Dare to be successful

10th September 2004 at 01:00
It surely cannot get much better than this: an unequivocal commitment within the Budget statement that "for all those in work, free high quality and flexible training leading to a first full level 2 qualification"; and a new chief executive of the Learning and Skills Council making a public commitment to make sure that "every penny possible is spent on helping the people we are meant to be helping".

The pendulum does appear to be swinging towards FE. At last it has been realised that the skills gap cannot be plugged just by having better outcomes from schools. Yet, reading this publication, the only conclusion to be drawn is that the sector is in crisis.

There is not enough money. Key courses are being closed. It is interesting how the Association of Collleges can be so definite about the amount of money allocated for adult learning when nobody else can. The level of funding that LSC gives to the sector is known, but what about all the other funding that is available?

The statement in the recent National Employment Panel's report that "the local LSC and Jobcentre plus district are very likely to be purchasing the same service from the same college at the same time" may be about procedures for contracting but it is indicative of the general level of confusion.

The reality is that learning institutions have at times taken advantage of this confusion. It is now time they put on hold the complaints and started sharing their expertise about funding sources and thus get more out of every pound that is given to the sector.

It is also too easy to put the responsibility back on government. The reality is that many employers who are major customers of the services that FE colleges could provide are taking their business elsewhere.

People do not achieve NVQ level 2 because they can't. It is because they are not motivated to learn, because the course often lacks relevance, and, when they decide to take up learning, they are faced with multiple barriers.

Having spent the past six months visiting learning institutions across the UK, I have heard numerous stories about why people can't achieve an NVQ level 2 in care that say more about the attitudes of the teacher than the abilities of the candidate.

Tutors and assessors who were themselves reluctant learners are often the ones who create the most barriers to those wanting to get back into learning.

Schools are implementing measures aimed at improving the flexibility of teaching and examining methods, but there is rigidity within adult learning.

We have lost sight of the actual outcome: to enable someone to achieve an NVQ. Entitlement to an NVQ level 2 is not in itself enough. It has to be accompanied by a cultural change.

There are signs of hope. The national LSC is currently promoting paper-free assessment of NVQs. The reaction has generally been positive. But candidates are effectively being barred from taking part in this by tutors who claim their students are frightened of computers. By protecting students from failure, they remove their chances of being a success This is despite the fact that the adult learning world is full of surprises. Seven years ago the East Leeds family learning centre was opened in a disadvantaged neighbourhood in east Leeds. It offered a free entitlement to all the learning in the centre and to all the support services. The response was overwhelming.

The culture in the centre was one of creativity and innovation. A job-guarantee programme was pioneered, which was successful in not only getting people into jobs but into learning. The centre was supported by a number of imaginative college principals in Leeds.

The sector does itself no favours by taking a cautious approach. If colleges do not grasp this opportunity, the Government will go elsewhere.

The more caution there is in how the Level 2 entitlement is presented, the more cautious the public will be in responding.

In the LSC's annual report there is a definition of risk: "The LSC's system of internal control is designed to manage rather than eliminate the risk of failure to achieve policies, aims and objectives." This may be accountancy-speak but it is endemic across the sector where the preoccupation is often with failure.

It is time that we risked success.

Chris Peat is director of business strategy at Axia CitizenConnect

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