for Growth".

Both talk of encouraging employers to invest in training, both support skills accounts, there is agreement on pruning the quangocracy, consensus on more public information on FE, accord on the need for greater autonomy for learning providers and, even, a shared understanding that something must be done about Train to Gain.

OK Policy Exchange would axe it while the Government prefers rehabilitation. But at least there is agreement that much of what is done under Train to Gain must continue. Unsurprisingly, most of the Policy Exchange document reflects Conservative thinking although, according to last year's green paper, the party would "refocus" rather than dismantle Train to Gain.

This outbreak of at least partial political consensus is good news for providers. It establishes reasonably solid foundations for FE the other side of a general election and the sector must decide what it wants to construct.

Train to Gain would appear to have had its day. But it matters less whether it is demolished or refurbished when all concerned are agreed that FE and training is better served when providers, employers and students are allowed to decide how best to deliver. Greater autonomy is the real prize for FE.

Alan Thomson, Editor, FE Focus; E: alan.thomson@tsleducation.com.

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