Can we solve skill shortages

22nd September 2006 at 01:00
NO, says Nigel Newton, lecturer: Let's hope this Leitch report nonsense just fades away

The safest thing to do with the more unsavoury bits of White Papers is often to ignore them and hope they will fade away before anyone tries to put them into practice. But then ideas you wish did not exist start appearing in articles and you realise someone in government is serious.

So, over the next few years should we expect to see the A-level students in FE colleges migrating to sixth-form centres and for the lion's share of local learning and skills council funding being prioritised to specific vocational areas? A reading of the FE White Paper could suggest an answer:

"We will expect every FE provider to develop one or more areas of specialist excellence, which will become central to the mission and ethos of the institution and will drive its improvement."

We can assume a quango will decide which areas and where, but should FE follow this path willingly? There was renewed emphasis on the issue of reforming FE over the summer. Perhaps it was encouraged by the embarrassment to ministers of seeing only one general FE college appearing in The Times list of best places to get Ucas points.

On the surface the competitive tables seem to have failed in stimulating colleges to succeed in delivering students with bumper Ucas points. Under closer scrutiny another scenario emerges.

Ministers can persuade themselves that with private money and liberation from local authorities state schools could become as good as fee-paying ones, but no one appears willing to look into the FE mirror and admit that the increasing divide between the richest and poorest is demonstrably contributing to success rates.

FE provides post-16 education for the lower ends of Brown's revamped Tory economy. The White Paper does admit the division between vocational and academic is tenuous. Even Ruth Kelly knew that studying A-levels as preparation for law or medicine could be described as vocational.

But rather than adopt Tomlinson's diploma model which would have led to a parity between differing educational routes, this Government seems bent on double-speak, pushing the status divide still further between the kinds of courses predominating in FE colleges and those of school sixth-forms.

Unable to cope with the down-to-earth attitude of FE colleges, Foster, perhaps, led the way in seeing the sector as messy and needing Blairite interference.

If only FE could be accepted for what it is. It is a shame that the excellent pass rates and results of Btec and GNVQ students are not celebrated more. Why aren't there photos of travel and tourism students collecting their diplomas? It is a perverse form of social snobbery not to admit the value to our communities of happy, achieving, college-educated and trained chefs, builders, plumbers, IT technicians, hairdressers and all the other myriad professions FE students embark on.

Furthermore, the bravery and determination of these students to stay in education despite having not gained as many GCSE grade Cs or above as the assessment-driven school system would have liked is often ignored.

Thank goodness, FE colleges exist to welcome them and provide new learning opportunities.

So, should we allow the clocks to be turned back and recreate in post-16 education the social divisions encouraged by grammar schools and secondary moderns?

In this respect any move to push schools, sixth-forms and FE colleges into more tightly defined areas of provision could be the thin end of the wedge.

Why should colleges have to narrow their focus? Specialisation might be essential in efficient production line assembly, but in human history wider parameters can allow tender faculties to flourish.

Colleges have already had to battle through funding cuts to continue to provide for adult learners. We shouldn't have to divert resources to serve specific vocational areas at the expense of others or struggle to keep our A-levels. FE colleges should be free to respond to the needs and aspirations of the communities they serve. It is the Government's problem they cannot balance the league table books and show how successful and viable FE really is.

Nigel Newton is a lecturer and educational researcher at New College, Swindon

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