A general election is the chance to take stock. James Sturcke asks three top educationists for their assessment
The Government's rejection of much of Sir Mike Tomlinson's programme of reforms for 14 to 19-year-olds will be on the minds of many in post-16 education as they evaluate the Government's record in the run-up to the election.
Ministers' refusal to replace reams of qualifications - widely seen as incoherent to anyone in the outside world - with a simplified diploma is a common concern among further education bosses.
FE Focus asked a sixth-form college principal, the principal of an FE college and a director of a private learning firm to outline the best and worst initiatives and changes in their sector since Labour was re-elected in 2001.
These comments follow the launch of the Association of Colleges election "manifesto" calling for action on Tomlinson, investment in adult education and more autonomy for colleges.
"Like most people, I was disappointed that the Tomlinson recommendations were not taken up," said Ian Pryce, principal of Bedford college. "I guess it's not that surprising, coming as they did before a general election.
"I would hope that something could be done in the future. Further down the line we will have to bring education strands together."
All three said they had benefited from more money being spent, but had reservations about how it is being spent. Mr Pryce complained about the demise of three-year funding plans which had helped colleges' long-term organisation.
Ann Robinson, principal of Woodhouse sixth-form college in Finchley, north London, said much of the extra money was taken up by higher pension and national insurance contributions.
John Stout, sales and marketing director at the Hotel and Catering Training company, which has 15,000 trainees in the hospitality industry, complained that money for training was seldom available.
"Twelve months ago, the Government launched a marketing campaign to raise awareness of apprenticeships among employers, and that has had a positive effect," he said.
"Unfortunately, the Learning and Skills Council has run out of money to fund them and are in a position where they say to employers, 'Thanks for your interest, but we have no money'."
Increased bureaucracy and paperwork is a universal complaint. "The bureaucracy has become enough to make a strong woman cry," said Ms Robinson. "We reached a point where accountability and bureaucracy have gone beyond sensible proportions."
The Tomlinson report, published last October, called for the "proliferation of (14-19) qualifications of different types and sizes" to be replaced by a unified diploma that would remedy the current situation in which "too many young people leave education lacking basic and personal skills". It called for fewer external exams, more focus on stretching the most able students and quality vocational provision from the age of 14.
Sir Mike's report was commissioned in early 2003 in the aftermath of an A-level marking fiasco, and when the Government seemed willing to consider a radical overhaul. But as he worked towards a consensus in favour of reform of the exam system, the political landscape was changing.
The report, published in October, signalled that GCSEs and A-levels would be subsumed by the new diploma, a move likely to have alarmed voters in middle England.
Both Charles Clarke, the Education Secretary, and David Miliband, the school standards minister, left the department before the Government published its 14-19 education and skills white paper in February. Ms Robinson said: "I would have liked to see it implemented - the country needs a more modern approach."