Consensus not coercion

29th September 2000 at 01:00
New laws seldom lead to the reforms politicians want. The human rights legislation analysed by John Hall in this edition (see page 18) could no more turn fascists into liberals than the former Home Secretary Kenneth Baker's Dangerous Dogs Act could turn Rottweilers into poodles.

The best laws - based on consensus - go with the grain of enlightened opinion, they follow a given path; the worst coerce, crack the whip, play to the mob. There lies the difference between the architects of the Human Rights Convention and Kenneth Baker (he who was also responsible for the 1988 Education Reform Act).

So which sort of legislation is the Learning and Skills Act? Sixth form heads responding to a 'TES' survey last month on the anticipated effects of the Act ('FE Focus', September 8, 2000) would suggest it is the latter: coercive. Many said they did not intend to comply with exhortations to collaborate with FE - any more than was necessary.

They saw the Act as either threatening or irrelevant. Worse still, many elite, selective and church schools - in areas where the most substantial rethink of post-16 reorganisation is needed - also pledge resistance.

Such perceptions arise not out of hostility to FE but out of what is seen as government sleight of hand over cash increases. The seemingly huge funds announced in the Comprehensive Spending Review by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, this summer, do not address fully the question of the big differences in spending between colleges and schools per A-level student (pound;1,500 per head). Rather, through collaboration, economies of scale must be found so that the money might be used more effectively. This is how schools see it: that they must cut costs in order to free up cash for colleges.

Rightly or wrongly, perception is everything in the face of this uncertain legislation. Details of the spending review (to be announced imminently) may mollify some. But what politicians must face up to is that the process of appeasement has hardly begun. There also remains concern within FE that the small print in the Act offers a sop to a politically fickle middle-England and to costly sixth forms that believe they are fireproof.

There are still many battles to be won if implementation of the legislation is to succeed from next April. Acts in themselves do not make for good reform; acting wisely on them does.

Ian Nash FE Editor,'the TES'

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