A spanner in the works of reform

7th July 2006 at 01:00
The Government is to be congratulated on its FE white paper. There is much to welcome: a close agreement with the recommendations of the Foster report; measures to strengthen professionalism and reduce regulation and inspection; new entitlement to level 3 (A-level equivalent) qualifications for 19 to 25-year-olds; and a foundation learning tier for qualifications below level 2 (GCSE equivalent).

But the new main mission for FE - employability - is fast becoming the sole mission. Many colleges are already cutting courses that are not linked to it, and Education Secretary Alan Johnson's "plumbing and pilates" comment misses the mark.

We want social justice, not sound-bites. Employers, not learners and communities, are now the heart of FE. The white paper gives them new powers but does not mention responsibilities. It has a menacing tone for providers, with talk of "sharper intervention". This lack of balance weakens social partnership and continues Britain's failure to engage employers in training linked to productivity.

New powers of intervention are to be given to the Learning and Skills Council, and the right of appeal against its decision has been cut. But where will the LSC get the capacity to remove governors or principals or to organise mergers? It is also a political mistake to narrow, but not eliminate, the funding gap between schools and colleges. Introducing a funding principle - "comparable funding for comparable activity" - then failing to implement it is likely to infuriate already demoralised tutors.

The claim that "we will eliminate failure" may well return to haunt the Department for Education and Skills. Tutors have been urged to adopt "good", then "best" practice. Now, only "uniform excellence" will do. What next? Perfection? Elimination of failure already demands perfection. The engineering model of change (drivers, levers, implementation) and the breathless pace of change proposed ("evolutionary and incremental change will not be enough.") betray a lack of understanding of how slow, cultural change has to be struggled for.

Two ministers, Phil Hope and John Healey, state in an evaluation of the employer training pilots that they were designed to overcome market failures, but then argue for more "marketisation". They've transformed the problem - magically - into the solution. We deserve an explanation. And how many new providers are clamouring to offer level 1 courses?

Exclusive focus on a dangerously simplified version of human capital theory ("our future as a prosperous nation depends on our education and training system") results in education carrying the biggest burden of reform. The Leitch interim report shows that only "one fifth of the gap (in productivity) with France and Germany is a result of the UK's comparatively poor skills".

So where are the proposals to deal with the other factors that are responsible for 80 per cent of that gap? The white paper's proposals need to be combined with policies to increase investment in research and development, to stimulate innovation and entrepreneurship, and to improve management. Education and training on their own cannot transform our economic performance or life chances.

The white paper and the Government's new model of public service reform treat the workforce not as a source of experience and insights from which it could learn, but as a lever to be pulled and a resource to be developed, like physical capital. Innovative, reflective and socially committed professionals need to be involved in the design and re-design of this model and not be confined to implementing the ideas of the strategy unit.

FE's image in the white paper is of a leaky engine that can be sped up by pulling every lever in sight, or one that will respond to threats to whip the bonnet if it falters. But what if the engine is gaining speed while going down the wrong road?

Frank Coffield is professor of education at London University's Institute of Education. He writes here in a personal capacity

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